The Uyghurs are predominately Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslims, who, according to China’s 2020 census, number roughly 11.5 million in China. Their homeland is what is now the northwestern corner of China, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (hereafter ‘Xinjiang’), although many Uyghurs use the name East Turkestan. Xinjiang is a vast region with an area of 1.66 million km2. Until the 1950s, Uyghurs were the majority ethnic group in the region, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the total population. Xinjiang is China’s largest province, comprising roughly one-sixth of its total landmass. It is rich in natural resources and raw materials and produces profitable crops, including cotton, fruit and wool. Historically the gateway to the Silk Route, this region is also strategically located, sharing borders with and connecting directly by road to eight countries. Currently, China’s major foreign policy initiative is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in which Xinjiang plays a critical role as China’s land bridge to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Between the 1940s and the 1980s, attempts to incorporate the region into the modern Chinese national state brought about a 2,500 per cent increase in the Han population. Today, Han and Uyghurs each account for approximately 40 per cent of Xinjiang’s total population of roughly 25.5 million. Clearly, the basic trajectory over the past decades has been one of moving Han rapidly into the region. This is coupled in more recent years with a significant shrinking of the Uyghur population.
Most Uyghurs claim descent from Karabalghasan, the early Uyghur empire in what is now Mongolia, which was conquered by Kyrgyz tribesmen in 840 CE. In the centuries that followed, various Uyghur, Turkic Mongol and Han Chinese powers ruled the region.
The name Xinjiang literally means ‘new frontier’ in the Han language (Mandarin Chinese), which many Uyghur rights advocates point out counters China’s claims of an ancient unbroken domination. For Uyghurs free to express discursive resistance to China, the preferred name is East Turkestan or Sherqi Türkistan in the Uyghur language. Much of what is today Xinjiang was ruled by or owed allegiance to the Mongols from the thirteenth century. Various Uyghur and Mongol empires or khanates exerted authority over different parts of the region, with the Manchu Qing Empire entering the area and controlling all of it by about the mid-eighteenth century. For a brief period after 1864, Xinjiang broke away from the Qing Empire while China was weakened by other conflicts and was unable to maintain its garrisons in the distant province. Chinese control was reasserted in 1878.
The end of the Qing Dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1911 were followed by a period of weak central government control over Xinjiang. A rebellion in Kashgar in the 1930s broke out largely in reaction to heavy taxes imposed on Uyghurs to finance Han migration and settlement on some of the province’s best agricultural land. This uprising resulted in the establishment of the first independent Uyghur state in 1933. The East Turkestan Republic was located mainly in the southern region of Kashgar and Khotan. It survived only one year and returned to the control of the Han Chinese under warlord Sheng Shicai. Parts of northern Xinjiang were to form the second East Turkestan Republic between 1944 and 1949 under Ahmetjan Qasimi, Isa Yusuf Alptekin and others. The Uyghurs’ taste of independence was brought to an end in 1949. In August, Ahmetjan Qasimi and other Uyghur leaders were invited to speak with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong in Beijing about Uyghur independence, which had been tentatively promised in exchange for Uyghurs supporting the Communists in their civil war with the Kuomintang (KMT). However, the plane mysteriously crashed on its way to Beijing. The death of so many Uyghur leaders was kept a secret for months until the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had fully occupied the region.
One notable Uyghur leader who was not on the plane, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, recognizing the encroaching PLA forces for what they represented, led a major diaspora of Uyghurs from Xinjiang. By 1952, owing to Alptekin’s efforts, pressure from the United States and the newly established UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Türkiye accepted some 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement. Türkiye remains a supportive cultural and political host country for Uyghur refugees today.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was established on 1 October 1955. Tensions and resentment quickly increased when Chinese authorities began to favour Han Chinese. There were initial statements by the Communists criticizing past Han nationalism and promising that Xinjiang would remain in control of its nationalities since they had a right of self-determination, but real power in post-1955 Xinjiang appeared to be held by Han Chinese cadres.
No segment of Chinese society escaped the effects of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) and between 60,000 and 100,000 Uyghurs and Kazakhs fled the country after 1962 to avoid repression and famine.
Resentment of and resistance to government-supported migration or support of Han Chinese to the detriment of Uyghurs, restrictions on their religious and cultural practices, and loss of land have periodically caused eruptions of violence in the region. There were student demonstrations and riots in the 1980s linked to opposition to an announced expansion of Han migration and the Baren Township riot in 1990, where at least 50 people were killed (some reports claim there were hundreds) following a government decision to close down a local mosque. This subsequently led to a series of riots in other parts of Xinjiang.
Numerous bombing incidents in Xinjiang and Beijing itself – blamed on Uyghur extremists – occurred in 1997, as well as attacks against Chinese soldiers and officials. Widespread demonstrations and street fighting followed the arrest of suspected separatists during Ramadan.
The overall effect of the CCP on Xinjiang in the last six decades is unmistakable. The Han population in the region increased at an average rate of 8.1 per cent yearly, from 5 per cent in 1947 to around 40 per cent in 2000. Officially, Uyghurs comprise about 45 percent of Xinjiang’s permanent population with Han representing approximately 42 percent, and Kazakh, Hui and other ethnicities making up the rest. However, these figures belie the very high number of long-term resident and temporary Han migrant workers as well as thousands of security personnel in Xinjiang. They also obscure data from the 2020 Chinese Statistical Yearbook, showing that between 2017 and 2019 the birth rate in Xinjiang dropped approximately 48.7 per cent, from 15.88 per thousand in 2017 to 8.14 per thousand in 2019. The average for all of China was 10.48 per thousand.
The capital of the province itself went from being a city in which there were hardly any Han Chinese before 1949 to one in which the Uyghurs have been almost completely displaced. In addition, across Xinjiang, urban redesign projects have demolished hundreds of thousands of homes and resettled millions of Uyghur residents on the pretext of ‘civilization’ (文明) and ‘beautification’ (美化).
Uyghur communities (mehelle), mosques (meschit) and shrines/tombs (mazar) were critical components of Uyghur space and culture for hundreds of years. The traditional architecture defined how residents socialized and practised rituals within the physical space. Shrines have long been centres of pilgrimage and devotion. While some Uyghurs embraced the opportunity to move to new housing, many felt the forced relocation from traditional homes in ancient city centres to high-rise apartments on the outskirts was more of an assault than a sign of modernity.
As the demographic weight of the Uyghurs was reduced, the use of their language and the practice of other cultural and religious activities closely linked to Uyghur identity was increasingly restricted by Chinese authorities, who more and more openly espoused pro-Han chauvinism. Schools and universities were increasingly required to teach in Mandarin rather than Uyghur.
Events of the 2000’s and 2010’s
The strategic position of Xinjiang and the potential for ethnic unrest translates into a high degree of control over the region and the affairs of the Uyghurs by the central authorities. Decision-making is concentrated in the centrally appointed CCP structure and in Beijing, thereby excluding Uyghurs. Two additional factors contribute to this configuration: the role of the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, directly under Beijing and independent of the regional government; and the extremely limited power granted to national minorities in the government and the Party.
Until recently, Uyghurs constituted a substantial majority in Xinjiang. Legislation and regulations are supposed to guarantee minority and language rights as well as prohibit discrimination. However, the control one would expect Uyghurs to be able to exercise over the operations of autonomous administrative units has been eliminated over the years, along with the language requirements for job opportunities within government offices. Moreover, an expansion of laws criminalizing almost every facet of Uyghur culture and identity has resulted in an ever-increasing marginalization in their own homeland.
Since the mid-1990s, the gradual exclusion of Uyghurs from state-based employment – and the rising number of private jobs – is statistically verifiable from a variety of sources. While Han Chinese were able to secure employment, Uyghurs were kept out of construction jobs, road-building projects and oil and gas pipelines. Uyghurs with graduate degrees were only employed at an estimated 15 per cent, and, according to a 2013 study, Uyghurs earned an average of 59 per cent of what their Han counterparts earned.
As with other minority nationalities, access to employment is a contentious issue for Uyghurs, a function of discriminatory Han-only hiring practices and privileging of Mandarin speakers. The reduction of bilingual services provided by state authorities has resulted in the removal of bilingual employment opportunities, which would have meant the employment of more Uyghurs, whereas increased monolingual state operations have led to a much higher proportion of Han Chinese being preferred in almost all fields of employment. For example, in 2013, 72 per cent of all open civil service positions were open only to Han Chinese. In addition, the massive Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps employs almost only Han. Other sectors that advertise ‘Han only’ recruitment run the full spectrum of the economy, from firefighters, bank employees, accountants and broadcasters to construction workers, chefs and farmers. When it comes to employment, Uyghur women were identified in 2012 as the most disadvantaged demographic in China.
Even the few areas where the practice of Uyghur language was associated with job opportunities – such as in education – saw a rapid decline after 2000. From the late 1980s, Chinese-language instruction became more prominent, whereas instruction in Uyghur began to be curtailed, sometimes through the process of merging Chinese and Uyghur schools with the foreseeable result that these schools teach almost exclusively in Mandarin. Xinjiang University, initially established in 1949 as a bilingual (Uyghur/Mandarin) university, has cast away instruction in Uyghur. The same applies throughout all levels of education. Curriculums focus on ‘patriotic education’ and ‘ethnic unity education,’ and leave no role for Uyghur culture and history. Uyghur teachers are also discriminated against in such a system. Han teachers only speak Mandarin, while Uyghur teachers should speak both Uyghur and Mandarin and may be fired in preference for Han teachers with better Mandarin. Uyghurs who attempt to open private language centres have also suffered under discriminatory policies, such as Abduweli Ayup who in 2013 was sentenced to 18 months for ‘illegal fund-raising’ for his efforts to found a Uyghur language kindergarten.
In a shocking turn of events, Uyghur economist and rights defender, Ilham Tohti, was tried in a closed-door trial in September 2014 and sentenced to life in prison on baseless separatism charges. He lost his appeal. In an essay published after his imprisonment, Tohti wrote that ‘In recent years, Uyghur fears of cultural and linguistic annihilation have been greatly exacerbated by a sharp contraction in Xinjiang’s local-language publishing and cultural industries.’ In October 2016, Tohti was awarded the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.
A continuing issue for the Uyghurs is the role and dominating impact of the quasi-military workforce, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (兵团). Operating with almost complete autonomy in the region since 1954, it manages one-sixth of Xinjiang’s land as well as one-sixth of its population. It has coordinated the settlement and employment of millions of Han Chinese in the area. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps also governs schools, medical facilities, printed and electronic media, prisons, courts and other operations in both areas under its jurisdiction and corporations under its ownership. This includes primary, secondary and tertiary education (with several universities involved). It also has control over millions of acres of farmland, equaling about a quarter of Xinjiang’s arable land. Its operations are essentially exclusively in Mandarin, thus acting as an important agent in the sinicization of Xinjiang and the exclusion and disempowerment of Uyghurs. This is part of an overt government policy of supporting massive Han migration into the region in order to weaken the demographic and political weight of the Uyghurs.
Another issue that emerged is the right of members of a minority to their names in their own language, which is protected under international law under the right to private and family life. A policy adopted in 2002 required that Uyghur names be changed into Chinese pinyin. In 2015, Hotan prefecture initiated a ban on Uyghur parents giving their children Islamic names which have been used by Uyghur parents for generations and are an integral part of Uyghur identity. In April 2017, the policy was extended to the whole of Xinjiang.
Another contentious issue involves freedom of religion. The religious activities of Muslims in Xinjiang are subject to extensive controls and restrictions. Article 37 of the Religious Affairs Regulations, for example, stipulates that children under the age of 18 cannot participate in religious activities and are banned from religious sites, resulting in authorities prohibiting the teaching of Islam to school-age children, and imposing hefty punishments on parents found in violation.
On 5 July 2009, a planned nonviolent demonstration by Uyghurs frustrated by the failure of Chinese authorities to investigate the murder of a Uyghur migrant worker in southern China the previous month turned violent. At least 200 people were killed, most of them Han, and some 1,700 were injured. Over the ensuing days, Han vigilantes assaulted Uyghur bystanders as the government shut down internet access to the entire province of then 22 million people, imposing significant obstacles to independent investigations. The internet lockdown lasted for 10 months. During this time, Chinese authorities detained hundreds, if not thousands, of Uyghurs, many of whom disappeared and were never released or tried. Since 2009, episodes of violent resistance have occurred led by Uyghurs who have been systematically denied nonviolent avenues for redress. While violent crimes require a measured law enforcement response, human rights groups have argued that the repressive militarization of Xinjiang and indiscriminate policing only exacerbate the problem and have led to a spiral of violence.
Beginning in 2016, previously prefecture-level travel regulations were imposed across all of Xinjiang, in violation of Uyghur freedom of movement and affecting their ability to participate in religious pilgrimage or seek employment opportunities. In 2016, the Xinjiang government announced a recall of all passports, a measure already implemented under regional party secretary Chen Quanguo in Tibet. Since 2016, the Xinjiang government has also implemented mandatory health examinations and forced collection of DNA. The profiling of Uyghurs, collection of DNA not part of an active criminal investigation, and lack of privacy controls and other legal protections raise serious concerns over the scope and purpose of the policy.
‘People’s War on Terrorism’
Since 2017, the Chinese government has unleashed a massive ‘People’s War on Terrorism’ (反恐人民战争) targeting primarily the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Fueled by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is said to have mandated state authorities to ‘show absolutely no mercy’, this clampdown has resulted in the forced internment and incarceration of an estimated one million Uyghurs – nearly or more than 10 per cent of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Leaked government documents indicate that the total number of detainees could be far higher.
They include prominent indigenous scholars such as Tashpolat Tiyip, the former president of Xinjiang University, who was reportedly sentenced to death, and Professor Rahile Dawut, a leading anthropologist, whose five-and-a-half-year detention was changed into a life sentence. They also include hundreds of thousands of Uyghur traders, artisans, doctors, journalists, students and other individuals criminalized for violating the ‘law’. These victims of state-sanctioned violence have been deliberately targeted as a means of ‘purging’ (肃清) the ‘three evil forces’ (三股恶势力, i.e., violence, separatism and extremism), and condemned in the name of ‘de-extremification’ (去极端主义).
The following paragraphs illustrate some of the many ways the Chinese state has violated human rights in Xinjiang during the last five years. As it is impossible to cover this complex topic in one summary, the section focuses on perhaps the most ominous ‘de-radicalization’ trend that most Xinjiang experts outside China seem at present to believe lies at the heart of the matter.
As noted above, at the heart of the clampdown in Xinjiang, lie the detention facilities framed by China as ‘vocational education and training centres’ (hereafter ‘VETC’) (职业技能教育培训中心). Supported by article 14 of the de-radicalization regulations, these facilities aim to attack the foundations of Uyghur culture and identity, and impose discipline. As described in official documents, common so-called ‘signs of religious extremism’ that can result in training, detention, imprisonment or death, include, for example, having contact with family and friends abroad, being of a particular age, growing a beard, wearing a headscarf, travelling (or desiring to travel) internationally, not drinking alcohol, eating halal foods, using a VPN or blocked application like WhatsApp, and observing Ramadan. To bring such behaviours into conformity with the regulations and standards of ‘counter-extremism’, detainees are sent to VETCs and disciplined through the enforced use of Mandarin, the singing of propaganda, the dissemination of ideology and other means of forced assimilation embodied in the VETC’s guards, gates, walls and sophisticated surveillance technology.
Today, a growing body of evidence from Xinjiang indicates that these VETCs are more likely political prison camps in which a whole category of people has been criminalized on the grounds of their existence. Interviews with former prisoners and family members exiled from China, for example, describe crimes against humanity and torture, including forcible sterilization, blanket round-ups, beatings, sexual assaults, enforced disappearances and other inhumane treatment. Descriptions of their experiences are retained in the form of first-person narratives, media reports, ethnographic studies and other publicly available documents written by Uyghur representatives, academics, journalists, other activists and analysts. Their accounts are reinforced by allegations of ethnic cleansing against Uyghurs made by a growing number of scholars and rights organizations. Conceding to public demands that the United Nations conduct an independent investigation into the alleged violations, the former High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet acknowledged in an August 2022 report that ‘serious human rights violations have been committed’ in Xinjiang that could amount to ‘crimes against humanity’.
Updated October 2023
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