Lately it has been a common subject that the Chinese oppress the Uyghurs, the largest ethnical tribe in the Xinjiang province, which lies under Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Xinjiang is also known by the name East Turkestan (which is the current northwestern Muslim region in China). The issue between the Chinese government and the Uyghurs is no new thing. However, the issue is currently brought forward again for two reasons. Firstly, China had forbidden every Uyghur to fast during Ramadan. Not only the Uyghurs suffer because of this, as Chinese Muslims get their share as well. Secondly, the responsibility claimed by Turkey, meaning they would defend the rights and freedom of the Uyghurs.
Who are the Uyghurs? How did the conflict arise between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government? What issues do the Uyghurs have to deal with today, as a minority group? These are all questions for which I will try to provide a simple answer in two articles. Let’s begin with some historical context.
For centuries, the Uyghurs have been the largest ethnical tribe in the Xinjiang province. They can’t actually be labeled as “nomads”, thanks to the province’s position alongside the Silk Road. Also, the Uyghurs were familiar with a highly developed urban culture as far back as the 13th century.
The Uyghurs embraced Islam
Due to their settlement alongside the Silk Route, Buddhism formed an important aspect of the Uyghur’s religious life. As the early Arab-Islamic expansions reach China around the 9th century, the Uyghurs will gradually accept Islam. Only in the 13th century when the area is annexed by the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, they will convert to Islam intensively.
When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty
In 1340, the Mongol empire collapsed, which caused the Uyghurs to move to Moghulistan where they had established their own government. The Mongols will shortly reunite under the reign of the Dzungars in the 17th century. Xinjiang was named the Dzungar Khanate. From the middle of the 18th century onwards, the Chinese Qing Dynasty invaded the province, seeing it as a military colony. The Uyghurs started to revolt immediately. This revolt caused a bit of a stir with the Chinese, so they appointed loyal Muslims who had reached high positions to bring peace and order to the area. But the Chinese were wrong to try, as the region didn’t know any peace. In order to punish the Uyghurs, large areas of the Xinjiang province came under direct Chinese control in 1759. That way, the province would attract more and more Han Chinese people to further oppress the Uyghurs. The more the Uyghurs resisted, the harsher the Chinese responded.
It is no surprise that Xinjiang province was once described as the area with the most resistance of the entire Qing Empire. In 1864, the Muslim rebel Yakub Beg succeeded in freeing the province from Chinese rule. He created an independent Islamic empire and appointed himself as emir of Kashgaria (the old name for Xinjiang). The Qing troops reconquered Kashgaria in 1877 and changed the changed the name back to Xinjiang in 1884. The name Xinjiang can be translated as “the new border”. Xinjiang ended up under direct control of the Chinese and was therefore seen as a Chinese province.
In the meantime, Russia and England were looking for influence in the area. Russia was expanding its political and military power in Central Asia. England feared this expansion would threaten its own colonial rule in India. The Russians were able to claim several diplomatic, commercial and territorial admissions from the Chinese empire.
Xinjiang: from resistance to incorporation
After the Chinese Revolution in 1912, turmoil kindled again in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs had less and less power in their province, so they put forward a weak attempt to establish their own East Turkestan Republic in 1933. China, which was already communist, toppled that attempt entirely and conquered Xinjiang definitively in 1949. In theory, Xinjiang province would be an autonomous region, meaning that the Uyghurs received the same rights and duties as every Chinese citizen, but reality is far from that.