The Uyghurs in Xinjiang – The Malaise Grows
OutlineTop of page
Translated from the French original by Philip Liddell
1Over the past twenty years, the unrest in Xinjiang has intensified and Uyghur nationalist feeling has strengthened. This study aims to throw light on the causes of the current rise of Uyghur nationalism and the forms it has taken. We shall draw attention to the determining effect of a socio-political context driven by colonial logics in order to explain how the nationalist ideology has been reinforced, with its aim of restoring to the Uyghurs—or more generally to the Turkic-speaking population of Xinjiang—the reins of political power within a truly autonomous or even independent entity. We shall also underline the impact of recent changes within the political context of China and Central Asia1.
2Xinjiang (East Turkistan2), which was annexed by China in the mid-eighteenth century, is mainly populated by Turkic-speaking3 Muslims4, the majority of whom are Uyghurs5 (see Table 1). Despite a long tradition of exchanges with China, these people are linked, primarily by ties of culture and religion, to the Central Asian world. Probably this is one reason why, though they are becoming increasingly integrated with China, they have never very willingly accepted the idea of sharing a common destiny with the Chinese people. However, looking beyond questions of culture, other factors at different times have contributed to weakening Chinese sovereignty over this region. Thus, during the first half of the twentieth century, driven by the local elite in contact with Turkey and with the Tatars of Russia, Pan-Turkist reformism6 put down the first ideological markers of what were to become Xinjiang’s anti-colonial movements7. At a time when Chinese power at the centre was weakening and the great powers (such as Britain and Russia) were attempting to exploit the various political factions to build up their influence, two independent republics were founded in Xinjiang. The Turk Islamic Republic of East Turkistan (TIRET) was led by the emirs of Khotan and by anti-communist Pan-Turkists and was centred on the region of Khotan and Kashgar (1933 and 1934)8. And then, between 1944 and 1949, the East Turkistan Republic (ETR) was supported by the Soviets and based in the three northern districts of Xinjiang along the frontier with the USSR9.
3From 1949 onwards, the re-emergence of a new and strong centralised power enabled China to reassert sovereignty over the region. The communist regime then introduced a nationalities policy modelled on the Soviet pattern: 55 national minorities (shaoshu minzu), together with the Han, make up the Chinese nation. Ever since, for the first time in China, this policy has guaranteed the recognition of the linguistic and cultural identities of the national minorities, while granting them certain advantages, helping them to integrate within the new system10.
4At the same time, once the opposition of Pan-Turkist separatists and the last of the underground rebels had been eradicated, the province of Xinjiang was transformed, in 1955, into an autonomous region. But this autonomy was in reality only symbolic, and contrasted sharply with the real political autonomy that many had been hoping for. Indeed, the region’s political system remains under the control of the Communist Party, itself dominated by the original Han population of China’s interior. The shortcomings of this system built up a powerful sense of frustration, preventing Uyghur society from realising many of its aspirations and from challenging certain policies it had overwhelmingly rejected; of these, undoubtedly the most unpopular was the colonisation of the region.
5From the 1950s onwards, the communist regime encouraged the settlement of Han population centres in order to secure, control and exploit the region, which is rich in hydrocarbons, mineral resources and virgin agricultural land11. Since 1949, the region has seen a massive inflow of Han immigrants mainly directed there by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) (Xinjiang shengchan jianche bingtuan). Originally, this organisation had helped former soldiers demobilised after the Civil War to settle down, by providing some advantages to its members. These corps of “peasant-soldiers” sent to the margins of the country to open up new pioneer areas did not survive the Cultural Revolution, except in Xinjiang where they were revitalised during the 1980s in order to pursue demographic colonisation while boosting the manpower needed to provide security for the region. Subsidised up to 80% by the central government, the XPCCs today control nearly one-third of the local farmed land and produce about a quarter of the provincial industrial output12. During the 1950s, the XPCCs had about a hundred thousand members; today their numbers are above 2.4 million, of whom 90% are Han (that is, one-third of the Han living “officially” in Xinjiang13). Thanks to the XPCCs, and also to migratory inflows not directly controlled by the state, the Han population has risen from 6.7% of the region’s population in 1949 to about 40% today, that is, more than seven million out of a total of 18.5 million inhabitants (see Table 1). But colonisation has not stabilised the region—far from it. Its socio-economic repercussions, together with Peking’s domineering attitude towards the regional political system, have generated a malaise that has lent new vigour in recent years to Uyghur nationalism and separatism.
6This phenomenon has been catalysed at the same time by changes in the political context of the region. Indeed, the victory of the Afghan mujaheddin over the Red Army and, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, the independence of the central Asian republics have galvanised Uyghur separatism. Many of the militants have seen in the emergence of national states as homelands for the other large Turkic populations of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan . . .), the justification of their own aspirations to independence. Moreover, by reason of the cultural and religious ties that the Uyghurs share with the rest of Central Asia, these events have given them hopes of drawing new support from beyond their own borders. This potentiality for destabilisation, the concomitant swell of unrest in Xinjiang and the rise of Islamism14 in Central Asia during the 1990s have led Peking to react.
7China, torn between the necessity for opening its frontiers to economic inflows and the wish to isolate Uyghur opposition from any exterior support or “subversive” influence, has combined its policy of speeding up the region’s economic development with strengthening its security collaboration with its neighbours, pursuing demographic colonisation and stiffening its repression of those political activities that it considers unlawful. But, by failing to take account of either the destabilising impact of colonisation on Uyghur society or the demand for self-government among the local population, these policies could not solve the real problems behind the growth of unrest.
8Colonisation and its socio-economic consequences are much disliked by the Uyghurs: they constitute the main grievance among the protest movements. Indeed, colonisation tends, through a complex process, to exclude Xinjiang’s national minorities from the benefits of economic advance. In attempting to stabilise the region, the central state has made significant investments15 that have contributed to developing the local economy. This region, once among the poorest in China, today, within the provinces of China’s “Great West”16, now boasts the highest per capita GDP; in these terms it ranks twelfth among all China’s provinces17. However, these encouraging macro-economic figures hide pronounced inequalities that apply along ethnic lines. To Uyghur eyes, the investments are directed first towards the areas of colonisation18, and have benefited the Han colonists most of all. Thus, the per capita GDP in Han areas is far higher than that in areas where the Uyghurs are still in the majority (see Table 2). The low figure for GDP per head in the Tarim Basin, where three-quarters of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population is concentrated, makes it likely that a significant number of families have incomes below the Chinese poverty threshold and even further beneath the threshold set by the international organisations19.
9At the same time, these differences in income imposed along ethnic lines underlie unequal access to the educational system—which, in turn, serves to reinforce the economic inequalities. In effect, the inability of the poorest people to finance their children’s schooling perpetuates—even more than linguistic handicaps20 and a sometimes discriminatory job-recruitment system—socio-professional inequalities condemning much of the Uyghur population to the lowest rungs of society.
The peoples of Xinjiang
10Theoretically, the Chinese education system is supposed to make it easier for minorities to climb the social scale, by means of a system of quotas and university scholarships. However the partial withdrawal of the state from financing the education system has led to an increase in schooling costs and falling numbers of scholarships. With the liberalisation of the Chinese economy, some financial security is more and more necessary in order to pursue one’s studies. The poorest families do not have the means to provide a full education for their children; and they have to restrict their years at school. While Han families, usually urban and better off, can extend their children’s education, and send them to the best establishments, the children of the minority communities are unable to complete their secondary education (see Table 3), which means they leave school with fewer qualifications (see Table 4).
11These differences in educational funding combined with recruitment methods that are often discriminatory in the private sector21 tend to perpetuate, over a period of several decades, socio-professional stratification: Uyghurs are penalised in comparison with the Han. The national minorities in Xinjiang are over-represented at the bottom of the socio-professional scale and the Han are over-represented at the top. Thus, while the national minorities represented nearly 54% of Xinjiang’s population in 1990, they accounted for more than 76% of its agricultural workforce (as against 69.4% in 1982 when they were 52.8% of the total population), less than 41% of those employed in liberal and technical professions and less than 30% of managers and administrators22.
12As the national minorities descend the socio-economic scale in Xinjiang, their living standards become more precarious because China has almost no social security system whatever. According to the 1990 census, the infant mortality rate among the national minorities in Xinjiang was 3.6 times higher than among the Han and their life expectancy was 62.9 years as against 71.4 for the Han. At the same time, unemployment among young Uyghurs has led to higher crime rates and drug-taking—though these are culturally alien to this Muslim society. Poverty, and also the inequalities mentioned above, give Uyghurs the sense that they are excluded from economic growth to the benefit of the Han. The status of “second-rate” Chinese citizen contrasts with the promises of wealth and equality made by the regime at the time of Xinjiang’s “peaceful liberation”, and it has led many Uyghurs to think that they have been fooled by Peking’s communist pretensions and that, in reality, they are living under the yoke of a colonial regime.
13It is suggested, in the debate over the notion of internal colonialism23, that under administrations that are colonial or perceived as such, socio-economic stratification along ethnic lines around the peripheries of some states is likely to encourage an increasing sense of identity and the rise of nationalism. Even though this kind of approach does not explain all the factors and paradigms entering the equation in the birth and the growing influence of nationalism in Xinjiang since the start of the twentieth century, it does help us to see how such inequalities have favoured the strengthening of Uyghur nationalism over the past twenty years. Indeed, going beyond cultural identity, socio-economic and political stratification in Xinjiang has brought many Uyghurs to view themselves as a lower-grade community, separate from the central community (that is to say, the Han) that dominates the economic and political systems. To that extent, it has favoured the emergence of anti-colonial nationalism24, fuelled by the distinctive identity of the Uyghurs to legitimise the establishment of real self-government (which would at last serve the interests of the Uyghurs—and not those exclusively of Peking and the Han).
14The Uyghur elite, more numerous and driven to compete with the Han, have increasing difficulty in fitting into the system25. It is true that the Chinese regime does attempt to co-opt a proportion of the Uyghurs into the administration but, even though noteworthy efforts have been made since the 1950s, it seems that over these last decades they have not been enough to integrate all the new Uyghur elite inside the system. In the 1950s, because of the small number of Uyghurs who had been educated, it was relatively easy for them to find posts on a level with their expectations. Over the past twenty years, with the end of the policy of the “iron rice bowl” (tiefanwan) and the arrival of greater numbers of well-qualified Uyghurs and, in particular, Han in the job market, the integration of some elite Uyghurs has become more problematical. Thus, many young Uyghurs of working-class or middle-class origins reproach the Chinese regime for not providing them with job opportunities commensurate with their training and, instead, for favouring the appointment of Han to management posts26.
15The small amount of data relating to the ethnic origins of some of the Xinjiang elite appears to support such contentions. For example, in 1990, the national minorities provided only 28.8% of the total number of managers and administrators in Xinjiang27. This state of affairs is also observable within the political system: officials drawn from the national minorities are still under-represented in the Xinjiang Communist Party. They accounted for only 37.3% of its members in 199728. Moreover, bearing in mind that their loyalty towards Peking is considered suspect, they are often held down in posts with little power or posts where they can easily be controlled. Admittedly, the Presidents of the People’s Government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, of each Autonomous Prefecture and of each Autonomous Village are elected on the basis of the titular nationality of the autonomous administrative entity. However, as everywhere else in China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the controlling force behind political institutions. And the most important CCP posts in Xinjiang are held by Han loyal to Peking and not by members of national minorities. For example, it is revealing to note that, ever since 1949, the post of Secretary of the CCP in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has been occupied in an almost systematic way by Han Chinese.
16In sum, while a proportion of the Uyghur elite is integrated, even very well integrated, and has been for several generations, a growing number of the new elite find increasing difficulty in fulfilling their expectations and feel resentful of being excluded, even colonised. Shifting this fault line, where the integration of Uyghur elites is concerned, acts as a kind of measuring instrument for Uyghur nationalism. If the indicator moves towards “fewer well-integrated elite”, the nationalist opposition is likely to show itself more structured and more vigorous. Today, the fact that poorly integrated elite Uyghurs are more numerous than before explains the rising discontent among young educated people and the strengthening of their political opposition. Yet, the fact that a proportion of them continues to be “well integrated” harms the structure of Uyghur nationalism by preventing for the present the large-scale recruitment of officials likely to organise mass movements.
17Ever since the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, the relative openness that has followed Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power has left the way open to a vast movement for revitalising local culture. The 1980s saw a return towards the traditions and the “imagined foundations” of Uyghur identity. This phenomenon in its many forms manifests itself, for example, in the proliferation of books and academic research into Uyghur history and culture. It has also taken the form, as among the Hui, of an Islamic revival29. While publications relating to Islam flourished, mosques were renovated and many new ones built. Similarly, religious education developed strongly: Koranic schools were opened, attached to mosques on the one hand or, on the other, as private schools—usually undeclared30. This Islamic revival, observed right across China, has nevertheless assumed a distinctive dimension among the Uyghurs. For them it is part of a logic of return (or perceived return) to practices formerly discouraged or repressed, but it is also at the margin part of a more militant logic using Islam as an instrument for distinguishing Uyghur values31 from the non-clerical and atheistic values promoted by the Chinese authorities.
Table 1 : Demographic strength of the main Xinjiang nationalities
Source: Fenjin de sishi nian: 1949-1989. Xinjiang fenci (The advancing 40 years. 1949-1989. Xinjiang Volume), Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, Urumchi, 1989, p. 332; 2002 Xinjiang tongji nianjian (Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook), Pékin, Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, 2002, pp. 107, 109.
18The revival of the Uyghurs’ Islamic culture and identity has also led, during the 1980s, to the formation of student associations aiming to promote the rights and culture of the Uyghurs: the Tengritakh Association (Tianshan), the Youth Association of East Turkistan, the Students’ Cultural and Scientific Association32… Some of these student associations, which reflect the growing strength of the democratic student movement in China and challenge “Great Han chauvinism”, seem quickly to have adopted a militant style. This is conveyed in a report reflecting CCP anxiety:
19In the thirty years between 1949 and 1979, almost no demonstration was held by the Xinjiang minority students in Xinjiang, but after 1980, student demonstrations have broke out one after another. This is a new phenomena. Uyghur students from seven universities and colleges including Xinjiang University in Urumqi demonstrated on December 12th 1985. They were openly against the Central Government's decision. [. . .] Some of the students from Xinjiang University got together and organized this well planned and well organized political incident for which the Xinjiang University became the headquarter. Before and after that incident, some pro-separatism posters and flyers with contents such as: “Chinese out of Xinjiang”, “Independence for Xinjiang”, “Cut off the railroad from China proper to Xinjiang” were discovered in Urumqi and other districts. In June 1986, another demonstration was organized by a student association in Xinjiang University. [. . .] Using the “support for the minority education” as a cover, they attacked Central Communist Party's minority autonomy policy, damaged the good relationship among the nationalities. They used slogans such as “No big Chinese Nationalism”, “No Chinese population transfer to Xinjiang”, and created a very bad influence in the society.33
20Outside the campuses, the revival of the meshrep34 expresses the wish to revitalise Uyghur culture and identity. At the start of the 1990s, young Uyghurs of the region of Ghulja (Yining) launched a movement to re-invigorate these gatherings which have spread rapidly. However, the movement has also taken, according to the Chinese authorities, a “counter-revolutionary” turn. Fearing that it might become a focus for protest and “local nationalism” (difang minzuzhuyi), the regional government banned the meshrep in 1995; and the people who had launched the movement were imprisoned35.
21This aspiration to greater militancy36 has also taken the form of clandestine political movements37 that, in Xinjiang and in the Diaspora38, are founded on Uyghur nationalism tinged with Pan-Turkism39. Admittedly, these movements are not “mass movements”—and even less so in the present climate of repression. Uyghur militancy is driven mostly by a fringe group of young students and intellectuals, purged regularly by Chinese repression. Up until the 1990s, two successive clandestine groups in the tradition of the pre-1949 oppositional currents, both quite durable, dominated the underground political scene. Of these two nationalist Pan-Turkist parties, one, socialist and secular, relied on Soviet aid, and the other came from the anti-communist and Islamic tradition centred on the south of Xinjiang. Both could call upon a base of militancy that was relatively wide compared with present-day groupings (see below). At the same time they were counting on significant underground mobilisation to prepare for a general uprising in Xinjiang.
22After 1949, the first big organised clandestine party was formed under the name of the Eastern Turkistan People’s Party (ETPP) (Sharki Turkistan Halk Partisi). Mainly drawing in Uyghurs but also Kazakhs, it was founded in secret, according to the Chinese authorities, in February 1968; but, according to the militants who have now taken refuge abroad, some of its cells had already been active for several years beforehand40. This was a separatist Pan-Turkist party with Marxist allegiances. Well-structured and hierarchic, it swiftly recruited former officials of the East Turkistan Republic as well as young people from Turkic-speaking minorities. According to the East Turkistan National Centre, this party numbered more than 60,000 members and 178 branches in Xinjiang41. These figures are hard to verify. However, the ETPP is probably the largest secret organisation ever created since the liberation of Xinjiang. The rise to power of this underground party seems to have been favoured mainly by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and by the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations. Indeed, the USSR did give help to the ETPP. As is confirmed by Chinese sources and the testimony of some of its former militants, the KGB developed its links with this party mostly through its agents active in Kazakhstan and seems to have provided it with logistical support on several occasions:
23The ETPP's Central Committee and subcommittee drafted articles such as “The Destiny of the Uyghurs”, “Eastern Turkestan People's Party's Constitution” and “Eastern Turkestan People's Party's General Principles”. [. . .] they all claim [. . .] “Seize the power with the help of the Soviet Union and establish an independent Eastern Turkestan Republic” [. . .]. Some of them even held the banner of Marxism and Leninism and proposed: “We want to establishing an independent country according to the Marxist principle of self-determination of different peoples”. [. . .] On a dozen occasions, the “ETPP”'s Ili Committee, Urumqi Branch, and Altay Bureau also sent their delegations to Soviet Union and Mongolia Republic to beg for arms and the use of radio stations for their riots and ask for military advisors. The Soviet Spy agency sent a group of fourteen people with spies carrying radio transmitters, weapons and funds for their activities. These groups arrived in Xinjiang and established communication with the “ETPP” nine times.42
Table 2 : Distribution of wealth in the main sub-regional administrative units in Xinjiang
Source: 2002 Xinjiang tongji nianjian, op. cit., pp. 106, 110-115, 713, 715; 2002 Zhongguo tongji nianjian, op. cit., p. 51.
24The ETPP focused its activity on mobilising Turkic-speaking populations and officials in Xinjiang with the aim of preparing a mass insurrection against Peking. At the same time, it took up guerrilla activities (sabotage, skirmishes with the police and the Chinese army…) and was behind various attempts at insurrection during the 1960s and the 1970s. Still quite active during the 1970s, it was gradually weakened by the arrest of its leaders, by the gradual falling away of Soviet support as the tension between Moscow and Peking relaxed, and then by the decline of the communist ideology. Nevertheless, while the ETPP was in decline, a new party of anti-Marxist opposition was developing in southern Xinjiang.
25As the Soviet Union lost its appeal among anti-colonialist Muslims to the benefit of revolutionary Islam, and as the revival of Islamism was gathering pace in Xinjiang, the Islamic Pan-Turkic trend centred on the south of Xinjiang was given renewed vigour by new young leaders. It was re-organised around the East Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIP) (Sharki Turkistan Islam Partisi). This Pan-Turkic nationalist movement also aimed at renewing Islam among the Uyghurs and developed from networks of mosques in southern Xinjiang during the 1980s. According to official sources, it apparently generated offshoots in numerous cities in the Tarim Basin, indeed as far as Ghulja (Yining), Turfan and Urumqi43. Probably also inspired by the Afghans’ success against the Soviets, it really came into prominence in April 1990 at the time of the Baren insurrection (near Kashgar). The rising took the form of a jihad recalling that which led to the creation of the Turk Islamic Republic of East Turkistan (1933-1934)44.
26The insurrection, which lasted for several days, caused several dozen deaths on the insurgents’ side and forced the Chinese army to deploy significant forces in the region to put down the rebellion. The Chinese authorities view the ETIP as part of the Jihadist current on the other side of the Pamirs; and they consider that it gave birth to more “radical” groupings such as the Party of Allah and the Islamic Movement of East Turkistan. Because of the little information available about this organisation, such links are difficult to check and to determine as true or false. However, the slogans proclaimed during the insurrection suggest that the ETIP at this time was more a renovated form of the Islamic Pan-Turkism historically established in the south of Xinjiang than a pure reincarnation of radical Islam:
27He [Yusuf Zeydin, leader of the local branch of the ETIP] and his followers openly shouted: “Down with the socialism!”, “In the past Marxism suppressed religion, and now it is religion's turn to suppress Marxism”, “Unite all the Turk peoples, long live the great Eastern Turkistan!”, “Take Barin, establish Eastern Turkistan”.45
28The subsequent repression prevented the party from being reconstituted on such wide foundations, despite attempts at this of some of its members in the early 1990s.
29Whereas the 1980s are perceived by many Uyghurs as a period of reduced tension, even of an improvement in the relations between Uyghur society and the Chinese state, the 1990s saw the emergence of a repressive climate that engendered powerful frustrations and resentment. The 1990s increase in repression is generally linked with exacerbated Party anxieties on several levels.
30Nationally, the conservative wing of the CCP considered that the worst was avoided after the Tiananmen events in 1989, whereas similar events took place in consequence on campuses in Xinjiang (see above). It considers that an authoritarian crackdown is essential to ensure the survival of the regime. At the same time, at the start of the 1990s, the Chinese regime feared that the accession to independence of the Central Asian Republics, and also the spread of radical Islam in the region (see below), would seriously destabilise Xinjiang if nothing was done. On the one hand, the accession to independence of other large Turkic populations of Central Asia was likely to legitimise and strengthen Uyghur separatism. On the other, the cultural links that bind the Uyghurs together with the peoples of the new Republics, and also with the Uyghur Diaspora in these countries46, allowed Peking to fear that solidarity would build up between the Uyghur separatists and these states (or certain organisations present on their soil). Firstly, some of them (Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan in particular) have effectively offered asylum to the new refugees, and even recognised organisations of the local Diaspora defending the independence of East Turkistan. Peking then applied itself to cutting off the militants active in Xinjiang from these potential supports outside. By playing on the prospects for settling frontier disputes and for economic co-operation, and by promoting co-operation in the struggle against separatism and Islamism in Central Asia through the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO)47, China persuaded the Central Asian republics to ban the Uyghur organisations present on their territories, and even today to extradite some militants who have recently taken refuge there48.
31On the domestic front, the Chinese regime confronted by the rise of Uyghur nationalism and by Islamic anti-governmental subversion has progressively tightened its control over society and the spaces for expressing identity and religion49 to prevent the start of dynamics that might have made the situation uncontrollable. At the same time as relations between the Chinese state and Uyghur society were becoming strained and disturbances, sometimes violent, were on the rise (the Baren insurrection in 1990, the disturbances of the summer and autumn of 1993 over the whole province, and the riots of July 7th 1995 in Khotan), the Chinese regime’s grip was progressively tightened.
Table 3 : National minorities’ share in Xinjiang’s total school population in 2000
Source: 2002 Xinjiang tongji nianjian, op. cit., pp. 612-613.
32The turning point really came in 1996-1997, following the launch in April 1996 of the great national campaign against crime “Strike hard”. This campaign began shortly after a special meeting in March 1996 on maintaining stability in Xinjiang, and so there it assumed a special dimension, being targeted at separatism and illegal religious activities. The Permanent Committee of the Politburo of the CCP then issued an exhaustive list of strict directives aimed at tightening control over Xinjiang and eradicating potentially subversive activities50. As part of the same campaign, a succession of strong-arm police operations was mounted (the special 100-day crackdown from January to March 1999, the “General Campaign against Terrorism” from April to June 1999, the new campaign “Strike hard” from April 2001 onwards, the drive against separatism in October 2001…). This intense campaign of repression led to thousands of arrests and also to constant human rights violations and the improper use of the death penalty51. By fencing off, even closing down, the last spaces for the expression of identity or religion52, these restrictions put relations between Uyghur society and the Chinese regime under considerable strain. They gave the impression that the real target of the Chinese regime’s attacks was not so much separatism or even Islamism but Uyghur identity itself53.
33During the same period, the introduction of a market economy combined with competition from ever-increasing numbers of Han placed the social climate under strain. Local politicians, in thrall to Peking, are unable to challenge policies imposed from the centre and often very strongly disliked (nuclear tests on the Lop Nor site, the restriction of religious freedoms, the enforcement of birth control while colonists are flooding in…); this fact has provoked numerous protest movements. Faced with a strained social and political climate, the local authorities (who cannot challenge the policies dictated by Peking) have often reacted with brutality. They have sometimes helped to give an insurrectional twist to protest movements that, originally, were merely directed against unpopular measures54. While the disturbances became more frequent55 in response to excessive Chinese repression, throughout the 1990s new groupings appeared in Xinjiang and the Diaspora. In the Diaspora, most organisations began to federate around the rejection of violent action while lobbying for the Uyghurs’ basic rights to be protected56; by contrast, in Xinjiang, groups with a sometimes reduced life expectancy, but adopting more radical modes of action, appeared. They protected themselves by keeping their memberships small, or withdrew from China (to Central Asia, Afghanistan or Turkey).
34They carried out numerous guerrilla operations (sabotage57, arson, attacks on police barracks or military bases), and even graduated to acts of terrorism (assassinations of Han officials or Uyghur collaborators, and bomb attacks). The increasing frequency of acts of violence and terrorism in Xinjiang during the 1990s does not mean that all the Uyghur political movements support these modes of action. But, just recently, the Chinese authorities have generally harped on about the frequency of acts of violence to give the Uyghur opposition the image of a primarily terrorist force.
35Only a short while ago, the Chinese government was opting to hush up the news of these disturbances. However, following the events of September 11th 2001, it decided to put out information about the more violent acts and the terrorist attacks carried out during this period. It attributed some of them to armed groups who, to date, seem mostly to have disappeared or become dormant58. The Shock Brigade of the Islamic Reformist Party are held responsible for the attack that, on the Chinese New Year in February 1992, killed three people in a bus at Urumqi59. The East Turkistan Democratic Islamic Party is held to have carried out the bomb attacks in the south of Xinjiang that killed four victims between June and September 199360. The most memorable crime, that of February 25th 1997 in Urumqi (on the day of Deng Xiaoping’s funeral), was attributed to the East Turkistan National Unity Alliance. Four bombs had been planted on different bus routes. The resulting explosions killed nine and wounded 74. On the other hand, the Chinese regime did not mention in its report the crime committed during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress on March 7th 1997: the bomb went off in a bus in Peking’s Xidan district (30 injured and two dead). Responsibility for this attack, the first to affect Peking since 1949, was claimed by the Organisation for East Turkistan Freedom (based in Turkey), but the Chinese government denied that any Uyghurs were involved in this attack.
36At the same time, connections have apparently been made between some Uyghur militants and Islamic movements. This phenomenon seems to be linked to several factors. On the one hand, the socio-political model promoted by these movements may have seemed a preferable alternative to the Chinese model perceived as colonial and culturally invasive. The desire to establish a political and social order that would put Uyghur Muslims at the centre of the system is very strong. Some Uyghur militants were probably also influenced by the hope that by imposing a strict Islamic framework they might at the same time find a solution to the present social problems. On the other hand, bearing in mind the cessation of support (active or passive) from the USSR and later of the Central Asian republics and taking account also of the indifference of the West61, the vital necessity of finding foreign support over which Chinese diplomacy had no hold also played an important role. Some Uyghur movements saw in the Islamic card a means of playing on the solidarity existing between Muslims within the Umma to attempt to win political support, fallback bases, even training facilities and funds to further the struggle against Chinese power in Xinjiang.
37The first links seem to have been made during the 1980s. During this period, many foreigners (traders, preachers 62…) profited from the relative relaxation of Chinese control to proselytise their causes in China itself63. At the same time, with the opening of frontiers and the loosening of restrictions governing the Mecca pilgrimage, Uyghurs travelling abroad came into contact with proselytising movements working in Pakistan, Central Asia or in some Arab countries. Links were created in these cases too. At the same time also, as the restrictions on religious education in Xinjiang were being strengthened, many young Uyghurs went abroad. Through connections established during the 1980s or through family links on the spot, these young people—and also Uyghurs in the Diaspora—took religious courses in the Koranic schools sometimes attached to Islamist movements.
38Thus, in Kazakhstan it seems that some Uyghurs joined the Islamic Renaissance Party64. In Uzbekistan and in Kirghizstan some of them joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or else Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT)65. The other favoured place for recruitment was Pakistan. Chinese researchers suggest that about ten thousand Uyghurs went to Pakistan to receive a religious education66. This figure is hard to verify. Nevertheless, some of them did indeed follow programmes in fundamentalist Koranic schools in Pakistan, and were even in contact with various local Islamist movements (Jamaat-e Islami67, Jamaat al-Tabligh 68…). Through these connections, some Uyghurs took part in military operations. It seems that the Hizb ul-Mujahidin69 and the Salafist Jihadist70 movement Lashkar-e Taiba in particular71 enrolled a handful of Uyghurs in the Kashmir conflict72. However, most of the Uyghurs involved in the Jihad were in Afghanistan (mainly in the ranks of the Hizb-e Islami, the Taliban and later in the ranks of the IMU). Quoting official Russian sources and Chinese experts, the Chinese press has published figures ranging from over 200 Uyghurs in the “bin Laden camps” to more than a thousand having received some military training in Afghanistan73. Again, the figures are difficult to check. However, after the fall of the Taliban, the new Afghan government claims it has only a score of Chinese prisoners (who it has promised to hand over to the Chinese authorities). So one may presume that the Uyghurs amount only to a negligible proportion of the foreign supporters fighting alongside local radical movements.
39During the 1990s, some of these young Uyghurs formed in their turn a small number of Islamist (or Islamic nationalist) groups which, according to Peking, have links with Salafist Jihadist networks based in the region. Because we have little reliable information about these ultra-clandestine organisations, it is very difficult to be specific about their ideology. For the most part, they begin with a nucleus of Uyghurs who have often received Islamic training abroad and are sometimes trained in combat and the use of explosives; around them are grouped the militants they themselves have recruited locally. However, the fact that they do not recruit from the Hui and that their discourse lays greater emphasis on liberating East Turkistan than on creating an Islamic state (or on returning to a purified form of Islam) suggests that their agenda is still mainly nationalist74.
40Without having carried out a massive recruitment, these groups have concentrated on enrolling young people from the urban working class, mainly from southern Xinjiang. Admittedly, the substratum of urban youth, disconnected with Islam in its traditional Sufi form75, provides a reservoir of people that could feed the development of these groups. However, although one may recently observe the growing power of the neo-fundamentalist Hizb ut-Tahrir group76, the Islamist groups in Xinjiang have lost much of their membership and have been officially dismantled by the Chinese police. In reality, Chinese security focused its attention firstly on the East Turkistan Islamic Party of Allah (whose name recalls Hezbollah). Founded in 1993 according to some sources and in 1997 according to others77, the membership of this organisation campaigning for the creation of an Islamic state numbered from one hundred to fifteen hundred. According to the Chinese authorities, its members attacked individuals associated with the Chinese government. A wave of arrests at the end of the 1990s seems to have uncovered preparations for bombing attacks. In the end, according to the Chinese press, the Party of Allah was dismantled a few years ago.
Table 4 : Differences in qualifications between Han and non-Han labour in Xinjiang in 1990
Source: Compilation based on data from the fourth census carried out in 1990 (Emily Hannum & Yu Xie, op. cit., p. 329).
41Yet, after the events of September 11th 2001, the marginal existence of this kind of group was used by the Chinese regime to attempt to include the wholesale repression of the Uyghur opposition within the international dynamic of the struggle against Islamist terrorist networks78. While the Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister declared in November 2001 at the UN that “the terrorist forces of East Turkistan are trained, equipped and financed by international terrorist organisations”, in January 2002 the State Council published an ambiguous report laying stress on the supposed links between al-Qaeda and the Uyghur opposition grouped under the falsely unifying label of Dongtu79. In fact, there is no structure that controls all the Uyghur movements in Xinjiang and abroad; and the vast majority of them have no connection, either ideological or organisational, with radical Islam. Yet, by stressing the supposed links of the Party of Allah and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) with al-Qaeda, this report tends to lump together disparate elements of this kind. According to the thesis proposed by the State Council, members of these groups received training in Afghanistan. The leaders of the ETIM (a group that until then was almost unknown) are alleged to have met bin Laden at the start of 1999 and in February 2001; and he is alleged to have agreed to provide them with “fabulous sums”80. It is possible that these movements, and particularly the ETIM, might have had contacts with the bin Laden network and more probably with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan81. But the Chinese declarations that attempt to show particularly close relationships fly in the face of bin Laden’s silence on East Turkistan.
42For his part, the leader of the ETIM, Hasan Mahsum, assured Radio Free Asia on January 22nd 2002 that his ultimate aim was the liberation of Xinjiang; and he denied any organic link with al-Qaeda. Even so, the Chinese lobbying did bear fruit. It enabled China to persuade the US government, at the end of August 2002, and then the UN Security Council to include on the list of groupings linked to al-Qaeda the East Turkistan Islamic Movement; it was given an extended description under a triple name: the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, the East Turkistan Islamic Party of Allah and the East Turkistan Islamic Party82.
43The consequences of the policies pursued by the Chinese regime reveal the political impasse it has run into by attacking the expressions of Uyghur malaise without attacking its real causes. Mao Zedong, going back on his promises, quickly opted for repression to put an end to demands for self-government, which had been made as early as the 1950s. The Chinese regime then outlawed any kind of protest against the policies imposed on Xinjiang; it also closed up most of the spaces in which the culture and the religious convictions of the Uyghurs could be expressed. In this way it fed frustrations that were also exacerbated by colonisation and the socio-economic stratification that it led to. When, to reduce tension, the regime partially re-opened these spaces, the re-opening simply allowed the power of Uyghur nationalism to grow. And since Peking closed the spaces and reverted to repression, all hopes of self-government, even of dialogue with the Chinese authorities, have flown out of the window. Now that relations have completely broken down, acts of violence have replaced peaceful demonstrations as the expression of the Uyghur malaise. Isolated as they have been by skilful Chinese diplomacy, what remains of the Uyghur opposition in Xinjiang is now open to all kinds of extremism.
Rémi Castets, « The Uyghurs in Xinjiang – The Malaise Grows », China Perspectives [Online], 49 | september-october 2003, Online since 31 July 2006, connection on 22 May 2015. URL : http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/648Top of page
© All rights reservedTop of page