History of Xinjiang: In the People’s Republic of China (1950s-1980s)

Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. Editor: James A Millward. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007.

The Turkic language known as Uyghur or Turki, and its ancestral dialects, have been spoken in one form or another in Xinjiang since the ninth century. Over this 1200-year period it has also been written in several forms, and those changes in the script used for Uyghur mark milestones to the region’s history. The earliest Uyghur script, written along a vertical ‘spine’, was derived from Soghdian and ultimately from Aramaic. It was later adopted by the imperial Mongols and then the Manchus and the Zunghars. From around the year 1000, as Xinjiang Islamicised, an Arabic-based script similar to that used by Farsi and Urdu was adopted to write Turkic, and later used for the highly Persianised literary Turkic known as Chaghatai which was employed in Xinjiang as well as elsewhere in Central Asia. Modified Arabic was used to write the forerunners of modern Uyghur for a millennium. Then, in a striking indication of the accelerated tempo of life in the twentieth century, the writing system used for Uyghur was reformed or replaced outright four times between the 1930s and 1980s. In 1937 and 1954 reforms of the Arabic script made it a better fit for Modern Uyghur, but at the same time rendered it distinct from other Arabic-based scripts in Central Asia and the Middle East, further establishing ‘Uyghur’, as opposed to ‘Turkic’, as a primary identity of Xinjiang’s non-nomadic Muslims. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had introduced Cyrillic-based scripts for the languages of Turkic peoples in its territory, including Uzbek (very close to Uyghur), Uyghur, Kazak and Kirghiz. Chinese authorities followed suit in Xinjiang in 1956, hoping to reduce the appeal of Islamic texts and improve access to scientific and educational materials published in the Soviet Union. Then in 1960, with the rift in Sino-Soviet relations, Beijing dropped the Cyrillic scripts and introduced new writing systems for Turkic peoples in Xinjiang. Though these orthographies used the roman alphabet (with a handful of special characters) it is best thought of not so much as a romanisation as a ‘Pinyinisation’; that is, it followed not the global standards for romanising Turkic languages, but rather the idiosyncratic assignments of letters to sounds employed in Hanyu pinyin , the PRC romanisation of Chinese. (For example, while an x has traditionally been used by Turkologists to represent the uvular fricative ‘kh’, in the PRC pinyinisation of Uyghur, it stood for the sound ‘sh’; likewise, a q stood for a ‘ch’, not the voiceless uvular stop, or ‘back k’). Besides cutting off contact with Soviet Turkic peoples, one goal of this reform was to promote ‘fusion and assimilation’ of minorities by easing the introduction of Chinese vocabulary into Turkic languages. When one considers that Uyghur school-children had to learn both their own new script and Chinese pinyin, avoiding confusion in this way arguably makes a certain pedagogical sense, though one suspects that political considerations were primary.

In 1984, during a period of political and cultural relaxation after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, China officially reintroduced a slightly modified Arabic-based script for Uyghur, and disseminated it effectively via educational and publishing channels. The terminology for all these writing systems became confusing: The new Arabic-based script for Uyghur was called the ‘old script’ (kona yäziq), and the former pinyinised Roman script was known as the ‘new script’ (yengi yäziq). A cynic might note that this reinstatement of Arabic-based script corresponded to China’s reopening to the west after the Maoist years, and thus deprived Uyghur school-children of a leg-up in learning English and other roman-script based languages just when it would have been handy; however, the Arabic-based script also resonates with Uyghur traditions in a way many Uyghurs find satisfying.

Most recently there have been efforts in the 1990s and 2000s both under official auspices at Xinjiang University and among Uyghurs abroad to create a computer-friendly orthographic standard for Uyghur. The Uyghur Kompyutär Yäziqi (Kompyutér Yéziqt) system, for example, uses roman letters but assigns consonants in the usual turcological way, and for vowels employs only diacritical marks that can be reproduced on the keyboard with common word-processing and internet-browsing software. It resembles the new romanisation system proposed for Uzbekistan. Romanised Uyghur of one form or another is now used increasingly commonly in Uyghur email and internet documents, and has facilitated communication between Uyghurs in China, former Soviet territory, Europe, Turkey, the Middle East and the United States. Not for the first time, changes in the writing system mark changes in the Uyghurs’ place in the world.

The fluctuations in Uyghur orthography under the PRC also tell us something about life in Xinjiang under the Chinese Communist Party during the latter half of the twentieth century. Each official change in script (to Cyrillic in 1956, to Pinyin in 1960, to modified Arabic in 1984) marks a swing in PRC policy regarding Xinjiang and its Turkic peoples. Of course all China was disrupted by the vicissitudes of the Maoist era and recovery under Deng Xiaoping, and Chinese readers had to deal with the promulgation of the new simplified characters that to a degree divide Chinese from their own written tradition and from Chinese abroad. However, Han Chinese did not see their dictionaries and corpus of prior publications rendered obsolete three times in thirty-five years, and do not feel that their script changes were imposed by others. This difference is emblematic of the fact that many of China’s non-Han peoples have experienced the ups and downs of PRC rule differently than have Han Chinese. All PRC citizens suffered from the effects of unwise policies and power struggles, but many Muslims in Xinjiang, like Tibetans and some other ‘minority nationalities’ in the PRC, came to feel that the turmoil was visited upon them by outsiders.

Establishing Control and Implementing Socialism (1949-58)

Land Reform

One of the means by which the Chinese authorities tried to recruit for the party and local administration in Xinjiang (as in China as a whole) was through its land reform programme. Land reform in the early years of the PRC had several goals, both economic and political. It aimed to undermine local élites, usually so-called landlords, by mobilising poorer peasants against them, and to earn the support of the poorer strata of society for the party by lowering rents and redistributing land. The meetings and trials in which people were encouraged to denounce former oppressors publicly also served to bring the most compliant and articulate participants to the attention of organisers, who could then recruit these ‘activists’ as party members and government cadres, thus expanding and deepening the state’s local reach.

However, land redistribution and displacement of local élites was only a first stage of the PRC agricultural programme, and more equitable free-holding only a temporary result. The ultimate goal was collectivised agriculture, and in the first half of the 1950s, at paces that varied across the country, farmers were encouraged to form mutual aid teams and then to merge these teams by stages into larger cooperatives. Marxist and Stalinist developmental theory held that the greater economies of scale and mechanisation of agriculture realised through collectivisation would create resources that could be collected by the state and channelled into industrial development, the highest goal of China’s planners, who hoped to strengthen China in the increasingly competitive Cold War world.

PLA workteams carried out the land reform movement in Xinjiang starting in 1950, travelling to rural areas, taking land, population and irrigation surveys, and staging trials and struggle meetings against ‘local despots’ and the Islamic institutions that were also major land-owners in Uyghur areas (see ‘Islam’, below). Uyghur farmers reacted to the programme with a good deal of confusion and resistance, but some welcomed the reforms, which provided the poorest of them with land, livestock and other property confiscated from landlords and the religious establishment. By early 1954 over 11, 000 hectares (7, 370, 000 mu) had been redistributed to some 650, 000 households; by the next year 63 per cent of Xinjiang’s farmers were in mutual aid teams and 5 per cent in first-stage cooperatives. This was a slower pace of collectivisation than most places in China.

The nomad economy was a still more difficult target for land reform and collectivisation, due to the weak Chinese presence in north Xinjiang, the basic differences between nomadic pastoral and settled agrarian economies, and the type of social organisation that predominated among Kazaks and other nomads. Among nomads in sparsely populated grasslands and mountains, land-holding was not particularly important; what mattered was herds. Moreover, individual family units (aul, or tents) were already accustomed to a communal approach to herding in the context of their clans (uru), where much ownership and many tasks were collective. Another reason for the party’s caution was the very real possibility, experienced during the traumatic Soviet collectivisation of Kazakstan in the 1930s, that herders forced to collectivise against their will would prefer to kill and eat their livestock rather than hand it over to collective (or state) ownership. Because pastoral products comprised the most important exports to the Soviet Union, and were used to pay for crucial imports of industrial plant and products, this was a serious concern.

Initial attempts by PLA work teams to impose reforms on Kazak clans and depose clan and religious elders met with sharp resistance. Therefore, after 1952 Xinjiang authorities backed off and stopped trying to foment class struggle, divide property, or liquidate ‘local despots’ (i.e. Kazak clan leaders), tacitly recognising that the ‘reform’ model did not adequately fit the circumstances of nomadic life, and that in any case the state lacked the means to force it through without sparking rebellion and a kill-off of the livestock. By 1956 only one third of the herders in northern Xinjiang were enrolled in mutual aid teams. Nevertheless, the PRC, like all sedentary states, continued to harbour a deep suspicion of mobile peoples, and sought ultimately to bring them under closer observation and control. The state achieved its first gains in this regard by providing incentives (health care, education, tax exemptions, scientific animal husbandry techniques, monetary grants and loans, even shotguns to take care of wolves) and gradually bringing the fully nomadic herdsmen into a semi-nomadic state, settling them in permanent winter quarters, establishing ranches where previously pastures had been open, and merging nomad co-operatives with collective farms worked by Han, Uyghur and Sibe (Xibo) agriculturalists. By late 1957 46 per cent of herding households had been enrolled in primary-stage cooperatives, and the process accelerated by 1958 during the frenzied collectivisation push of the Great Leap Forward (see below), resulting in 72 per cent cooperative membership. Even then, many of the ‘collectives’ represented something less than a revolutionary rupture with the past, for they were formed on the basis of the old uru, in a pragmatic compromise by the party officials.

‘Autonomy’ comes to Xinjiang

In establishing control over the sprawling and diverse Tsarist empire, the Soviet Union linked former colonies and countries into a union of ‘republics’. The PRC inherited from the Qing a similar legacy of far-flung territories linguistically and culturally distinct from the core population of the centre, and borrowed from the Soviet Union the concept of ‘nationality’ and other ideological approaches to managing ethno-national difference. However, the Chinese communist leadership avoided the federalism implied by the designation ‘republic’, opting instead for a system of theoretical self-rule or autonomy (zizhi) by non-Han peoples at local and regional levels, under over-arching control of the Chinese Communist Party. The party laid out this principle in the People’s Political Consultative Conference of September 1949.

In northern Xinjiang there was at first some confusion and contestation over this departure from the Soviet model. In Yili in March of 1951 an official convention to discuss the issue of local ‘nationality’ autonomy sought Beijing’s approval to establish a Republic of Uyghuristan, obviously in imitation of the Soviet Central Asian republics, and suggested that ‘the autonomous republic should enjoy the right to manage its own affairs within the republic. ’Although to an outside observer there seems little distinction between this and the official Chinese concept of nationality ‘self-rule’, the party nonetheless worked for years to make sure Xinjiang people knew what that difference was: No one should mistake autonomy for independence.

As they consolidated control over parts of Xinjiang, in the spring of 1953 Chinese authorities began establishing ‘autonomous’ areas, starting at the lowest levels of the administrative hierarchy (xiangand qu ) and gradually moving up to prefectural (zhou ) level by 1954, when the Yili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture was formed, incorporating the districts of Yili, Tarbaghatai and Altai. In October 1955 the process reached the provincial level and the province was renamed Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR; Xinjiang Weiwuer zizhiqu). Säypidin took over from Burhan as Chairman of the XUAR People’s Council, but real power lay in the hands of Wang Enmao, a Long March veteran who replaced Wang Zhen in the top regional military post as commander of the Xinjiang Military Region, and who also served as First Secretary of the Xinjiang branch of the Chinese Communist Party and as a member of the XUAR People’s Council.

The theory behind these autonomous areas is closely related to PRC policy towards non-Han peoples in general. This policy, as developed in the years leading up to and immediately following the PRC achievement of power, endeavoured both to distance the party from the assimilationism of the GMD (see Chapter 5) and to avoid encouraging separatism in key frontier areas. The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in September of 1949 (the meeting the ETR leadership died trying to reach) passed a Common Programme that guaranteed the equality of all ‘nationalities’ (minzu ) and announced that areas with large concentrations of non-Han peoples would enjoy autonomous status, though their territories would remain inalienable parts of the PRC. Language to the same effect appeared again in the first PRC constitution, adopted by the National Peoples’ Congress in 1954. One of the first tasks of the new PRC government was to identify which groups, of China’s vast and varied ethnic landscape, would qualify as ‘minority nationalities’ (shaoshu minzu) eligible for special representation in an autonomous area, official and educational use of a non-Chinese language, promotion of special cultural characteristics, and other rights. The selection process involved official ethnographic teams working in the field, applying Stalin’s definition of a nation as ‘a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture’. Of some five hundred groups that applied for legal status by 1955, the authorities of the Nationalities Affairs Commission (minzu shiwu weiyuanhui , today known as the State Ethnic Affairs Commission) ultimately acknowledged fifty-five ‘national minorities’, which, with the Han, made fifty-six official nationalities.

In Xinjiang the nationality-identification process identified thirteen groups, Uyghur, Han, Kazak, Hui, Kirghiz, Mongol, Sibe, Russian, Tajik, Uzbek, Tatar, Manchu and Daur (other ‘nationalities’ have since established a presence). Not surprisingly this list did not disrupt the categories that had enjoyed legal status under the Soviet-influenced regimes of Sheng Shicai and the second ETR, and which were already for the most part recognised by the peoples themselves. (One substantial change was the formal incorporation of Yili’s ‘Taranchis’ within the Uyghur category after 1949).

Of the official nationality groups in Xinjiang, the Kazaks, Kirghiz, Hui (Chinese Muslim), Mongols, Tajiks and Sibe were assigned autonomous counties, districts and/or prefectures. The province as a whole was of course designated a Uyghur Autonomous Region in light of the Uyghur majority. In practice, ‘autonomy’ in this system means that representatives of the various recognised nationalities serve on local representative bodies (not popularly elected) and as functionaries and officials in government offices. The PRC went to great lengths to train non-Chinese cadres in educational institutions at both regional and national levels. However, the autonomous counties and prefectures in mid-1950s Xinjiang all included multiple nationality groups (the smallest number is six different nationalities, in Chapchal and Tashkurgan), and in only twelve of the twenty-seven autonomous units did the eponymous nationality constitute a majority. Moreover, the power of any one minority group is further limited by the nesting of autonomous counties of one nationality within prefectures of another, the whole arrangement of course lying within the Uyghur autonomous region. In practice too, while the chairmen of each autonomous area were members of the nationality with a demographic plurality in that area, the ranking vice-chairmen were Han party members. Moreover, each ‘autonomous’ unit remained answerable to central authorities and to the Party, whose Xinjiang department heads were almost all Han. In fact the Xinjiang branch of the Chinese Communist Party, which had been under the Northwestern Bureau in Xi’an, now answered directly to the Central Party offices in Beijing—in this way, supervision after the formation of the XUAR was more centralised than before. Finally, although autonomous areas did form their own police forces, military command lay outside the autonomous area structure, as did the Bingtuan state farm and militia system (discussed below). The system of local and regional autonomous areas, then, although it placed members of the various recognised ethnic groups at each level of government in Xinjiang, does not provide what most people would understand to be ‘autonomy’.


Muslims live throughout China: there are sizeable populations in Beijing, along the east and south-east coasts and in almost all large urban areas. In many areas of Ningxia, Gansu and Qinghai there are exclusively Muslim (Hui) villages. Only in Xinjiang, however, did the PRC leaders face a non-sinophone majority Islamic population with strong links abroad and a well-established clerical organisation. As experience in China and the Soviet Union has shown, Islam poses a challenge to Communism, and vice versa, because both systems compete for influence in social, legal, ideological and political spheres, not to mention for control of land. The CCP, though by principle atheistic, moved relatively slowly in attempting to bring Islam in Xinjiang under its control during the early 1950s. Islamic education in maktaps and madrasas of the type discussed in Chapter 4, for example, continued until the late 1950s. This gradualism arose both from the state’s need for the cooperation of Islamic civic leaders in the first years and from its desire to avoid arousing popular unrest. But as in Central Asia as a whole, Xinjiang’s Islam was not a monolith, and the Party would find that those very aspects of institutional Islam that put it in competition with the Chinese state and Communist Party also made it relatively easy to co-opt compared to more loosely organised Sufi (ishan) groups. It is worth remembering that principal resistance to the PRC takeover in Xinjiang came not from Islam, but from Kazak chiefs and, more quietly, from the secular and Soviet-influenced ETR.

Before the Land Reform movement, throughout the Tarim Basin oases there were tens of thousands of mosques and tomb-shrines (mazars) at various levels ranging from monumental Id Kah (holiday) mosques, to urban Friday mosques and famous saints’ shrines with attendant clergy, to small mosques scattered throughout city neighbourhoods and rural villages, to tiny isolated ‘orphan’ mosques and shrines in the hills and by ways. At the time of the Communist takeover 12, 918 mosques of various sizes were recorded in Kashgar Prefecture alone; 126 of these were in the Muslim old town of Kashgar. The Islamic institutions and clergy—over 300 imams (akhunds), qaziand other clerical personnel in Kashgar in the early 1950s—formed an interlocking system and authority, funded by the rents from waqf (endowment) landholdings, as well as the tithe and alms tax. Though powerful, Xinjiang’s Islamic institutions were accustomed to interactions with the non-Islamic state. The Qing dynasty had patronised key mosques and shrines, ratified some imams and shrine managers in office, and employed graduates of madrasas as judges in the shari’ah legal system which it maintained for Xinjiang Uyghurs alongside the Chinese-style legal system for Han. After 1911 Xinjiang’s warlord regimes had reached various accommodations with Islam. In the 1930s Sheng Shicai and the GMD government, through the Association for Promoting Uyghur Culture, provided grain and monetary stipends to some 7, 500 mid-and low-ranked Islamic clergy in the region, and likewise allowed the shari’ah system to function parallel to Chinese law, applying in most civil and minor criminal cases.

The PRC first asserted itself against institutional Islam in 1950-1 by prohibiting tax collection by Islamic institutions. Voluntary contributions continued, and for a time mosques retained control of their waqf holdings. The PRC authorities also eliminated the shari’ah courts, stripping qazi of their privileges and sources of revenue. This struck at the heart of Islamic society in southern Xinjiang by eliminating Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic divorce. The one concession to local custom was to allow slightly lower marriage ages for Uyghurs than for other Chinese citizens under the new PRC Marriage Law. Nevertheless, in the first decades of the PRC the new regime eliminated child brides, scaled down marriage festivities, promoted companionate marriage (a novelty), encouraged consideration of political criteria in choice of marriage partner, and discouraged the serial marriage strategy which had been a common way Uyghur women in southern Xinjiang gained wealth and status.

The main source of Islam’s wealth and its tightest connection to the community in southern Xinjiang before the Communist period was land and other endowment property, managed in a system known as waqfiya. Some waqfiya lands provided revenue for charitable and public works (bridge and canal maintenance, for example); some had already been quasi-nationalised from the 1930s by the Association for the Promotion of Uyghur Culture, but had slipped into the private hands of corrupt officials of that organisation; some was caught up in complex and ambiguous relationships with both private and institutional owners. The bulk of waqf lands in Xinjiang in 1950, however, belonged to mosques, mazars and madrasas, and the revenues from rent on these lands supported the imams and other personnel attached to these centres, physical maintenance of the buildings and such incidentals as lamp oil and reed mats.

Research by Wu Dongyao and Wang Jianping gives an idea of the extent and nature of waqfiya in southern Xinjiang around 1949. Overall, about 2 percent of all arable land in southern Xinjiang was held in waqfiya endowments, though in some areas the concentration was higher: in the Kashgar district waqfiya lands comprised 2.23 percent of arable land, or 55, 575 mu (about 3, 700 hectares). Of that, 16, 750 mu (1, 116 hectares) belonged to the Khoja Afaq mazar. This famous Afaqi complex just east of Kashgar consists of a domed shrine enclosing the saints’ graves, decorated in green tiles, with an associated mosque, madrasa, cemetery and pond for making ablutions before entering. (This shrine, which has been associated with the Manchu Qianlong emperor in a Chinese legend, is sometimes erroneously called the tomb of Xiang Fei or the Fragrant Concubine). The managers of the Afaq Khoja mazar distributed the income from its waqf lands , mills, shops, orchards and other rental property to provide physical upkeep of the mazar itself (11.1 per cent) and of associated structures (11.1 per cent), stipends for eight resident shaykhs (44.5 per cent), and expenses for forty other personnel (33.3 per cent).

Given the economic basis of Islamic institutions, rent reduction and the redistribution, nationalisation and collectivisation of land would clearly undermine the independence of major Islamic institutions in southern Xinjiang, and that is precisely what the Land Reform programme, with its associated Movement to Reduce Land Rents and Oppose Local Despots, accomplished. From 1950-2 much waqfiya land was redistributed to poor peasants and the rents reduced on the lands not yet expropriated. As a result, with some mosques unable to afford lamp oil, ‘the Muslims always performed prayers in the dark.… Sometimes they bumped their heads against the prayer-hall wall when they prostrated.’ Local authorities thereupon assumed the responsibility of providing oil and mats to mosques.

In similar fashion, after stripping away the endowments that had provided their personal stipends, the state paid salaries to clergymen and pressured them to give up any private lands and make donations to public works or to support the War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea (the Korean War). Those who cooperated (sometimes only after ‘ideological education’) and used the pulpit to help propagate party campaigns, often retained their high position in society; the Mullah Akhund Halibat, a former qazi imam of Kashgar, for example, was elected a delegate to the Xinjiang People’s Congress. Although on average the incomes of Islamic clergy and their households declined during the Land Reform period, in a study of nineteen religious clergy in Yengisar, two actually emerged with a higher annual income in 1954 than before 1949; however, for many others incomes declined greatly. Xinjiang’s Islamic clergy were also absorbed into a state-controlled administrative structure known as the Chinese Islamic Association, which had its head offices in Beijing.

Besides the majority Sunni Muslims in southern Xinjiang, there were various other sects, including Isma’ilis among the Tajiks in Tashkurgan, Shi’ites in Yarkand (Twelve Imam sect descendents of seventeenth-century Punjabi immigrants) and various Sufi orders. These orders were collectively known as Ishan , from a Persian word meaning ‘them’ and referring to the orders’ hereditary leaders, believed to be descendents of the orders’ founders and of the Prophet. (Chapter 3 discussed the introduction of these mystical orders into Xinjiang and the secular power achieved by the Naqshbandiyya in particular). Despite the wars and political upheavals from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, many ishan groups remained active during the first half of the twentieth century.

Ishan orders formed around a revered leader and sometimes had a physical locus in an assembly or prayer hall where rites were held. Initiates practised a series of complex breathing exercises, repeated the dhikr (’remembrance of God’, consisting of repeated chanting of Allah’s name, certain Quranic verses or other texts), and committed themselves to obey a set of rules laid down by the ishan. The most dedicated followers could advance to become disciples of the ishan, who conveyed esoteric knowledge to this select few. Followers met weekly for prayer rituals involving chanting, dancing and/or the music of drum and surnai (a double-reed flute); these ceremonies, which could last for hours, promised mystical communion with God as well as physical exhaustion. (An Ishan ecstatic ceremony was described in Chapter 4).

Another facet of Ishan practice in Xinjiang was pilgrimage to and worship at mazars, shrines to holy personages. Besides the grand mazars like that of Khoja Afaq and a few others in Yarkand and Yengisar, there were smaller shrines outside urban areas, some with mud-brick assembly halls, some consisting of little more than ordinary graves festooned with sticks, flags, strips of cloth, yak-or ox-tails, sheep’s skulls and horns, in continuation of ancient Inner Asian practice found also in Mongolia and Tibet (see discussion of Sufism in the Tarim Basin in Chapter 3 and photo of the shrine at Qumartagh in the same chapter). People went to mazars at various times of the year, some travelling from as far away as Gansu and Qinghai. Shrines were also the venue for festivals, bazaars, entertainment, adoration, fasting, meditation and supplication for good harvests, good health, good marriage, the birth of sons, wealth, rain, revenge and so forth; visitors made donations of money or food to the shrine caretakers, often themselves holy men or shaykhs. Ishan congregations also held night-time rites at shrines.

Despite ties to mazars, Sufi Islam had always been more of a popular activity, carried out in a variety of places, and not as dependent on real estate as was the regular Sunni clergy (though the groups were not mutually exclusive). Thus, although the Land Reform movement undermined the autonomy of southern Xinjiang’s Islamic establishment, including the larger mazars that had held waqfiya property, ishan sects remained energetic and in the early 1950s actually experienced an explosion of popularity both in cities and the countryside around the Tarim Basin, opening prayer halls and initiating new members in large ceremonies. PRC tolerance for this and for continuing Islamic education may simply reflect the limited reach of state and party in Uyghur areas of Xinjiang in the early 1950s, or perhaps a recognition that as a popular religion, Sufism in Xinjiang was not political in nature and posed no immediate threat to the state. In any case, this moderation began to change in the mid-1950s, in the lead-up to the Religious Reform Campaign of 1958, as part of a broad shift to radical leftist policies that would continue for twenty years.

Migration, Settlement and Xinjiang’s Peculiar Institution

In one critical regard, PRC policy in Xinjiang was identical to that of Qianlong and later Qing emperors: it endeavoured to settle Chinese in Xinjiang, both to relieve population pressure in eastern provinces and to strengthen security on the frontier. In the 1950s Liu Shaoqi, then one of the top leaders in the Politburo, recalled the Qing model in his ‘grand border support plan’. The leading edge of this resettlement, or colonisation, programme was the military state farm, a device with ancient roots in Chinese frontier statecraft. Han, Tang, Qing and other Chinese and non-Chinese dynasties had set their troops along the Mongolian and Xinjiang frontiers to working on farms to supply their own grain. The immediate precedents for the PRC version of this institution date back to the eighteenth century when the Qing elaborated on the old model by including civilian and penal colonies together with military farms in its tuntian system (see Chapter 3).

The first of the new colonists in post-1949 Xinjiang were some 103, 000 demobilised soldiers, including the 80, 000 troops of the former GMD garrison, whom Beijing chose to leave in Xinjiang. From early 1950 these men were deployed in agriculture, stock-raising, civil engineering, industry and mining. Between 1952 and 1954 they were reorganised into what would be the primary institution for handling migration and resettlement of Chinese in Xinjiang, the Production-Construction Military Corps (Shengchan jianshe bingtuan, often abbreviated in English as the PCQ. The Bingtuan, as it is called for short in Chinese, was designed to combine production with militia duties (’one hand on the gun, one hand on the pickaxe’) and to promote land reclamation and permanent settlement. Though primarily a civilian organisation, the Bingtuan hierarchy maintained a military nomenclature and other elements of military structure, as well as its ties with the PLA, especially the First Field Army. However, in addition to demobilised soldiers, from the 1950s through to the mid-1970s the Bingtuan absorbed hundreds of thousands of Han migrants and, in a continuation of the Qing practice of exiling prisoners to the far west, tens of thousands of convicts were dispatched to Xinjiang. (Originally this number included many political prisoners; however, since 1976 the Bingtuan prisons have specialised in warehousing hardened criminals coming from outside Xinjiang to serve long sentences). The Bingtuan eventually became a higher-level political entity, not under the direct supervision of the ‘autonomous’ localities or regional government of Xinjiang but rather answering only to the party and Beijing.

Soon after its founding, the Bingtuan began actively recruiting manpower to journey west and’open the frontier’. The Shanghai area became the single largest source of Chinese migrants to Xinjiang in the first decades of the PRC. This was in part because Shanghai was so crowded, and in part because a blockade of Shanghai’s ports by the Nationalist regime in 1949—50 sent Shanghai leaders in search of new energy sources. They persuaded the First Field Army then controlling Gansu and Xinjiang to provide oil from the Yumen fields on the Gansu-Xinjiang border directly to Shanghai, and a special Shanghai-Xinjiang connection was ormed. Bingtuan recruiters worked with local authorities to persuade Shanghainese technical personnel and patriotic youth to rusticate to Xinjiang. From the 1950s through the 1970s tens of thousands of Shanghainese and natives of other cities and provinces were signed up, given clothes, shoes, food and tickets to Xinjiang (the Lanzhou-Xinjiang railroad reached Hami in 1960 and Urumchi in 1962). Many stayed permanently. As part of its special relationship with Shanghai, Xinjiang also purchased a relatively high percentage of the city’s manufactured goods, and strove to market its own products in China’s largest and most urbane metropole. Optimistic marketers from the Northwest China Animal Products Company tried convincing Shanghai consumers that Xinjiang yak meat was ‘better than beef!’

Most of the Han migrants to Xinjiang in the 1950s-70s were resettled and put to work by the Bingtuan. From 1954 to 1957 the Bingtuan population grew from 200, 000 to 300, 000 on the strength of this influx; by 1966 it numbered 500, 000 to 600, 000. The Bingtuan also helped handle the massive influxes of Han during the famine years of the Great Leap Forward in 1959, 1960 (over 800, 000 each year) and 1961 (over 600, 000), and in 1965-7, when the youth of China hit the road during the Cultural Revolution and 1.6 million more Han came to Xinjiang. A report of 1975 claimed that 450, 000 urban youth were settled in Xinjiang, making it one of the largest destinations for the rustication programme of the Maoist years. The new city of Shihezi was built by the Bingtuan and became its headquarters.

Although Chinese population in Xinjiang remained concentrated in the east and north, with Uyghurs predominating in the south-west as in Qing times, the Bingtuan established Chinese enclaves throughout the entire region, as well as in other strategic areas, such as along the Soviet border. (The issue of more recent Han migration and the relative population of Han to other groups in Xinjiang is taken up in Chapter 7).

The Bingtuan and resettled Han Chinese from the east were, to use a Maoist-era term, the ‘shock troops’ in the campaign to tame nature and wrest farmland from the wilderness. The demobilised soldiers, under quasi-military organisation, and the fonner GMD solders among them as in effect quasi-prisoners, were put to the labour-intensive tasks of clearing land, building dams, digging canals and planting crops. These efforts greatly expanded the amount of land under cultivation in Xinjiang. Yang Zengxin’s government had registered between 648, 000 and 701, 000 hectares of farmland in the 1910s; in 1949 there were some 1 to 1.2 million hectares under cultivation. By 1961 Xinjiang’s overall cultivated area had almost tripled to 3.2 million hectares. A good percentage of this increase was due to the Bingtuan, whose own area expanded from 77, 183 hectares in 1953 to 820, 265 in 1961. In the Tarim Basin oases spread out into the desert; according to maps, the Kashgar oasis doubled in area between 1943 and 1962. Much new farmland was carved out of the steppes north of the Tianshan. Before 1949 some 269, 000 hectares of land were registered in the Yili district; by 1961 almost 711, 000 hectares in the district had been put under the plough.

Twenty Years of Cultural Revolution (1957-78)

Tension with the Soviet Union

Because of its history of Russian and Soviet incursions, Soviet influence on its non-Han intellectuals and cadres, close economic ties and the long shared border, any changes in the Sino-Soviet relationship had an especially heavy impact on Xinjiang. In the first years after 1949, while relations between Beijing and Moscow remained warm, Xinjiang enjoyed continued close relations with the Soviet Union. The CCP even left the Union for the Defence of Peace and Democracy in Xinjiang (Ahmetjan Qasimi’s pro-Soviet party structure) intact for a time, while working to ‘de-Sovietise’ the ranks of Uyghur, Kazak and other non-Han leadership in the region. After 1949 the Soviet Union remained Xinjiang’s principal trading partner, export destination and source of manufactured goods and technology transfer. However, some of the factors that would lead to the 1960 Sino-Soviet split were already evident in Xinjiang from the start. In 1950 a protocol attached to the ‘Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance’, signed by Stalin and Mao Zedong in Moscow, created two Sino-Soviet joint stock companies in Xinjiang that allowed the Soviet Union continued special access to Zungharia’s oil and non-ferrous metals for a projected thirty years. These were continuations of the type of arrangement Stalin had enjoyed with Sheng Shicai and the Eastern Turkestan Republic. Stalin had demanded these and other concessions (including recognition of the independence of Outer Mongolia and Soviet use of Port Arthur and Dairen in Manchuria) in return for a five-year loan of $300 million which China desperately needed. The joint stock companies rankled Mao enough that he brought them up repeatedly in conversations with Khruschev in 1958, referring to Xinjiang as a Soviet ‘semi-colony’, the same term he used to describe the concessions of European imperialist powers in China before the revolution. (The Soviet Union sold its stake and pulled out of the companies at the end of 1954; they became the Xinjiang Non-Ferrous Metals Company and the Xinjiang Petroleum Company).

Other causes of Sino-Soviet tension included Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin (February 1956) which embarrassed the Chinese leadership who were given no prior indication of de-Stalinisation and had long praised Stalin as a great communist leader. Furthermore, Mao did not appreciate Soviet criticism of his road to socialism (characterised by more rapid collectivisation of agriculture than in the Soviet model) or Khruschev’s support for Defence Minister Peng Dehuai in opposing Mao’s Utopian Great Leap Forward. Mao’s bellicose rhetoric with regard to the capitalist world and insouciance towards nuclear war frightened Khruschev, and led to personal recriminations, the pull-out of Soviet technical advisers, and a deep rift between the two countries by 1960. There were serious military clashes along disputed zones of the 4, 150-mile Sino-Soviet border through the 1960s.

These growing tensions had an immediate impact in Xinjiang. Although authorities had introduced the Cyrillic-based Uyghur script only in 1956, with the express purpose of enhancing communication with the Soviet Union, from late 1957 they began systematically replacing Soviet textbooks with Chinese-produced ones. And things grew hot for ‘minority’ cadres. As will be discussed in detail below, the nationwide campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s were accompanied in Xinjiang by sharp attacks on non-Han cadres for pro-Soviet sentiments; in political rhetoric, the crime of local nationalism’ (a label applied to defences of non-Han ethnic distinctiveness, dissent over economic policies that created famine, and to outright separatist sentiments) was linked to that of’revisionism’, a coded reference to the Soviets. Ethnic nationalism in Xinjiang was thus treated as intrigue by foreign powers. Intense anti-Chinese propaganda from Soviet sources added to these tensions. A series of incidents of unrest in the north, including the flight of tens of thousands of people into Soviet territory in 1962, led to a closure of the border, withdrawal of Soviet Consulates in Xinjiang and on-going border clashes over the next several years.

Campaigns of the Late 1950s

As the Sino-Soviet relationship soured, the pace of China’s economic development was likewise failing to live up to expectations. Chinese leaders had hoped that land reform and the first stages of collectivisation would produce surpluses that could fuel industrial development, an increasingly urgent concern once it became apparent that Soviet industrial and military help would come at a high price. In an effort to understand the reasons for sluggish economic growth and to seek participation by ‘the people’, Mao experimented briefly with free speech. In spring of 1956 he initiated a nationwide campaign, known as the Hundred Flowers Movement after the slogan ‘let a hundred flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend’. In this campaign the Chinese leadership solicited public criticism of the party and the government. However, the volume, vehemence and content of the response shocked the leadership, and it then launched the Anti-Rightist Rectification campaign, hard on the heels of the Hundred Flowers, to criticise, purge and punish the very critics it had encouraged a few months earlier.

In Xinjiang, the press reports from both the Hundred Flowers and the Rectification campaigns reveal what people of all nationalities felt were the most severe problems after several years of PRC rule. Of most concern to the CCP authorities was the revelation of wide-spread dissatisfaction among non-Han with nationalities policy and with the actual working out of Xinjiang’s promised ‘autonomy’. The complaints included the assertion that Han officials, who held real power despite the veneer of non-Han autonomy, were haughty and domineering; that excessive numbers of Han cadres looked on as minorities did the difficult work; that Han functionaries did not understand Uyghur, so could not handle issues raised by Uyghurs; that ‘minorities’ who raised legitimate criticisms were branded ‘local nationalists’; that non-Han cadres were chosen for political reasons, not ability, and acted like ‘jackals’ serving the Han; that the Bingtuan ‘Han colonists’ were destroying the Xinjiang environment; that non-Han people were being forced to learn Chinese. Critics demanded more real autonomy, with all or a majority of local positions to be filled by non-Han nationalities. Some even called for the expulsion of Chinese settlers and cadres from Xinjiang, and for an independent local communist party, or even a state, established separate from China and perhaps attached to the Soviet Union. This criticism derived even from members of the government: the head of the Xinjiang Culture Department and Chairman of the Literary Union, Zia Samit (Zi-ya Sai-mai-ti), is said to have suggested that ‘when considering Xinjiang’s fate, the best solution would be independence.’

As in the rest of China, the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957 also targeted as ‘rightists’ Han critics of the party, but by late November the campaign in Xinjiang focused on ‘local nationalists’. Säypidin, who co-chaired the rectification committee with Wang Enmao, publicly distanced himself from former ETR colleagues and the Soviet Union, and purged many non-Han cadres who had answered the Hundred Flowers call, especially those with past connections to the Yili group or the Soviets. According to a Chinese party historian, 1, 612 cadres were labelled ‘local nationalists’, of whom ninety-two fled to the Soviet Union. The rest were sent to labour camps for thought reform, where they suffered overwork, famine and other hardships in 1958-61; many were rehabilitated only in 1979.

Although it served as an effective ambush of potential dissenters against the regime, the Hundred Flowers Movement and Anti-Right-ist Campaign did little to improve China’s economy. Despite the collectivisation of much of the Chinese peasantry into higher-level Agricultural Producers’ Cooperatives of 100-300 households in size by the end of first Five-Year Plan (1953—7), agricultural production remained inadequate for the needs of industrial development, and development as a whole was severely imbalanced by region and sector. The outcry unleashed during the Hundred Flowers period convinced Mao that too many ‘rightists’ remained in positions of authority and that their cautious economic policies were slowing development and diverting China from the revolutionary path. At the same time, the loss of Soviet advisers and aid, and the growing threat of hostilities with the Soviet Union raised concerns about the pace of industrialisation and its concentration in a few areas. Mao opted to correct these problems by means of an up by-ones-own-bootstraps development blitz, and thus perpetrated one of the greatest policy errors—some call it a crime against humanity— in history.

Mao launched the Great Leap Forward in an attempt to kick-start China’s development by merging agricultural and industrial production, telescoping the stages to communism, mobilising massive levies of labour and relying on sheer will-power rather than technocratic planning and material incentives for producers. Ideology trumped all, as it became better to be ‘red’ than ‘expert’. During the Leap the charged political climate generated by Beijing encouraged provincial and local officials to form, on an accelerated timetable, massive ‘People’s Communes’ of some 30, 000 people, fifteen times larger than previous collectives. Commune members moved into barracks and ate in communal dining halls to save cooking time and allow family kitchen utensils to be melted down for small-scale rural steel production, the other ’leg’ of the campaign. Peasants on many communes worked their fields, dug canals or moved mountains for the commune by day and tried to make steel in backyard furnaces at night. Because communisation and ideological motivation was supposed to unleash unprecedented productive forces, leaders responding to political signals from Beijing set unrealistic production targets and then claimed not only to meet but to exceed them. The fact that many statisticians, accountants and other intellectual ‘experts’ with dour assessments of the economy had been purged in the Anti-Rightist Campaign made it hard for the centre to evaluate wildly exaggerated reports from the provinces, and led it to interpret bad harvests as bumper crops. The Utopian plan was a formula for disaster, and disaster did indeed result, compounded by fool-hardy central directives in some areas allowing peasants to eat all they liked in the mess halls and not to harvest the entire crop in the mistaken belief that storage granaries were already full beyond capacity. Meanwhile, low-tech, decentralised and inefficient industrial schemes produced staggering waste, as the transit system clogged with criss-crossing shipments of coal and iron and the ‘backyard furnaces’ turned raw materials into useless scrap. Hundreds of millions of peasants were driven to exhaustion at their combined agricultural, industrial and public works tasks. An estimated 30 million people died from famine in 1959-62, a direct result of Great Leap policies.

In Xinjiang the Great Leap followed the same lines as in the rest of China. Communes were formed (in agrarian areas 5, 836 agricultural producers cooperatives merged into 562 people’s communes by October 1958, and communisation was complete in pastoral areas by April the following year). Localities proclaimed wild targets (Urumchi city authorities in 1958 announced a plan to eliminate rats, mosquitoes, flies, sparrows and filth within the year), and the goals of the Second Five-Year Plan were repeatedly revised upwards.

The political hysteria likewise produced famine in Xinjiang. According to a recent Chinese account, in 1960 over 5, 000 people died of starvation in Bai county, because local officials blamed shortages on ‘rightist opportunism’ and ‘capitalist thinking of wealthy middle peasants’ and refused to release 9 million kilos of grain available in county storehouses. A total of at least a thousand starved to death in Xinhe, Kucha and Aqsu’counties; at least a thousand convicts starved in the Bingtuan labour camps. There were incidents of starvation in counties in the Kashgar area as well. Even the regional capital, Urumchi, was reduced to a three day’s supply of grain at the height of the shortages in 1961, and had to be relieved by a shipment of 4, 400 truckloads of grain. The Han population of Urumchi in 1960 had been 477, 321, and that for Uyghurs, 76, 496. By 1962 these figures were down to 363, 554 and 52, 205 respectively, in large part because of a policy requiring new arrivals in the city to return to their home villages. A major steel plant outside the city lost a third of its workers. During the Leap some people in Urumchi were at times compelled to eat tree bark. Needless to say, non-staple items (vegetables, salt, sugar, soap, tea, fuel) were in short supply and tightly rationed. Water too was severely rationed, and in Urumchi public bathhouses closed down. Students at Xinjiang University were fed one meal a day, and years later one graduate recalled being yerim toq, yerim ach —half full, half hungry—from 1958 through 1962. Still, he was better off than the Han beggars straggling into Urumchi and other parts of Xinjiang from further east. The Kazaks’pastoral economy also suffered: analysis of herd size statistics from before and after the Great Leap suggest big losses in 1959-62: average annual rates of herd increase for 1958-65 fell to one quarter their pre-Leap average.

Though Xinjiang’s experience of the Leap was broadly similar to that in China as a whole, Xinjiang’s frontier position and the fact that the majority of its population were ‘minorities’ gave the episode there a somewhat different significance than in core regions of China. The year 1958 marks a watershed between, on the one hand, the relatively more tolerant, pluralistic approach of the early 1950s, when ‘Great Han chauvinism’ was officially condemned as often as ‘local nationalism’, and the aggressive assimilationism of the later Maoist years, on the other. Following the nationalistic criticism of the Hundred Flowers Movement at the onset of the Great Leap, the Party launched a series of anti-Islamic measures linked to the Religious Reform Movement. The press fell silent about Islamic holidays which it had formerly acknowledged—the official silence suggesting a changed official attitude if not a full crackdown. The government also refused permission for Xinjiang Muslims to go on hajj, and raised the legal marriage age in Xinjiang to bring it into conformity with that in the rest of China, withdrawing a concession earlier afforded Xinjiang’s Muslims.

The collectivisation drive during the Leap was more aggressive and extensive than that of earlier agrarian campaigns. In pastoral areas of northern Xinjiang in particular enrolment in collectives had been incomplete and often softened by state-private arrangements and accounting tricks that allowed herdsmen to retain defacto ownership of livestock; some places had not even carried out land reform. Even where settled Kazaks were formed into cooperatives and early communes up to 1959, these still did not break down the nomads’ own social structure, because although they aggregated several uru, or clan groups, each was simply treated as its own ‘production brigade’ and accounting and ownership remained at that level.

However, this changed during the high point of the Great Leap in the winter of 1959—60, when teams of party, PLA and Bingtuan workers conducted a mass ‘education’ campaign among the Kazaks to promote communalism and weed out rightism, bourgeois individualism, local nationalism and other sins. Large communes were formed by merging multiple Kazak production brigades with farming collectives and raising the unit of accounting to the level of the commune as a whole, thus undermining the decision-making capacity of the production brigade (uru). The new communes tried to feed livestock with feed-grain rather than on pasturage as a means of raising pastoral production, but with the politically-desirable sideeffect of keeping both herds and herdsmen settled in one place. The institutions of mandatory mess hall and child-care crèches were likewise effective at sedentarising the nomads. Moreover, the Kazaks were not exempted from the national call to make steel. Many were put to work as industrial labourers, some even building and operating blast furnaces on the steppe. A contemporary People’s Daily reporter described the new socialist idyll:

Our car travelled along the Ku-nai-su River on the boundless grassland. Flocks of sheep were silently grazing … like white clouds over the green sea. Having climbed over several snow-capped mountains, we suddenly found in front of us a fiery scene, like that of a battle. A long line of hot-air furnaces and iron-smelting furnaces were emitting dark smoke. Trucks loaded with ore and equipment were moving about like shuttles on looms. The blasting of rocks—part of the mining process—and the sound of machines broke the silence of the grassland. This was the new iron and steel city—Hsinyuan Iron and Steel Works—in the Hi Kazak Autonomous Chou.32

The overall impact of communisation on herdsmen, then, was to replace clan-based organisation with closer party control, to sedentarise them and to divert as many as possible from herding to agricultural and industrial labour. Xinjiang officials were quite explicit about the non-economic goals of the Leap in the region, especially those relating to nationality policy. For example, Wang Enmao wrote in February 1960 that ‘there is reason to say that with the people of minority nationalities being brought into closer contact and cooperation as a result of the establishment of the people’s communes, there will be a greater union which will eventually lead to the complete blending of all the nationalities , and this will have a tremendously far-reaching significance for the steady development of socialist and communist construction in Xinjiang’ (emphasis mine). Here, clearly stated, is the hopeful theory that socialist development would erode ethnic differences among the ‘nationalities’ of China; furthermore, this fusion of peoples was not to happen in the distant future but, like everything else in the frenetic mentality of the Great Leap era, rapidly, through abrupt, often wrenching, transitions.

The Great Flight to the Soviet Union and the Yi-Ta Incident

This facet of the Great Leap era in Xinjiang—the sharpened assimilationist agenda—contributed to a major crisis on the northern frontier. As mentioned above, the Great Leap period corresponded to the Chinese Communist break with the Soviet Union, as well as to an upsurge in Han migration to Xinjiang, with 300, 000 rusticated urban youth and at least 890, 000 voluntary migrants arriving between 1959-61 (the latter no doubt escaping worse conditions elsewhere). The new rail line linked Lanzhou to Hami by 1960 and Urumchi by 1962, promising further waves of Chinese arrivals. Many of the new migrants settled along the railway line between Hami and Urumchi while others entered the Bingtuan, which in 1958 began a massive expansion, especially into the belt of settlements extending north-west from Urumchi. New migrants worked in many new industrial enterprises and on Bingtuan farms in northern Xinjiang, where vast areas of pastureland were put to the plough. This influx increased available supplies of labour but also increased the numbers of mouths to feed, and when the wild assumptions underlying the Great Leap failed to materialise, the changing demographic balance in the region contributed to ethnic tensions. Han areas in northern Xinjiang (including Urumchi, the capital) ran a persistent grain deficit, which was made up for by shipments from the Uyghur south. As grain shortages throughout the region grew acute, grain continued to be shipped north to supply the capital, the railway route between Hami and Urumchi and the new settlements in Zungharia. Xinjiang also exported some 30, 000 tons of grain to other Chinese provinces between 1960 and 1962.

Some or all of these Great Leap era policies (anti-Sovietism and anti-local nationalism; heightened CCP penetration and control of the former ETR and Kazak lands; surging Chinese in-migration; economic disruption associated with communisation and industrialisation, especially among nomads; pastureland commandeered for agriculture; and grain requisitions that seemingly favoured Han over Uyghur areas in a time of famine) produced great disaffection in northern Xinjiang. Soviet propaganda, which made much of the Great Leap disruptions, no doubt helped to agitate people further. In April of 1962 tens of thousands of refugees began to flee from Yili and Tacheng (Tarbaghatai) districts, taking livestock and goods with them; by May some 60, 000 (according to some estimates, over 100, 000) had entered the Soviet Union. The refugees included Kazak and Uyghur intelligentsia with Soviet ties dating from the days of the ETR (who realised that China’s definitive split with the Soviet Union would not bode well for them), as well as many herdsmen. Judging from increases in tallied populations on the Soviet side, the emigres also included Hui and other groups. Many crossed the border with papers issued by Soviet officials. In May Chinese authorities dispatched five battalions and twenty-one companies of Bingtuan militia to work with PLA forces to staunch the flow of people and animals by sealing the border. Near the end of the month, people in Ghulja, frustrated in their attempts to buy outbound tickets, rioted at the bus station. According to one Chinese account, ’a small number of bad people’ overcame station guards and fifteen soldiers, while shouting ‘now is the time to overthrow the Communist Party and eliminate the problem of the Chinese.’ Having grown quite large (a Chinese scholar writes 2, 000 people), the crowd then attacked the offices of the People’s Committee and Communist Party of Yili Autonomous Zhou, taking documents and damaging property. Troops from the Bingtuan Agricultural Fourth Division repressed the riot by firing on the crowd.

The cross-border exodus left several counties all but depopulated. Sixty-eight percent of the population of Tacheng county had fled; of three communes in Huocheng county with a former combined population of 16, 000, only 3, 000 were left. Only nine households remained at the Progress Commune. Besides the blow to its propaganda war with the Soviet Union, China now faced a security threat along its near vacant north-west border. Once again it was the Bingtuan that came to the rescue, moving its people into the area in force to take up the agricultural, pastoral and forestry work of the abandoned communes. Over the next four years the Bingtuan took over a ten to thirty kilometre band stretching along the Soviet border in Yili, Bortale, Tarbaghatai and Altai districts, its members staffing fifty-three farms at key points along this strip, in effect erecting a quarantine zone between Kazaks in China and those in the richer Kazak SSR.

Once the extent of the Great Leap debacle and its effects on minority relations became clear, in order to restore stability and secure the food supply the PRC leadership was forced to back off from its drive towards radical communisation and impossible production targets in favour of a return to smaller units of accounting and material incentives. The state authorised a limited return to private ownership and rural markets. Personal ability rather than political stridency became relatively more important in the selection and promotion of officials than during the Leap. The party returned temporarily to a posture of measured tolerance for the ‘unique characteristics’ of Xinjiang’s non-Han peoples, and lengthened its projections for the ‘blending of the nationalities’ to ‘after a very long historical period’. Nevertheless, because the official CCP explanation of the 1962 exodus and Yi-Ta Incident placed the blame squarely on Soviet instigators, the party conducted another round of purges of non-Han cadres.

The years of the Leap had seen serious frontier troubles: in addition to the exodus from northern Xinjiang and the rift with the Soviet Union, there had been the Tibetan rebellion and the flight of the Dalai Lama (1959) and the Sino-Indian border clash (1962). In the context of the Soviet threat on this exposed frontier, in the post-Leap period Xinjiang’s leadership under Wang Enmao thus focused primarily on returning Xinjiang to political and economic normalcy. This was imperative, as standards of living in the region had in three years collapsed to well below pre-1949 levels.

The Cultural Revolution

After the Great Leap Mao was forced to step down from day-to-day command in China, while others tried to repair the shattered economy Mao, however, nursed a grievance against his critics and opposed the moderate economic policies undertaken by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Consequently, in late 1965, as Mao embarked upon a return to power by using his still-substantial charisma to stir up a popular firestorm, the epoch known as the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ began. He encouraged China’s youth, formed into bands of ’red guards’, to launch political and often physical assaults on the organs and personnel of the party and bureaucracy, whom they accused of ’taking the capitalist road’ and other evils. The high-ranking officials targeted from early 1966 turned the same hyperbolic rhetoric of class struggle on their attackers and organised their own Red Guard factions, while purging low-level scapegoats from their own ranks in a rear-guard effort to defend their own positions. The extreme tone of the campaigns led to attacks on anything old or foreign or anyone associated with such things, including artists, writers, performers, academics and anyone formerly connected with the GMD or Soviet Union. The unlucky objects of these attacks had their houses ransacked, were demoted, publicly humiliated, thrown into labour camps and often killed. Children whose parents had been sent away were left to fend for themselves in the streets. Rival Red Guard factions, joined by workers and soldiers, engaged in pitched battles. When by early 1967 the fratricidal chaos threatened to spin entirely out of control, Mao called in the PLA, which restored a semblance of order. Ultimately ‘revolutionary committees’, consisting of representatives of military, party and ‘the masses’, took control of production and administrative units where the party organisation had been shattered. The Red Guards were dissolved and millions of urban youth were sent down to work in the countryside for long years.

Meanwhile, Mao had achieved the demotion and disgrace of his rivals, including that of Deng Xiaoping, Zhu De, Bo Yibo and of his erstwhile chosen successor Liu Shaoqi. A new group rode to power on Mao’s coat-tails, including the general Lin Biao (who later tried to overthrow Mao), Mao’s wife and other members of the radical Gang of Four, who parlayed their proximity to the Chairman into a grip on power that held until just after his death in 1976, when the Cultural Revolution era finally ended.

Although the Cultural Revolution followed the same general trajectory throughout China, its specifics differed with locality; this was especially so in Xinjiang, where the region’s ‘peaceful liberation’ in 1949 had left a legacy of entrenched control by former First Field Army officers of key offices in the party, local administration and the Bingtuan. Wang Enmao, a veteran of the same army, had held the top regional positions since 1954, and the network of First Field Army personnel largely supported him, as did the core of the Bingtuan veterans under Tao Zhiyue. When radical red guards began arriving from Beijing and elsewhere to the east late in the summer of 1966, they naturally made ‘local emperor’ Wang the target of their agitation. They formed a faction that became known as the Red Second Headquarters (hong er si). Wang in turn indirectly organised a rival red guard faction (Red First Headquarters) and attempted to contain the disruption, concerned about unrest among the region’s Turkic peoples and the possibility of Soviet intervention. His emphasis on the ‘special characteristics’ of minority nationalities came under fire as a ‘bourgeois reactionary line’, and posters in Urumchi and Beijing singled out ‘nationalist, religious’ and ‘counter-revolutionary elements’ in Xinjiang for obstructing the progress of the Revolution.

The struggle also involved the Bingtuan, the destination of many easily politicised youths from Shanghai and other cities. A Bingtuan radical faction under Ding Sheng joined the Red Second Headquarters to take on the corps’ leader Zhang Zhonghan, whom Ding accused of having perpetuated the capitalist legacy of the Bingtuan s largely ex-GMD membership (’they’d do anything but open a brothel’, he said of the corps’ ambitious roster of economic enterprises). Ding’s challenge of Zhang Zhonghan’s leadership led to the ‘January 26 Incident’ (1967) in Shihezi, in which dozens of the radicals were killed by the Bingtuan armed forces who fired bullets and grenades into a factory the radicals had occupied.

This first armed conflict and Ding Sheng’s subsequent outcry gained the attention of the central authorities in Beijing. On 7 February Mao Zedong said, ’there are some problems that are being handled too slowly. The Xinjiang problem ought to be resolved a bit more quickly.’ Whether they interpreted the Chairman’s delphic utterance correctly or not, Zhou Enlai and others, in consultation with Xinjiang authorities, determined that the conditions were not ripe for a seizure of power by ‘mass organisations’ in Xinjiang and issued a directive calling on the ‘Xinjiang Military Region Production Construction Corps [to] promote the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution under military control’. The military thus took over the Bingtuan, as well as the Xinjiang Regional media, administrative and economic organs. In effect the army was to work with Xinjiang’s party and government offices to contain the Red Second Headquarters, and a degree of calm prevailed for a while.

Unfortunately Beijing then sent more mixed signals. For example, Premier Zhou Enlai publicly criticised Xinjiang authorities for excluding the Red Second Headquarters and other ’rebel’ factions from a public rally in mid-March 1967. Central support for ‘rebels’ intensified as Jiang Qing and her ‘Cultural Revolution Group’ gained influence in Beijing. For a month that summer Xinhua, the Chinese national news service, reported favourably on the activities of the Red Second Headquarters. In this climate the PLA itself split, and Unit 7335 of the Ninth Air Force allied with the Red Second Headquarters. Ding Sheng took control of the Bingtuan, 2, 000 members of which were executed and 7, 000 sent to labour camps as ‘reactionaries’.

Both the major factions were armed and engaged in some 600 violent clashes in 1967, and 700 in 1968. For example, in July of 1967 Ding Sheng dispatched 6, 000 Bingtuan permanent troops together with 50, 000 Bingtuan workers against Urumchi, attacking the Tianshan Foodstuffs Factory, the People’s Square, the No. One Normal College, Xinjiang Medical College and thirty other work units. These fights were deadly affairs, destructive enough that people in the streets could be injured by concrete falling from buildings under attack; hospitals crammed with the injured were forced to let some gunshot victims die for lack of blood.

Cultural Revolution politics impinged on all aspects of life, even for those trying to stay clear of the fray. One evening in 1967 two recent college graduates, Tayir and Rena, were holding a wedding party when a gang of young men from Tayir’s work unit showed up intent on disrupting the party and preventing the match. The problem was that Tayir’s work unit, a publishing house, supported Wang Enmao, and the high school where Rena taught belonged to the rebel faction. Though no blood was shed and the couple married after all, the incident demonstrates how factional hostility penetrated down to the level of personal relations even among people with little stake in the politics involved.

The bloodiest battles of Xinjiang’s Cultural Revolution took place in Shihezi, Yili Prefecture and Hami, with long-running armed conflicts also embroiling Kashgar and Khotan. Along the railway line between Hami and Urumchi PLA ground troops fought Unit 7335, and striking rail workers and red guards joined the fray, blockading the railway and besieging Hami. Since this conflict threatened to cut the entire Xinjiang region off from the rest of the country—as had happened during the warlord period, with results Chinese central leaders found undesirable— Zhou Enlai repeatedly, but with only modest effect, ordered combatants to lay down their arms. Hami lies not that far overland from ‘Base 21’, the nuclear weapons testing facility at Lop Nor, where China had just exploded its first hydrogen bomb in June 1967. There were even reports in Hong Kong papers that Wang Enmao had threatened to occupy the nuclear base if Mao did not extend him support to restrain the radical red guards, and that this explains the February 1967 central directive putting the military in charge.

Xinjiang was one of the last places in China to emerge from military chaos. Only in August and September of 1968, when ‘revolutionary committees’ reasserted some control, did armed conflict die down. Wang Enmao lost his pre-eminent position in the region as the new committees, on which he had no. loyal supporters, took over production and administrative units throughout the region. Wang’s First Field Army connections had, moreover, became a liability, as his former superior officers Peng Zhen and He Long had been attacked elsewhere in China, and as the star of Lin Biao (of the Fourth Field Army) ascended. Long Shujin, Chairman of the new Xinjiang Revolutionary Committee, was Lin’s man. Lin had also infiltrated personally-loyal Fourth Field Army personnel into the Xinjiang PLA, and by November Wang lost his position as commander of the Xinjiang Military Region to Long Shujin. Though subjected to thinly-veiled vilification in the Xinjiang press, Wang Enmao enjoyed a soft-landing: he retained his membership as an alternate on the CCP Central Committee and continued to appear at official functions in Beijing until May 1969. The party would find uses for him again.

Long Shujin promoted the radical economic, political and cultural agendas of Mao and Lin Biao, favouring ideological over material incentives, forbidding private land or livestock ownership, and promoting the campaign to wipe out the ‘four olds’, a policy with an especially strong impact on Xinjiang’s non-Han population. Long himself was purged after Lin Biao’s failed coup attempt against Mao. For the next several years the joint leadership of Säypidin and Yang Yong, following Beijing’s lead, took a more moderate economic position and backed off from some of the excesses of the height of the Cultural Revolution.

One major change in these years concerned the Bingtuan. Taking advantage of the Cultural Revolution disruptions and of Mao’s call for young people to travel the country in a ‘great linking up’, many young Chinese headed back east, resulting in a loss of Bingtuan man-power. A Maoist restructuring of the corps effected during the early years of the Cultural Revolution compounded the built-in inefficiencies of this military-governmental-productive organisation, which by 1969 was in any case left in tatters. The zeal with which its militia and workers neglected production to throw themselves into military conflict with the PLA and the Red Guards also worried some leaders, who became reluctant to invest further funds in the organisation. Its population declined steeply as urban youth continued to abandon the militaristic discipline and impoverished conditions of the state farms and factories for their natal homes in Shanghai and other eastern cities; in 1974-5 alone the Bingtuan lost over half a million labourers, and its output fell in tandem to an annual 356 million yuanfrom 705 million in 1971. Due to all these problems, the Bingtuan, meant to be the spear-head of development in the region, had become a drain on its finances. In October 1975 the central government dissolved the Production Construction Corps, passing jurisdiction over its state farms and other enterprises to prefectural and Xinjiang regional authorities under the rubric of the new ‘Xinjiang Reclamation Bureau’.

The central involvement of the Bingtuan in the chaos may be one reason why the economic impact of the Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang was relatively heavier than in other provinces. Whereas over the period of the Third Five-Year Plan (1966-70) combined industrial and agricultural production increased by a modest 9.95 per cent nationally, Xinjiang’s increased only 2.98 per cent; during the Fourth Five-Year Plan (1971-5), the national increase was 7.76 per cent versus Xinjiang’s 1.98 per cent. In the words of Zhu Peimin of the Xinjiang Party School/the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” brought Xinjiang’s economy to the brink of collapse.’ Agriculture, especially grain, was hit particularly hard, with only a 2.2 per cent increase during a decade in which Xinjiang’s population grew 41.5 per cent, a decline of almost 30 per cent in grain production per capita. Xinjiang thus went from being a grain-surplus to a grain-deficit province, and the stated policy goal of economic self-sufficiency for the region (since Qing times an unfulfilled dream of Beijing planners) slipped far out of reach.

The Other Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang

It appears from Chinese and Western sources that the most acute factional conflicts of the Cultural Revolution period took place in eastern Xinjiang, among the Han population. Indeed, the first book published in the PRC to survey the post-1949 history of Xinjiang, though it devotes a chapter to the Cultural Revolution, alludes only briefly to the issue of minority policy or the region’s non-Han peoples during this period. But there was another face to the Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang. Like the Great Leap Forward, the significance of the events of the Revolution era was different in a region populated mainly by non-Han groups.

Maoist campaigns in China were accompanied by chauvinistic attacks on non-Hans as traitors and on non-Chinese culture as backward, feudal, bourgeois and local-nationalist. Until the 1960s in addition to ‘local nationalism’ the CCP had tended also to criticise ‘Great Hanism’, linking it to such failings as ‘bureaucratism’, ’commandism’ and ‘isolation from the masses’. Moreover, although real power always remained in Han hands, the party had worked to recruit and train growing numbers of non-Han cadres for lower positions in Xinjiang. This began to change around 1958, and from 1965, when concern over nationality or ethnic difference was subsumed by ‘class struggle’, total numbers of non-Han holding Xinjiang government posts fell off, from 111, 500 (42, 000 of whom were party members) in 1962 to 80, 000 by 1975. The new radical policies attacked the concept of accommodation and local ‘autonomy’ in areas with high concentrations of’minority nationalities’, a principle which had been enshrined in the 1954 constitution. Instead, in Revolution era constitutions it was replaced with Maoist language arguing that ‘national struggle is in the final analysis a question of class struggle.’

During the Cultural Revolution, as during the Great Leap Forward, the border with the Soviet Union grew tense and the historical connections of Xinjiang’s non-Han political elites with the ETR and the Soviet Union were invoked against them. Most of Xinjiang’s non-Han cadres, including Iminov (Uyghur Regional Vice-Chairman) and Burhan (Tatar former Governor of Xinjiang Province), were accused of treason and purged. Burhan was labelled ‘the main root of Xinjiang’s Three Black Lines’ of capitalism, Soviet modern revisionism and local nationalism. One historian reports that ‘several … former veterans of the Eastern Turkestan Revolution … including Iminov, Askhat Iskhak (Aisihaiti) and Anwar Saljan … were tortured and secretly executed’ during the Cultural Revolution. Even Säypidin’s house was ransacked by high-schoolers. When the Xinjiang Revolutionary Committee took control in 1968 only two of its nine vice-chairmen were non-Han: Säy-pidin and Zia, an obscure Kazak herder who had been promoted during the Cultural Revolution. Later they were joined by RuziTurdi and then in 1973 by Tomur Dawamät, both Uyghurs. Nevertheless, military men with no prior experience in Xinjiang continued to dominate the Xinjiang Revolutionary Committee.

Although the attacks on Turkic peoples and non-Han cadres as Soviet fifth columnists and lackeys of the ‘revisionists’ were no doubt exaggerated, there was indeed reason to fear Soviet intentions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Soviet troops, including a force called the ‘Xinjiang Minority Refugee Army’, were massing and engaging in manoeuvres on the frontier, and nearly continuous skirmishes, incursions and some serious clashes took place on the border. The PLA built an unpaved road along the banks of the seasonal Khotan River, running south across the entire Taklamakan Desert, to provide an escape route to Tibet should the Soviet Union invade in force. Constant press calls for ‘unity’ in northern Xinjiang, and warnings of efforts to ‘sow disorder’ and undermine ‘the great alliance’ suggest, moreover, that there was anti-Chinese resistance among non-Han nationalities, though little is publicly known about this. One unconfirmed report from early 1969 described an uprising of 4, 000 Uyghurs in Ghulja, allegedly with Soviet support. Among the sparse information published concerning Xinjiang’s Kazaks during the Cultural Revolution, Linda Benson and Ingvar Svanberg note a one-third decline in livestock population inYili-Kazak Autonomous Zhou in 1969. As during the Great Leap, this indicates severe disruptions leading to the death or killing-off of herds, which might have included armed conflict, meteorological catastrophes or flight to Kazakstan.

Amid the high-pitched agitation and loss of central control during the early Cultural Revolution years, it would be surprising if Xinjiang’s Turkic peoples remained aloof from political movements. However, it appears that of the Beijing leadership, Premier Zhou Enlai at least was anxious to keep Xinjiang’s ‘minority nationalities’ from becoming politicised or embroiled in the factional fighting. In May 1968 a radical group affiliated with the Red Second Headquarters, led by one Aidan (Ai-yi-dan, apparently not a Han name), planned a massive ‘Rally to Bring down Wang Enmao’s Great Hanism’ with projected attendance by several tens of thousands of non-Han participants. This rally seems to reflect an effort by a sub-faction to win the support of Turkic peoples to its side; to accuse Wang Enmao of Great Hanism in and of itself makes little sense. Upon hearing of these plans, Zhou Enlai ordered the Xinjiang Military District, the Bingtuan and Unit 3773 of the PLA (supporters of the Red Second Headquarters) to pressure the group into cancelling the meeting, which they ultimately managed to do.

There also seems to have been at least one attempt by Turkic groups to organise for themselves. An internal Chinese publication dating from the early 1990s asserts that the most serious ‘counter-revolutionary separatist conspiracy’ since 1949 was the East Turkestan People’s Revolutionary Party, which operated in Xinjiang for two years from February 1968. According to the brief account, this party organisation’s central and branch offices issued some fifty publications, including a party charter and newspapers entitled The Torch, Independence and Tianshan Guerrilla. The group allegedly sought creation in Xinjiang of an independent ETR that was secular, communist and pro-Soviet in orientation. It sent delegations to the Soviet Union and Mongolia requesting arms and advisers, but according to Uyghur veterans of the movement now living in Kazakstan, the Soviets never provided the promised aid.

Pigs in the Mosques

Open insurrection and movements aimed at East Turkestan independence probably directly involved only a small percentage of Xinjiang’s Turkic peoples during the Cultural Revolution. Others found opportunities in the strident politicisation of the time to further their own careers, again as in China as a whole. The rest, like most Chinese, simply kept their heads down, trying to get through the political storms and confusing ideological about-faces without loss of life, liberty or livelihood.

Just getting by was difficult for many Uyghurs for whom private trading in the bazaars—forbidden under communism—was a way of life as old as Xinjiang’s cities themselves. Uyghur music and dance, a central element of marriages, circumcision parties and other ritual celebrations, were forbidden, and Uyghur musical instruments were themselves condemned as ‘feudal’ (although it was still okay to play accordion and enjoy ballroom dancing on special occasions). The ethnic factor gave the Cultural Revolution decade in Xinjiang a particular cast, as local autonomy, the recognition of Xinjiang’s special circumstances, pluralism with regard to its non-Han cultures, and condemnation of Han chauvinism became politically untenable positions. After all, Mao’s wife and radical culture maven Jiang Qing considered minority nationalities ‘foreign invaders and aliens’ with ‘outlandish’ songs and dances. ‘What is special about your tiny Xinjiang? I despise you’, she was quoted as saying.

Thus if the acute military and political struggles of the Cultural Revolution seem to have involved primarily the Han, the cultural agenda of the Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang was aimed squarely at ‘minority’ customs, resulting in insults and abuses of human rights over a longer period. Han who had lived in Xinjiang for some time had a certain familiarity with Uyghurs, Kazaks and other groups, and Han leaders had before 1958 interfered relatively little with non-Chinese local culture per se, even while seeing to it that the party controlled religious, arts, educational and other cultural institutions. Red Guards just off the train from Beijing, on the other hand, knew and thought little of traditional Uyghur culture (or of traditional Chinese culture, for that matter). It seems likely that just as in Tibet and throughout China the Red Guards were responsible for much of the persecution of non-Hans and open destruction and desecration of cultural artefacts in Xinjiang. There are many reports of Qur’ans burnt; mosques, mazars, madrasas and Muslim cemeteries shut down and desecrated; non-Han intellectuals and religious elders humiliated in parades and struggle meetings; native dress prohibited; long hair on young women cut off in the street. However, attacks on Islam and non-Han culture continued even after the Red Guards had been dispersed. And of course, powers in Beijing and Urumchi acquiesced to such activities, for the authorities formally cancelled religious holidays, detained non-Han cultural and political leaders in reform camps, and controlled the media from which flowed anti-Islamic and anti-Turkic propaganda.

Since the 1980s Han Chinese have published numerous moving accounts of their and their family’s sufferings during the insanity of the Cultural Revolution. Non-Han participants have released fewer such stories, but they tell of similarly atrocious events. One of the earliest memories of one Uyghur man from a village in Yengisar county, near Kashgar, concerns the first time he saw a pig, probably around 1970 or 1971.

Several white and black pigs were kept in a building people called ‘mosque’. There was a small window on the wall. I was too short to be able to see the pigs from the window, so my older sister put me on her shoulder. When I grew older I found out that almost all the mosques in our region were turned into pig houses. Even Uyghur songs were written in praise of pigs.

During the Cultural Revolution religious buildings throughout China were converted to other uses: schools, museums of secularism and probably pigsties as well. Statues of gods were commonly desecrated. In the mid-1980s I saw the skeleton of a brontosaurus-type dinosaur assembled in the main hall of a temple in Guangdong, a none-too-subtle symbol of the Party’s attitude towards religion. However, bad as it is to house pigs in a Buddhist or Taoist temple, it is worse to do so in a mosque given the strength of Islam’s taboo against the consumption of pork. This story is thus representative of the different significance in Xinjiang of common Cultural Revolution practices.

Reform, Recovery—and Reconciliation? (1978-80s)

Return to Moderation?

Even before Deng Xiaoping consolidated his power, the party under Hua Guofeng realised that the assimilationist policies of the Maoist years had severely damaged support for the Communist Party among non-Han people in Xinjiang. Hua began urging party and government cadres in ‘Minority nationality’ areas to learn local languages—a directive which was not new, and never bore linguistic fruit, but which reflected a changed outlook in Beijing. From 1977 official sources began criticising Cultural Revolution era policies, including official intolerance of non-Han customs, erosion of minority rights and the dismantling of the ‘autonomous regions’ system. These abuses, like other aspects of the Cultural Revolution, were generally blamed on Lin Biao and the Gang of Four.

Once back in power Deng pressed the return to the non-assimilationist official minority policies of the early 1950s, which a series of formal actions and announcements re-established as official line. In 1978 the central government department concerned with China’s non-Han peoples, the Nationalities Affairs Commission (dissolved following Red Guard attacks), was restored. In 1980 the Xinjiang Islamic Association was re-established, and the party posthumously published a 1957 speech by Zhou Enlai that focused on the need to oppose Han chauvinism and ‘local nationalism’. These sentiments were echoed by other leaders, including the Mongolian Ulanhu (a Politburo member and the highest-ranking non-Han in the CCP) who renewed the call for real autonomy in non-Han areas and decried assimilationist policies. A party document composed in 1980 (later discovered in the Xinjiang Regional Archives) candidly laid out the party’s thinking on minority issues, including autonomy, after seventeen years of ‘extreme leftist’ policies. Decrying prevalent Han chauvinism, it argued that ‘nationality regional autonomy and the right to self-rule is not given to a region (diqu) but to the national people (minzu renmin) who carry out self-rule.’ It also criticised the dominance of Han cadres in Xinjiang’s leadership, and argued that since Xinjiang was a Uyghur autonomous region, the proportion of Uyghur cadres region-wide should be no less than 45 per cent, 60 per cent in the mainly Uyghur south. Other nationalities in the region should be represented by at least 15 per cent. This, it added, would be ‘fulfilling self-rule’.

When Deng Xiaoping restored Wang Enmao to the position of First Party Secretary in Xinjiang in 1981, Wang’s early remarks reflected this backswing of the pendulum in the party’s policy on minority areas. Wang simultaneously criticised both Han chauvinism and ‘local nationalism’. The party had now returned to the theoretical position that since ‘fusion of the nationalities’ would occur only in the very long term, continued accommodation to the conditions and characteristics of’minority’ areas and peoples was necessary. The State Constitution of 1982 repeated this provision, and restored much of the language devoted to minority equality, rights, customs and political and fiscal autonomy in earlier constitutions that had been dropped during the Cultural Revolution era. This translated into a temporary loosening of restrictions on Islam in Xinjiang, with mosques reopening, new mosques built, and easier travel to Islamic countries for the regions Muslims. A 1982 communiqué on the party’s basic policy towards religion stated that party members (and thus most officials) must be Marxists and thus atheists, but allowed for flexible application of this rule in areas like Xinjiang where religion was a basic element of social life. (Muslim cadres in Xinjiang told Colin MacKerras that although the rule technically forbade them from attending Friday prayers and praying five times daily, it was only loosely enforced through the mid-1990s). Finally, in the massive reconsideration of the cases of Xinjiang officials and cultural figures who had been purged for political reasons since 1957, many of Xinjiang’s non-Han cadres once labelled ‘local nationalist’ were rehabilitated, along with tens of thousands of erstwhile ‘poisonous weeds’, ‘ox demons and snake spirits’ and ‘anti-party black gang’ members.

An important event in the CCP reform efforts in non-Han areas was the visit by CCP General Secretary (and Deng protégé) Hu Yaobang to Tibet in May 1980. Hu’s shock at the poverty and destruction evident there led him to call for educational, cultural and fiscal reforms based on local conditions and culture in minority areas, under the rubric of ‘autonomy’with greatly increased numbers of non-Han cadres.

Deng Xiaoping himself was keen on restoring and strengthening the ‘local autonomy’ model for handling non-Han regions, emphasising this in a major speech on reform in August 1980. During a ten-day tour of Xinjiang the following year, he spoke against separatism and the idea of a republic in Xinjiang, but again stressed that the principle of local self-rule in ‘minority nationality’ areas should be enshrined in a special law. The National People’s Congress passed such a law in May 1984, which strengthened local autonomy provisions already in the constitution, allowing local and regional authorities to consider local conditions in applying central government laws to their areas. It also called for the training and employment of more minority cadres (article 26), encouraged promotion of non-Han culture and publishing in non-Han languages (article 38), and stipulated that the relevant non-Han language could be designated the primary administrative language of an autonomous region or district (article 21).

In economic matters the practical Dengist policies were notably successful in Xinjiang, at least on the macroeconomic level. Perhaps because the province was starting from such a low level, the growth in Xinjiang’s per capita production and provincial income on a per capita basis surpassed national averages in the 1980s. Xinjiang’s ranking in these measures rose from near the bottom to tenth and twelfth respectively out of China’s twenty-seven provinces and autonomous regions. Xinjiang emerged from its subsistence crisis; production of grain, vegetable oil crops and cotton increased markedly; and the region began transferring large cotton surpluses to eastern China for processing. Xinjiang’s labour productivity in the early 1980s compared favourably with that of other regions, almost equalling that of workers in Guangzhou.

During the 1980s, then, leaders in Beijing and Urumchi decided that some concessions to the idea of autonomy, at least, were necessary, along with the economic reforms. Ultimate control, of course, remained in the hands of Han figures in the party, but representation by non-Hans in government organs and non-Han cultural expression increased to some extent. Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang and others articulated the view that raising standards of living for ‘minority nationalities’ in Xinjiang and other frontier regions was an important check on separatism, and believed that liberalisation of economic policies would raise standards of living. Like other Dengist policies, these represented a moderate position and a marked change from what had preceded it.

 ‘Khitays go home!’

However, despite the reforms, the excesses of the Cultural Revolution left a number of problems that lingered through the 1980s. One was the question of the remaining Han youths from Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere, most of whom had done their bit toiling on the desert frontier for the good of the motherland and wanted to go home. Life in Xinjiang had been difficult for these young Han from the east; besides the coarse food, lack of medical care and primitive dwellings, many simply felt abandoned in Bingtuan villages under the control of ignorant officials. They shared a ditty concerning the fate of those who had been packed into trains from Shanghai to rusticate in Xinjiang: Shanghai wazi guagua jiao, shang le huoche bu yao piao, xia le huoche mei ren yao! (Shanghai baby always cries/take the train, it’s a free ride/get off the train and you’re despised!)

For those ‘educated youth’ who had not already fled Xinjiang in 1974—5, Shanghai city authorities had no jobs and did not welcome them back; nor were Xinjiang authorities keen to lose their labour. In 1979 and 1980 the educated youth began agitating publicly, especially in southern Xinjiang. In the largest mass action in Xinjiang at any time from the end of the Cultural Revolution to the end of the twentieth century, 5, 000 to 6, 000 ‘educated youth’ originally from Shanghai and other cities gathered in Aqsu and occupied the local party committee administrative offices for over fifty days. (This was larger and of longer duration than later Uyghur demonstrations.) The leaders of the Shanghai educated youth (by then no longer so young) used Uyghur translators to broadcast their case in Uyghur from the local committee headquarters loudspeakers. Since Aqsu local officials and even the police had gone into hiding, the Shanghai youth even handled such local business as punishing pickpockets and filling out marriage licenses for Uyghur couples. They had effectively taken over a major city.

In November 1979 some five hundred Shanghainese, later joined by an additional 1, 000, staged a hundred-day hunger strike in the wide intersection outside the Aqsu local committee headquarters. With sashes reading ‘hunger strike’ tied around their chests, they settled into the intersection under quilts, surrounded by their supporters and in the shadow of three coffins set up there for effect. A few weeks later authorities agreed to issue Shanghai residence permits to the educated youth assembled in Aqsu and those living in other Bingtuans. However, soon after the Shanghainese had left the administration building, teams of armed police arrested the movement leaders in a 2 a.m. raid and for the time being revoked the permits and other documents already issued. The main spokesman for the movement, Ouyang Lian, was imprisoned until 1984.

Authorities ultimately recognised that youths who had suffered food shortages and worked under lazy, imperious local officials for years had a legitimate grievance. Ultimately a high-level meeting of Xinjiang and Shanghai authorities in Beijing in early 1981, at which Zhao Ziyang delivered the keynote address, drew up a staggered schedule by which youth meeting certain criteria could be transferred back to Shanghai. Others were to remain in Xinjiang.

According to available information, authorities were less accommodating to direct Uyghur expressions of grievance in the post-Cultural Revolution period. Certainly the 1980s saw the emergence of signs of unrest, some with a sharp ethnic and religious cast. Those that we know about fall into three categories: First, demonstrations or street fights arising from minor incidents (police brutality or in one case a fire in a mosque) that turned ugly, with rioters shouting anti-Chinese and some Islamic slogans. Second, both internal and published Chinese sources tell of’national separatist organisations’, one of which is held responsible for an outbreak of’armed turmoil’ outside Kashgar (see Chapter 7), and others of which are said to have been stockpiling weapons. Curiously, the alleged organisers of two of these latter groups were teenaged high-school students.

The third category involves university students, who demonstrated on several occasions to complain about campus living conditions and racist graffiti, or to join their cohort of students nationwide in the late 1980s in a call for democratisation. Some students’ slogans at these demonstrations aired the highly sensitive issues of nuclear testing in Lop Nor (and its alleged effects on the health of Xinjiang inhabitants), Han migration into Xinjiang and the extension to minorities of policies limiting family size. Students also took up the official slogan of ’equality between the nationalities’, implying in this way that the actual situation was one of inequality. When conjoined with these issues, calls for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, though heard frequently on campuses throughout China in the late 1980s, took on a distinct nationalist flavour in Xinjiang.

As noted in Chapter 5, movements for rights or independence in twentieth-century Xinjiang do not fit the commonly held notion of ‘Islamic jihad’. The proclamations of the stillborn Eastern Turkestan Republic of 1933-4 sounded both moderate Islamic and liberal democratic notes; in the 1940s the predominant force organising for Turkic autonomy or independence from China was pro-Soviet and secularist. In the 1950s the Xinjiang Islamic establishment accepted nationalisation of its property and oversight by the CCP with little open resistance. And judging from Chinese rhetoric in the anti-Local Nationalist campaign and Cultural Revolution, the main perceived threat to ‘unity’ in Xinjiang derived from Soviet connections, not Islam. Islam and its practitioners were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, but though denounced as ‘feudal superstition’, religious belief itself was not the rationale for high level political purges.

Why, therefore, some Uyghur movements began to stress Islam as a cause, with calls for an Islamic republic, and denunciations of Chinese as ‘infidels’ in the late 1980s, especially in southern Xinjiang, is not entirely clear. One explanation may be that the Cultural Revolution era attack on Islam led to increased Uyghur concern with their religion as a core element of their culture, and thus the greater position of the religion as a rallying point for the disaffected. The increase in numbers of mosques and madrasas between 1979 and 1990 suggests a revival of Islam in Xinjiang during this period, or at least an expression of interest pent-up over the many years when new mosque construction was forbidden. Through the 1980s, moreover, Yarkand apparently partly regained its traditional position as a regional centre of Islamic education, and the number of religious students studying in the city’s madrasas increased from 150 in 1979 to 722 ten years later, more than half of them from elsewhere in Xinjiang. (Over the same period in Tibet monasteries became centres of anti-Chinese resistance).

However, not all incidents of ethnic unrest in the 1980s should be characterised as ‘Islamic’ in either motivation or expression. In particular, students in Urumchi concerned themselves first with democracy, the environment, Chinese population influx and birth control policy. These issues reflect not religious concerns per se, but rather concerns about the treatment and survival of Uyghurs as a nation.

The narrative in this chapter has focused on political events, many of them tumultuous, during the first four decades of PRC rule in Xinjiang. Official Chinese publications, on the other hand, insofar as they discuss this period ‘after the founding of New China’ at all, prefer to accentuate the record of economic development and improved standards of living in the region. They do this with some justification. As in other parts of China, this period overall saw notable achievements in education, health care, infrastructural construction, women’s rights and per capita incomes. The Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring, returning to Kashgar in 1978 after having lived in the city fifty years earlier, was struck by the modernisation the city had undergone. Still, to a visitor in 1990, much of Xinjiang retained a traditional, almost sleepy atmosphere. The villages and small cities in southern Xinjiang appeared little changed from those captured in photos decades before. Beyond their new, Maoist central squares, even cities like Turfan, Kashgar, Khotan or Aqsu largely retained the feel of traditional Central Asian cities, with packed earth roads, winding neighbourhood lanes under dusty shade-trees, dense bazaars and animal-powered transportation. In Kashgar in 1990 the jingle of horsebells remained more common than the roar of motorcycle engines or blare of taxi horns. Indeed this atmosphere was a major reason for the boom in tourism Xinjiang enjoyed following its opening in the 1980s. Even in the regional capital of Urumchi one might still see sheep on the streets (in the days before Qurban festival), and the few new high-rise constructions shared space with mud-brick houses and a few stately Soviet-era buildings waning gracefully, like their counterparts across Central Asia, behind neo-classical façades in fading mustard-yellow

Not so in 2000. Although Xinjiang was politically more calm, during the period from 1990 into the new millennium many places in the region changed beyond recognition. The revitalisation of Xinjiang’s economy, reshaping of its commercial and political relations with its neighbours, wholesale remaking of urban landscapes, and internationalisation of its separatist problem are the subject of the next chapter.