The Uyghur Question in Contemporary China

Kunal Mukherjee. Strategic Analysis, Volume 34, Issue 3. 2010.


When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came into existence in 1949, it was established as an atheistic state which rejects the belief in the existence of deities. Although religious belief, customs and practices have been tolerated in China to some extent, the degree of toleration has varied considerably from time to time with the change in the political climate. The word ‘religion’ did not exist in Chinese vocabulary until the late 19th century when it entered through Japanese translations of European works and terminology. There seems to be a discrepancy in what has been stated in the Chinese Constitution in relation to treatment towards ethnic groups and religious communities, and what is actually practiced by the state, and this article tries to look at this discrepancy. The question that this paper tries to answer is: To what extent have Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policies towards the Uyghur community changed from the 1960s until more recent times? This article tries to give an overview of state policies, and argues that although the situation in China has changed and that there have been democratising tendencies in recent decades, which have had broader implications for all minority groups, many of the state policies are a continuation of earlier policies—some of which were draconian—and thus sometimes we see gross human rights violations even today. China’s Muslims are clearly the most threatened in terms of self-preservation and Islamic identity.

In a globalised era, it becomes essential for the international community to have some awareness of the problem and not see this as the problem of the Uyghurs only, because these domestic policies can very well impact China’s relations with other countries at the international level. For instance, human rights violations in one country hint at the undemocratic nature of that particular political system, and one of the important factors for international security in recent times has been the emergence of pluralist political systems, since democracies tend to be more understanding and more sensitive to the need for political compromise, appreciating the healthy and crucial role of criticism in any society. This should be especially viewed and assessed within the broader framework of China’s use of force since 1949, its interventionist political ideology and the number of territorial disputes it has been involved in its borderland regions. Thus, the Uyghur problem should not be seen as ‘their’ problem and treated in isolation, but it urgently needs the attention of the international community. The aim of this article is to look at the position of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang and the policies that the state has taken towards this group since the Cultural Revolution and to what extent have these policies changed over time. The article argues that, by and large, the state has followed a policy of high-handedness towards these groups. The state has tried to maintain control over these groups by force, by attempting to confine all forms of religious activity, although, in a more recent context, one also needs to appreciate the changes that have taken place as a result of the democratising tendencies in China, which has had broader implications for ethnic minorities. However, recent events have also shown that the policy of high-handedness is likely to continue and that CCP policies do not necessarily move in a straight line.

The Background

In Western literature, traditional Chinese politics has been described as authoritarian; and although this view is not incorrect, it will be a mistake to assume that the Chinese have been content to be despotically ruled. On the contrary, China has had a strong tradition of resistance to oppression and there is a substantial body of protest literature. Furthermore, traditional Chinese culture was not without some element of liberalism and sanction of popular assertiveness. For instance, village politics was less despotic than national politics, and the Taoists were often philosophical anarchists who advocated a kind of laissez-faire in both economics and politics. In the preamble of the Chinese Constitution, it says that the PRC will struggle to safeguard the unity of ethnic minorities and that it is necessary to combat big ethnic chauvinism, mainly Han chauvinism. It also tries to combat local chauvinism and says that the state will do its utmost to promote the common prosperity of all ethnic groups. Article 4 of the constitution states that all ethnic groups have the freedom to use and develop their spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs. The CCP, however, has viewed ethnic minorities and religious groups with considerable suspicion, primarily because these groups were seen to be more politically recalcitrant elements of society, who were capable of subverting the existing state system and resisting its authority. Religious groups were not viewed favourably by Chinese officials since they did not sit comfortably with what officials considered to be nationalistic patriotic values. This is partly because sects of traditional Chinese religions, such as Buddhism and Daoism, have had a long history of involvement with underground secret societies, which were frequently involved in activities associated with the overthrow and toppling of governments in the 2000 years of the Chinese empire.

Chinese policies towards religious groups are essentially Marxist, and therefore atheistic. Because state officials fail to understand some of the religious communities in China and their religious ideology (although the Uyghur nationalist-Islamist ideology should not be viewed in monolithic terms), harsh treatment has been meted out to many of them. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that the larger the cultural differences of the concerned group, the bigger the threat that community may appear to be to the state and therefore the harsher the policies directed towards them. In other words, more homogeneity amongst groups in China will ensure more political stability and security for the state, according to officials. These repressive policies to an extent have also been used by officials for political stability and for politicians to stay in power and safeguard their own interests, since much of their power base lacks political legitimacy. The suppression of Uyghurs can be related to a broader suppression of Tibetans, journalists, members of the Falun Gong, democracy advocates, intellectuals, environmentalists, and the like. Here, a number of East Asian politicians argue that curtailing human rights of different ethnic groups and not being fully democratic is necessary because if the Western model of democracy is introduced in an Asian context, it can exacerbate ethnic tensions, which in turn will adversely affect domestic stability and security. The need of the hour is therefore a so-called Asian version of democracy to suit the specificities of the Asian context (Asian Values Debate). However, in a more recent context, the party is considering widening the sanctioning of religious practice because it is seen as a force for social stability and political obedience, although of course there still will be repression of non-sanctioned religious activity. It can also be argued that, since 1965, Chinese leaders behaved in this way because many of them fell into the transformational category of leaderships. This means that these leaders sought to transform society, pursuing an ideological agenda (in this case, Marxist Leninism) to bring about comprehensive social reform. Before we actually take a look at the situation in Xinjiang, let us take a quick look at the ideological/Marxist background of some of these policies.

CCP policies towards religious groups were essentially based on the Marxist policies of the former Soviet Union, although what we really have in China is the Sinofication of Marxist ideology—which means a blending of Chinese agnosticism, Han nationalism and Marxism. Marxism advocates atheism and that religion is a product of society. CCP policies were very much in keeping with Marxist theories and drew heavily on the experiences of the Communist Party of the USSR in dealing with ethnic groups and repressing religious organisations. The communist theory of religion is a product of the communist philosophy of life and is generally in line with anti-religious traditions. According to Marxist philosophy, ‘Man makes religion, religion does not make man’. Religion is the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. Religion is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness’. Leninism is just as important as Marxism in the Chinese scheme of things.

There is a clear distinction in the minds of the Chinese officials and authorities between officially recognised groups and unofficial unregistered groups. Religious freedom ensured by the 1982 Constitution is explicitly limited to officially recognised activities by authoritative religious organisations, excluding a wide range of activities. The official group of religions, which are registered with the Religious Affairs Bureau, are treated very differently from the unofficial groups who are subjected to harsher treatment. This stands in contrast to Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, where it says that citizens of the PRC enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration. The unofficial religious groups are treated in an unfair way, because the Chinese state thinks it has no control over unregistered groups and this lack of familiarity with them paves the way for more insecurity for the state. Some religious groups, especially Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, are also associated with secessionist movements. The Uyghurs are associated with the East Turkestan separatist movement. Local cults do not have any representation in political circles even though Article 65 of the Constitution states that minority ethnic groups are entitled to appropriate representation in the standing committee of the National People’s Congress. In this connection, it is worth mentioning that the term zongjiao refers to permitted religion, although not necessarily encouraged, and the term xiejiao is equivalent to heresy. Official groups of religions like Buddhism and Daoism have some representation in the government, whereas the unofficial groups are regarded as potentially subversive by the CCP and are subject to periodic and arbitrary repression. Chinese official publications have also criticised ‘superstition’, which is a broad category and a blanket term that encompasses local traditions, shamanism, religions of ethnic minorities, magic and some aspects of the larger religions of China. It is believed by Chinese state officials that many of these popular religions and local cults were frequently associated with secret societies, which had their own social and political agendas. The Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) was created in 1954 on the basis of an earlier religious affairs office, and remains the state organisation charged with detailed supervision of religious activities. Temples, churches and mosques, which are registered with the RAB, were given a limited degree of freedom and their members were allowed to worship at least during relatively liberal periods. Article 36 of the Constitution states that the state protects ‘normal’ religious activities and that no one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order. With religions of foreign origin, particularly Islam and Christianity, there is the added dimension that they are perceived to be undermining both state authority and traditional Chinese values and patriotic fervour. Since religious observance is always considered to be a potential threat to the state, the freedom allowed to such groups is often limited and completely illusory. Views on the desirability of integration of religious groups have varied considerably and great Han chauvinists argued for total assimilation, whereas others were in favour of genuine autonomy of ethnic minorities. The nationalities policy of the CCP had as its primary goal the integration of minority nationality areas into the administrative structure of the PRC in perpetuation of their socialist transformation and the socialist transition process itself was a method to increase central control over minorities. Autonomy for nationalities was to be confined to such superficial aspects of nationality culture as song and dance. However, autonomy was not really extended to language since the language policy has been at the heart of Chinese nation-building, although the situation was more flexible shortly after the inception of the PRC. In more recent times, while China’s official language policy has remained constant, its covert language policy has become increasingly reactive and tied to geopolitical considerations. Authorities have been very keen to win over influential members of the minorities to become members of the CCP, precisely in order to strengthen their commitment to the PRC. During the first decade of CCP rule, there was a marked trend towards secularisation, especially amongst educated intellectuals, and temples were confiscated by the central or local government and put to secular use. During the times of radical Maoism, particularly the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), students and young workers were encouraged to criticise the ‘four olds’; that is, old customs, old culture, old habits and old thinking. Places like Xinjiang and Tibet were particularly affected. However, the reform and open door policy of Deng Xiaoping, which began in 1978, heralded a policy of openness and cultural vitality unprecedented since 1949. Before we take a look at the policies on the Uyghurs, let us first take a look at Document 19, which encapsulates the state’s attitude towards religious groups in China.

Document 19

Document 19 records the official attitude towards religion in China, and while normal beliefs and practices have been permitted, religion has not been allowed to regain its feudal power and privileges. Nor are religious organisations allowed in any way to make use of religious pretexts to oppose party leadership. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China had stated on March 31, 1982 that ‘religion had its own cycle of emergence, development and demise, and that religion will soon disappear from human history, naturally only through the long-term development of socialism and communism, when all objective requirements are met’.

It further says:

… we communists are atheists and must unremittingly propagate atheism, and yet at the same time, we must understand that it will be fruitless and extremely harmful to use simple coercion in dealing with people’s ideological and spiritual questions, and this includes religious questions.

In the process of implementing and carrying out this policy, which emphasised and guaranteed the people’s freedom to believe in religion, ‘we must, at the same time, emphasise and guarantee people’s freedom not to believe in religion’. In the section on ‘patriotic religious organisations’ in the document, it is clearly stated that all patriotic religious organisations should follow the party’s and the government’s leadership.

The document also makes it clear that Communist Party members cannot be members of religious groups, and says:

… the fact that our party proclaims and implements a policy of religious freedom does not of course mean that the Communist Party and its members can freely believe in religion and the policy of religious freedom is directed only towards the citizens of our country.

Unlike the average citizen, the party member belongs to a Marxist political party, and there can be no doubt at all that s/he must be an atheist and not a theist. Our party has clearly stated on many previous occasions that a Communist Party member cannot be a religious believer and s/he cannot take part in religious activities and any member who persists in going against this proscription should be told to leave the party.

The training and education of the younger generation of patriotic religious personnel in a planned way will have decisive significance for the future image of our country’s religious organisations and we should not only continue to win over, unite with and educate the present generation of persons in religious circles, but we should help each religious organisation set up seminaries to train well new religious personnel. And the task of these seminaries is to create a contingent of young religious personnel who, in terms of politics, fervently love their motherland and support the party’s leadership and the socialist system and who possess sufficient religious knowledge.

The Communist Party’s propaganda policy in religious affairs was to draw the bow without shooting and just indicating the motion, but ultimately it was for the peasants/people themselves to cast aside the idols and to pull down the temples. Religious groups enjoyed religious freedom only if they spoke with the voice of the national majority and shared the common burdens, goals and visions of the party. Intransigent and independent religious leaders were singled out, harassed, publicly denounced and removed from office. Above all, religious believers would have to root out all counter-revolutionary activity or ‘feudal reactionary poisonous weeds hiding under the cloak of religion’.

The Islamic Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the Policies Taken by the CCP Towards Xinjiang

Islam has had a presence in China almost since its birth and is most evident in the northwest of the country, especially in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia. The Turkic peoples, of whom the Uyghurs are an important constituent, were Islamised in the 10th century. For Uyghur Muslims, this place is called Uyghuristan or East Turkestan. Islam is particularly deep rooted in the province of Gansu and the Xinjiang Uyghur and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions. By nature, Islam is a proselytising religion, but it entered China as the religion of certain ethnic groups, and this is how it survived. The strength of Islamic culture varies enormously amongst Muslims in China. Thus, the Hui of Fujian have been much more relaxed about their Islamic identity and are traditionally loyal to the Chinese state, with there being no suggestion that they would want to secede from China. Against this, the Uyghur Muslims in the far north-west adhere fiercely to the traditional Islamic culture. This is probably why the CCP adopted such harsh policies towards Uyghur Muslims. An important and interesting question in this context is whether these secessionist movements are inspired by Islam or other factors, such as repression by the Chinese state. In other words, the larger the cultural differences, the harsher have been the state policies towards these groups. Muslim grievances have largely been due to the official maltreatment of their community. During the late 18th century and the entire 19th century, when Muslims in both the north-west and south-west of China rebelled, they were severely crushed. In fact, during the Cultural Revolution, Muslims were at times forced to eat pork. Under Communist rule, observance of Islamic rules and customs became even harder. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, all religious activities and organisations went underground, giving the picture that China had no more religion. Red flags were put over religious buildings, objects of veneration were removed and, for the population at large, a new pseudo liturgy was enforced, as people paid respect to Mao portraits in a quasi-religious manner. The political leader had become a living god and the little Red book of his quotations a scripture. Gross violations of human rights were perpetrated in the Uyghur Autonomous Region in Xinjiang, with the international community being kept in the dark. The victims of these violations were the Uyghurs, the majority ethnic group among the predominantly Muslim local population.

The state views religions like Islam with suspicion primarily because of the possibility that external influences can pave the way for the rise of values and institutions that could potentially be in conflict with the state’s values and political ideology. Here, it is worth mentioning that the Iranian president, Mohammed Khatami, during his visit in 2000, said that Tehran would be interested in expanding its ties with China’s mainly Muslim province, Xinjiang. ‘Xinjiang could serve as a bridge connecting great China with Central Asia and the Muslim world’, he was quoted as saying. Chinese state officials viewed Khatami’s visit to China with considerable suspicion in case his Islamic influence and speeches strengthened the religious identity of Uyghurs, which could in turn strengthen the East Turkestan movement acting as a destabilising centrifugal force and affecting domestic security. However, it should be mentioned that although foreign religions are seen to be especially problematic for the state, what really counts is not the domestic or foreign origins of the religion or cult but the perceived or potential threat to the regime which the religion poses; for example, political separatism, as in the case of the Uyghurs and Tibetan Buddhists. It is interesting that Buddhism, although also a foreign religion like Islam, is not viewed with so much suspicion probably because of Buddhism’s long presence in China or because of the sinofication of Buddhism, making it a ‘Chinese’ religion.

On March 19, 1996, the CCP Central Committee sent a message, Document 7, to the authorities in Xinjiang, which required the local authorities to take firmer action to stop the burgeoning threat of ethnic separatism and conflict. It charged that groups were fomenting trouble and assaulting party and government structures, indulging in bombing and committing terrorist attacks. Document 7 went on to claim that the chaos and turmoil, if not checked, would affect stability in Xinjiang and eventually the whole country. The attempt to oppose separatism and terrorism in Xinjiang has developed into an ongoing campaign, and the 9/11 terror attacks gave the Chinese authorities an additional reason for cracking down even more severely. The reaction of the authorities since 9/11 has certainly exacerbated the existing tensions, and the authorities have even coined the term the three evil forces to denote terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Many of the Chinese official documents of violent activity attributed to Uyghurs contain inaccurate, questionable or contradictory reporting and slanted conclusions reflecting ulterior agendas. There is no doubt that the PRC authorities and Han citizens genuinely fear Uyghur separatist violence, but the general impression of the threat escalating since 1990 is exaggerated.

Uyghur nationalism in Xinjiang was inspired by Muslims in Central Asia, and in contemporary China we see a growing consciousness of a distinct Uyghur identity. Wealthy merchants in Kashgar, Turfan and Yili, who travelled to Kazan and Istanbul, launched a movement to modernise Uyghur education in collaboration with teachers. Similar developments elsewhere in Central Asia are known as jadidism. The new schools, despite the surveillance of Chinese warlords, instilled Turkic and eventually nationalist Uyghur ideas in Uyghur children throughout the 1920s. Those who were influenced by this ‘Uyghur enlightenment’ later became involved in the rebellions of the 1930s. In obvious contrast to the official Chinese versions, which stress that Xinjiang has been an inseparable part of China since antiquity, posters of Mahmud Qashqari and Yusup Khass Hajib, which were distributed in Xinjiang and whom Uyghurs consider to be their cultural heroes, link the Uyghurs to a whole different world and to another history and civilisation, and this assertion may be read as an effort aiming at delegitimising the Chinese claims for sovereignty over Xinjiang. Their separatist movements were influenced by the political Islam of Iran and Afghanistan, and it can be argued that a certain kind of international Islam has become involved in the strengthening of the Uyghur identity.

In this connection, mention may be made of the spillover effects of events like the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and Olivier Roy’s theory of neo-fundamentalism, which argues that present-day Islamist movements have become de-territorialised and supranational as a result of globalisation, technology and better communication systems, which has resulted in a strengthening of a sense of inter-connectedness amongst the ummah or the worldwide Muslim community. Uyghur opposition to Chinese rule gradually became overtly nationalist during the 1980s as the repressive atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution began to fade. The book by the Uyghur writer Turghun Almas, The Uyghurs, was attacked in 1991 because it portrayed the Uyghurs as a distinct nation, separate from the Chinese, and sought to demonstrate that Xinjiang had not been an integral part of China since the Han dynasty and that they were culturally and ethnically related to other Turkic peoples outside China. Uyghur scholars living outside China maintain that Turkic scholars living in China are constrained from writing about their own history and culture for fear of persecution. The fact that they did not speak Chinese added considerably to the denigration and hostility that many Han Chinese felt towards them. Every Uyghur firmly believes that their ancestors are indigenous people of the Tarim basin, which did not become known to the Chinese as Xinjiang until the 18th century. Memories are strong of the repressions of the Cultural Revolution, when all forms of diversity were severely curtailed, thus limiting any form of pluralism.

During the Cultural Revolution, Muslims became the focus of both anti-religious and anti-ethnic nationalism critiques, leading to widespread persecutions and closures of mosques. The army, people’s militia, officers and men of the public security bureau and the police were deployed to attack and arrest armed insurgents, who were dealt with severely, and senior religious figures were brought in by the authorities and shown the error of their ways. The government blamed the unrest and violence on a ‘small number’ of ‘separatists’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘religious extremists’, who are accused of having links with ‘foreign hostile forces’ whose aim was to ‘split the motherland’. The official reports about ‘separatists and terrorists’ obscure a more complex reality in which many people who are not involved in violence have become victims of human rights violations. Over the years, attempts by the Uyghurs to air their grievances and peacefully exercise their most fundamental human rights have been met with repression. The denial of legitimate channels for expressing grievances and discontent has led to outbursts of violence, including by people who were not involved in political opposition activities. Since Deng Xiaoping’s post-1978 reforms, Muslims have sought to take advantage of the liberalised economic and religious policies while keeping a watchful eye on the ever-swinging pendulum of Chinese radical politics.

Xinjiang has been a vitally important part of China, and control over it is a must because it is a source of mineral and other natural resources. Both international investment and development of industry require political stability, which is China’s reason to tighten its grip over the region. Migration from eastern China to develop this frontier region was encouraged as a patriotic duty on the model of opening up of virgin lands in Siberia during the Stalin era in the USSR. Thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained in the region over the past few years and arbitrary arrests continued until 2000, according to Amnesty International. Thousands of political prisoners were arrested at various times during the 1990s and were reported to have been imprisoned; some having been sentenced to long prison terms after unfair trials, others still detained without charge or trial. The situation has been exacerbated by Han migration from eastern China to western China, and the Uyghurs see this as a deliberate attempt by the Chinese government to undermine Islamic identity in the region to make it more ‘Chinese’. The state has argued that Han professionals were being sent to Xinjiang to uplift the material standards of the people. However, economic development in the region has largely bypassed the local ethnic population and they have faced increased restrictions, which led to the escalation of violence between the Han Chinese and the Uyghur community. The policy of Han Chinese migration had its roots in the 1920s, with Sun-Yat Sen coining the slogan ‘Open up the North West’, which gained great weight and was taken over by the communists. Non-Han people living in Xinjiang viewed this migration as a conscious attempt to undermine their traditional religious and cultural life, and at worst as a form of culture genocide that would tighten Beijing’s control over the region. This migration since the 1960s has played a major role in fostering inter-ethnic conflicts in Xinjiang and has changed the population profile of Xinjiang dramatically. A campaign was also launched to bring unofficial religious schools under central control, and in south Xinjiang two schools were closed and imams, whose qualifications were not recognised, were stripped of office. Following the Baren insurrection, this clampdown was intensified to include a ban on foreign preachers and a move to close down illegal Islamic schools, forced donations for Mosques and anti-Han activities. Many mosques and Koranic schools were closed down, particularly in those areas where there had been disturbances, especially in Akto county, the site of the Baren rising. Fifty mosques described as ‘superfluous’ were closed down and the construction or planning of new mosques was halted. Also, all imams were required to write a letter to the government pledging their loyalty. The cross-border contacts of ethnic minorities have given rise to government fears that Islamic fundamentalism will erode Chinese solidarity. The CCP has been adamant in its assertion that the nationalities cannot develop culturally or economically without the assistance of the Hans, the ‘advanced nationality’. Thus, Han determinism replaced self-determination.

China launched a mass propaganda campaign against separatism in 2000, following a spate of pro-independence terrorist attacks. State media said thousands of officials were being sent from house to house in villages near the far-western city of Kashgar to warn residents not to support separatism or illegal religious activities. The Xinjiang Daily said mass propaganda teams were now touring villages near Kashgar, close to the border with Pakistan in an area that has seen frequent unrest. It said the teams had gone from door to door stressing China’s claim to Xinjiang. The warnings were meant to be a reminder of China’s fears about the influence of Islamist thinking filtering in from Central Asia and the role of exiles in neighbouring countries and in Turkey with which Xinjiang’s majority Uyghur population shares linguistic ties. The state’s fear that outsiders will challenge Chinese unity is somewhat similar to the political situation in South Asia, where India’s neighbouring countries have been known to help secessionists; for example, Pakistan in the case of Kashmir and Myanmar, and China with the separatist movements in North East India.

The reappearance of nationalism in Xinjiang led to the growing concerns in Beijing about the problem of separatism or ‘splitism’, as it is often inelegantly translated in official Chinese documents, and these terms are also applied to demands for Tibetan independence. When the Uyghurs arrived in Beijing, they were easily identified as outsiders or the ‘other’ because of their different appearance and significant otherness, and they became the easy target and focal point for general dislike and suspicion. Research conducted in October 2003 by Amnesty International revealed that Uyghur Muslims outside Xinjiang, in places like Turkey, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have been applying for asylum. In fact, several of them asked that their names and other identifying details be withheld as they feared for their own safety or for the safety of relatives living in the Xinjiang Ughur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Anyone in the XUAR found passing information to the outside world about human rights abuses is at risk of arbitrary detention, torture and other serious human rights violations. High levels of repression have severely curtailed the flow of information from the region on human rights violations in recent years. One example is the general lack of publicly available information about death sentences and executions in the region. Amnesty International has documented reports of such cases on a yearly basis for the whole of China, including the XUAR, and until 2002 sentences and executions were regularly being reported in the media in the XUAR, which was the only place in China where people were being sentenced to death for political reasons. Now, however, death sentences and executions are only rarely being reported in the official media, apparently because the authorities have become more sensitive to concerns raised by the international community. Amnesty International’s research reveals several disturbing trends, including harassment by the Chinese authorities of relatives of Uyghurs who flee abroad, increasing attempts by the Chinese authorities to curtail the political and human rights activities of Uyghur activists in other countries. There are also growing fears amongst many Uyghurs abroad, including asylum seekers and refugees, of being forcibly returned to China.

The Chinese government has also moved swiftly to formalise relations with the new Central Asian republics. On the one hand, they are Xinjiang’s closest neighbours and vital for trade and communications; while on the other, they are the home of ethnic groups related to the Turkic and other people of Xinjiang from whom they had been separated for decades. There have been reports of illegal and unregistered mosques being demolished, and China News reported that the police in Urumchi had stepped up its anti-separatist activities. Both military repression and Han immigration will cause deepening resentment, and while militarisation of the border regions may prevent separatism from being successful in the short term, it is difficult to see how Beijing can retain control over Southern Xinjiang, Altishahr and the Ili region indefinitely without brutal repression on a massive scale.

Recent Events

To understand how the unrest in the summer of 2009 developed in Urumqi and other parts of Xinjiang, what interests are at play and why it is proving so difficult for local and national authorities to deal with, the concept of Chinese colonial rule over Xinjiang is one with considerable explanatory power. Violence in Xinjiang has attracted worldwide attention in recent times. The biggest factors behind the rising tension between the Chinese government and the ethnic Uyghurs are socio-economic and demographic. Many Han Chinese in Urumqi express genuine bafflement at the evident discontent of their Uyghur neighbours, asking themselves ‘Why do they hate us?’ and ‘What more do they want?’, given the benevolent Chinese aims of economic development and modernisation. What is missing from this understanding is a conception of the inevitably skewed nature of the economic development that has taken place; it has not been designed or managed by the Uyghurs or other non-Chinese groups and it has not primarily benefitted the local Uyghur community, both classic features of colonialism in which development serves the interests of the metropolitan power. Development has also mostly been urban, which, as in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, has ensured that the benefits have accrued disproportionately to Han Chinese migrants and not to the formerly dominant ethnic groups, who are typically a small minority now in all the major cities of China’s ethnic autonomous groups.

The high average incomes generated by Xinjiang’s oil economy disguise great inequalities within the XUAR and a lower average standard of living for Uyghurs than for Han Chinese. The region is heavily militarised and, especially in Urumqi, family connections to Han Chinese elites at the top of the government, the army, and state-owned enterprises give an advantage to Han candidates. For example, in civil service jobs in 2006, the US Congressional Executive Commission on China found that 800 out of the 840 openings were reserved for Han Chinese. Systematic educational disadvantage is also part of this pattern. And yet Uyghur gratitude is expected and this expectation is reinforced daily in Urumqi’s buildings, public spaces and even its street names. Visitors to the city’s museums cannot avoid huge socialist realist dioramas of smiling locals in ethnic dress presenting gifts to their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) liberators, and ice carvings on similar themes that dominated People’s Square this Chinese New Year. Even the names of the major roads—Liberation, Victory, New China, New People—reinforce the message from China to the indigenous peoples of Xinjiang: everything you have comes from this thing that we did for you, and you must be grateful.

The exotic colonial ‘other’ can be very attractive to the metropolitan population, but it can also be feared. The incident this summer at a factory in Dongguan, Guangdong province, which sparked off the original Urumqi protests, is familiar in outline with many other colonial societies, based as it was on the fear of sexual contact between ethnic minority men and women of the colonial power. Briefly, in Dongguan, violence broke out at a toy factory after rumours spread that one or possibly two young Chinese women had been raped by Uyghur workers. And although both confirmed that the alleged rapes never happened, two Uyghur men were beaten to death in the hours of violence that followed with the police arriving at the spot towards dawn.

Han Chinese in Urumqi do not trust the government and police assurances about their safety, which is why some feel that they have to take the security into their own hands. Exercising colonial rule over a territory has historically proved an expensive business and usually a net loss to the colonisers, but settlers based on a long-term basis in a colonial territory have been the one group who have consistently benefitted. And because they do well out of the system as it is, settlers then seek to protect their benefits against erosion by new economic or political arrangements, which might give a more equal share in prosperity to the colonised people and work to shape policy in the territory in their own interests.

In the backlash against supposed separatist elements in the Urumqi protests allegedly stirred up from exile by Rebiya Kadeer, the Chinese authorities are taking some measures that seem short-sighted, even vindictive, such as the demolition of the trade centre named after Kadeer, which will force the closure of many small businesses run by Uyghur women under an empowerment programme she launched. In 1949, Hans accounted for less than seven per cent of Xinjiang’s populations—compared with almost 40 per cent today. The Han population is concentrated in urban centres like Urumqi, Shihezi and Karamay, where living standards are generally much higher than in the countryside. Many amongst the Han population have long resented the preferential treatment reserved for Uyghurs, such as quota systems for university education opportunities as well as the differential application of the family planning policy that allows Uyghur families to have more than one child, a policy initiated by the Chinese government to protect the minorities in China.

Uyghur separatist organisations with bases in neighbouring Afghanistan have carried out a series of bombings and assassinations in China. This has led Beijing to implement a harsh domestic response and develop policies that follow contemporary Western counter-terrorism measures. Most recently, Beijing blamed Uyghur exile groups based in Western countries for instigating the violence.

Policies in Xinjiang Are Similar to Policies in Tibet

The use of coercion is not uncommon in Chinese history as far as religious groups are concerned. Policies towards Xinjiang are similar to the policies that were directed towards Tibet. As far as Tibetan Buddhism is concerned, moves against the Dalai Lama were accompanied by a series of ‘patriotic education campaigns’, which aimed to win over support to the Chinese among ordinary Tibetans. Chinese authorities kept a watchful eye on what was happening at the main monasteries, including setting up democratic management committees that in theory were designed to make monasteries more democratic, but they also had the effect of strengthening government control over monks. China launched a campaign to fully integrate Tibet into the PRC politically and socially and militarily. In places like Tibet, in a visible show of force, the Chinese began entrenching their troops and placing machine guns behind their sandbags around the buildings they had occupied during the Tibetan invasion, and have imposed tighter control over religious life. Whilst during liberal periods Tibetan culture and ethnicity will be enhanced and Han Chinese working in Tibet will have to learn Tibetan, Tibetans can control their region only through Tibetan Communist cadres under the auspices of the CCP. The government has tried to maintain political control and legal restrictions but, wherever local conditions permit, religious activities come bubbling to the surface, festivals for the Gods are held, traditional funerals and burial rituals are restored, destroyed images and shrines are replaced, priests reappear to perform rituals and congregations meet to worship. This clearly shows that Beijing’s policy of might is right will not work for long and will in the end prove to be futile. And as a rich array of religious belief systems have re-emerged, like the Falun Gong and Yiguando, the regime faces continuing challenges of maintaining sufficient control to ensure political control while still presenting a broad image of tolerance. Public security departments have taken broad responsibilities to enforce regulations controlling religious activities and have participated actively in suppression campaigns. And the possible charge of ‘heresy’ will always be there, lurking in changing party politics. Many local cadres have played a part in suppressing local traditions, others in rebuilding them.

Democratic Change and Its Implications for Ethnic Minorities

Despite such a gloomy picture, it will be inaccurate to suggest that nothing has changed in China’s processes of governance in recent times. Indeed, there has been the gradual spread of competitive village elections, the reform of the civil service and there have been changes in the recruitment processes to the party. We have seen the decentralisation of power to local governments, the gradual spread of rule of law and the invigoration of national and local parliaments. These broader political changes should not be seen or assessed in isolation but will have implications and repercussions for religious groups as well. The process of reform has unsettled existing norms and values, and more space has been opened up for non-conforming groups and religious minorities.

Uyghurs in Beijing, for instance, have been able to achieve an independent public voice that often challenges their orthodox representation in nationally distributed culture and media. This is a voice that extends not only beyond Xinjiang but beyond China, and although there are only a few thousand Uyghurs in Beijing, they are playing a significant role in Uyghur identity, representation and nationalism. The important thing about Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing is that many of them cater to non-Uyghurs, both Chinese and foreigners, and their Uyghur owners consciously use them to express non-official versions of Uyghur identity through artistic performances, objects as well as casual conversations with customers. The loosening of state control over social life and the move to a free market economy have created new urban spaces and non-state spaces where people can enjoy a considerable amount of freedom from the state and its associated institutions. For two decades, China has experienced phenomenal economic growth, which has torn down the old building blocks of its society as well as its polity. The Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing obviously provide an example of a non-state space.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, it can be said that the state’s policies towards ethnic minorities and religious groups generally, and towards the Uyghurs in particular, have changed to some degree from 1965, but by and large have been a policy of force and high-handedness (more so in earlier times) and the state has tried to act as the cultural police. Party efforts are consistent with the regime’s historical practices of identifying and enforcing norms of social conformity by denigrating and attacking non-conformists. Regulation of religion in China is used not only to control religious practices but also to express the boundaries of tolerance and repression, so as to isolate resistance and privilege communities loyal to the party state and thus the government promises tolerance for the compliant and repression for the resistant. And although Chinese leaders talk about ‘China’s Peaceful Rise’, their actions within the country and the way they deal with some of their domestic issues prove otherwise.

One of China’s aims is to assert itself in the international arena as a major power and, for this, control over borderland regions, like Xinjiang, will be necessary not only to maintain what some officials see as national territorial integrity but also to develop domestic industries. Xinjiang has 25 per cent of China’s oil and natural gas reserves and 38 per cent of its coal. It is also rich in minerals. About 68 million hectares or 41.2 per cent of Xinjiang’s total area is considered for the development of agricultural cultivation, forestry and animal husbandry. Xinjiang is also one of the country’s five major grazing areas and is home to 699 species of wild fauna, including 85 species of fish. More than 4,000 species of wild flora have been identified, all of which are of significant economic value to the state. Xinjiang is also linked to parts of Central and South Asia either by road or by rail links, which in turn has made it an important strategic transport corridor to other parts of Asia. Because of its strategic and economic importance, it is important for Beijing to tighten its grip over Xinjiang. And although democratising tendencies have appeared in China, especially since the 1980s, the situation for the Uyghur community until recent times has remained pretty much the same although there have been some liberal periods, especially under Deng.

It is important for the Uyghur diaspora to establish links with the international community and create awareness in the West, especially amongst non-governmental organisations and human rights activists, so that it can exert some pressure on the Chinese state to correct the plight of the Uyghurs. In this connection, mention may be made of the World Uyghur Congress, which is an international organisation that aims to represent the collective interest of the Uyghur people both in East Turkestan and abroad. Of course, whether it actually does represent the collective interest of the Uyghurs is highly controversial. For instance, use of the term ‘East Turkestan’ rather than Xinjiang is the World Uyghur Congress’ view, which implies an independent state, but this is not necessarily everybody’s view. Regional organisations in East Asia can also play a crucial role by putting pressure on the Chinese establishment so that at some point the latter will be forced to engage in dialogue with the Uyghur community. More dialogue will lead to more transparency, which will help in the process of confidence-building.

Ultimately, for the Uyghurs and Hans to live peacefully together, the legitimate complaints of both groups must be addressed. Political, social and economic realities have led to this conflict, meaning that sound policies in these areas can also provide a solution. Beijing’s development policies in Xinjiang will need to be more balanced, respecting the cultural traditions of the Uyghurs, and there also needs to be more equitable distribution of the national income. Economic benefits of the modernisation process need to trickle down more equitably, avoiding concentration of wealth in a few hands, especially the Hans. The Chinese government must address unemployment through targeted programmes that increase Uyghur employment rates and implement policies that raise the material standards of the Uyghurs in rural areas. Uyghurs and Hans also need to understand each other’s perspective. As the majority group in China, the Hans bear a greater responsibility for maintaining positive ethnic relations and trust needs to be built through constructive dialogue.