- Xinjiang was incorporated into China in the 1800s. After WWII, they split into two factions in the Chinese civil war, the majority supporting the KMT. After the KMT lost through the rest of China, Xinjiang agreed to join the CCP.
- Mao recanted his promises. Han Chinese were always favored in Xinjiang politically and economically, leading to severe socio-economic stratification and a “Hanification” of Xinjiang. The Chinese regime then outlawed any kind of protest against the policies imposed on Xinjiang and closed up most of the spaces in which the culture and the religious convictions of the Uyghurs could be expressed. Frustrations boiled.
- In the 1980s with the independence of Turkic republics in central Asia and the victory of the Afghans over the Soviets, as well as Xiaoping’s opening of China, led to the formation of various separatist groups in Xinjiang, most of them focusing on freeing Xinjiang from the yoke of the Chinese.
- In the 90s Beijing then clamped down harder and opted for stronger repression. The situation has only worsened over the years. All hopes of self government or even dialogue with Beijing has gone wayside. Now that relations have completely broken down, acts of violence have replaced peaceful demonstrations as the expression of the Uyghur malaise.
- The Chinese government exaggerates the terrorist threat, but they do nothing to change their policies that cause unrest.
- Isolated by skillful Chinese diplomacy, what remains of the Uyghur opposition in Xinjiang is now open to all kinds of extremism, which we’ve seen lead up to a declared “people’s war on terror” in 2014 and the mass detentions since 2017.
The brutality Muslims in China are experiencing is unbearable to watch. I cannot imagine being in their situation. All I can do is pray for them and give whatever small political support I can. But it is also important to be informed about the roots of conflicts.
One thing notable is that no one should expect Xinjiang or East Turkestan to become an independent state again. That’s highly improbable, even before this incident, decades ago. It would economically stifle them to be independent from China and there is no way China will let go of a territory, which could lead to unrest in other parts of China and instability on its borders. Rather, playing smart politics and asking for concessions where desired would be better, which some Uyghur organizations attempt to do. Peaceful, political activity and perhaps non-violent protest could have potentially achieved the desired outcomes, or at least inched towards them. The occasional violence perpetrated by disgruntled Uyghurs unfortunately only serves to add fuel to fire of propaganda for the Chinese government.
So what happened? Several things happened. Almost nothing in history happens because of one reason. When studying history we must understand that every faction and individual typically has a personal agenda behind teaching you history, and the reasons they claim that certain events happen reflects their own biases. History is an abused subject, riddled with propaganda. So I’ll do my best to be objective here, insha’Allah.
Some acronyms to know first:
- the PLA were the Communist side of China’s civil war.
- The KMT were their opposition. A number of Muslims fought for the KMT, both Hui and Uyghers.
- The KMT were supported by the United States.
- The ETR split off from the KMT and sided with the Soviets.
- The CCP is the current Communist Party of China.
A review of basic history of Xinjiang:
- Xinjiang has a fairly complicated history with China that is not necessarily cut-and-dry. You can get a basic gist of it by reading the Wikipedia article’s history section as well as this specific article on its incorporation into China.
- Xinjiang/East Turkestan was annexed by China in the mid-eighteenth century.
- From 1933-1934 they had a brief breakaway as the First East Turkestan Republic (ETR), a pan-Turkic movement, in response to various economic abuses by the local government. Uyghurs, Hui, Han, and Kyrgyz all participated in the rebellion. They desired equality among all nationalities, but foreign states remained neutral and refused support and recognition. It was put down by the armies of the Hui Chinese Muslim warlord Ma Zhongying in 1934.
- During and after WWII, Xinjiang was caught in the Chinese civil war between the KMT and PLA. A northern part of Xinjiang broke off from the KMT and formed the Second ETR (1944-1949) with Soviet support.
- When the KMT lost in 1949, the Uygher’s political leaders in Xinjiang and the ETR agreed with the PLA to incorporate Xinjiang into China. The Soviets urged the ETR to do so as well. A number of ETR reps died in a mysterious plane crash during negotiations. The PLA then peacefully marched into Xinjiang and a number of KMT and ETR officials accepted government positions in the new CCP government. Despite this, the Uyghers have had some issues with political representation in China ever since, though China has given them some concessions over the years as well.
- From the 1950s onwards, the communist regime encouraged the settlement of Han population centers in order to secure, control and exploit the region, which is rich in hydrocarbons, mineral resources and virgin agricultural land.
- In the 80s, former Chinese president Deng Xiaoping started a program called the Opening of China. People started traveling again. Persecuted folks of various religions and backgrounds had their restrictions lifted. Economic reform made a bustling economy. Travel restrictions were lifted, and Muslims were allowed to make Hajj again. Several thousand Chinese Muslims made hajj, and Saudi Arabia took the opportunity to spread Salafism among these new arrivals, who returned to China with Chinese translations of Salafi books and fresh ideologies foreign to historically Hanafi China.
- The Hui and Uyghurs saw a general cultural and religious revival from this reopening. Quranic schools opened up. Among the Uyghurs it took a distinctive dimension, including using Islam to dinstinguish Uyghur values from the non-clerical and atheistic values promoted by the Chinese authorities. Uyghurs also sought to revive their culture to counter moral degeneration among the youth (the weakening of intergenerational solidarity, criminal behaviour, consumption of drugs and alcohol, etc.). Unfortunately some of these efforts, like the meshrep, were banned, as the CCP thought they may lead to separatist movements.
- After 1980, Uyghur students organized protests for the first time, one after another, espousing pro-seperatist rhetoric and spreading posters saying “Chinese out of Xinjiang”, “Independence for Xinjiang”, and “Cut off the railroad from China proper to Xinjiang.”
- The Afghan victory over the Soviets and the break-up of the Soviet Union, leading to the independence of the central Asian republics, encouraged Uyghur separatism. But China is a different challenge to break off from. The separatists also hoped to draw support from abroad.
- China was torn between opening up its borders for economic influx and trying to isolate the Uyghurs from foreign support in their independence. They resolved to speed up economic development in Xinjiang, strengthen security & collaboration with neighbors, colonize Xinjiang demographically (“Hanify” the place), and tightened its grip on worrisome political activities. Nonetheless, this failed to account for two major causes of dissent and destabilization: demand for self-government by Uyghurs, socio-economic stratification between Uyghurs and Han, and the resentment of cultural colonization.
- The Han Chinese in Xinjiang are doing great economically, boasting a high GDP per capita, but the Uyghurs are still in poverty. Unemployment among young Uyghurs has led to higher crime rates and drug use—though these are culturally alien to this Muslim society.
- Poverty led the Uyghurs to feel like second-rate citizens, in stark contrast to the promises made to them at the time of their “peaceful liberation.” This led many Uyghurs to think that they have been fooled by Peking’s communist pretensions and that, in reality, they are living under the yoke of a colonial regime.
- Only 37.3% of members of the Xinjiang Communist Party were minorities in 1997. This reflects the CCP’s suspicion of their loyalty towards Beijing. They’re often held in low posts where they can easily be controlled. The higher positions have been held down consistently by Han Chinese.
- In the 90s, we saw the first in a long series of terrorist attacks in China.
With that background, we’ll now review separatist and militant movements within Xinjiang:
- Uyghur militancy is driven mostly by a fringe group of young students and intellectuals, purged regularly by Chinese repression. They are founded on Uyghur nationalism tinged with Pan-Turkism.
- Up until the 1990s, two successive clandestine groups in the tradition of the pre-1949 oppositional currents, both quite durable, dominated the underground political scene. Of these two nationalist Pan-Turkist parties, one, socialist and secular, relied on Soviet aid, and the other came from the anti-communist and Islamic tradition centred on the south of Xinjiang. Both could call upon a base of militancy that was relatively wide compared with present-day groupings. At the same time they were counting on significant underground mobilisation to prepare for a general uprising in Xinjiang.
- One was the East Turkestan People’s Revolutionary Party. Mainly drawing in Uyghurs but also Kazakhs, their goal was to initiate a second Revolution of the Three Districts to establish an independent Marxist-Leninist Uyghur state in the Xinjiang region, with help from the Soviet Union. It was gradually weakened by the arrest of its leaders, by the gradual falling away of Soviet support as the tension between Moscow and Beijing relaxed, and then by the decline of the communist ideology. Nevertheless, while the ETPP was in decline, a new party of anti-Marxist opposition was developing in southern Xinjiang.
- The second movement is the Turkistan Islamic Party, an Islamic pan-Turkic nationalist movement that aimed at renewing Islam among Uyghurs and developed from networks of mosques in southern Xinjiang during the 1980s. Likely inspired by the success of the mujahideen against the Soviets, the TIP became prominent in April 1990 during the Baren Township riot. The conflict took the form of a jihad which envisioned a similar result to the earlier creation of the First East Turkestan Republic (1933-1934). Their slogans contained anti-Communist rhetoric and calls for uniting Turks, indicating a movement akin to Islamic pan-Turkism historically congruent with southern Xinjiang rather than pure, radical Salafi jihadism or religious extremism. The revolt lasted several days and was put down by the CCP, who deployed significant forces to suppress the insurrection. The CCP viewed them as a jihadist movement akin to the mujahideen in Afghanistan across the border which gave birth to more radical movements such as the Party of Allah and the Islamic Movement of East Turkistan. The CCP’s subsequent repression prevented them from reforming again with significant force.
- Several back-and-forth events occurred in the 90s, including a bus bombing in 1992 and another in 1997, disturbances in 1993, riots/demonstrations in 1995 and 1997, etc resulted in heavier Chinese repression. In April 1996 China enacted a “strike hard” campaign to tighten its grip on Xinjiang. Again in 1999 and April and October 2001 they renewed their crackdowns, arresting thousands, human rights violations, and liberal use of the death penalty. The harshness gave the impression that the target was not so much separatism or Islamism, but Uyghur identity.
- Local politicians in Xinjiang, under the commands of the CCP, were unable to challenge highly problematic policies, like nuclear tests at Lop Nor (last one was in 1996), restrictions on religious freedom, and enforcing birth control. These policies provoked numerous protests, and the local authorities, unable to challenge Beijing’s enforced policies, simply react with brutality.
- In the Diaspora, most organisations began with the rejection of violent action while lobbying for the Uyghurs’ basic rights to be protected, like the World Uyghur Congress. In contrast, in Xinjiang, shorter-lived groups but with more radical methods appeared. They protected themselves by retaining small memberships or taking refuge outside China. They carried out numerous guerrilla operations (sabotage, arson, attacks on police barracks or military bases), and even escalated to acts of terrorism (assassinations of Han officials or Uyghur collaborators, and bomb attacks). The increasing frequency of acts of violence and terrorism in Xinjiang during the 1990s does not mean that all the Uyghur political movements support these modes of action. But, just recently, the Chinese authorities have generally harped on about the frequency of acts of violence to give the Uyghur opposition the image of a primarily terrorist force. The CCP originally kept these incidents hushed, but after 9/11 decided to publicize the more violent acts and terrorist attacks during this period.
- Still, militant, radical Muslim ideologies have penetrated certain Uyghur groups. This may be caused by a few factors:
- Their socio-political model may seem preferable to the invasive Chinese model
- They may have hoped that a strict Islamic framework might help them find a solution to the social issues
- A lack of foreign support from the USSR, central Asian states, and the West led them to using the solidarity of the Muslim ummah to attempt to win political support, funds, and fallback bases to aid in their struggle against Chinese hegemony
- These Islamist links began in the 1980s under the Opening of China. Uyghurs traveling abroad for study or on Hajj came into contact with various proselytizing movements, and some studying abroad also took courses in Quranic schools sometimes attached to Islamist movements. Foreign preachers, mainly from Pakistan, also enjoyed the open borders to preach in China itself, especially with the opening of the Karakoram Highway in 1986 to cross-border trade. Though China and Pakistan try to maintain good relations, the preaching has irritated the Chinese and as a sign of protest, they closed their border from 1992-94, and then arrested almost 450 Pakistanis for “illegal actions” in Xinjiang. Pakistani traders who pass through Kashgar avoid the mosques to “keep out of trouble with the Chinese authorities.”
- In various countries, small numbers of Uyghurs have joined various political movements, such as the Islamic Renaissance Party in Kazakhstan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) or else Hizb-ut Tahrir (HT) in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, various movements in Pakistan and many received religious education in Pakistan. Some participated in the Soviet-Afghan War and a few even were involved in the Kashmir conflict via Lashkar-e Taiba, Hizb ul-Mujahidin, and other groups. Nonetheless, Uyghurs amount to a negligible portion of foreign fighters in various movements.
- A small number of Islamic groups were formed in the 1990s which the CCP claims are tied to Salafi jihadist networks. Due to a lack of reliable information, it’s hard to verify this or identify their ideology. They begin with a core of Uyghurs who were given Islamist training abroad and are sometimes trained in combat and explosives. Around them are locally recruited militants, but they do not recruit from the Hui and their discourse emphasizes liberating East Turkistan rather than creating an Islamic state or returning to a purified Islam, suggesting their agenda is still mainly nationalistic.
- The Uyghurs continue to practice Islam that is strongly influenced by Sufism and the concept of sainthood. Apart from those who have gone abroad or some metropolitan youth who are often disconnected from Sufi networks, the people of Xinjiang are still generally resistant to radical versions of Islam and often seem to be very critical of such practices.
- Without any large recruitment effort, these groups mainly focus on recruiting young people from the urban working class, mainly in southern Xinjiang. These urban youth, disconnected from Sufi networks, provide a reservior for recruitment. The Islamist groups in Xinjiang lost most of their members and have been largely dismantled by the police as of 2003. Though the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) have been growing, who use peaceful political methods and are ultra secretive, so its members are less exposed to Chinese repression compared to violent jihadist groups. It also stresses self-improvement, offering a solution to the social problems among Uyghurs (crime, drugs, collapse of social solidarity, etc.). Its political project of starting and joining a great caliphate offers a hope and vision for winning freedom from China, however plausible or implausible it may be.
- It is worth noting that there is no structure controlling the various Uyghur movements in Xinjiang and abroad and the majority of them have no connection with radical Islam. The Chinese government, however, tries to draw connections (however real or imaginary) to radical groups and demonize any opposition in Xinjiang with a broad brush to justify its repressive actions. China used the wider pretext of the War on Terror and America’s fears of violent extremism to label its political enemies as terrorists, such as the ETIM.
Tough geography is another factor. They’re bordered with Russia, the Chinese, and Afghanistan. There’s so many factions pushing and pulling, mixed in with the various turmoils of history in that region (like the Cold War, Communism, etc.), it’s just a tough political landscape.
A certain scholar I know who shall not be named used to teach in Saudi Arabia in the 90s. Some Salafi Uyghurs showed up once in Riyadh asking for support and a means to wage “jihad” against China. He and the Saudi ulema were horrified, advised them strongly against it, and he told them that China is not to be messed with and if they do this, they will orphan your children and take your women.
Trying to fight China with terrorism was unwise and only worsened the situation. 2012-2014 saw a series of numerous terrorist attacks in China, leading to a “year-long campaign against terrorism” which has gone on far longer.
If you think America is brutal, the War on Terror is nothing compared to what China will do to people. China is ruthless. Granted, only a few Uyghers chose such a path (I.E. the TIP), and all the rest of the millions of Muslims in China are now caught in between who did not agree with such activity. A few spoil it for the rest, sadly. Tragic situation. May Allah ﷻ grant them a peaceful solution.
I myself narrowly missed the train stabbing in Kunming in 2014. I was there a few days later and wasn’t even aware of the incident until afterwards. I was wondering why everyone was so tense.
The NYT has an article about the Chinese governments’ internal discourse that led to the harsh oppression we’re seeing:
President Xi Jinping, the party chief, laid the groundwork for the crackdown in a series of speeches delivered in private to officials during and after a visit to Xinjiang in April 2014, just weeks after Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31. Mr. Xi called for an all-out “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism” using the “organs of dictatorship,” and showing “absolutely no mercy.”
Radio Free Asia gives more background to the stabbing incident: a mosque closure and arrest of an imam in June 2013 led to a protest in Xinjiang. The police indiscriminately opened fire on the unarmed protesters, killing 15 and injuring 50 others. A series of arrests, reprisals, and about a dozen extrajudicial killings in Xinjiang pushed some to try to flee. Over 100 Uyghurs in Yunnan were arrested in the following months, many of them held for trying to flee across the border into Laos without passports. Laos is a common destination for Uyghurs seeking asylum abroad. 30 Uyghurs were arrested in Mohan, Yunnan on the border with Laos in September 2013 and many other Uyghurs around Yunnan. The perpetrators of the knife attack were likely also trying to flee, but without ID cards to work in Yunnan and with arrest warrants over their heads after the Mohan arrests, they likely decided to take revenge for the deaths of their comrades in Xinjiang and go down with a fight rather than be arrested with an unclear fate. Now president Xi Jinping likely is unaware of such a background to the incident, and probably acted upon the outward appearances of such events. All he may see is terrorism, whereas the Uyghurs see frustrated kinfolk resorting to violence. Sadly, it appears that the harder push to “Hanify” the Uyghurs was a reaction to this incident, including the internment camps, where the Chinese in power presume that forcing a sense of Chinese nationalism down their throats is an antidote to terrorism, when in reality, it’s been the cause for decades.
The Chinese also watch the news, and ISIS’ exploits in Syria, the Turkestan Islamic Party’s (TIP) activities in Syria, years of Salafi jihadist terrorism worldwide, and the war in Afghanistan (which borders Xinjiang) seemed to have made the CCP uneasy about separatist activity and terrorism within China. Once America pulls out of Afghanistan, will it be used as a springboard against China where terrorists can establish a base of operations that China cannot thwart? Terrorist attacks and unrest in Xinjiang was growing steadily through 2014, and it’s no doubt that the CCP worried it would only escalate and worsen. So they resolved to counter “extremism” by attacking not only the perpetrators like the TIP, but everybody who is Muslim and could potentially support them. What notably slipped their mind is giving Uyghurs equal rights and opportunities to the Han, rather than continuing down the same path of colonization with no end in sight. Though sometimes, after decades of conflict, we can forget the roots of conflict and see surface-level events and forget their roots, where you’ll find real solutions. Though president Xi seems to know the history of Xinjiang, is he aware of the extent of social stratification? Perhaps quality journalism documenting this in detail could be helpful.
Understand as well that non-Muslims like average Americans and the Han are not educated about the nuances of Islam and Islamic history. Most Muslims have no idea what’s actually going on, let alone non-Muslims. People are very ignorant and there’s all sorts of folks spreading propaganda to further obfuscate the matter. What the CCP sees as “extremism” among the Uyghurs may be perceived in the same way many others perceive it: that Islam itself is to blame, rather than differentiating between terrorist groups and regular Muslims. The line blurs, so every Muslim is targeted and all expressions of Islam are molded into the same framing, and everybody takes the heat.
A common theme I also hear is that “terrorism is the cry of the oppressed.” This is fallacious because of two reasons:
- it assumes that the oppressed had no other option, which is false. Gandhi and Martin Luther King are prime examples of nonviolent protest being very effective.
- This phrase also assumes that only oppressed people commit terrorism, also false. Terrorism is one option that certain folks choose. Bin Laden was in no way oppressed, he was a millionaire with plenty of freedom, but he chose the path of terrorism to further his own political aims, which clearly failed on every front. There’s many other examples (Iranian Shia proxies, drug cartels, etc).
Terrorism generally doesn’t work, not to mention it’s haram. Do we expect a haram methodology to work?
So What is the Solution?
Having covered the background to the situation, it appears that the solution is to address its root causes: economic and social stratification in Xinjiang. Pushing for an independent “East Turkistan” to emerge out of Xinjiang is likely to only cause more harm and result in more pushback from the Chinese government, who are unlikely to give up the territory without a fight–a fight that they are unlikely to lose and have been winning for over a century anyways. Instead, the Chinese government needs to respect the Uyghur culture and religion and address the underlying “Han first” preferences in economic and government jobs and education. The menial labor they’re currently forcing the Uyghurs into is not much of a long-term solution, but more of a collective punishment (cue videos of hairdressing, hospitality, and other low-level employment education in internment camps). The Uyghurs need to unite under a peaceful political banner with clear, written requests to address these issues, and continually petition the CCP to create a plan of action to cure the woes of Xinjiang’s socio-economic stratification.
- ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims – Internal discourse in the CCP about their decision-making process leading up to this terrible situation.
- The Uyghurs in Xinjiang – The Malaise Grows – Academic, historical writing on this topic. Long read, but very educational. Major source material for this article.