The Uyghurs and China: lost and found nation

About the author
Yitzhak Schichor is professor in the department of East Asian studies at the University of Haifa

The reports of violence and deaths in the city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province in northwest China, draw renewed attention to this comparatively neglected region of China and of central Asia. The exact details of what happened there on the night of 5-6 July 2009 are unclear and (inevitably) disputed, though the background may include the assaults on Uyghur migrant workers at a toy factory in Guangdong province on 26 June (in which two are reported dead and dozens injured).

Yitzhak Shichor is professor in the department of East Asian studies at the University of Haifa

This article draws on an essay for the Uighur Diaspora Video Project

But if the details of the immediate incident await to be confirmed, there is less doubt over the larger context of Uyghur experience - both under Chinese rule and in the exile which over many years many Uyghurs have been driven towards or chosen.

Uyghurs are a Turkic-Muslim ethnic group which has been living in East Turkestan for centuries. This region, reoccupied by the Qing dynasty in the mid-18th century, had become a Chinese province named Xinjiang in 1884; in 1955, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in October 1949, was reorganised as the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. The official statistics for 2007 suggest that Uyghurs now number more than 10 million, and thus constitute Xinjiang's largest minority at almost 50% of its population - though this is a sharp reduction from 95% at the time of the communist takeover in 1949, the result of significant Chinese settlement in the region. The numbers of Uyghurs and Han Chinese are now roughly equal.

Uyghurs, claiming Xinjiang as their historical homeland, have repeatedly tried to gain independence and set up their own state - but just as repeatedly failed. Beijing, considering them a separatist and "splittist" group, has used a variety of means - cultural, social, economic, political and military - to crush any sign of restiveness among Uyghurs (see James A Millward,  Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang [C Hurst, 2007]).

The world of exile

For many years Beijing had regarded Uyghur unrest in China as an internal problem that should and would be settled without external interference. Since the early 1990s, however, Beijing has become aware of the growing concern in the international community about the Uyghurs' persecution in China. This concern has been kindled and promoted by Uyghur diaspora organisations all over the world. Most Uyghurs outside China have settled in central Asia, the majority in Kazakhstan (some 350,000), but also in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (around 50,000 each). The precise numbers are difficult to verify, in part because of the occasional similarity between Uyghurs and the people of other central Asian nations (primarily Uzbeks), and their gradual assimilation into the local population. Moreover, Uyghurs have been settling elsewhere in central Asia since the 19th century, and have since been intensively Russified. Altogether, the Uyghur diaspora may number 550,000-650,000.

Also in openDemocracy on Xinjiang:

James Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Henryk Szadziewski, "Kashgar's old city: the politics of demolition" (3 April 2009)

Uyghurs migrated from China in waves, usually following deteriorating conditions or, conversely, when the doors were opened. Some left by the mid-1930s after the first - and short-lived - Eastern Turkestan Republic had collapsed, mostly to Turkey and to Saudi Arabia. Several hundred Uyghurs fled China in late 1949, following the Chinese communists' seizure of Xinjiang; among them were Isa Yusuf Alptekin and Mehmet Emin Bughra, former leaders of the (second) Eastern Turkestan Republic.

These former leaders first settled in India and then moved to Turkey where they headed Uyghur diaspora organisations with Ankara's support. In 1962, hardships related to the "great leap forward" led over 60,000 people from the region -  some of them Uyghurs  - to flee China for Kazakhstan (then part of the Soviet Union). Since the 1980s, the reforms of the post-Mao period and greater freedom of movement have enabled more Uyghurs to leave Xinjiang; several thousands have settled all over the world, some with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Uyghur diaspora communities have formed their own associations (occasionally more than one) in every area they have settled. These have the aims of preserving Uyghur collective identity (i.e. culture and language), and sustaining and promoting shared national aspirations - ultimately,  independence for East Turkestan. In trying to overcome the fragmentation and disagreements that have characterised these associations, attempts have been made to set up international Uyghur "umbrella" organisations (such as the Eastern Turkestan National Congress, set up in Turkey in 1992; and the East Turkestan Government-in-Exile, formed in Washington in autumn 2004).

Most such attempts have failed to achieve the unity they sought. A movement that has a chance to survive is the World Uyghur Congress, inaugurated in April 2004 in Munich. Its first president was Erkin Alptekin, son of Isa Yusuf ; its second, elected in November 2006, is Rebiya Kadeer (who had earlier been compelled to leave China, who has established a worldwide reputation as a human-rights advocate for the Uyghurs - and who is explicitly named by Beijing as being responsible for fomenting the latest unrest). The World Uyghur Congress now represents most Uyghur diaspora associations; it promotes a moderate agenda underlain by a quest for human rights, democracy and self-determination, without mentioning independence.

The well of resistance

This policy appears to be more attractive to foreign governments and NGOs, which are broadly reluctant to irritate or alienate the Chinese government. Some of these governments are also facing separatist claims. In fact, it has been under Chinese threats and pressure that Ankara was forced to officially adopt a more hostile attitude toward Uyghur expatriates; this obliged the Uyghur diaspora headquarters to relocate to western Europe and north America, far from Beijing's reach.

Beijing's tough reaction reflects its growing concern about the effective activities of Uyghur diaspora groups. These include petitions, demonstrations, briefings of parliamentarians and government officials, a sophisticated use of the internet at least sixty websites are devoted to the issue of Uyghur persecution, the abuse of human rights in Xinjiang, Beijing's "strike hard" campaigns and its denial of self-determination). Some of the Uyghur websites have been systematically compromised and paralysed by China.

A minority of Uyghur diaspora organisations and leaders are more militant and consider the use of force against China as the most efficient means to change its policy (see James A Millward, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment [East-West Center, Washington, 2004]). The majority of Uyghurs, however, prefer the use of peaceful means. Beijing's repeated attempts to link Uyghurs to international terrorism - not least over the seventeen Uyghurs who had been incarcerated at Guantánamo since early 2002, and destined in June 2009 for release to the Bahamas and Palau -  have been mostly dismissed as unfounded fabrications.

It is too early to establish the precise circumstances of the turmoil in Urumqi on 5-6 July 2009. What can be said is that a full explanation of what happened will need to take into account the official policies of Beijing in the region, and the experience of Uyghurs - both in Xinjiang and abroad - over several generations.