The Uyghurs and China: A History of Repression

The Uyghurs’ struggle for autonomy in Xinjiang and their repression by the Chinese State has recently gained the attention of the international media, yet this is just the latest stage of a long history of discrimination and conflict. This article aims to provide a brief historical background of the situation developing today in Xinjiang to readers and researchers without previous knowledge of the matter.

To do this, we are going to briefly expand on the situation in the region under the Qing, Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party administrations in the 19th and 20th centuries to then focus on its evolution in the first two decades of the new millennium. It has to be specified that this article deals with the evolution of the Uyghurs struggle in the region, and doesn’t focus on the development of the Uyghur Diaspora.


The first problem we face when dealing with the history of the Uyghurs and the area known as the Tarim Basin, later called Xinjiang (or East Turkestan, by the Uyghurs), is that it is defined by two opposites ideological narratives aimed at justifying the actions and positions of the respective sides, not at conducting a real historical analysis as illustrated in Bovingdon work “The Uyghurs. Strangers in Their Own Land” (2010):

  1. The Han Chinese claim that the area was always part of “China” since antiquity, something which is clearly not true because the region has been influenced, conquered, and dominated by a number of different empires, local states and people in the course of its history. Some of these were Han empires, but they were not the only ones, far from it.
  2. At the same time, Uyghur nationalists have claimed that Uyghurs were the native people of the area and have inhabited it for some 6000 years to strengthen the case for self-determination. The problem is that there is no real historical data supporting this theory either, since the only data that can be found identifying “Uyghurs” as a people in the area is that linked to the Uyghur Empire of 744-840 B.C. After that, this denomination used officially again only in a 1921 Soviet conference in Tashkent when, as Bovingdon (2010) states, «Soviet officers (…) divided Turkic-speaking central Asians into various ‘national’ groups to ward off the threat of a Pan-Turkist revolt». The problem is, effectively, the same problem found with the Chinese version of events: the region was extremely important for trade and hence it was subjected to the domination, invasions and influence of a multitude of people and countries throughout history and as such it is extremely difficult to establish if the original inhabitants of thousands of years ago are in any way related to present day Uyghurs.

This is one of the reasons why, despite the existence of two opposing narratives reaching back thousands of years in history, it is better to illustrate the historical background of Uygur-Chinese relations starting from the Qing empire’s domination of the region.


Birth of a province

While the Qing empire conquered the region from the Zunghar Khanate in the 1750s, it was only in 1884 that it was declared an official province and re-named “Xinjiang” (meaning ‘New Territory’).

The creation of the province was accompanied by the first real attempts at assimilation of the local Muslim population into the Han culture.

Indeed, as described in “The War on the Uyghurs. China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang Muslims” by Roberts (2020) before 1884, the Qing adopted a system of indirect rule creating some imperial outposts in the region and relying on the local Muslims own system (the Båg system), consisting in «local leaders essentially administrating issues of daily importance».

However, after 1884, the local system of governance was eradicated, with local leaders being reduced to the status of simple clerks, and replaced with bureaucratic networks led by Han administrators along with the establishment of an educational system in Mandarin based on Confucianism and later replaced with a Westernized scholastic system based on concepts of science.

Indeed, it could be said that under Qing rule, the region of Xinjiang would transform itself from a tributary territory in what Roberts (2020) defined as a “frontier colony”, a status which has been the de facto reality of the region up until the present day.


As mentioned earlier, however, the actual “Uyghur” self-determination movement developed in the 1920s, nearly a decade after the fall of Qing dynasty.

It was at first established by Uyghur Bolshevik sympathizers, inspired by the anti-imperialist ideas of Marxism-Leninism, in order to provide a national designation to the struggles of a local Turkic Muslim population. While sharing, in Roberts (2020) words, «a sense of space, history, customs, language, and the oral transmission of texts,» and being «shaped by their obvious difference from Han and Manchu administrators», they had not, until that point, expressed themselves in the form of a national movement or officially adopted the name “Uyghurs”.

Nonetheless the newly born Uyghur movement was involved and had an influence in the creation of the first Eastern Turkestan Republic (1933-1934) or ETR, that succeeded for a brief time in creating a multicultural administration run by local people and independent from the Han apparatus.

The development of the movement in that period is also strictly linked to two other main factors: the influence and support of the Soviet Union, and the extremely volatile political conditions of Xinjiang which, after the fall of the Qing dynasty, had been controlled by a series of governors only loosely tied to the Chinese central administration, ruling the region with an iron fist and treating it as their de facto personal fiefdom.


These factors were particularly evident during the rule of Sheng Shicai (1933-1944).

While being nominally the representative of the Chinese nationalist government, he was de facto loyal to the Soviet Union, which supported his rise to power and had a decisive influence in his administration of the region until 1942.

Emerging from a period of multi-ethnic rebellions that put the corrupt Qing administrative system in the region in crisis, at first, his rule seemed to benefit the Uyghur people.

Indeed, under the pressure of the Soviets, he promoted a series of policies aimed at engaging local Uyghurs with Soviet sympathies in the administration and co-opting much of the leadership of the then defunct first ETR, while promoting a socialist culture modelled on the soviet states in Central Asia and hence creating something near to a Soviet-inspired multi-ethnic state in the region.

These policies however were accompanied by the strengthening of a secret police apparatus in the region and hence a greater level of authoritarianism and suppression of dissent.


This situation proved short-lived.

Growing fearful of a resurgence of Uyghur religious nationalism, Sheng took advantage of Stalin’s infamous purges to suppress local elites and enact a massive purge of Uyghurs from his administration.

He also began a campaign of mass executions in the region which was justified by accusations of Trotskyism or of collaboration with foreign imperialism.

This campaign came full circle when Sheng cut ties with the Soviet Union in 1942, returning to the fold of the Chinese central government, and thereby he turned his repressive apparatus against Uyghur communists and Soviet supporters.

Sheng’s repression caused a new revolt, backed by the Soviet Union, which resulted in the formation of the Second Eastern Turkistan Republic (1944-1949).


The second ETR, while being a multi-national polity, was led by predominantly Uyghur leadership and was a massive influence on the Uyghur movement, becoming the model for the national aspirations of the Uyghur people in the decades to come.

After peace talks with the Kuomintang government brokered by the Soviets, the ETR would obtain the de facto autonomous control of the Ghulja region throughout the 1940s, and its administration, again in Roberts words, «published journals, newspapers and textbooks. It also made its own currency, had its own uniformed army, its own school system (…) flag and anthem».

The ETR and Soviet influenced the last Kuomintang government into adopting again more accommodating policies, involving Uyghurs and other local Muslims sympathetic to the government in the higher positions of the administration.

However, this brief period of relative empowerment for the local population would swiftly come to an end with the takeover of the Chinese government by the Communist party in 1949.

The first years of communist rule saw an apparent continuation of integration-minded policies, with the region gaining its current name of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in 1955.

The Uyghurs were also part of the recipients of land distribution and the creation of the state-controlled Islamic Association of China (still in existence today) in 1952 to oversee and organize Muslim religious activities.


At the roots of persecution

However, the situation quickly changed after the Sino Soviet split in the late 1950s.

Indeed, the Uyghurs were forced to face in a particularly brutal way the dire effects of the “Hundred flower campaign”, whose backlash saw the purge and sentencing to re-education and forced labour of many Uyghur people, of  the “Great Leap Forward”, which caused famines and disrupted the daily life of the Uyghur people through forced collectivization, and of the absolute chaos generated by the Cultural Revolution, which saw the closure of the educational system in the region condemning an entire generation of Uyghurs to illiteracy alongside systematic violent attacks by the Red Guards on local Muslims, clergy, and places of worship.

The Uyghur people also had to endure the first real systematic attempts at forced assimilation with the Chinese government trying to push through a “Hanification” of Xinjiang.

An effort still very much ongoing today, which translated in a systematic program to relocate, with different methods, large numbers of Han settlers in the region, with the Han population growing from 300.000 in 1953 to 5.287.000 in 1982, nearly equalling that of the Uyghurs.

One of the main methods used by the Chinese government to reach this aim was the establishment of the production corps system (XPCC) in 1954 which is still in place today and consisted in the creation of settlements throughout the region inhabited by de-mobilized communist and nationalist soldiers to employ both as production corps in agriculture and as a local armed militia.

According to Roberts (2020) the XPCC program has long served as a symbol of the colonial reality of the region, producing segregation, economic exploitation and military control.

These measures caused a series of rebellions against the Chinese Communist Party, the main one organized by the Eastern Turkistan People Revolutionary Party (ETPRP) in 1968-1970, which were swiftly crushed, alongside an exodus of Uyghur people in the Soviet Union at least until the borders closed in 1963.


In the Reform period, between the 1980s and the 1990s, there was a brief return to integration-minded policies in the region, during which Islam knew a cultural renaissance as Uyghurs schools, universities and mosques were re-opened and intellectuals previously sent to forced labour were freed and allowed to write and publish (at least to a certain extent).

This period however would not endure.

The following decade would be characterized by a mix of new economic opportunities, caused by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, along with a decisive clampdown on already limited civil liberties, provoked by a reaction of the CCP to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which had raised Uyghurs’ hopes that China would swiftly follow the same fate, granting them self-determination.

The renewed hope for self-determination and the revitalization of Islamic ideas of the previous decades alongside the effect of ever harsher and systemic clampdowns on civil liberties and restrictions led to tensions and repeated ‘incidents’ culminating in violence, bombings and repression during the 1990s.

This situation would provide the context for what was going to happen in the most recent decades.


Securitarian turn

Indeed, the first decade of the new millennium would see Han-Uyghur relations take an even more dramatic turn in respect to the tensions of the 1990s.

This turn was characterized mainly by three factors: the classification of Uyghur organizations as terrorists by US and China in the context of the War on Terror, the consequences of Chinese plans of development and urbanization particularly in the south of the Xinjiang region, and the 2009 Urumqi incidents.

China essentially supported at the international level the US War on Terror, while it pressured the US government to list at least one Uyghur organization in Afghanistan as a terrorist organization.

Paradoxically this organization, called the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) and known in recent years as TIP (Turkistan Islamic Party), was pretty much inconsequential for most of the 2000s and would have grown in power and influence principally as a result of the repressive measures undertaken in Xinjiang in the context of the War on Terror.

The War on Terror, with its extremely ambiguous definitions of “terrorism” and “enemy”, essentially facilitated China in adopting a more aggressive approach toward controlling the thoughts and behaviors of the Uyghur population providing an internationally recognized justification for the suspension of human rights.

This would unleash a crackdown on dissent and on ‘unofficial’ religious practice under the excuse of fighting “terrorism” which was a term used by the government to define in practice anyone suspected of harboring aspirations of self-determination, accusing them of being supporters of the ETIM or others external organizations.

This crackdown was accompanied both by a series of developmental projects, involving the construction of highways, rails and new lines of communication, and by the beginning of a systematic program of urban modernization.

These projects were theoretically meant to increase the integration of the Uyghur people living in the southern part of Xinjiang, but resulted in the forced eviction of thousands of Uyghurs and in the destruction of a significant part of their cultural heritage in the main cities (for example the destruction of the old city of Kashgar in 2009).


It’s important to underline that no real act of violence was carried out by the Uyghur people against the Chinese state or Han civilians between the fights in the 1990s and 2009.

Finally, in 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of the region, there was an explosion of violence during an originally peaceful Uyghur demonstration.

Protesters and Han civilians, supported by the police, battled in the streets for approximatively three days causing hundreds of deaths.

This incident was a major turning point in how Han civilians and administrators judged the Uyghurs in that they began to see them not only as culturally inferior but as a real danger to Han citizens and the state.


The situation worsened again in the first half of the 2010s, when there was an escalation of the dynamics of the conflict seen in the last half of the previous decade.

The Han government doubled down on the restriction of civil rights and on its developmental projects in the region which resulted only in increasing bursts of violent resistance by the Uyghurs.

These acts were, of course, considered indiscriminately all act of terrorism by the government, which in answer relied even more on the same solutions that had caused the violence in the first place.

The first arguably real acts of terrorism, meaning planned attacks against civilians, by Uyghurs citizens occurred in 2014 (for example the Kunming train station and Urumqi train stations attacks).

However, there is no proof that they were linked to foreign terrorist organizations like the TIP, despite the claims of the government and the outspoken support for these acts by the Islamist organization itself.

It seems evident, taking also into account the growing relevance of the TIP in Syria thanks to the recruitment of Uyghur refugees, that systematic civil rights restrictions and attempts at cultural assimilation by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs people virtually created the “terrorist threat” they were theoretically meant to address in the first place.

This escalation virtually signaled the beginning of open ideological warfare by the Chinese government against Uyghurs and their culture in what eventually would be defined as “People War on Terror” by the Xinjiang communist party secretary Zhang Chunxian.


The term “People War on Terror” indicated a series of policies and restrictions promoted by the Chinese government since 2013 encompassing the education and religious practices of the Uyghurs people to purportedly resist religious extremism.

In truth, these provisions signaled the beginning of a campaign of mass indoctrination to cleanse Uyghurs of religious influences while simultaneously trying to inculcate in them a form of PRC nationalism.

This involved an escalation of the attempts to disrupt Uyghurs culture and religious practice, encouraging citizens to report each other behind compensation and students to report parents, while promoting anti-religious education and laying the base for the sophisticated surveillance system in place in Xinhjiang to this very day.

The campaign however did not target exclusively religious Uyghurs but was also used to target secular intellectuals and nationalists.

This was the case of the economic professor Ilham Tohti, imprisoned for life on the charge of separatism for having created an internet forum encouraging Uyghurs and Han to openly discuss the conditions of the Xinjiang region.

These measures were to be codified into law through the ‘Counterterrorism Law’ of 2015.


Cultural genocide

However, strict as they were, the restrictions to civil rights enacted during the first years of the so called “People War on Terror” apparently consisted simply in the preparatory phase for what was about to come in 2017: the studiously planned nearly ‘scientific’ attempt, which could well be described as a “cultural genocide”, to completely erase a population not through mass killings but by erasing the concept at the base of that population itself, bringing assimilation strategies to their extreme.

This cultural genocide has three main planks:

  1. The activation of an extremely invasive and precise system of technological data gathering and surveillance being developed since 2016 and finally deployed in the whole region in 2017, under Party secretary Chen Quanguo. This consisted in the mass deployment of security personnel and the use of various methods of gathering data. Between them the weaponization of electronic surveillance, free access by the State to personal data like bank accounts, social media, and travel or work history, regular personal profiling by party cadres using mobile apps and a campaign of “free health exams” covering three quarters of the Uyghur population. In this “free-healthcare” campaign, participants were required to give DNA, fingerprints, voice and face signatures, all of which was registered into the system. This system was defined “Integrated Joint Operation Platform” (IJOP) and is actively used by the State to target whoever it considers “undesirable”.
  2. The promulgation of so called ‘de-extremification regulations’ meant as clarifications of previous laws providing a more explicit definition of what should be considered “extremist behavior”. As Roberts (2020) asserts «the regulations criminalized virtually all religious behavior and any consumption of religious information that was not explicitly promoted by the State» coming to the point of listing as suspicious extremist behavior the bearing of an ‘irregular beard’, using certain Arabic names or giving general advices to others on the correct absolving of religious practices.
  3. The establishment of mass internment re-education camps, regulated by article 14 of the afore-mentioned regulations, throughout the region along with other forms of incarceration. According to Zenz (2018), by 2018 these camps held 11.5% of Uyghurs and Kazakhs population in the region, and are described by various testimonies as having programs deliberately intended to erase their identity as Uyghur people. The same testimonies, reported through interviews and work on the ground by Vice News and other media outlets, described these work programs in the camps as consisting in constant psychological and physical torture and humiliation.


As put also by Roberts (2020), these institutions generated an environment of complete fear and complicity while dismantling the social capital of Uyghur communities and breaking the spirits of individual Uyghurs.

This system is completed by the concerted effort by the Chinese government to cleanse Uyghur territory of its uniquely «Uyghur cultural markers through language destruction, the erasure of cultural traditions, and the razing of cultural monuments and communities. In place of these (…) the PRC is establishing a distinctly Chinese landscape both culturally and physically».


Bibliographical note

The data on which this article is based has been gathered trough a number of sources, between them:

  • Bovingdon G., “The Uyghurs. Strangers in Their Own Land”, Columbia University Press, 2010.
  • Ercilasun Ku., Ercilasun Ko. “The Uyghur Community. Diaspora, Identity and Geopolitics”, Palgrave Macmillian, 2018.
  • Roberts S., “The War on the Uyghurs. China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang Muslims.”, Manchester University Press, 2020.
  • Zenz A., “Thoroughly Reforming Them Towards a Healthy Hearths Attitudes. China Political Re-Education Campaigning in Xinjiang”, Central Asia Survey, 2018.


Cover Photo: Members of the panel take their seats for the first day of hearings at the “Uyghur Tribunal”, a panel of UK-based lawyers and rights experts investigating alleged abuses against Uyghurs in China – London, June 4, 2021 (Tolga Akmen / AFP).

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