Guantanamo and the Uighurs: The Story of China’s Other Minority – Part II Collin Spears – Visiting Fellow, Center for New Politics and Policy

The first installment of this two part series explored the situation of Uighur detainees in Guantanamo Bay and China’s response to the U.S. decision to release the Uighurs to third-countries as political refugees.  This installment will look at the current situation in Xinjiang.  Then, the history of the Han Chinese – Uighur relationship will be surveyed to deduce what motivated the Guantanamo Uighurs to journey to Afghanistan and Pakistan as political and economic refugees, some of whom trained in the hope of returning to Xinjiang to commit terrorist acts against the Chinese government.  Further, the implications to U.S. foreign policy, as it relate to the situation in Xinjiang, will be examined.

Xinjiang in the Present

Beijing has demonstrated little evidence of an organized international Islamic terrorist network operating in Xinjiang or anywhere else in China, but that has not discouraged China from labeling the major Uighur independence groups as “major component[s]” of Al Qaeda and claiming that thousands of Uighurs were trained by the organization.  There has been no conclusive evidence of suicide bombings, a signature characteristic of Islamic terror groups; although, two of the attackers in Kuqa, last fall, blew themselves up.  It is believed this explosion was accidental (Economist 2008).  The majority of attacks by anti-government groups utilized crude homemade bombs and knives.  They also tend to be focused on government targets and not civilian, at least in Xinjiang.  However, Uighurs in Xinjiang who work in the security forces, are targeted, because they are viewed as collaborators.   Some attacks have even taken place outside of Xinjiang, usually in places where Uighur communities are present, such as in Shanghai or even against international Chinese government targets in Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

The modern struggle for independence did not begin until the 1970s; however, Uighur ties with Central Asia only became significant after the  collapses of the Soviet Union.  By 1992, 22 Uighur separatists were killed near Kashgar.  China even went as far as to shut down road links with Pakistan, especially the Pashtun areas in an effort to cut support lines.  In 1997, violent independence groups exploded a bomb in Beijing, wounding 30 people.  In May and July of 2008,  the Turkestan Islamic Party (possibly another name for ETIM) bombed buses in Shanghai and Kunming, respectively.  The same group also issued videos threatening violence at the Beijing Olympics.

The latest  attacks were in August of 2008.  A combination bombing and knife attack left 16 police dead right before the Beijing Olympics.  On August 10th, home made bombs were thrown in the town of Kuqua leaving one person dead.  On August 12th, 3 guards were killed at a checkpoint in Yamanya.   Then, two police officers were killed on August 27th in Jiashi county.  No terrorist group had claimed responsibility for any of these acts.  As a result, over 1300 people were arrested in 2008 alone, and at least three executed.

The Chinese government response has been four-fold.  First, include Xinjiang in China’s  general policy to develop its western provinces, which have fallen far behind the eastern coastal areas in economic prosperity.  It is believed that enriching the Uighurs will partially pacify them.  Second, marginalize the Uighur population socially and politically by promoting the immigration of Han Chinese.   Currently Xinjiang is about 45% Uighur, Han Chinese are about 40 percent, with the remainder is composed of other Turkic groups, Mongols, and Hui (Han Chinese who converted to Islam centuries before).  It is estimated that 55 percent of Xinjiang’s population is Muslim, which is primarily composed of Hui and Turkic groups.  Third, use high-handed policies to control Islamic religious practices.  Fourth, apply strict security measures domestically and pressure foreign neighbors to suppress Uighur political activities in their nations.  Not surprisingly, most Uighurs are not happy with these measures, which is best summed up by the Uighur Congress, an activist group based in Germany:

“The policies of political oppression, cultural assimilation, economic exploitation, ecological destruction, racial discrimination have gradually turned East Turkestan [Xinjiang] into a time bomb…” (BBC 2005)

As a result of  60 years of communist ideological pressure on the traditionally lax attitude of Central Asian Islam, most Uighurs are not particularly observant Muslims, but to Beijing’s alarm, Islam is currently enjoying a resurgence in the western Xinjiang cities of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan.  Despite this trend and the fact that Kashgar is generally considered a more religious city, few women on the streets are completely veiled.  With the exception of  hijabs, which are commonly worn by women as young as school age, most young people dress no differently from the Han Chinese.  Drinking is also common among Uighurs.

The scarcity of religious extremism in the general population and even in the independence groups has not comforted Beijing.  In the last few years, the Chinese government has increased its crack down on Islamic practices in Xinjiang.  Last year, government websites posted “control measures”.  For example, China only allows government-run Hajj trips, as part of an effort to prevent pilgrims from mixing with extremists in Mecca.  These trips have always been restricted by age, but last year government websites stated that a participant has to be between 50-70 years old to take part.  Nevertheless, the number of applicants each year continues to rise, in spite of the Chinese government’s periodic freeze on passports issuance to Uighurs to prevent them from signing up for a Hajj trip.

Repressive measures have been in place for years, but became especially pronounced during the 2008 Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a reaction to the large number of attacks by Uighur groups last year.  The Chinese government sought to prevent mass prayers and limited all public prayer sessions to a half hour out of fear that large groups could turn violent.  Some Xinjiang counties even announced initiatives to encourage Uighurs not to wear veils or beards; they also banned the public playing of religious music.  The government permits the study of Arabic, but only at state schools, and the only legal version of the Qur’an is issued by the state.  Further, all Imams’ must be government employees.

The state has not only monopolized and suppressed key components of Islam, it has also taken measures to purge itself.  Khotan forbids government workers and Communist Party members from attending mosques entirely.  Some countries have ordered that all government workers must be clean shaven and unveiled.  Students and government workers were forced to eat during daytime in the month of Ramadan, instead of taking part in the traditional fasting.  There have also been reports that civil servants have lost their pension for legally taking part in Hajj trip.

The crackdown on Uighurs was not just limited to Xinjiang, but also on the sizable Uighur populations of Beijing and Shanghai, ahead of the Olympics.  Most Uighurs living outside of Xinjiang work in construction, the restaurant business, and often illicit currency trading.  There were several reports of police harassment in these communities, which commonly took the form of Uighurs being pressured to leave the cities.  The harassment has not been limited to the government; private citizens have taken it upon themselves to attack Uighurs.

Uighurs and the other Turks

A keen observer of the American War on Terror, China has become increasingly concerned that Uighur militants will find support in resurgent Taliban areas. This has compounded the threat China already feels to its national integrity from Uighurs operating in Central Asia.  As a result, China has done much to crush the Uighur independence movement in Central Asia, where many Uighurs have fled to live among their Turkic cousins.  In fact, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China has lead exercises to “fight terrorism” in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Uzbekistan, the primary focus being placed on Uighur groups.

There are one million Uighurs estimated to live in  Central and South Asia, so there has been much concerned that sympathetic Turkic neighbors would aid the Uighurs out of Pan-Turkic Nationalists sympathies.  However, China has used “check book diplomacy” to persuade these states to crack down on Uighurs and remain silent about human rights violations in Xinjiang.  The result has been the repatriation of many Uighur activists to China, all of which have been jailed or executed.

A Brief History of Xinjiang

To say the conflict between the Chinese government and the Uighur people began with the communist ‘invasion’ of Xinjiang, after the Chinese civil war concluded, is somewhat specious.  For many Uighurs it is an issue of historic ownership and identity.  Most Uighurs believe Xinjiang is their country and, as such, should be governed independent from Chinese rule.  They also do not see themselves as “Chinese”.  It is clear the Uighurs have not undergone the same level of sinicization as many minority groups in China, they are a distinct people, but does this preclude them from being Chinese?  China is a multi-ethnic state.  The land issue  is even more complex, the problem being that the Han Chinese and Uighurs have lived in close proximity for over a millennium.  During that time, ownership of the land has changed hands many times, so both Uighurs and the Han Chinese have strong ownership claims.  Although the Chinese claim the Uighurs entered the area well after Chinese control was established, the reality is that genetic testing shows the present Uighur population, as with most modern ethnic groups, is an amalgamation of various populations that have lived in the area since historic times.

Han Chinese contact with the greater Tarim Basin (Tǎlǐmù Péndì) area, which now makes up the majority of Xinjiang, began in the Chinese “Spring and Autumn Period”, in the 7th century BCE.  The earliest inhabitants, the mysterious Indo-European speaking Yuezhi, had a trade relationship with the Chinese.  Although their origins are uncertain, due to language and appearance, they are believed to have come from western Eurasia.  By 200 BCE, the area had come under the control of the Xiongnu (believed by some to be the Hun), a nomadic confederation, which likely include proto-Turkic elements from the southwestern Mongolian steppe.  The Han Chinese gained control over the region by 60 BCE under the Han Dynasty.  For the next 200 years, control of the region fluctuates between various Chinese and sinicized “barbarian” dynasties.

Eventually, Turkic nomads begin to rise out of Mongolia on horseback.  The first major Turkic Empires, the Goturk and the Rouran (also Juan-Juan) respectively, begin fighting over the region, until 600 CE.  Around this time, half of Xinjiang fell under the control of successive Chinese Dynasties until 750CE, when the Uighur Turks invaded Northern Xinjiang from Mongolia; the Tibetan Empire invaded Southern Xinjiang from the south as part of their general assault on the waning Chinese Tang Dynasty.  The new Uighur Khanate administered a large area from Caspian Sea in the west and Manchuria in the East, it also controlled all of present day Mongolia and a large portion of Southern Siberia.  The Khanate lasted for about 200 years, ending with the revolt of the Kyrgyz Turks who moved south from north central Mongolia and ransacking various Uighur cities.  In the 10th century CE, the Turkic Kara-Khanid Khanate, who shared ancestry with the original  Uighurs, gained control of most of Xinjiang.  The population of Xinjiang also started converting from Manichaeism and Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism) to Sunni Islam at this time.

The Mongols invaded in the 13th century and eventually assumed control over the entire region.  Overtime, the Mongols were absorbed by the Turkic population.   A succession of Turko-Mongol khanates controlled the region until China, under the Tungustic Manchu (Mǎnzú) Qing Dynasty, regained control over the area in 1759, after an 800 years absence.  The Qing also initiated a policy of moving Han Chinese into the area, and in 1884 renamed the region Xinjiang (New Territory).   These actions resulted in over 40 revolts against Chinese rule over a 10 years period.

From the time of the last Qing Emperor’s abdication in 1912, to the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, there were two aborted attempts to set up an independent East Turkistan Republic, the longest lasting from 1944-1949, which ended with the invasion of the Communist People’s Liberation Army.  The communists did not just want to spread ideology; they sought to restore Chinese territory lost to “warlords” and foreign interests after the fall of the Qing.  On October 1, 1955, Beijing set up an autonomous local government in Xinjiang.

After World War II, wars of conquest went out of vogue, but throughout most of human history, land and the resources it contained were begotten by conflict; further, this warfare often resulted in ethnic cleansing or genocide.  Keeping this in mind, China appears to have more claim to  Xinjiang than the United States has to the American Southwest or the Turks have to Anatolia.  More importantly,  it has the military capability to maintain sovereignty.


Xinjiang independence is only likely if the government in Beijing collapses, and even then, Chinese nationalism will likely lead them to try to reunify the nation when things stabilize.  Even democratic Taiwan recognized Xinjiang as part of China and only recently recognized the independce of “Outer Mongolia (Mongolia).   Most important, Xinjiang is far too strategic to be let go.   It is a natural path for a ground invasion into China-proper from Central Asia, and this is critical considering it borders Afghanistan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia.  In addition, Xinjiang is resource rich, containing about one-quarter of China’s oil and natural gas reserves, as well as significant deposits of iron and coal.  Several nuclear testing facilities also reside in the province.

In regard to U.S. foreign policy concerns, it is not in America’s strategic interest to destabilize China’s Central Asian border or to bring further upheaval to the Central and South Asian regions.  Washington can continue to focus on human rights as a foreign policy objective, giving special mention to the Uighur issue as it does the Tibetans.  Because this will alienate China, this small favor is also unlikely without significant lobbying.  The Obama administration has signaled it is not interested in lecturing China on human rights if it interferes in other more pressing foreign policy matters.

Moderate Uighurs, much like their Tibetan counterparts are willing to accept a “One Country, Two Systems” solution, much like the situation in Hong Kong, where the locals have a fair degree of autonomy over local issues, but Beijing rejects this because it does not trust that Xinjiang will not move toward independence.  The future does not look bright for the Uighur people, as the Chinese are not likely to back down as long as it feels threatened.  Analyst should not hold their breath for China to embrace multi-culturalism either.


Unknown. (BBC). 2005. “China given warning on Xinjiang”  BBC Online.

Unknown (Economist). 2008.  “Xinjiang: Chinastan”  The Economist Online.


One thought on “Guantanamo and the Uighurs: The Story of China’s Other Minority – Part II

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