Xinjiang (‘new frontier’ in Chinese), also known as East Turkestan, is the northwesternmost administrative region of China. Xinjiang has been the focus of a drive towards secession by the local Uighur population, who, since 934, have been predominantly Muslim.
In 744, the Uighurs founded their own state with Karabalgasun as its capital. The Uighur state lasted for almost a century, but was overrun by Kyrgyz forces in 840. This resulted in an exodus of Uighurs from the traditional state and the formation of three new Uighur kingdoms; the Ganzhou, the Karakhanid and the Karakhoja Uighur kingdoms. Whereas the Ganzhou Kingdom was defeated by Tankuts in 1228, the Karakhanid and Karakhoja kingdoms survived and eventually merged in 1397, forming the Uighur Kingdom of East Turkestan. East Turkestan remained the kingdom of Uighurs until the Manchu invasion of 1759. Despite several uprisings against the Manchus, the Uighurs did not succeed in regaining independence until 1863. The kingdom was then recognised by Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the UK. But, fearing that Tsarist Russia would expand into East Turkestan, the British persuaded the Manchus to re-take the territory by funding an invasion. East Turkestan was named Xinjiang after it was annexed and became part of the Manchu empire on 18 November 1884.
During China’s period of intra- and inter-state conflict throughout the 1930s and 1940s, two independent republics in Eastern Turkestan were formed in Kashgar in 1933 and Yining in 1944. The Kashgar republic was overrun by Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist forces and the remaining province sided with the communists thereafter, as the communist leader, Mao Zedong, had promised it a degree of self-determination in return for its support. Mao’s promise was not upheld. In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) consolidated its hold on the region, causing the Uighur leadership to flee to Turkey.
Although Uighur self-determination was short-lived, the period reawakened nationalist sentiment among the Uighurs. This opposition to the central government led to the 1955 creation of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The XUAR, about half the size of India, represents almost 17% of the territory of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It shares borders with Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, and Tajikistan. The indigenous peoples of the XUAR are Turkic and predominantly Muslim; they include Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Tatars, Uighurs, Uzbeks and other groups officially classified as ‘national minorities’ by the PRC, including the Huis, who are ethnic Han Chinese Muslims. The Uighurs form the largest indigenous group in the XUAR, constituting eight million out of a current population of 17 million. In 1949, the Uighurs accounted for 76% of the population, while ethnic Han Chinese represented only 7%. Beijing’s transmigration policy (see below) has resulted in the Han Chinese now comprising 40% of the population − approximately 7.5m people.
The Chinese government has used a number of methods to quell, appease and defeat the Uighur independence struggle. Most notably, the government has utilised propaganda campaigns, crackdowns, transmigration, and economic development. In 1954 the government established the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (PCC), more commonly known as the Bingtuan, to help develop the region’s rich reserves of gold, lead, oil and zinc. The Bingtuan set up semi-autonomous ‘state farms’ and started the transmigration of ethnic Han to Xinjiang. About one-third of all Han Chinese in Xinjiang work for the Bingtuan (2.3m employees, or 14% of the province’s population), heightening Uighur despondency about lack of jobs in the region. The Bingtuan is essentially a large government-controlled development corporation with a preference for employing ethnic Han, especially former members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and their families. It enjoys almost the same status as the Uighur regional government and reports directly to the central administration in Beijing. Its establishment in the XUAR has meant that Uighurs and Kazaks have lost large tracts of farmland, worsening relations with ethnic Han Chinese. Chinese settlers live mostly in the cities, where there are business opportunities. Elsewhere, there are few ethnic Han, particularly among desert communities. In addition to its mineral reserves, the XUAR is important to the Chinese government because of its proximity to vast oil reservoirs in neighbouring Central Asian republics and functions as a developing gateway to the Central Asian states.
Uighur desire for independence was reinvigorated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Central Asian republics. In the altered global situation, the Uighurs counted on support from other Muslim Turkic peoples, but Beijing managed to diplomatically deter any foreign intervention in the Uighur struggle. China has the support of the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in clamping down on ethnic and religious militancy. Beijing ensures their continued cooperation by supplying them with counter-insurgency equipment and aid, and by engaging in investment projects. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, considered the two Central Asian countries with the most ties to the Turkic population of Xinjiang have labelled Uighur separatist groups as terrorist organisations at China’s request. The idea of transnational Islamic solidarity in Central Asia is not a likely factor in the Uighur struggle, as its separatist cause is more anti-colonial than it is Islamic. Over the years, various opposition groups campaigning for the independence of the region have been set up clandestinely in the XUAR. Some have reportedly received support from exiled nationalist groups established among Uighur diasporas, such as Kazakhstan’s Committee for East Turkestan. A few have resorted to violence, including attacks on government officials and offices, as well as the planting and detonation of bombs. The Home of East Turkestan Youth has been described as Xinjiang’s Hamas, and claims to have around 2,000 members, some of whom have undergone training in other Muslim countries. However, these groups are poorly armed, mostly equipped with home-made bombs, guns and grenades that have either been stolen or acquired on the black market. Furthermore, they appear to be small and disorganised, and have seemingly failed to unite into one large movement. Indeed, the separatist movement is merely an umbrella for a number of groups, including the Organization for the Liberation of Uighurstan, headed by Ashir Vahidi, with allegedly more than one million supporters, the Society of Patriots for East Turkestan, the Organisation for Turkestan Freedom, and the overseas-based East Turkestan National Congress (ETNC), representing Turkic-speaking Uighurs located in other countries.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in acts of separatist violence, notably in Aksu in 1980, Baren in 1990 and in Yining in 1995 and 1997. In response, the government launched its first Strike Hard anti-crime campaign in 1996. In Xinjiang, this focused not only on ordinary criminals, but also on ‘ethnic splittists’ and ‘illegal religious forces’. On 25 February 1997, the day of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s funeral, unidentified Uighur separatists planted bombs on three buses in Yining, killing nine people. Ten days later, a pipe bomb exploded in Beijing. Consequently, the anti-crime campaign was stepped-up: the government engaged in significant acts of repression, including mass arrests, forced labour, the closing of mosques and madrasas (religious schools) and the seizing of unapproved religious material. International human rights groups often dispute Chinese government claims that these raids are conducted against terrorist organisations, noting that many targeted entities are peaceful cultural, political or religious organizations. In 2002, the government released a report that stated that the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was the primary armed, secessionist organisation in Xinjiang and alleged ETIM had links with al-Qaeda. The year was also notable for the launch of a campaign entitled Strike Hard, Severe Suppression, which has been viewed as the harshest crackdown on Uighur separatists. Increasingly harsh law enforcement measures led to a decrease in separatist violence in the early 2000s. Violence erupted in the region in 2009 when ethnic clashes, centring on Urumqi, broke out between Uighurs and Han Chinese. 197 people were killed and over 1,700 were injured in the riots that prompted a significant increase in the number of security force personnel in the region and a new security campaign, Strike Hard and Punish. Acts of violence have remained sporadic since the ethnic clashes of 2009. ETIM has claimed responsibility for the majority of such attacks.