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City of Brass

an Uyghur primer: the roots of discontent

The flag of the short-lived East Turkestan Republic, 1944-1949, now banned in China The oppression of the Uyghur in China’s Xinjiang province has been getting a surprising amount of media coverage. The first reaction most people have upon hearing about the Uyghur is to ask, “who?” so it’s worth reviewing some basic information about who these people are and why their struggle is worth paying attention to.

In a nutshell, the Uyghur are an ethnic minority in China who practice Islam and speak the Turkic language. They are thus both an ethnic and a religious minority, unlike the Hui, who also practice Islam but who are culturally and physically identical to the Han majority. The Hui comprise the vast majority of Chinese muslims, so the Uyghur are a minority within a minority in that regard.


The Uyghur’s ancient homeland in central Asia was previously known as East Turkestan, and has been variously ruled by khanates, dynasties, and warlords throughout history. The region was also named Xinjiang (“New Territory”) during the Qing dynasty. The Uyghur did establish a short-lived East Turkestan Republic between 1944 and 1949, albeit with Soviet help. That ended when the People’s Liberation Army took control and the area was renamed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Uyghur are persecuted by Beijing in much the same way that the Native Americans were for almost two centuries by the United States, in that they face a relentless and systematic campaign to wipe away their cultural heritage and erase their religious identity. The primary vehicle for this is the immense immigrant influx by Han Chinese into Xinjiang, a deliberate resettlement by the Chinese government to change the demographics of Xinjiang. Over the past 50 years this immigration wave has changed Xinjiang from being 94% Uyghur in 1949 to 45% Uyghur now, with Han comprising 40%. The capital city of Xinjinag, Urumqi, is 75% Han and the Han dominate all levels of civic society and government in the province. It should be noted that Uyghurs, like all minority groups, are exempted from the one-child policy, but there are vastly more Han than Uyghur in China, so the balance in Xinjiang is unlikely to be countered by birthrate.


In addition to the deliberate dispossession of the Uyghur from their own land, the Chinese government engages in active religious persecution of the Uyghur, with believers forced to use state-approved versions of the Qur’an, a ban on beards and headscarves for any men and women who work in the state sector, and direct management of all mosques by the central authorities. Uyghur men are fined for performing prayers, muslim schools are closed down, and fasting by children or teachers is forbidden during Ramadan. In general, the state interferes in almost every aspect of Uyghur culture and religious observance that it can, in an attempt to make even simple observances and acts of piety too difficult to perform. The history and heritage of the Uyghurs are likewise under assault, with historic buildings and sites demolished and razed, and the Mandarin language is being imposed in rural schools to the exclusion of the Uyghurs’ native tongue.


All of this is intended to eradicate the identity of the Uyghur, but at the same time the Uyghur are also the victims of discrimination and economic marginalization. Uyghurs are explicitly excluded from jobs, with signs stating bluntly that “no Uyghurs need apply“. Massive investment by the central gvernment has led to the creation of huge farms and construction projects called bingtuan, at which an estimated 1 in 6 Han in Xinjiang is employed, but Uyghurs are rarely hired. In urban areas, increased development has led to rising rent, pricing Uyghurs right out of the market (as noted above, Urumqi is 75% Han). In almost every sphere, Uyghurs are second-class citizens with limited prospects and unable to take part in the modernization and development of Xinjiang.


This, then, is the context for the riots last week in Urumqi, which were actually triggered by a hate crime incident in eastern China. The resentment they feel is a serious threat to Beijing, which is why the response was so disporportionate and brutal. It is clear, however, that the heavy hand of Beijing is only making things worse.

Related reading: The Uyghur Human Rights Project website is an aggregator of news stories about the struggles and oppression of the Uyghur. The Council on Foreign Relations has a very detailed backgrounder on the Uyghurs and Xinjiang that should be essential reading. Razib had an extensive post last year about the Uyghur, noting that “the Han Chinese push into Xinjiang brings to mind a different dynamic, while the Hui are Jews among gentiles, the Uyghurs are like the Sioux being encircled by homesteaders.” More recently, the New York Times had a nice history piece about Uyghur history and heritage, as well. Finally, a summary artricle in EurasiaNet discusses the tensions and grievances of the Uyghur in more detail.

Comments read comments(23)
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Scott Tyler

posted July 15, 2009 at 2:55 pm

I have attached the link and video and pictures of a horrible genocide that is going on toward Muslim Uyghurs in China! The video is shot on July 7th, 2009 as shown on the video time. This is only tip of the iceberg as such genocide is going on everday, every hour behind the closed doors since the Chinese occupation of East Turkistan!!!
The two lying are arrested two Uyghur college students and the people killing them are Chinese Paramilitary forces.
It was leaked out to Chinese media at first and I came across to it on youtube, but it is no longer there anymore.
This is all related to the July 5th demonstration in Urumqi and as reported by the Chinese Media, there are thousands of Uyghur students were arrested.(Probably much, much more as Chinese Media is not reliable at all).
This is going on for a very long time as hundreds of thousands of Uyghur College kids were brutally murdered in the similar way for the 1997 Yili Uprising and Chinese is doing it behind the screen for many, many years. This is a total genocide against the Uyghurs and you will be shocked by the extent. Western Media will never know as most things are kept behind the door. Go and visit any Uyghur family in Ghulja(Yining) or any other town where the Uyghurs live and ask them about their sons, daughters. You will be shocked that most families children at the age 14-35 were absent as they are rounded up by the police and brutally murdered.
I also sent another link where the Chinese Mob killing the Uyghur factory workers in Guangdong!
We must stop this atrocity and crimes against humanity as Uyghurs nowhere to turn and Chinese are truly genociding them in their own homeland in order to make sure that East Turkistan is theirs forever and get rid of all the Uyghurs. They have already destroyed the Uyghurs culture and the ancient cities like Kashgar in order to wipe them out from earth…
We must do something to stop them…
May be UN intervention as needed as there are total genocide and crimes against humanity are happening everyday and night…

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posted July 15, 2009 at 9:30 pm

it is ?

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posted July 15, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Aziz –
Thank you for this amazing primer!!!

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posted July 16, 2009 at 1:07 am

1. the altering population in China
The population of the whole China is 582 million?besides, ethnic Uyghur Chinese is 3,6401 million in 1953.
The population of the whole China is 695 million, besides, ethnic Uyghur Chinese is 3,9963 million in 1964.
The population of the whole China is 1008 million, besides, ethnic Uyghur Chinese is 5,9635 million in 1982.
The population of the whole China is 1,134 million, besides, ethnic Uyghur Chinese is 7,2144 million in 1990.
The population of the whole China is 1,266 million, besides, ethnic Uyghur Chinese is 8,3994 million in 2000.
2.people who is belong to the other 55 ethnic minorities except Han can get access of high education with lower score and even get less punishment than Han if they made the same crime in China. It was written by formal rules.

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posted July 16, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Scott Tyler, please take a look at the numbers provided by Michael, and explain how come the Uyghur’s population doubled after decades of ‘genocide’?
Maybe this fits better in the definition of genocide:
The population of Armenians in Turkey –
Prior to 1915, 1.8-2.1 Million
Today, 40-70 Thousand
Scott Tyler, please take a look at the numbers provided by Michael, and explain how come the Uyghur’s population doubled after decades of ‘genocide’?

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posted July 20, 2009 at 9:43 am

This is a great primer. Helped me understand what is happening. thanks

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posted July 21, 2009 at 5:11 am

Uyghurs are NOT Chinese. Ethnically and religiously they are completely different to the Chinese. Regarding population comparisons by “Michael” they make absolutely no sense. The Uyghur population has been in decline. The ongoing genocide, forced abortions and sterolisation policies and random arrests of young Uyghur men has contributed to this. China has a reputation for human rights abuses and Chinese people like “Michael” should not deny it but try to understand it.

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Gerald, Atlanta

posted July 24, 2009 at 12:32 am

I am a third generation American citizen and I have visited Xinjiang 5 times in the past decade, spending about 1 year there total. My grandfather – may God have mercy on him – was a Hui who left China more than sixty years ago. I speak mandarin and understand Islamic faith, history, culture and practices. I have studied political philosophy and comparative government.
This article is spot on in its description of the PRC government’s active religious persecution of Uighurs. Because Islam is also central to the Uighur culture, the persecution is also cultural. Forcing kids at school to eat oranges during Ramadan, banning the youth from entering masjids, locking up middle schoolers in jail for trying to learn how to read Quran, prohibiting Uighurs from international travel and domestic movement by confiscating passports and refusing hu kou changes, blatant ethnic discrimination by police and government intimidation of those who wear scarf and those who grow beards are all actions that I have heard – if not seen – first hand. The PRC fears separatism and dissent; like many other governments it prefers a stability imposed by brutal force over the perception that an indigenous people can somehow have legitimate grievances.
To its credit, the PRC does have affirmative action programs for higher education as well as more lax childbirth policies for minorities, including Uighurs. The PRC wants to help Uighurs become literate in han language so that they may be enfranchised, empowered and integrated into greater han society. The PRC correctly boasts that since it has taken the reins on controlling economic development in Xinjiang for the past thirty years, residents of all ethnicities have benefited greatly in terms of standard of life, even if Hans have enjoyed greater economic prosperity than Uighurs. There are new roads being paved, highrises being built and infrastructure being developed where Uighurs once saw dirt roads and mud houses. But then again, this type of improvement in the standard of living is by no measure extraordinary when compared with other countries around the world.
One has to view PRC’s ‘well-intentioned’ efforts in the proper context. The PRC is an authoritarian government with an atheist – if no longer Marxist – view of religion. A predominantly materialist / economic approach to the development of a society, as we are seeing in the PRC today, necessitates that preservation of heterogenous culture or religion take a backseat to maintaining the stability that the PRC believes economic development requires. Needless to say many Uighurs find preserving their religion and culture to be more important than the pursuit of money and economic development. It is with this clash of philosophy and modus operandi that the PRC has approached and governed the indigenous Uighurs in Xinjiang. In laymen’s terms, the PRC has taken on what we westerners call the “white man’s burden.”
Civilizing a ‘backwards’ people who are naturally resistant to being pacified is no easy task. In the case of the Uighurs, they have a dogmatic attachment to Islam; they want to pray, fast, read a holy book in a foreign language and spend their life savings on performing a pilgramage. This contrasts sharply with the culture and aspirations of your average Han today: the pursuit of money and material wealth. The PRC has found that most – if not all – of the Uighur resistance to PRC pacification comes from those who espouse a deep faith in Islam. These are people who do not fear imprisonment nor death and therefore will speak out and even fight against what they rightly view as injustice. As a result, the PRC feels threatened by all religious Uighurs and redouble their efforts to suppress them by all means. It is unfortunate because while it is true that most resisters are religious, most religious people are not resisters. Currently, the PRC is rounding up young Uighurs all across Xinjiang. Those shown in a court of law to have been involved in the riots and deaths in Urumqi will be sentenced and put to death. Thousands more will be summarily and indefinitely detained. If the PRC does like it did in 1997, hundreds if not thousands of young Uighur males will just be disappeared.
There is much doublespeak in PRC. There is talk of protecting and supporting minorities by subsidizing mosques and putting imams on the PRC payroll. But the Uighurs see this as the government interfering and controlling Muslim institutions. Go to a mosque in Xinjiang and try to get him to teach you about Islam between prayers. The imam will refuse to engage you. His role by PRC mandate is only to lead the five prayers in the mosque and preside over the friday prayer. The PRC ensures that most friday prayer sermons at large masjids are substantially void of substance. Ask a PRC official why praying or fasting is prohibited in school and the most intelligent reply you will hear is that students and their studies must be protected from the interruptions of prayer and the weakness that comes from fasting. Actually, on second thought, DON’T ask a PRC official. Snoop around a little in Xinjiang and you will quickly become persona non grata, because in case you have yet concluded, there is no freedom of speech there. PRC involvement in the institutions of Islam are not for the purpose of protecting nor propagating Islam but to rather gradually smother out the elements it finds disagreeable – essentially gutting it.
With regards to Chinese patriotism and nationalism…
Most Chinese nationals today will quickly come to the defense of the PRC government whenever it is criticized. There are many issues and currents at play here. Among them: the natural tendency to view international criticism of a domestic policy as a deconstructive attack, the complete lack of understanding of the situation in Xinjiang (because society and government in Xinjiang and Tibet are so different from other provinces), an ethnocentric approach to problem, the complete lack of dissent culture in China and just plain ignorance. By ethnocentric approach I mean that to the majority of Chinese citizens, little is more important than making money and helping their children get into the best college possible. By this rubric, han citizens feel the Uighurs are unappreciative of the extra points they get for college entrance exams and the substantial economic and industrial development in Xinjiang at the hands of the PRC. By plain ignorance, I mean that there is a whole generation of twenty to thirty somethings in China that never studied and know nothing about the history of the arbitrary, brutal and authoritarian nature of their government. For example, they do not know that fifty years ago, Mao had no idea what he was doing and that millions of people starved for it. They do not understand that while the PRC is gradually reforming itself, it can at a moment’s notice unleash a very brutal authoritarian action upon its own citizens (as has happened many times in Xinjiang and Tibet over the decades).
While there have been forced abortions and sterilizations, I have not seen a level of violence against the Uighurs in the past decade that warrant using the word genocide. The word – except when used figuratively (e.g. cultural genocide) – should be respectfully reserved for the Armenians and the Jews; its use here by those defending the PRC’s actions is a red herring and or some type of polemic digression from the reality that Uighurs are being repressed and oppressed in their own land.
According to several Uighurs and Huis I have spoken to recently, there has been substantial improvement in the past decade in Xinjiang (but the recent riots will set back progress for months if not years). For the sake of all Chinese citizens, I hope the PRC finds more just ways to govern its people and its land.

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posted July 25, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Gerald’s description of the PRC policies of marginalization of Uighurs is very compelling. As a colonial occupier, as one might see them, China is copying the destructive French colonial policies in Algeria more than their much more subtle (and up to a point successful) policies in Morocco… they would be more effective if more intelligent. What reason to ban religious expression? How stupid as well as vicious.
Muslims (and “Muslim” regimes around the world) should take notice– unfortunately economic ties may become an excuse not to do the right thing… but at least some diplomatic pressure needs to be brought in play. If a handful of western corporations that deal extensively with China (skynews?) could be boycotting/lobbied could they have the leverage with their chinese partners? Would that backfire?
I also think cultural institutions like Asia Society need to be put on notice that this is a serious issue.

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