Do we know enough about China’s repression over Uyghur: History, Ideology and Social Changes

This piece is the second of three articles focusing on interactions between Chinese government and Uyghur community in Xinjiang. The articles aim to look into the ongoing repression from perspectives other than human rights and religious freedom.

In the first article on China’s repression over Uyghur, I evaluated two assumptions common in the western media when it comes to the Uyghur community in China. Recognising the value of knowledge developed from the assumptions, I move on to point out two flaws in western discourses as such. In order to contextualise the ongoing internment of the Uyghur, two articles will be produced attempting to complement the missing parts in the western media. This article aims to look into historical root of Xinjiang independent movement and its current status and the influence of Wahhabism as two key social changes that concern the government a lot. 

One of the reasons that historical and social background is not sufficiently mentioned in the media is that there are not many studies or reliable materials to refer to. Historical studies of the history of Xinjiang from 1900 to 1949 are underdeveloped, while Chinese official reports are considered as unreliable sources because of ideological concerns. Twitter and Facebook can provide useful information for understanding Uyghur’s feelings and opinions of the state-societal relations in Xinjiang, but it is hard to develop a general understandings for a relatively long period of time. However, lack of historical materials do not qualify us to understand ethnic and religious tensions today without such knowledge, as the government’s securitisation of religion and social changes occurred in the modern day have their roots in the past. 

Image Courtesy of Cantetik2 via © Wikimedia, 2016, some rights reserved

In the Chinese government’s justification of their current policies of Uyghur, religion is repeatedly considered as a security issue, having tremendous influence on social stability and frontier security.   The statement is nothing new as there has been separatist movements and attempts to establish a Turkic Uyghur nation-state before the People’s Republic China was born, and the movements are mostly labelled as East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The outcomes of the movements are the First and the Second East Turkestan Republic. While the former one lasts less than 90 days and was operated in a fairly loose base, the latter one has developed some sort of state structure, like laws and political systems, which prioritise Uyghur as individuals and governors. The breakup of the two republics becomes an unrealised dream for some Uyghur who believe nationhood of Uyghur is essential to its faith, and the separatist movements are the historical legacy of continuing efforts towards an Uyghur nation state. An outstanding organisation which takes over this mission is the East Turkistan Liberation Organisation (ETLO), a terrorist group recognised by the UN and major states in the international society. This transnational terrorist group provides leaders of Uyghur independent movements a platform to build connections with foreign extremist groups, like Taliban in Pakistan and Al-Qaeda. The ETLO also sponsors their travel to religious institutes of Wahhabism and to build similar institutes in Xinjiang. 

The defining figure of modern Xinjiang independent movement, Ablikim, was born at the intersection of historical thoughts of Uyghur independence, Wahhabism and terrorist training. Before becoming the leader of the ETLO in Xinjiang, he acted as a bridge between local Muslim community and the Chinese government, as a vice chair of the political consultive conference in his prefecture and an imam in the large mosque in the region. He introduced Wahhabism to southern part of Xinjiang and combined it with Uyghur independent thoughts. After receiving explosion training in Pakistan, he came back with an idea of a ‘twenty-year plan’. In this plan, Ablikim was intending to achieve national independence by a ten-year guerrilla war and a ten-year regular war, while keep reinforcing Wahhabism to the community in an exclusive manner. Guided by these ideas, there are a series terrorist attacks aimed at both Uyghur and non-Uyghur. The Baren Incident (some called uprising) in 1990 is one of the earliest violent confrontation between the government and the ETLO. The situations were intensified six year latter, as some ETLO members carried out assassinations named ‘break the bridge and dispel the Han’ during the Ramadan, and 24 party cadres, both Uyghur and non-Uyghur were killed. Mass violence and terrorist attacks occurred every two or three years, followed by strict regulations over Uyghur imposed by the government each time. Independent movements became an international political issue around 2008, followed by another riot in Urumqi, leading to divisions and antagonism between Uyghur and Han people in the Xinjiang but also nationwide. The antagonistic sentiment was fueled up by Kunming train station attack in 2014, in which more than 30 people, including children, were hacked to death. 

Apart from independent ideology and attacks, there are changes in social life on the daily basis because of the spread of Wahhabism. One of the most salient characters of such changes is that Wahhabism tries to extract cultural elements from Uyghur’s religious belief and turn it into a religious belief exclusive from local cultural context. It also attempts to turn Uyghur into a purely religious identity, which means that secular Uyghur or Uyghur who disagree with Wahhabism are disqualified members of the community. In the areas where Wahhabism is ingrained, religious polices may be under operation by the community and celebration of Uyghur cultural tradition is prohibited.

Understanding social changes and challenges faced by the government is essential, as they give us a better grasp of questions like what the government is trying to tackle, and whether its policy can achieve its goal. Also, historical background and social environment help us to see state-societal relations in a dynamic and holistic way. It is extremely important that Uyghur who participated in violent confrontation and attacks are minority of the society, and can be motivated by various reasons. Also, there are Uyghur with various beliefs and lifestyle and non-Uyghur who have been living in Xinjiang for generations, and we should acknowledge their places in our analyses of Xinjiang. Unfortunately, the current policy of Uyghur neglects variety and imposed undifferentiated policy to individuals who have no relations with separatism and attacks. The policy will do no good to problem-solving, and even worse, individuals are forced into opposing the government and because of the asymmetric balance of power between individuals and the government, attacks and violence will be used as a necessary mean to strive for human rights.


Reference for East Turkestan Independent Movement in China can be found in:

Ke, Wang. The East Turkestan Independence Movement. Translated by Carissa Fletcher.  當代中國文化研究中心·中國近現代史研究  ISBN: 9789629967697. The Chinese University Press, 2018.

Banner image: Image Courtesy of Unknown via © Wikimedia, 1933, some rights reserved