On Sunday, riots erupted in China’s far-western autonomous province of Xinjiang where ethnic tension were mounting for days.
In the provincial capital of Urumqi, riots were reportedly led by Uighurs, an ethnically Turkic-Muslim group. Clashes between the Uighurs and Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group outside of Xinjiang province, have killed more than 150 people and wounded more than 1,000.
Police have arrested more than 1,400 people in connection to the widespread rioting. Since that time, the unrest has spread to the border town of Kashgar, where demonstrators demanded the release of Uighurs detained during Sunday’s rioting.
Yitzhak Shichor, a professor in the department of East Asian studies at the University of Haifa, blogs at OpenDemocracy about the surfacing tensions in Xinjiang and the history of the Uighurs.
The reports of violence and deaths in the city of Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang province in northwest China, draw renewed attention to this comparatively neglected region of China and of central Asia. The exact details of what happened there on the night of 5-6 July 2009 are unclear and (inevitably) disputed, though the background may include the assaults on Uighur migrant workers at a toy factory in Guangdong province on 26 June (in which two are reported dead and dozens injured).
But if the details of the immediate incident await to be confirmed, there is less doubt over the larger context of Uighur experience – both under Chinese rule and in the exile which over many years many Uighurs have been driven towards or chosen.
Uighurs are a Turkic-Muslim ethnic group which has been living in East Turkestan for centuries. This region, reoccupied by the Qing dynasty in the mid-18th century, had become a Chinese province named Xinjiang in 1884; in 1955, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, was reorganised as the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. The official statistics for 2007 suggest that Uighurs now number more than 10 million, and thus constitute Xinjiang’s largest minority at almost 50 percent of its population – though this is a sharp reduction from 95 percent at the time of the communist takeover in 1949, the result of significant Chinese settlement in the region. The numbers of Uighurs and Han Chinese are now roughly equal.
Uighurs, claiming Xinjiang as their historical homeland, have repeatedly tried to gain independence and set up their own state – but just as repeatedly failed. Beijing, considering them a separatist and “splittist” group, has used a variety of means – cultural, social, economic, political and military – to crush any sign of restiveness among Uighur.
For many years Beijing had regarded Uighur unrest in China as an internal problem that should and would be settled without external interference. Since the early 1990s, however, Beijing has become aware of the growing concern in the international community about the Uighurs’ persecution in China. This concern has been kindled and promoted by Uighur diaspora organisations all over the world. […]
Uighurs migrated from China in waves, usually following deteriorating conditions or, conversely, when the doors were opened. Some left by the mid-1930s after the first – and short-lived – Eastern Turkestan Republic had collapsed, mostly to Turkey and to Saudi Arabia. Several hundred Uighurs fled China in late 1949, following the Chinese communists’ seizure of Xinjiang. […]
Uighur diaspora communities have formed their own associations (occasionally more than one) in every area they have settled. These have the aims of preserving Uighur collective identity (i.e. culture and language), and sustaining and promoting shared national aspirations – ultimately, independence for East Turkestan. In trying to overcome the fragmentation and disagreements that have characterised these associations, attempts have been made to set up international Uighur “umbrella” organisations (such as the Eastern Turkestan National Congress, set up in Turkey in 1992; and the East Turkestan Government-in-Exile, formed in Washington in autumn 2004).
Most such attempts have failed to achieve the unity they sought. A movement that has a chance to survive is the World Uighur Congress, inaugurated in April 2004 in Munich.
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