Author: Prof. Dr. Hans van Ess
Original article: Hans van Ess. The 101 Most Important Questions China, C.H.Beck, 3rd, updated and expanded edition. 2020/ German: Hans van Ess. Die 101 wichtigsten Fragen China, C.H.Beck, 3., aktualisierte und erweiterte Auflage. 2020)
Xinjiang means „New Territories“. The area received this name when the troops of the Qing Dynasty subjugated the Mongolian Djungars who nomadized there between the end of the seventeenth and the middle of the eighteenth century. Even during the Han dynasty two thousand years ago, there were Chinese military colonies and governors in the oasis cities, which were probably mainly populated by Iranian peoples, but these were withdrawn again in times of military weakness without the Chinese cultural influence ever being completely lost. During the Mongol period in the thirteenth century until the fall of the Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century, the border between the Chinese empire and neighboring Turkic dynasties ran through the Eastern part of the area, in the South-Western areas the Muslim culture of peoples who shared with the Uzbeks developed were related. Today’s provincial metropolis Urumchi was built as a Manchurian administrative city in the eighteenth century. The main Uighur-Turkish population was always the area around the cities of Kashgar, Aksu and Khotan in the extreme Southwest of today’s province, while further north mainly Mongolian, Kyrgyz and Kazakh nomads raised cattle. In addition, there were the so-called “Dungans”, as the autochthonous Chinese Muslims are called in Western languages.
The vast and largely empty areas of Xinjiang aroused the fantasies of Chinese writers as early as the early nineteenth century, who hoped to be able to solve the problem of the rapid population growth in China by relocating there. However, such plans were not implemented. Instead, the West of Xinjiang was in the wake of the so-called “Great Game” about access to Central Asia on the edge of the spheres of interest of Russia and England. Several Muslim uprisings, in which the Dungans were partly on the Chinese side, were suppressed at high costs during the 19th century. When the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911 and many of the Chinese or Manchurians residing in Xinjiang withdrew from the province, a group of Uyghurs formed, some of which, with the support of the young Soviet Union, tried to achieve independence as the Republic of East Turkestan. These attempts, which were limited to very small areas in Western Xinjiang, quickly collapsed. International recognition failed to materialize, and three successive Chinese warlords prevailed until, in 1949, Mao Zedong was able to persuade Jiang Kaishek`s Guomindang and the Uyghur Liberation Front troops stationed in Xinjiang to recognize the rule of the People’s Republic of China over the area. In 1955 he proclaimed the Uighur Autonomous Region.
At the same time, a Han Chinese settlement program began, which gradually shifted the demographics of the area. Initially, this is likely to have restored the demographic conditions from before 1911. The Xinjiang Production and Development Corps was founded as early as 1954, a semi-military unit with 175,000 men and women built according to traditional Chinese organization and based on the Manchurian military colonization, who were supposed to reclaim sparsely populated areas. But over time, the colonial pressure from the densely populated Chinese inland provinces, fueled by attractive state salaries, increased so much that many Uyghurs began to feel alien in their own country. According to figures from 2015, of the province’s approx. 24 million inhabitants, over 11 million were Uyghurs, approx. 8.6 million Han, 1.6 million Kazakhs and 1 million “Dungans”, i.e. ethnic Chinese of the Muslim faith. Even in the Uyghur metropolis of Kashgar there is a modern Chinese quarter in addition to the ancient Uyghur city, in which life takes place in completely different Han-Chinese channels. However, the majority of the Uyghurs concentrate on the traditional settlement areas in southwest Xinjiang, while the majority of the Han Chinese live in the ethnically very different northern part of the country, where few Uyghurs settled before. Almost half of the Han are residents of the provincial capital Urumchi, where the Uyghur population makes up only about a tenth.
When the Central Asian Turkic states became independent as a result of Russian perestroika, new secession tendencies also emerged in Xinjiang, which culminated in anti-Chinese demonstrations in the 1990s, which the Chinese government tried to counter with police force. Between 2007 and 2014 there were a number of nationalistically motivated attacks by Uyghurs with numerous deaths in Xinjiang, but also in Beijing and Kunming in Southwest China. The police and military in Xinjiang had tried various measures to deal with the situation. The demolition and redesign of larger parts of the medieval old town of Kashgar in 2010 certainly had the aim of increasing structural security, as the Chinese claim, but at the same time also served to facilitate surveillance of the residents. The Uyghur side found the transformation to be at least insensitive – as one of the roots of the conflict is that the ethnic groups of the Uyghurs and the Han in Xinjiang find it extremely difficult to understand each other. Pork, beer, and headscarves are divisive in Xinjiang too. The Chinese believe that they are making every effort to provide Uyghurs with good starting conditions for a life in the emerging economic power of China, for example through university entrance quotas, and are outraged by the alleged ingratitude of their Uyghur compatriots. Uyghurs, on the other hand, note that participation in Chinese prosperity can only be achieved through language skills and extensive assimilation. Many Han Chinese cannot even imagine what this means for Uighurs.
Chinese authorities were concerned because disaffected Uyghurs in Syria and Iraq joined the Islamic State, took part in al Qaeda and were also active in war zones in neighboring Afghanistan. This fact is difficult to quantify in its true extent, but it, together with the threat of attacks and in the course of the stronger ideological control under Xi Jinping, has led the central government in Beijing to think about ways to make Xinjiang a “safe” area that remains attractive to Chinese tourists. Based on George W. Bush’s fateful word of „War on terror“, Xi Jinping called in 2014 the „people’s fight against terror“. In 2016, a new man took up the office of party secretary in Xinjiang, who immediately began to set up camps, to which numerous Uyghurs were sent, as the Chinese put it, for education and training purposes. Independent data on how many people have been in such camps so far is not available, Western organizations and Uyghur representatives speak of up to a million people, but without being able to name solid sources.
However, it is clear that the Chinese War on terror is being waged with all severity. Like several other prominent Uyghurs, Tashpolat Tiyip, the president of Xinjiang University in Urumqi, who was also the CCP’s vice-party secretary at his university, was sentenced to death in 2017 with a suspension of the death penalty for two years. At the time of writing it does not appear to have been carried out, but the process shows the seriousness of the situation. The accusation was of separatism and „double-faced“, a term used to attack Uyghurs who, according to the Han Chinese view, are rhetorical for the Chinese state, but are secretly campaigning against Xinjiang’s affiliation with China.
In November 2019, the New York Times published some documents signed by Xinjiang’s Deputy Party Secretary, titled “Xinjiang Cables”. According to the newspaper, they provided unprecedented insight into the practices of Uyghur suppression. Interestingly, however, a look at the documents freely available on the Internet confirms that the party leadership believes that in the fight against terrorism, one must rely on vocational training so that Uyghurs can be successful in the Chinese labor market. For this you need vocational training centers for appropriate training in which safety is guaranteed. On the one hand, the police are strictly forbidden from entering the student zone with firearms, on the other hand, they have to prevent the inmates from escaping. A large part of the documents concern administrative instructions on how such camps should be run in order to be prepared against fire, earthquakes, epidemics or riots; high quality teaching can be ensured. “De-extremization” should be an integral part of Chinese lessons, and legal education should be offered in addition to technical skills. All persons in the camps should learn to think positively, to put aside negative feelings of the past, to accept courtesy, obedience and friendship. “Students” should come into contact with their relatives at least once a week via telephone, video chat, meetings or meals together. The degree should not be completed before a year and the total number of points should meet the prescribed standards. The English translation of a document – the statistics have been blacked out in the original Chinese version – lists exactly how many suspicious people were noticed in the four most important cities of southwestern Xinjiang in a week in the summer of 2017 (24,412), and how many of them were taken into police custody were (706) and how many were sent to „education and training“ (15683). It was also determined how many people had used a particular app that, according to the Chinese opinion, was used to send separatist messages (40,557).
The documents show that the Communist Party is convinced that it has found a good way to fight terrorism with the camps – the aspect that they could also be viewed as a means of deprivation of liberty does not seem right to the guideline authors came to mind. Apparently they believe that they are doing something good for the Uyghurs in the camps, or at least that the measures ordered are inevitable if China does not want to lose the battle for Xinjiang; and the party secretary in charge knows that failure in the fight against terrorism would mean the end of his career, while conversely the case spurs Hu Jintao, who won the spurs for the post of general secretary of the Communist Party in Tibet.
The papers also contain a document in Uyghur language that hears a court case by a previously innocent Uighur who was arrested on August 9, 2017 on suspicion of having “gathered a crowd” to cause public disorder. He has been accused of inciting extremist thoughts in his colleagues by suggesting that they are infidels when they utter dirty words or accept food from women who do not pray or from people who smoke and drink. The man, who apparently wanted to urge his colleagues to adhere to the Muslim diets and to violate Han-Chinese eating and drinking habits, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for inciting hatred between ethnic groups, a sentence against which he was allowed to appeal. Interestingly, the judges were all Uyghurs. Perhaps they were acting on Han Chinese orders. It is more likely, however, that the Xinjiang Cables provide a very authentic situation report from a torn nation in which the course of front lines is far less clear than is believed in the West.