Photo: Sandra Sanders, Shutterstock

Today’s repression of the Uyghurs has historical antecedents

Since 2016, China’s government has begun building a massive network of detention camps or “high-tech surveillance prisons” across the Uyghur Autonomous Region. According to media reports, some camps can hold up to 10,000 detainees. According to various sources, up to three million Uighurs and other Chinese Turkic citizens are believed to be held illegally. Beijing authorities describe them as “vocational training centres” with Chinese characteristics. Their existence was first revealed by Western academics, media, and human rights organisations in spring 2017. By Aziz Isa Elkun

Photo: Sandra Sanders, Shutterstock

There is consensus on the urgency of the “Uyghur crisis” in China today. It can rightly be called one of the most serious crimes committed by any country since the Second World War. It is a kind of slow-motion “genocide” against a specific people on a massive scale.

But it has a long history, going back to the time when China built its first defensive wall, the “Great Wall.” If we look at the brutal history of the region, the crisis of the Uyghurs is not a new one, but an old and unresolved one. It has received attention thanks to this century of surveillance.

We need to remember the war-torn history and at the same time connect current events with the past. We need to talk about the historical perspectives of the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs. We cannot forget the scars left by the Great Game in Central Asia in the 19th century, played by the British, Russian and Qing Empires. Unfortunately, the great powers had no interest in Uighur independence. The game ended in October 1949 when the Republic of East Turkestan was completely occupied by Communist China with the help of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

China’s “borderlands,” walls and wars

For over two millennia of history, nomadic “peoples of the north” fought over what is now northwest China and adjacent territories. These included Huns, Turks, Uighurs, Mongols, and Manchus. Due to natural, geopolitical, and ethnic trends in the region, there were endless wars between steppe peoples and the “Middle Kingdom”” throughout the past. They were about control and occupation of land and acquisition of resources. But they were also driven by nationalism and the belief that one people or culture was superior to the others. James Milward said: “Nationalism is about people, land and the relationship between them. A nationalist project wants to define a special relationship between a unique people and a particular piece of earth.”

China is known in the rest of the world for its ancient “Great Wall,” which is more than 21,000 kilometres long. In 221 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di began its construction. According to the eminent Chinese historian Sima Qian, its purpose was to keep out the Huns. On 10 March 2017, the Xinhua news agency announced that Xi Jinping, the modern Chinese emperor, had ordered the construction of a “great iron wall” around China’s Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. The aim is to protect national unity, ethnic solidarity, and social stability.

From Kashgaria to Xinjiang – China’s “new territory”

The last two centuries in the region have seen many brutal events since the Manchu occupation in the 1760s. Massive revenge killings often followed uprisings and wars that were ethnically motivated. For example, Kuropatkin’s book Kashgaria (published in 1882) described the reconquest of “Kashgaria” (East Turkestan) in the 1870s by Manchu general Zuo Zongtang. It states that up to one million people were massacred after the defeat of Emir Yaqub Beg.

Reconquest and reinvention of Uyghurs and their homeland

On 12 November 1944, Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples established a second “Republic of East Turkistan” in the northern city of Gulja. It initially received military aid from the Soviet Union to bring the Chinese nationalists to the negotiating table with Moscow. Due to the rapidly changing political situation and the civil war in China shortly after the Second World War, Stalin began to support Mao and forced the Uyghurs to become part of China. The president of the republic, Akhmetjan Qasim, and another dozen leaders were killed in a “plane crash” while they were on a Soviet plane on their way to Beijing to negotiate with the communist leader at the end of August 1949.

Shortly after the “crash,” the nationalist general Wang Zhen was sent by Mao to reoccupy East Turkestan. In October 1949 – with direct military aid from Stalin’s Soviet Union – various forms of resistance by Uighur elites, intellectuals and former soldiers of the republic were brutally suppressed. During these years, Wang Zhen’s army killed hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and members of other Turkic peoples in the name of land reform and “cleansing” the region of soldiers from the defeated Chinese nationalists.

Beijing rejected demands by Uyghur politicians and intellectuals to establish a republic of Uyghuristan (modelled on the Central Asian Soviet Union) as part of China. As a result, most were arrested or killed. Some managed to escape to the Soviet Union. On 1 October, the Beijing central government proclaimed the establishment of the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang.

In these 72 years, the People’s Republic of China reconquered East Turkestan and colonised it again. Since the founding of the region, Uyghurs have demanded political, cultural, and religious freedoms as well as justice and equal rights. For this, they were vilified as “Panturanists,” “Pan-Islamists” and “ethnic separatists” who were ruthlessly kept down. Many laws and rules for minorities were written into the Chinese constitution – including “regional autonomy for ethnic minorities.” They were never respected or enforced.

Since then, Uyghurs have experienced different types of oppression by the regime. China previously used methods of forced assimilation like those used today. In the Cultural Revolution, Uyghur culture and religion were attacked, mosques were destroyed, copies of the Koran were burned, and many people were imprisoned.

Collapse of the Soviet Union and hopes for an independent homeland

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, new hopes arose for an independent homeland for the Uyghurs. They observed how their ethnic relatives – Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz became independent overnight. Therefore, expectations for independence grew strongly. Systematic resistance emerged among Uyghurs.

Before the end of the 1980s, the liberalisation of academic freedom and the policy of tolerance towards ethnic minorities, the Uyghur historian and poet Turghun Almas wrote a book on history entitled Uyghurlar (The Uyghurs). It was published in Urumchi in 1989. It was the first of its kind to appear under Chinese rule. After publication, it had a great impact on society and became popular.

The book was based on Soviet historiography and promoted the thesis that the Uyghurs were the historical owners of Xinjiang and should have an independent state. It was the first to propagate the term East Turkestan, which suggested a kinship with a “West Turkestan” in the independent Central Asian states. In contrast to the official Chinese version, which states that the region has been an integral part of China since the Han dynasty, the book takes the Uyghur view and argues that there have been several independent Uyghur states throughout history.

Almas used evidence, referring to Chinese as well as Soviet sources, to support his theses. This included that the Tarim Basin mummies indicate that the Uyghurs are older “than Chinese culture itself.” And that Uighurs invented the compass, gunpowder, and printing.

China’s struggle for Xinjiang as an inseparable part

In response to his growing popularity among Uyghurs, the Communist Party’s propaganda department in Xinjiang and the local academy organised a conference in February 1991 to discuss the theses of Uyghurlar.

The book was banned, and Almas was placed under “de facto house arrest” in Urumchi. Shortly after the campaign to denigrate the title, the regional government hastily published the textbook Local History of Xinjiang for pupils and students as part of its curriculum. Surprisingly, there was no historical mention of the Uyghurs and their history at all beforehand – only references to Chinese dynasties.

From “hitting hard” to “anti-terrorism”

In the 1990s, China organised a series of “strike hard” campaigns. They were directed against the independence movement, but they never gave up their demand for legitimate civil rights inside China. Beijing justified its suppression of Uyghur rights in many ways. After the terror of 11 September 2001 in the USA, China used the “war on terror” as a justification for its repression of Uyghurs.

The Gulja and Urumchi Massacres

The 5 February 1997 massacre in Gulja was one of the most serious Chinese atrocities in the region. In the mid-1990s, Uyghur cultural activities aimed at solving various social problems gained momentum among the youth in Gulja. Early in 1997, participating youth were arrested. Uyghurs demonstrate against the arrests. The army fired into the peaceful crowd, killing an unknown number of people. In the middle of the cold winter, it used water cannons when temperatures were below minus 15 degrees; many suffered frostbite.

On 5 July 2009, vicious clashes occurred in the regional capital of Urumqi. This was triggered by police shooting at demonstrators protesting the killing of Uyghur migrant workers in southern China. In response, the government suppressed demands for justice for the murdered workers.

Shortly after the 5 July violence, thousands of Han Chinese marched on the city streets. They carried batons as well as machetes and chanted, “We miss Wang Zhen! Bring a new Wang Zhen to Xinjiang!” In 2018, the Australian Xinjiang expert commented: “As head of the military government in Xinjiang from 1950 to 1952, Wang Zhen had assessed the Uighurs as a ‘trouble-making minority’ and had written to Mao Zedong that they should be ‘thoroughly exterminated’ to avoid future problems. Even Mao thought this was a little extreme – or at least premature – and moved Wang: Now it seems Mao’s successor, Xi Jinping, has found his Wang Zhen.”

After 2009, Uighur and Han Chinese urban dwellers in the region split. Mutual hatred and distrust increased. The central government viewed the new crisis as a challenge to China’s dream of world economic and political power. The conference on the subject recommended apartheid measures against Uyghurs.

If we look at the current situation of the region and compare its 200 years of war-torn history, all events are interconnected. They reflect violence and patterns of oppression, followed by assimilation and transformation of the new generations to bring them in line with Chinese interests and way of life.

The world’s largest open-air prison

As a result, the political situation of the Uyghurs deteriorated under Xi Jinping. In 2016, he sent Chen Quango from Tibet to Xinjiang. The high-ranking official was given wide-ranging powers to suppress Uighur resistance and push for forced assimilation by any means necessary. This policy began in 2016 under the guise of an “anti-terror campaign” and aimed to eradicate a distinct ethnic, cultural, and religious identity. Uyghur was banned from schools and mosques were closed.

To end the resistance, Chen Quango began building a grid of police stations – one every 100 metres. He did the same in Tibet before that. In 2017, he began building huge “concentration camps.” On 31 October 2018, the ABC news agency reported, “Despite the massive scale of the camps studied in this project, it is likely that they represent only a fraction of the detention network in Xinjiang. Estimates of their quantity range from 181 to over 1,200.”

Today, it is estimated that between one and three million innocent Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic-speaking Muslims – including writers, academics, teachers and farmers – are in these camps. Since the beginning of 2018, Uighurs in the region have been banned from making phone calls to relatives abroad. They are cut off from all communication.

China claims the camps are for the “re-education of Uyghurs” and “vocational training,” but interned intellectuals need neither education nor training. They are professionals who worked for the government. That the Chinese authorities are targeting scholars shows that the campaign is aimed at destroying the ethnic identity of the Uyghurs and forcing them to assimilate.

Alarming death toll and sexual violence

Migrigul Tursun, a camp survivor, arrived in the US in September 2018. In November 2018, she testified before a US Congressional investigative committee, “Unfortunately, in these three months alone, I have experienced nine deaths in my cell of 68 people. If my small cell – cell number 210 – in a small county, experienced 9 deaths in three months, I can’t imagine how many deaths there must be in my entire country.”

If this death rate holds true in all camps, then the total among the more than three million inmates must be a secret horror in the Chinese secret camps.

There are many sad and tragic stories in the Uighur diaspora. There are a few hundred members of the community living in London. In 2019, I received a message from a friend saying, “We would like to invite you to come to our house for a funeral. We have received information about the death of my brother. He became ill while he was in a camp and died two weeks after he was released.”

There are ongoing, serious allegations of sexual abuse against Uighur and other Turkish women in the internment camps. On 3 February 2021, the BBC reported shocking details of this systematic abuse. It said that women in China’s re-education camps are systematically “raped, sexually abused and tortured.”

The channel interviewed camp survivor Tursunay Ziawudun. “This is perhaps the most unforgettable scar on me. I don’t even want those words to come out of my mouth,” she reported.

Following the report, British politicians reacted strongly, including Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Kinnock, who called it a “scar on the world’s conscience.” Conservative MP Nus Ghani called on the Foreign Office to make a statement. Addressing the House of Commons, she demanded immediate action to protect the Uighurs from the Chinese, including sanctions on foreign trade.

What next?

Many Western media outlets have reported on the “concentration camps.” Country governments and the United Nations have expressed concern. For its part, China denied the existence of such camps in the Uighur region at UN meetings, describing them as “further education” or “vocational training centres.”

On 16 November 2019, the New York Times published 403 pages of revealed secret documents. The details sparked calls for international action to hold Beijing accountable for its abuses. France demanded access for UN observers at the Chinese camps. Only the United States took state-level action to prosecute the Chinese genocide of the Uighur people.

The US House of Representatives passed a Uighur human rights bill in 2019, and just one day before the end of the Trump administration’s term, on 19 January 2021, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that his department had determined that “genocide and crimes against humanity” had been committed by China against Uighur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang. The new Foreign Minister, Antony Blinken, expressed his support for this finding.

In the UK, after long pressure on the government from NGOs and MPs, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared on 12 January 2021 that exports would be monitored to ensure that goods are not used in camps where Uighurs and other minorities are detained.

Another positive step in British policy is attempts to pass an amendment to the Trade in Genocide Act to allow courts to rule on whether China is committing genocide against Uighurs. After a long campaign and much debate, Parliament voted for the second time on 2 February 2021 to amend the Trade Act to take a tougher stance on China’s human rights record. A judicial finding of China’s abuses against Uighurs requires the UK to review its trade agreement with Beijing.


Gardner Bovingdon (Central Asia expert) assumes that the period of unrest in Xinjiang is not a mere, temporary expression of a culture of violence. Nor is it the product of foreign intrigue. Instead, the conflict in the region has several causes. The system of “regional autonomy” must be seen as the main cause. Instead of resolving the long-standing political dispute between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government, it has deepened people’s discontent and exacerbated the conflict.

In the 72 years of communist rule over the region, China has pursued cruel repressive policies against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples, despite periodic campaigns for “ethnic unity”. In recent years, we are witnessing a systematic cultural and ethnic genocide of the Uyghurs in “slow motion”. The Chinese government is committing serious crimes against humanity. And the world must hold them accountable.

There have been calls worldwide for action to stop China’s genocide of the Uyghurs. Awareness of the Uighur tragedy has risen globally. Pressure from the international community on Beijing is growing, including NGOs and other Western civil societies that continuously challenge the regime.

Today, economically successful China has become the leading challenger to the US and Western democracies. Many believe that the established world order is seriously threatened by the authoritarian model propagated by China, which is actively spreading its authoritarianism around the world.

I believe it is a moral imperative for the world – including all UN member states – to act to prevent genocide. Western democracies should play a leading role in this. It cannot afford to allow a country to commit crimes against humanity without being prosecuted.

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