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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 38, New Delhi, September 5, 2020

A Systematic Victimization of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang Province of China | Sheel Bhadra Kumar

Friday 4 September 2020, by Sheel Bhadra Kumar


If a voyager darts his glance on earth from space, the first thing visible on earth for the first time is the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall of China symbolizes strength, grandeur, valour of Chinese kingdoms and their prowess. On the other hand, the great wall of China also symbolizes vulnerability and weakness of China against foreign invasions. China has born assaults from Mongols, Tibetans, Turks, Huis and others in ancient and medieval times. It has always been faced with dilemmas of foreign threats and invasions real or illusionary from its neighbouring countries. Even in modern times, China has faced invasions and threats from the USSR, Japan, Mongolia, Tibet, Western Asian countries and South Asian countries. Even now the shining China suffers from threat perceptions from its neighbouring countries.


In 1949, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the Communist China emerged. It slowly integrated and assimilated different regions of its adjacent regions from where it perceived threat or fear of imminent invasions. China is a country which does not rely on status-quoism; it relies on expansionism, hegemonism, dominance and land grabbing policy. In principle, it talks of peace, harmony and coexistence but in practice, it violates and muzzles international rules, conventions and covenants. Its policy of razzmatazz has been witnessed by its neighbouring countries and the world numerous times. In practice, China follows the principle of Mao Zedong- that power emerges from the barrel of gun.

If we look at the map of China, we find different minority groups predominantly residing in its frontier regions particularly in North, North- West and South of Mainland China. To control these regions, China created five autonomous regions. In 1947, China created Inner Mongolia autonomous region; in 1995, Xinjiang autonomous region; in 1958, Guangxi and Hui autonomous administrative regions and in the year 1965, the fifth administrative Tibet autonomous region .

In this essay, we shall try to discuss the Uyghurs living in Xinjiang autonomous region of China which lies in the farthest North-West region of China. Here, we shall discuss the development, problems and plight faced by Uyghurs in Xinjiang which has become highly debatable on the global platform. Along with it, we shall discuss global reactions on this humanitarian crisis.

On the other hand, China regards this issue to be a thorn in its flesh. China is increasingly facing vocal denunciations from the US and other countries for its policies and actions in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs. The US secretary of State, Mr. Mike Pompeo in an interview at Vatican City scathingly criticized Chinese policy in Xinjiang. On July 2020, more than twenty countries, at the Human Rights Commission signed a joint letter criticizing China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Who are Uyghurs?:

Uyghurs are predominantly Turkic speaking Sunni Muslims who live primarily in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Xinjiang is China’s largest region rich in minerals, arable land and other natural resources. Its economy has been centered on agriculture and trade. The ethnic composition of Xinjiang according to 2020 census is of total 21.82 million people. Uyghurs are 45.84%, Han- 40.84%, Kazakh- 6.5.%, Hui- 4.5% and others comprise 2.67%. Between 1949 to 2008, the proportion of Han in Xinjiang rose drastically from 6.7% to 40%. This represents the largest demographic change ever to occur in a major region of China since the founding of the People’s Republic. Xinjiang is bordered by eight countries including Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and India. The name of Xinjiang literally means New Frontier or New Order given during the Qing dynasty. Uyghurs regard themselves culturally and ethnically closer to central Asian nations and their language is similar to Turkish. Prior to Islam, the Uyghurs embraced Buddhism, Shamanism and Manichaeism. During the Kara Hamid kingdom, Uyghurs embraced Islam. Kashgar, the capital of the kingdom developed as the major learning centre of Islam. Art, Science, Literature and Music flourished during this period. World renowned Uyghur scholars like Mahmud al- Kashgari and Yusuf Khass Hajib belonged to this region. Uyghurs played an important role in cultural exchange between the East and the West.

Decline in former glory of the Uyghurs:

The Islamic Uyghur kingdom of East Turkestan maintained its independence and prosperity before the Manchu empire invasion in 1876. A bloody war was fought for eight years between the Manchu empire and the Islamic Uyghur kingdom. Ultimately, the Manchu empire won the War and annexed the territories of Uyghur kingdom in November 18, 1886. The Chinese nationalists overthrew the Manchu empire in 1911 and East Turkestan failed under the rule of Nationalist Chinese government. There were numerous uprisings against Nationalist Chinese rule (in 1933 and again in 1944). They succeeded in setting up an independent East Turkestan Republic. But in 1949, China again re-established its control over the state of East Turkestan.

Reasons behind Uyghurs resentment:

There are many reasons of resentment of Uyghur population inhabiting the Xinjiang autonomous region of China against policies adopted by the Chinese Government and the administration.

1. During the 1950s and 60s, especially after clash between China and the Soviet Union, the Chinese government actively relocated Han population to frontier provinces like Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang.Its objective was to consolidate the border in light of possible military threat from the Soviet Union.

2. Hu Jintao, the paramount leader of China from 2002 to 2012, aimed at building a harmonious socialist society free from social conflict. Under his leadership, the authorities cracked down on social disturbance, ethnic minority protests and dissent figures. He gave a slogan- “look towards the West”. The Western region of China was thinly populated, unexplored and semi-exploited till then. After his appeal, we see an influx of Han population towards Western regions of China.

3. Han migrants were sent to Xinjiang in production and construction works in corporations by the Central government. Skilled Han migrants were located and strategically placed to develop Xinjiang infrastructure and natural resources, extraction industries particularly the oil, gas and cotton industries at the cost of Uyghur population, thus creating a chasm and inequality between Hans and Uyghurs. This resulted in unemployment, livelihood threat for Uyghurs creating disadvantageous position for them. Jobs and opportunities eluded them.

4. The Uyghurs are ethnically and culturally close to Central Asian regions. They don’t understand or speak Mandarins. They regard themselves different from the people of Mainland China. They feel that their identity will be imperiled in China. Therefore, to preserve their culture, custom and way of life, they express anguish and resentment and resort to violence and agitation.

5. The Chinese administration directly interferes in the lives of Uyghur people. It is a matter of resentment for the Uyghurs.

Twenty-Four Documents:

The United States, Britain and other Democratic countries have been criticizing China for its policies towards the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. But on November 16, 2019, in the New York Times, with the title- “Absolutely No Mercy” of about 403 pages leaked secret files exposing how China organized mass detention of Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang. It includes pages of internal speeches by Xi Jinping and other top most leaders of China of directing, reporting, surveillance and control over Uyghur population in Xinjiang. This report says:

1. People are being sent to de-radicalization camps upon showing any sign of extremism, such as fasting and Ramazan, growing long beards, dressing differently, sending Eid greetings, praying too often, not knowing Mandarin and giving up smoking and drinking.

2. Uyghurs are being forcibly sent to re-education camps leaving behind jobs, property and family.

3. A surveillance system of face recognition, camera, and software monitors, phone activities, QR codes are being installed in their homes.

4. The inmates have not been charged for any crime. Therefore, there is no question for legal fight against detention.

5. There has been a gravest allegation that the Chinese authorities force Uyghur detainees to donate their vital organs to be sold in global market on global demand.
But the Chinese government refutes all charges labelled against it. It calls it propaganda against the Chinese Government meant to malign its image globally. The Chinese government claims that it is providing the detainees’ vocational skills and different training. It calls detention camps as education centres where Uyghurs are cured of extremist thoughts and radicalization. China recently released a white paper titled- “Vocational Education and Training in Xinjiang” attempting to justify its ongoing treatment against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Global Response:

Most of the nations have condemned Chinese detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The Human Rights Commission chief, European Union and many UN officials have demanded access to these detention camps. In its endeavour to appease the world opinion, China carefully permitted Russian diplomat Vladimir Vorotov, the UN official to get desperately international legitimacy for its policies towards Uyghurs in China. China also invited twelve selected ambassadors including India to visit selected regions of Xinjiang to see development and progress in that region. But these face saving measures proved futile and purposeless because suspicion and motives of China couldn’t be dispelled.

The US Congress has passed the so called Uyghurs Human Rights Policy Act of 2020. The US has announced sanctions against Chinese politicians who have been Human Rights violators against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang like Chen Quango, Wang Mighau, Zhu Hailun and Huo Liujuan. China has also retaliated in the same measure. A Chinese scholar Adriak Zenz has alleged that woman are forcibly being sterilized or filled with contraceptive devices.

The horrific narrative of China’s re-educational assault on the identity and culture of Uyghur Muslims, the reactions from the Muslim world have been largely muted due to Chinese investment, loans, development projects and invisible threat of pressure tactics exerted from China.

Pakistan, an all-weather friend of China has kept mum on the suppression of Uyghurs in China. Iran will not speak against China on Uyghur issue due to its trade, business and quantum investment and military and strategic compulsions. The Arab world has also ignored the Uyghur issue due to the same reasons cited above.

The spiral silence is not limited to the Muslim world. It spans across the world to democratic countries where the voices for protection for Human Rights and Freedom have also been mute. India due to its unsolved border issues with China and its ongoing internal conflicts and policies, chooses to remain reticent against atrocities and violations of Human Rights of Uyghurs in China.
Concluding Remarks:

China, being a reformist and revisionist unbridled global power is setting a dangerous precedent in Xinjiang. Now, the Dragon is on the rampage against International Law, conventions and agreements, determined to confront and change the global structure and impose its hegemony by hook or by crook. The globe has to bear the brunt of Chinese affronts of multiple nature in coming times.

[Dr. Sheelbhadra Kumar, Associate Professor, Political Science, Government Matakarma Girls’ College Mahasamund, Chhattisgarh]

Notes and References

1) Anthony Howell and C. Cindyfan in “Migration and inequality in Xinjiang”, Geography and Economics, 2011, Bellwetter Publishing Limited, 2015, Page 120-139.
2) Arienne M. Dwyer, “The Xinjiang conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language, Polity and Political Discourse”, East-West Centre, Washington, 2005.
3) Aryeh Neier, “The International Human Rights Movement, Princeton University Press, 2020.
4) Garden Borington, “The Uyghurs: Strangers in their own Land”, Journal of World History, 2[34], w24-1028, January 2012.
5) Nick Holdstock, “China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and Chinese State”, published by I.B. Tauris, June 13, 2019[1st edition].
6) Owen Lattimore, “Inner Asian Frontier of China”, Oxford University Press, London, January 1, 1988.
7) S. Fredrick Starr, Arnold and London, “Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Border Land” [edited], M.E.Sharp, 2004 [xv-484 pp].
8) Swetlana Kozhirova, “Ethnic composition of Xinjiang Population, Past and Present”, Page 72-80, published online, 17 October 2017.
9) R.Roberts, “The War on the Uyghurs”, Princeton University Press, 2020, Page-328.

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