Factors such as the massive state-sponsored migration of Han Chinese from the 1950s to the 1970s, government policies promoting Chinese cultural unity and punishing certain expressions of Uyghur identity, and heavy-handed responses to separatist terrorism have contributed to tension between Uyghurs, and state police and Han Chinese. This has taken the form of both frequent terrorist attacks and wider public unrest (such as the July 2009 Ürümqi riots).
Many involved also support the formation of an independent Uyghur state, with some claiming that the Second East Turkestan Republic was illegally incorporated into the People's Republic of China in 1949. Some terrorist groups see the conflict as part of a larger global jihad.
Xinjiang is a large central-Asian region within the People's Republic of China comprising numerous minority groups: 45% of its population are Uyghurs, and 40% are Han. Its heavily industrialised capital, Ürümqi, has a population of more than 2.3 million, about 75% of whom are Han, 12.8% are Uyghur, and 10% are from other ethnic groups.
In general, Uyghurs and the mostly Han government disagree on which group has greater historical claim to the Xinjiang region: Uyghurs believe their ancestors were indigenous to the area, whereas government policy considers present-day Xinjiang to have belonged to China since around 200 BC. According to PRC policy, Uyghurs are classified as a National Minority rather than an indigenous group—in other words, they are considered to be no more indigenous to Xinjiang than the Han, and have no special rights to the land under the law. During the Mao era the People's Republic oversaw the migration into Xinjiang of millions of Han, who dominate the region economically and politically.
Although current PRC minority policy, which is based on affirmative actions, has reinforced a Uyghur ethnic identity that is distinct from the Han population, many Uyghurs reportedly feel that they are slowly being eradicated as an ethnic and cultural group. Human Rights Watch describes a "multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity" perpetrated by state authorities. It is estimated that over 100,000 Uyghurs are currently held in political "re-education camps." China justifies such measures as a response to the terrorist threat posed by extremist separatist groups. These policies, in addition to long-standing cultural differences, have sometimes resulted in resentment between Uyghur and Han citizens. On one hand, as a result of Han immigration and government policies, Uyghurs' freedoms of religion and of movement have been curtailed, while most Uyghurs argue that the government downplays their history and traditional culture. On the other hand, some Han citizens view Uyghurs as benefiting from special treatment, such as preferential admission to universities and exemption from the one-child policy, and as "harbouring separatist aspirations". Recently there have been attempts to restrict the Uyghur birth rate and increase the Han fertility rate in portions of Xinjiang to counteract Uyghur separatism.
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Although religious education for children is officially forbidden by law in China, the Communist Party allows Hui Muslims to have their children educated in Islam and attend mosques; the law is enforced for Uyghurs. After secondary education, China allows Hui students to study with an imam. China does not enforce the law against children attending mosques on non-Uyghurs outside Xinjiang. Since the 1980s Islamic private schools (Sino-Arabic schools (中阿學校)) have been permitted by the Chinese government in Muslim areas, excluding Xinjiang because of its separatist sentiment.[a]
Hui Muslims employed by the state, unlike Uyghurs, are allowed to fast during Ramadan. The number of Hui going on Hajj is expanding and Hui women are allowed to wear veils, but Uyghur women are discouraged from wearing them. Muslim ethnic groups in different regions are treated differently by the Chinese government with regard to religious freedom. Religious freedom exists for Hui Muslims, who can practice their religion, build mosques and have their children attend them; more controls are placed on Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Hui religious schools are allowed, and an autonomous network of mosques and schools run by a Hui Sufi leader was formed with the approval of the Chinese government. According to The Diplomat, Uyghur religious activities are curtailed but Hui Muslims are granted widespread religious freedom; therefore, Chinese government policy is directed towards stamping out the Uyghur separatist threat.
In the last two decades of the 20th century, Uyghurs in Turpan were treated favourably by China with regard to religion; while Kashgar and Hotan were subject to more stringent government control. Uyghur and Han Communist officials in Turpan turned a blind eye to the law, allowing Islamic education of Uyghur children. Religious celebrations and the Hajj were encouraged by the Chinese government for Uyghur Communist Party members, and 350 mosques were built in Turpan between 1979 and 1989. As as result, Han, Hui and the Chinese government were then viewed more positively by Uyghurs in Turpan. In 1989, there were 20,000 mosques in Xinjiang. Until separatist disturbances began in 1996, China allowed people to ignore the rule prohibiting religious observance by government officials. Large mosques were built with Chinese government assistance in Urumqi. While rules proscribing religious activities were enforced in southern Xinjiang, conditions were comparatively lax in Urumqi.
According to The Economist, in 2016 Uyghurs faced difficulties travelling within Xinjiang and live in fenced-off neighbourhoods with checkpoint entrances. In southern Urumqi, each apartment door has a QR code so police can easily see photos of the dwelling's authorised residents.
In 2017, new restrictions reported included people being fined heavily or subjected to programmes of "re-education" for refusing to eat during fasting in Ramadan, the detention of hundreds of Uyghurs as they returned from Islamic Middle Eastern pilgrimage, and many standard Muslim names, such as Muhammad, being banned for newborn children. In January 2018, Radio Free Asia released a report that alleged 120,000 Uyghurs deemed as "extremists" or political opponents were being held at "reeducation" camps in Kashgar by the government of China.
A United Front Work Department official acknowledged the existence of "vocational training centers" in Xinjiang. According to non-Chinese sources, these are internment camps for Uighurs, and in 2018 hold up to a million people. One location of these facilities is Turpan, which is has a razor wire topped wall and guard towers. The United States Department of State alleges that Kazakhs and other Muslims were also interned by the Chinese government in Xinjiang. In August 2018, a former interned Kazakh Chinese national gave testimony about the facilities in neighboring Kazakhstan. However, China denied the claims.
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The history of the region has become highly politicized, with both Chinese and nationalist Uyghur historians frequently overstating the extent of their groups' respective ties to the region. In reality, it has been home to many groups throughout history, with the Uyghurs arriving from Central Asia in the 10th century. During the Qing dynasty, cultural differences and colonialist policies led to repeated rebellions from a Muslim majority against Chinese minority rule.
After the 1928 assassination of Yang Zengxin, governor of the semi-autonomous Kumul Khanate in east Xinjiang under the Republic of China, he was succeeded by Jin Shuren. On the death of the Kamul Khan Maqsud Shah in 1930, Jin abolished the Khanate entirely and took control of the region as warlord. Corruption, appropriation of land, and the commandeering of grain and livestock by Chinese military forces were all factors which led to the eventual Kumul Rebellion that established the First East Turkestan Republic in 1933. In 1934 it was conquered by warlord Sheng Shicai with the aid of the Soviet Union. Sheng's leadership was marked by heavy Soviet influence, with him openly offering Xinjiang's valuable natural resources in exchange for Soviet help in crushing revolts, such as in 1937. Although already in use,[b] it was in this period that the term "Uyghur" was first used officially over the generic "Turkic", as part of an effort to "undermine potential broader bases of identity" such as Turkic or Muslim. In 1942, Sheng sought reconciliation with the Republic of China, abandoning the Soviets.
In 1944 the Ili Rebellion led to the Second East Turkestan Republic. Though direct evidence of Soviet involvement remains circumstantial, and rebel forces were primarily made up of Turkic Muslims with the support of the local population, the new state was dependent on the Soviet Union for trade, arms, and "tacit consent" for its continued existence. When the Communists defeated the Republic of China in the Chinese Civil War, the Soviets helped the Communist People's Liberation Army recapture it, and it was absorbed into the People's Republic in 1949.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was established in 1955.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, a state-orchestrated mass migration into Xinjiang has raised the number of Han from 7% to 40% of the population, exacerbating ethnic tensions. On the other hand, a declining infant-mortality rate, improved medical care and a laxity in China's one-child policy have helped the Uyghur population in Xinjiang grow from four million in the 1960s to eight million in 2001.
In 1968 the East Turkestan People's Party was the largest militant Uyghur separatist organization, and may have received support from the Soviet Union. During the 1970s, the Soviets supported the United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan (URFET) to fight the Chinese.
Xinjiang's importance to China increased after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to China's perception of being encircled by the Soviets. China supported the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet invasion and broadcast reports of Soviet atrocities committed on Afghan Muslims to Uyghurs to counter Soviet broadcasts to Xinjiang that Soviet Muslim minorities had a better life. Anti-Soviet Chinese radio broadcasts targeted Central Asian ethnic minorities, such as the Kazakhs. The Soviets feared disloyalty by the non-Russian Kazakh, Uzbek and Kyrgyz in the event of a Chinese invasion of Soviet Central Asia, and Russians were taunted by Central Asians: "Just wait till the Chinese get here, they'll show you what's what!" Chinese authorities viewed Han migrants in Xinjiang as vital to defense against the Soviet Union. China established camps to train the Afghan mujahideen near Kashgar and Hotan, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in small arms, rockets, mines and anti-tank weapons. During the 1980s student demonstrations and riots against police action assumed an ethnic aspect, and the April 1990 Baren Township riot has been acknowledged as a turning point.
1990s to 2007
China's "Strike Hard" campaign against crime, beginning in 1996, saw thousands of arrests, executions, and "constant human rights violations", as well as marked reduction in religious freedom. These policies, and a feeling of political marginalisation, contributed to the fermentation of groups who carried out numerous guerrilla operations, including sabotage and attacks on police barracks, and occasionally even acts of terrorism including bomb attacks and assassinations of government officials.
A February 1992 Urumqi bus bombing, attributed to the Shock Brigade of the Islamic Reformist Party, resulted in three deaths.
A police roundup and execution of 30 suspected separatists during Ramadan resulted in large demonstrations in February 1997, characterized as riots by Chinese media and peaceful by Western media. The demonstrations culminated in the 5 February Ghulja incident, in which a People's Liberation Army (PLA) crackdown led to at least nine deaths and possibly more than 100. The 25 February Ürümqi bus bombings killed nine people and injured 68. Responsibility for the attacks was acknowledged by Uyghur exile groups.
In Beijing's Xidan district, a bus bomb killed two people on 7 March 1997; Uyghur separatists claimed responsibility for the attack. Uyghur participation in the bombing was dismissed by the Chinese government, and the Turkish-based Organisation for East Turkistan Freedom admitted responsibility for the attack. The bus bombings triggered a change in policy, with China acknowledging separatist violence. The situation in Xinjiang quieted until mid-2006, although ethnic tensions remained.
According to Vaughan Winterbottom, although the Turkistan Islamic Party distributes propaganda videos and its Arabic Islamic Turkistan magazine (documented by Jihadology.net and the Jamestown Foundation) the Chinese government apparently denied the party's existence; China claimed that there was no terrorist connection to its 2008 bus bombings as the TIP claimed responsibility for the attacks. In 2007, police raided a suspected TIP terrorist training camp. The following year, an attempted suicide bombing on a China Southern Airlines flight was thwarted and the Kashgar attack resulted in the death of sixteen police officers four days before the beginning of the Beijing Olympics.
During the night of 25–26 June 2009, in the Shaoguan incident in Guangdong, two people were killed and 118 injured. The incident reportedly triggered the July 2009 Ürümqi riots; others were the September 2009 Xinjiang unrest and the 2010 Aksu bombing, after which 376 people were tried. The July 2011 Hotan attack led to the deaths of 18 civilians. Although the attackers were Uyghurs, Han and Uyghurs were victims. That year, six ethnic Uyghur men unsuccessfully attempted to hijack an aircraft heading to Ürümqi, a series of knife and bomb attacks occurred in July and the Pishan hostage crisis occurred in December. Credit for the attacks was professed by the Turkistan Islamic Party.
On 28 February 2012, an attack in Yecheng killed 24 and injured 18. On 24 April 2013, clashes in Bachu occurred between a group of armed men and social workers and police near Kashgar. The violence left at least 21 people dead, including 15 police and officials. According to a local government official, the clashes broke out after three other officials reported that suspicious men armed with knives were hiding in a house outside Kashgar. Two months later, on 26 June, 27 people were killed in riots in Shanshan; seventeen were killed by rioters, and the other ten were alleged assailants who were shot dead by police in the township of Lukqun.
In 2014, eleven members of an organization said to be an anti-China Uyghur group were killed by Kyrgyz security. They were identified as Uyghurs by their appearance, and their personal effects indicated that they were separatists.
On 1 March a group of knife-wielding terrorists attacked the Kunming Railway Station, killing 31 and injuring 141. China blamed Xinjiang militants for the attack, and over 380 people were arrested in the following crackdown. A captured attacker and three others were charged on 30 June. Three of the suspects were accused of "leading and organising a terror group and intentional homicide". They did not participate in the attack, since they had been arrested two days earlier. On 12 September, a Chinese court sentenced three people to death and one to life in prison for the attack. The attack was praised by ETIM.
On 18 April, a group of 16 Chinese citizens identified as ethnic Uyghurs engaged in a shootout with Vietnamese border guards after seizing their guns when they were being detained to be returned to China. Five Uyghurs and two Vietnamese guards died in the incident. Ten of the Uyghurs were men, and the rest were women and children.
Twelve days later, two attackers stabbed people before detonating their suicide vests at an Ürümqi train station. Three people, including the attackers, were killed.
On 22 May, two suicide car bombings occurred after the occupants threw explosives from their vehicles at an Ürümqi street market. The attacks killed 43 people and injured more than 90, the deadliest attack to date in the Xinjiang conflict. On 5 June, China sentenced nine people to death for terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.
According to the Xinhua News Agency, on 28 July 37 civilians were killed by a gang armed with knives and axes in the towns of Elixku and Huangdi in Shache County and 59 attackers were killed by security forces. Two hundred fifteen attackers were arrested after they stormed a police station and government offices. The agency also reported that 30 police cars were damaged or destroyed and dozens of Uyghur and Han Chinese civilians were killed or injured. The Uyghur American Association claimed that local Uyghurs had been protesting at the time of the attack. Two days later, the moderate imam of China's largest mosque was assassinated in Kashgar after morning prayers.
On 21 September, Xinhua reported that a series of bomb blasts killed 50 people in Luntai County, southwest of the regional capital Urumqi. The dead consisted of six civilians, four police officers and 44 "rioters".
On 12 October, four Uyghurs armed with knives and explosives attacked a farmers' market in Xinjiang. According to police, 22 people died (including police officers and the attackers).
On 29 November, 15 people were killed and 14 injured in a Shache County attack. Eleven of the killed were Uyghur militants.
On 18 September 2015 in Aksu, an unidentified group of knife-wielding men attacked sleeping workers at a coalmine and at least 50 people were killed. The Turkistan Islamic Party has claimed responsibility for the attack. On 18 November, a 56-day manhunt for the attackers reportedly concluded with Chinese security forces cornering them in a mountain hideout. Twenty-eight assailants were killed, and a sole survivor surrendered to authorities. The security forces forced their targets out with flamethrowers and gunned them down.
Anti-China protests in Turkey
On 4 July 2015, about 2,000 Grey Wolves linked to the MHP who were protesting China's fasting ban in Xinjiang mistakenly attacked South Korean tourists in Istanbul; China issued a travel warning to its citizens traveling to Turkey. A Uyghur employee of a Chinese restaurant was beaten by protesters. This event negatively impacted China–Turkey relations.
2015 Bangkok bombing
The Bangkok bombing is suspected to have been carried out by the Turkish terrorist organisation known as the Grey Wolves in response to Thailand's deportation of 100 Uyghur asylum-seekers back to China. A Turkish man was arrested by Thai police in connection with the bombing and bomb-making materials were found in his apartment. Due to the terrorist risk and counterfeiting of passports, Uyghur foreigners in Thailand were placed under surveillance by Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and Thai police were placed on alert after the arrival of two Turkish Uyghurs.
On 30 August 2016, the Kyrgyzstan Chinese Embassy was struck by a suicide bombing by an Uyghur, according to Kyrgyz news. The suicide bomber was the only fatality from the attack. The casualties included wounds suffered by Kyrgyz staff members and did not include Chinese. A Kyrgyzstan government agency pointed the finger at Nusra allied Syrian based Uyghurs.
Police killed 4 militants who carried out a bombing on 28 December 2016 in Karakax.
The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) is an Islamic extremist terrorist organisation seeking the expulsion of China from "East Turkestan". Since its emergence in 2007 it has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks, and the Chinese government accuses it of over 200, resulting in 162 deaths and over 440 injuries. Hundreds of Uyghurs are thought to reside in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to have fought alongside extremist groups in conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War. However, the exact size of the Turkistan Islamic Party remains unknown and some experts dispute its ability to orchestrate attacks in China, or that is exists at all as a cohesive group.
The TIP is often assumed to be the same as the earlier East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which has been effectively defunct since the death of its leader Hasan Mahsum in 2003. Although the names are often used synonymously, and China exclusively uses ETIM, the link between the two is still unproven.
The TIP are believed to have links to al-Qaeda and affiliated groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Pakistani Taliban. Philip B. K. Potter writes that despite the fact that "throughout the 1990s, Chinese authorities went to great lengths to publicly link organizations active in Xinjiang—particularly the ETIM—to al-Qaeda [...] the best information indicates that prior to 2001, the relationship included some training and funding but relatively little operational cooperation." Meanwhile, specific incidents were downplayed by Chinese authorities as isolated criminal acts. However, in 1998 the group's headquarters were moved to Kabul, in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, while "China’s ongoing security crackdown in Xinjiang has forced the most militant Uyghur separatists into volatile neighboring countries, such as Pakistan," Potter writes, "where they are forging strategic alliances with, and even leading, jihadist factions affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban." The East Turkestan Islamic Movement dropped "East" from its name as it increased its domain. The U.S. State Department have listed them as a terrorist organisation since 2002, and as having received "training and financial assistance" from al-Qaeda.
A number of members of al-Qaeda have expressed support for the TIP, Xinjiang independence, and/or jihad against China. They include Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who has on multiple occasions issued statements naming Xinjiang (calling it "East Turkestan") as one of the "battlegrounds" of "jihad to liberate every span of land of the Muslims that has been usurped and violated." Additionally, the al-Qaeda aligned al-Fajr Media Center distributes TIP promotional material.
Andrew McGregor, writing for the Jamestown Foundation, notes that "though there is no question a small group of Uyghur militants fought alongside their Taliban hosts against the Northern Alliance [...] the scores of terrorists Beijing claimed that Bin Laden was sending to China in 2002 never materialized" and that "the TIP’s “strategy” of making loud and alarming threats (attacks on the Olympics, use of biological and chemical weapons, etc.) without any operational follow-up has been enormously effective in promoting China’s efforts to characterize Uyghur separatists as terrorists."
Hundreds of Uyghurs fleeing China through Southeast Asia have been deported back by the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, and others, drawing condemnation from the U.S., the UN refugee agency, and human rights groups. The U.S. State Department said deported Uyghurs "could face harsh treatment and a lack of due process" while the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch have called the deportations a violation of international law.
Following the July 2009 Ürümqi riots, China reportedly lobbied Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others to prevent a statement by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemning China's response to the unrest.
Turkish Trade and Industry Minister Nihat Ergun urged Turks to boycott Chinese goods in response to China's behaviour in Xinjiang. However, according to Rebiya Kadeer, Turkey is hampered in substantially interfering with the Uyghurs because its own Kurdish issue could trigger retaliatory interference from China.
- List of ongoing conflicts
- Terrorism in China
- Islamicisation and Turkicisation of Xinjiang
- Xinjiang reeducation camps
- The People's Republic, founded in 1949, banned private confessional teaching from the early 1950s to the 1980s, until a more liberal stance allowed religious mosque education to resume and private Muslim schools to open. Moreoever, except in Xinjiang for fear of secessionist feelings, the government allowed and sometimes encouraged the founding of private Muslim schools in order to provide education for people who could not attend increasingly expensive state schools or who left them early, for lack of money or lack of satisfactory achievements.
- The First East Turkestan Republic had considered the name "Uyghuristan", with some early coins bearing that name, but settled on the "East Turkestan Republic" on the basis that there were other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang and the new government.
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China’s long-running Uighur insurgency has flared up dramatically of late, with more than 900 recorded deaths in the past seven years.
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China’s government says it faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists in energy-rich Xinjiang, on the border of central Asia, where hundreds have died in violence in recent years.
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But just as in Tibet, the local population has viewed the increasing unequal distribution of wealth and income between China's coastal and inland regions, and between urban and rural areas, with an additional ethnic dimension. Most are not separatists, but they perceive that most of the economic opportunities in their homeland are taken by the Han Chinese, who are often better educated, better connected, and more resourceful. The Uyghurs also resent discrimination against their people by the Han, both in Xinjiang and elsewhere.
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[Uyghurs] live in cohesive communities largely separated from Han Chinese, practice major world religions, have their own written scripts, and have supporters outside of China. Relations between these minorities and Han Chinese have been strained for centuries.
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Han Chinese view the Uighurs as harbouring separatist aspirations and being disloyal and ungrateful, in spite of preferential policies for ethnic minority groups.
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