Uighurs’ Independence

8 April 1997

Uighurs’ Independence

By Gwynne Dyer

 “We think Deng’s death will bring a power struggle within the Chinese elite,” said Sargari Tarym, spokesman for the Uighur independence movement, in Moscow in late February. “If that happens, the independence movement in Turkestant will intensify.” In fact, it is already pretty intense.

Given the tightness of Chinese border controls and internal censorship, news out of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (the Muslim-populated far northwest of China, also known as Turkestant) is always late and unreliable. But if the leaders of the independence movement are right, then on March 20, the Chinese publicly executed two young Uighur men implicated in the January riots – which may well set off the next round of violence.

It was the public execution of some 30 Uighur nationalists that sparked the riots in Yining in January. Chinese settlers were killed and their bodies burned; many Uighurs were killed by Chinese troops. China says 10 were killed and 100 injured; the leaders of the United National Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan claim that 25 Uighurs and 55 Chinese soldiers died.

IT’S FIVE YEARS since some Uighur separatist groups adopted a violent strategy , but it’s only in the past two months that the violence has become too obvious for the Chinese to hide. The riots in Yining were followed later last month by three bombs on buses in Urumqi, the regional capital, that killed seven and injured 60, and then early this month by a bus bomb in Beijing itself.

Once the Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia terrorized two continents. At various times their horse-mounted hordes conquered all of China, much of Europe, half of India. By the 14th century they had all converted to Islam, and cities like Tashkent and Kashgar became centers of great wealth and learning.

The last two centuries, however, have not been kind to them.

Between the mid-1700s and the mid-1800s, Russian and Chinese imperialists gradually conquered and annexed the entire region, bringing all the peoples of Central Asia-Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, Kyrgyz and Uighur – under their rule. But in 1991, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, everybody got their freedom again. Everybody except the Uighurs, who are ruled by China.

That year did not bring independence to the Uighurs, but it did bring great change. Since then Xinjiang has shared a porous 1,000-mile (1,500-km) border with the newly independent countries of kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, where both Islam and nationalism are honored, not repressed. Inevitably, ideas and arms have crossed that border. So has hope.

The Uighurs, like the Tibetans, are facing demographic marginalization. China’s strategy for nailing down its western territories is to flood them with settlers from the majority (Han) ethnic group until the local people, together with their languages, religions, and traditions, are just overwhelmed. These will become Chinese lands, with a few picturesque natives seeling curios.

In 1950, just after the second Chinese conquest, there were only 200,000 Han Chinese in all Xinjiang. There are now 6 million, and hundreds more arrive every day, drawn by housing and job incentives that in practice are only available to ethnic Chinese.

Urumqi is now a Chinese-majority city, and in Xinjiang as a whole the Han immigrants may now equal the Uighurs in numbers.

AT THE LAST CENSUS the Uighurs were still close to half of Xinjiang’s 16 million people (and there are also about a million Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in the region), but every train arriving in Urumqi erodes their position a little further.

The immigrants are not villains. They are just another sort of victims, sent to a distant, arid, hostile region by the policies of a government in which they have no say. And if Turkestan manages to snatch its independence in the next few years, while the power-brokers in Beijing are busy with the succession struggle, they will become victims twice over.

It may get very rough in Xinjiang. The Uighurs are outgunned and outnumbered by the Chinese, but they do have an identity rooted in shared language, religion, history, and homeland – which is more than you can say for the average bewildered Chinese immigrant.

At the least, there could be great violence and misery. At best, the Uighurs could actually win back their independence.

That is what happened in the old Soviet Union, but there is a big difference. Only 50 percent of Soviet citizens were actually Russians; over 90 percent of China’s citizens are Han Chinese. To democratize, Russia HAD to decolonize. China does not.

If the Uighurs don’t win independence in the next decade, they will probably end up like the native peoples of the Americas: marginalized and despised in the lands they once owned.

But at least for the Uighurs, the game is not yet over.