On a March day in 1991, I emerged from the dark interior of the Emin Minaret in Turpan, Xinjiang, my eyes adjusting to the daylight, and saw a middle-aged couple drawing up in a horse-drawn cart. Their appearance and the dry and dusty setting was more reminiscent of the Middle East than China. Han Chinese friends and colleagues had been telling me for years how different Xinjiang was from the rest of China; Muslims were lihai, ‘fierce’, and the Uyghurs fiercest of all. It was in Turpan that I first began to appreciate what was distinctive about Xinjiang. In the Han majority areas of China there are many differences of regional culture and language (often misleadingly, and disparagingly, referred to as dialects), notably between north and south. But the difference between the Han majority areas and the non-Han areas on the periphery is far more profound. In another geopolitical environment, the linguistic and cultural differences of Tibetans and Uyghurs would have led to the creation of independent states.
The Uyghur language has no connection with Chinese, apart from loan words. Known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Turki or Eastern Turki, it is so close to the Uzbek of Uzbekistan (which did become an independent state in 1991) that some dialects overlap, and the two languages are mutually intelligible. Modern written Uyghur is a descendant of Chaghatay, the Turkic language used across Central Asia from the 14th to the early 20th centuries, but also betrays the parallel influence of Persian.
Manichaeism and Buddhism have left traces in Xinjiang, but they are principally of academic interest; Christian missions still work in the region, a tradition pioneered by early 20th-century Swedish Lutheran medical missionaries, but not in significant numbers. Official Chinese publications emphasise the multiethnic and multicultural character of Xinjiang, but no one who spends time there can be in any doubt that Islam dominates Uyghur society. At the root of the present conflict in Xinjiang is the perceived threat that Islam-inspired Uyghur nationalism poses to the integrity of the Chinese state.
Islam spread across southern and central Asia from the seventh century, but didn’t reach Eastern Turkestan until at least the tenth century. The victory of Imam Asim over the local Buddhist regime is said to have taken place in the 12th century, but the distinctive forms of Islamic governance in the region can be dated to the arrival of Sufis of the Naqshbandi order in the late 14th or early 15th century. A combined system of temporal and spiritual power – the ishanat – evolved, culminating in the assumption of power by Afaq Khoja in 1679, and survived his death in 1694, although it gradually came into conflict with the rising power of the Manchu empire of the Qing dynasty in China. When the Uyghur Yakub Beg rose against the Qing in the 1860s, his action was interpreted as an anti-Chinese rebellion and brutally suppressed. Qing officials debated whether the region should be incorporated into China and in 1884 Xinjiang – the ‘New Frontier’ – was declared a province of the empire.
The Qing government, and with it the Chinese empire, collapsed in 1911. In the following decades, weak central government allowed Uyghur and Turkic independence movements to emerge in Xinjiang. Two independent Eastern Turkestan Republics were established, the first in the southern city of Kashgar in 1933 and the second in Ghulja (Yining) in north-west Xinjiang in 1944. The Kashgar regime was principally Uyghur and proclaimed itself Islamic, but was short-lived. The 1944 government also included secular elements and non-Uyghur Turkic and Muslim peoples under the influence of the Soviet Union. It lasted until 1949, when it was absorbed with little turmoil into the People’s Republic of China.
The prospect of an independent Eastern Turkestan was kept alive by émigrés who fled to Turkey after the CCP came to power but also within Xinjiang itself, notably among the Sufi orders that rose up against Chinese occupation in the 1950s. It is impossible to ascertain how much support there is today in Xinjiang for an independent government – resentment at Chinese control is much easier to discern – and any pro-independence movement is automatically condemned by Beijing as the product of foreign interference. The names of various radical Uyghur organisations have emerged via the internet or in Chinese police reports, but it isn’t always clear whether these groups are real, let alone effective. Conflict in the Pamir mountains indicates the existence of partisan units, at least from time to time, but, as with other clandestine political movements, those who tell don’t know and those who know don’t tell.
Documentary materials for the study of Xinjiang are contradictory. Chinese language sources have traditionally portrayed the region as multicultural, content to be part of China. The emphasis changed in the 1990s as Chinese scholars and writers struggled to explain the government’s analysis of the violent conflict that was developing. But few Chinese writers wrote convincingly about the role of religion in Xinjiang; the influential Sufi brotherhoods were treated simply as political factions, inherently anti-government and anti-Chinese, practising the ‘three forces’ or ‘three evils’ of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism at the behest of foreign interests.
It is impossible to understand modern Xinjiang without understanding the role religion has played, and continues to play, in shaping Uyghur identity. Researchers able to utilise sources in the Uyghur language, spoken or written, have contributed much more than Chinese scholars to our understanding. Articles by the anthropologists Ildiko Bellér Hann and Chris Hann, based on their fieldwork in Xinjiang, have now been collected in The Great Dispossession, which provides insights into the history, economy and society of Xinjiang, and above all into the role of Islam. It highlights the struggle of the Uyghurs to retain a collective identity in the face of growing pressure from China’s Han majority, and the determination to articulate a Uyghur history independent of China. Although China’s reform and opening appeared to promise an acceptance of a distinct Uyghur identity, this was soon eclipsed by accusations of separatism and religious fundamentalism, although there was little evidence of either. The Great Dispossession demonstrates how Uyghur communities have evolved systems of social support, in response to the Chinese state’s repression of their religious and cultural heritage.
French scholars have also made a major contribution in this field, notably Thierry Zarcone, and Alexandre Papas, whose Soufisme et politique entre Chine, Tibet et Turkestan (2005) is based on sources in Chaghatay, Persian and Uyghur. In English, the nearest equivalent is The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History (2014) by Rian Thum, which analyses the creation of an ethno-religious identity through the telling and retelling of the story of Sufi saints by visitors to the shrines. The Uyghur anthropologist Rahile Dawut’s 2001 book, Weiwuer zu mazha yanjiu (‘Study of the Uyghur Mazars’), is an indispensable guide to the Sufi mazars of Xinjiang and their social and cultural functions. She is one of a number of Uyghur intellectuals to have been detained somewhere in the web of internment camps; her whereabouts are unknown.
Many documents in Uyghur or Chaghatay have been made available by archivists in Sweden, who have digitised documents brought back from Xinjiang by Gunnar Jarring, a scholar of Turkic languages who served as the Swedish ambassador to the USSR and Mongolia in the 1960s and 1970s. The most important documents for understanding the significance of Sufism and shrines for the Uyghur people, however, are the histories of the saints, the tazkira, which were for centuries kept secure by the guardians of the shrines. Few of these have been seen by Western, or even Chinese, scholars. Those that remain at the shrines are carefully protected, but many have been confiscated by the Chinese authorities and put into ‘safe’ storage. Such is the authority of these documents that the government is determined to limit access to them: their very existence demonstrates that the Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples of Xinjiang have a separate history and memory.
Although there were sporadic outbreaks of resistance in the 1980s as Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening’ policy loosened central political control, it was the collapse of Soviet power and the consequent emergence of independent states in Central Asia in the early 1990s that precipitated Uyghur unrest. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both had core populations of Turkic-speaking Muslims, as had Uzbekistan. For the Uyghurs, it was axiomatic that if these communities had their own states, so should they. The difference was the presence of a powerful Chinese state.
The rise in violence in Xinjiang began in April 1990 with demonstrations at a mosque in Baren, to the south-west of Kashgar. The protesters were unhappy with birth control policies, nuclear testing and the transfer of resources eastwards into China. What seemed to be a spontaneous outpouring of resentment against Chinese control had been partly organised by radicals calling themselves the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party. Conflict spread to Kashgar itself, and later the regional capital, Ürümqi, with bombs set off in government buildings and on buses. The worst violence occurred in April 1995, when police stations and other state buildings were attacked in Ghulja, the home of the independent government of the 1940s. The uprising was suppressed and the following year the PRC government introduced a Strike Hard policy to counter activity perceived as pro-independence or anti-Chinese. In February 1997, demonstrations against this policy were put down with great loss of life.
The Ghulja rising was a clear indication of the seriousness of opposition to Beijing but there were many other incidents throughout Xinjiang, especially in the smaller towns and villages on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert. Often the violence was triggered when local people went in large numbers to police stations to extricate relatives who had been arrested in police raids and detained without trial. There were also carefully planned attacks on government and CCP institutions and further bombings in Ürümqi in February 1997. In March that year the violence reached Beijing, when two buses were bombed in Xidan, a popular shopping street and the site of Democracy Wall, where pro-reform activists had posted their views and demands as part of the Beijing Spring of 1978. Police action against Uyghur communities inevitably followed. In spite of the Strike Hard campaign, the conflict continued sporadically, often in the remoter areas of Xinjiang, but fewer major incidents were reported until, in July 2009, young Uyghurs protesting against attacks on Uyghur workers in south China clashed with groups of Han residents in Ürümqi, which had escaped most of the violent conflict of the previous two decades. The Ürümqi Han demanded action from the Beijing authorities, and the longstanding party secretary for Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, was replaced in April 2010 by Zhang Chunxian, who had been heavily criticised by the Han community in Xinjiang for prioritising economic development at the expense of security.
When I visited the region in the spring and summer of 2010, the centre of Kashgar looked like a bombsite. The Chinese authorities had demolished whole streets. The bazaar, residential compounds and mosques had all been destroyed, and replacement buildings were beginning to appear on the main streets, in an architectural style that was vaguely Central Asian but ersatz in comparison with the original structures. It was possible to walk round and photograph the destruction. I spoke to residents who said they had complained about the demolition of their houses only to be threatened with losing their jobs. The authorities maintained it was a slum clearance programme, and that buildings which wouldn’t withstand earthquakes were being removed, but Uyghurs saw it as the deliberate destruction of their community.
Just to the west of Khotan, on the main road from Kashgar that follows the old southern silk road, is one of the many farms run by the 14th Division of the bingtuan, the state-run economic and paramilitary organisation. The bingtuan do not normally welcome foreign visitors, but my local driver, confronted by an unexpected diversion and roadworks that would have prevented us from reaching Khotan that night, persuaded the leading cadres that as a (visiting) professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, I probably wasn’t a great risk. Like all visitors, we were accommodated in the Wenzhou lüshe, one of a chain of guesthouses operated throughout China by entrepreneurs from the Zhejiang city of Wenzhou. It is the worst accommodation I have experienced in China, but it was better than spending the night on the road.
In the evening the bingtuan families congregated around the kang, the heated platform where much of northern China traditionally lived and socialised. The language was standard Chinese Mandarin, and it was difficult to determine the ethnic background of the locals. There were few if any Uyghurs; most were Han and some of the young women wore the distinctive headscarves of the Muslim Hui of Ningxia and Gansu. On the kang was the wood-burning grill for the kebabs, to be accompanied by bottles of Xinjiang beer. The conversation revolved round the success of the recent date harvest. The atmosphere recalled the communes or state farms of the 1950s, an impression that was reinforced at five the next morning when the bingtuan farmers set out for work in the fields or the farm workshops and factory.
The bingtuan are the inheritors of a tradition of border-guarding that can be traced back to at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The farmers also provide militias that can be called out to support the police and the military, and have acquired a reputation for ruthlessly suppressing Uyghurs. The bingtuan operate their own prison system in Xinjiang in parallel with the government system. Some of the internment camps close to bingtuan operations are assumed to be controlled by them, though it’s hard to know for sure.
The Sufi shrine of Imam Asim, revered as the first Muslim missionary in Xinjiang, is in the Taklamakan Desert to the north of Khotan, accessible only by foot, camel or horse-drawn cart. The tombs of Imam Asim and his son are at the highest point on the desert track. They are constructed from mounds of sand, protected by wooden fences and a wall of mud and clay, and marked with prayer flags remarkably similar in appearance to those of Tibet. At the apex of the desert trail is the mosque.
The annual festival at the shrine traditionally takes place on a Thursday in May, but is often banned by the local authorities. When I visited in 2010, the festival had been permitted and Uyghurs from Kashgar, Khotan and further afield were desperate to attend. Worshippers began the long trek from a car park at the edge of the desert, passing tents set up to provide refreshments as they made their way through the dunes. By the path a line of the poorest Uyghurs received alms; there were groups of Uyghur men with their Sufi shaykhs, and traditional musicians. At the end of the trail, worshippers – mostly women that day – sat by the shrines, washing their feet in preparation for prayers at the mosque. Others sat in family groups to eat packed lunches or admire the colourful prayer flags and the camels and decorated carts that had brought the less mobile and the more affluent. The refreshment tents were doing a roaring trade, with many offering the traditional Uyghur whole roast sheep. Like most religious festivals, this was also an opportunity for a day out to meet family and friends as well as fellow Sufis. The next year the festival was banned and evidence from satellite photographs indicates that the shrines and possibly the mosque have been demolished.
The world was first alerted to an alarming phenomenon in Xinjiang by Adrian Zenz, not an established specialist in the region, but a German anthropologist with a base at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Using technical resources unavailable to most Xinjiang scholars, he was able to demonstrate the emergence of a vast network of internment camps. The papers he used, some leaked, some publicly available, include budget plans, bidding documents, photographs and spreadsheets. One set, the Xinjiang Police Files, contains thousands of pictures and documents from counties in the Kashgar and Yining regions which detail the detention of at least twenty thousand Uyghurs. In the Kashgar county of Konasheher alone eight thousand detainees are listed; a further ten thousand residents are scheduled for detention, or closer examination. The Chinese authorities initially insisted there were no camps but, as the evidence mounted, they were obliged to concede their existence. They claimed they were re-education and retraining centres designed to direct Uyghurs away from Islamist political violence and towards patriotic endeavours.
The camps were constructed under the supervision of Chen Quanguo, CCP secretary of Xinjiang since 2016, who had been responsible for surveillance and mass detentions during his previous posting in Tibet. With a few exceptions, access to the camps has been denied to outsiders. Evidence of the harsh regime and the brutal and degrading treatment of inmates has come almost entirely from former prisoners or their friends and relatives. Chinese accounts routinely reject these criticisms and condemn critics as part of an anti-Chinese conspiracy. This is the way the PRC has dealt with criticism of conditions in labour camps – both laojiao (‘re-education through labour’) and laogai (‘reform though labour’) – for decades. Much of the evidence of atrocious conditions echoes previous accounts of China’s prisons and labour camps such as Chine: L’Archipel oublié by Jean-Luc Domenach and Laogai: The Chinese Gulag and Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in the Chinese Gulag, both by Harry Wu. What is particularly disturbing in the case of Xinjiang is the scale of incarceration – leading to the near depopulation of some communities – and the fact that it targets a single ethnic and religious community. The number of detainees is disputed and while some are interned for many years, others have been held for re-education and then released. In 2020 Adrian Zenz estimated that 1.8 million people were affected, other commentators have suggested between one and three million.
It is difficult to substantiate allegations of ill-treatment in the camps, but many accounts can be corroborated. An early first-hand account was Rescapée du goulag chinois by Gulbahar Haitiwaji, published in January 2021. It is notable not only for the detail of life in the camps but for Haitiwaji’s balanced and unsensational account of her horrific and unjustified detention. An English translation, How I Survived a Chinese Re-education Camp, appeared last year. She now lives outside China.
In complete contrast, the author of Chief Witness, Sayragul Sauytbay, is a member of the Kazakh minority in Xinjiang and was a teacher rather than a detainee. Her account is autobiographical, concentrating on her early life and her family: the camps aren’t mentioned until halfway through the book. Sauytbay, who trained as a doctor and worked as a teacher, was a civil servant in Ürümqi in 2016 when she was taken from her home in the middle of the night and told that she was to teach Chinese to inmates in a re-education camp. Her account of the mechanical teaching programme is convincing, as is her description of the Chinese pressure on the Kazakh justice system. After Kazakhstan became independent many Xinjiang Kazakhs (and some Uyghurs) tried to move across the border. Beijing put the new government under pressure to return refugees to China and Kazakhstan ceased to be a place of refuge. The documents she cites that seem to contain plans for the Chinese occupation of Central Asian countries and, eventually, Europe are bizarre, however, and her allegations of torture and other abuses, including rapes taking place in front of prisoners, are sometimes sensationalist.
Darren Byler’s In the Camps: Life in China’s High-Tech Penal Colony is very different: a sober academic study by an anthropologist, based on interviews with camp survivors, many of them Xinjiang Kazakhs who escaped to Kazakhstan, and a variety of internet sources. His interviews confirm many of Sauytbay’s less lurid claims, and helpfully illustrate the use of surveillance technology in and beyond the camps.
As the volume of information from survivors or relatives of those detained has increased, so has public outrage in the West. Beijing could resolve this situation by allowing independent international observers into the camps or even reopening Xinjiang to academic researchers, as it did during the 1990s, but there is little prospect of either happening any time soon. The Chinese position is that what happens in Xinjiang is entirely its business and attempts to observe, let alone intervene, are unwarranted and in violation of the 1955 Bandung Conference principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. The government reinforces this position by insisting that the problems of Xinjiang, which the camps were designed to solve, were the product of foreign interference.
Western diplomatic pressure has had only limited impact and many organisations have argued for China’s repression of the Uyghurs to be recognised as genocide. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 2018 to 2022, came under extraordinary pressure to reach this conclusion in her report on Xinjiang, which finally appeared on her last day in office, 31 August 2022. The UNHCR made a brief visit to Xinjiang in May 2022, but had no opportunity to carry out investigations on the ground, in the face of opposition and obstruction by the Chinese authorities. Bachelet was in China for six days, two of which were spent in the widely separated cities of Ürümqi and Kashgar. Although some human rights organisations were disappointed that the report did not conclude that China’s treatment amounted to genocide, given the evidence available, the published report was tougher than many expected. The accusation of genocide predictably outraged the CCP leadership, but it also disturbed many Han Chinese, who are not necessarily supporters of government policies but believed the claim maligned Chinese people. The US government and many international organisations, particularly those representing the Uyghurs, have referred to China’s policies as genocide but many academic specialists have avoided the term.
Beijing’s preferred response to international criticism has been denial. It claims that many camps have been decommissioned, but this is difficult to verify. When the laojiao system was abandoned in 2013 it was reported that laojiao camps closed only to be reopened as drug rehabilitation centres or other institutions. While many Uyghur detainees have been released, the whereabouts of some of the more prominent detainees, including Dawut and the economist Ilham Tohti, remain unknown.
There are undoubtedly individuals and groups in Xinjiang intent on creating an Eastern Turkestan independent of China – the same is true for Inner (Southern) Mongolia and Tibet. They are not the malevolent creation of foreign organisations and have not been the main instigators of violence in the region. Conflict and violence have resulted from discrimination against the Uyghurs; resistance to the repression of religious and cultural expressions of identity; and from reaction to the heavy-handed crackdown, in particular arbitrary detention without trial.
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