The Uyghurs, one of the largest ethnic minority groups in China, have an unfortunate lot. As a group, they possess two key factors which encourage the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to repress them. First, they have a strong ethnic identity which is separate from the principal Han ethnic group which dominates the CCP. Indeed, many Uyghurs are beginning to view a major component of their identity as “being non-Han.” Second, the land they inhabit, Xinjiang Province, is rich in resources and economic importance. It holds one-third of the country’s natural gas and oil reserves in addition to large deposits of gold, uranium, and other minerals. Renewable energy also factors in: Xinjiang is a prime location to harvest solar, wind, and nuclear energy. Moreover, Xinjiang sits along the historic Silk Road, which the CCP is intent on rebuilding via its Belt and Road Initiative.
These factors combine to ensure that the Chinese Communist Party has large incentives to suppress the Uyghur ethnic group. Specifically, each factor threatens two pillars of the CCP’s governing philosophy: preserving territorial integrity and continuing industrialization. Preserving territorial integrity is one of China’s “core interests,” meaning that the CCP considers it essential to understanding Chinese foreign and security policies. China’s history of foreign imperial domination and machinations during the “Century of Humiliation” from 1839-1949 informs the CCP’s obsession with territorial integrity. The Chinese Communist Party views Xinjiang Province and its Uyghur population as a potential hotbed for separatism, what the party terms “splittism.” This stems from the Uyghur’s strong and non-Han ethnic identity. Further, the Uyghurs are concentrated in Xinjiang; 49 percent of Xinjiang’s 20 million people are Uyghurs, and few Uyghurs live in China’s other provinces. This density, the CCP believes, adds fuel to secessionist fires. A major component of the perceived difference is religion: the vast majority of Uyghurs are Muslim and consider Islam a defining part of their ethnic identity. In addition, Uyghur literary and cultural traditions differ greatly from the Han Chinese, often seeing the Han as foreign imperialists while Uyghur historical heroes are those who fought against the Chinese empires. The Uyghurs do not even speak a Chinese language; their language, simply called Uyghur, is a Turkic tongue using Arabic script.
The concentration of the Uyghur population and the differences in religion, language, and culture means that they pose a potentially formidable challenge to the Chinese Communists were they to seek independence. This potential challenge is made more pressing by China’s need to further its industrialization. The CCP perceives that its legitimacy rests on further economic growth; a stalled economy is a stalled CCP mandate. To continue industrializing, China needs secure access to energy. Access to Xinjiang’s resources allay CCP concerns that its foreign energy imports are subject to numerous political and military risks. The province holds 40 percent of China’s coal and 20 percent of its oil. Further, the Belt and Road Initiative relies on Xinjiang as the gateway to Central Asia and Pakistan. China has already invested $45 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and is expected to invest over $900 billion in the Belt and Road. Almost one trillion dollars in investment necessitates heavy security.
The Chinese Communist Party has chosen to secure its investments through repression of the Uyghur people, primarily in the areas of population control, religious suppression, and language replacement.
The Chinese Communist Party employs two methods for diluting the concentrated Uyghur population: Han migration and territory assignment. The party sees the Han population as a naturally loyal constituency (correctly or incorrectly), yet the Han tend to cluster along the coasts. If loyal Han moved to the vast border regions they would shore up CCP support in what the government perceived as potentially rebellious minority areas. The Communists thus encouraged Han to migrate to Xinjiang, first forcibly by demobilizing army regiments in the area and sending Han youth to “learn from the peasants” (and then refusing to allow them to return home). Later, the Party used economic incentives, such as discounts on land prices. The policies worked: in 1949 the Han population in Xinjiang was 5 percent of the province’s total, in 1978 it was 40 percent. In addition, the Communist government supports the Production and Constructions Corps (PCC), demobilized army units that act as mini-governments unto themselves. They established “farms” around key transport arteries, areas rich in natural resources, and non-Han urban hubs. They “provided the potential to control travel and isolate Xinjiang’s subregions with very modest manpower.” These former military units and their key locations afford the CCP a strong position from which to monitor and control the Uyghurs of Xinjiang.
The Chinese Communist Party further dilutes Uyghur control of Xinjiang by recognizing 13 “autonomous” minorities in the province. A minority is granted autonomy when the CCP decides its circumstances are sufficiently different from the Han that it deserves its own government. The Uyghurs are one such ethnicity; the official name of Xinjiang is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Though they are nominally autonomous, the central government undercuts their authority at every turn. The CCP does this primarily by awarding the other designated minorities autonomy as well, but here it is primarily autonomy from the Uyghurs. By doing so, the CCP ensures that the Uyghurs cannot politically dominate Xinjiang. These autonomous minority communities, and their resultant political, economic, and cultural elite, became dependent upon the CCP’s support for their survival. If they refused CCP control over the province, the Uyghurs would dominate politically, economically, and culturally. By setting minority against minority, the Uyghur’s hold on Xinjiang is tenuous at best.
By importing Han, giving the Han-controlled PCC control of the economy, and ensuring the loyalty of strategically placed non-Uyghur minorities, the CCP ensures that the Uyghur population is physically divided, constantly in competition against non-Han, and subordinate to Han economic interests.
Initially, the CCP believed that enforcing official atheism would be counterproductive in Xinjiang, where Islam is a staple of cultural life. Instead, the CCP sought ways to allow religious traditions to continue for locals while upholding official atheism. “In Xinjiang this meant that, from the beginning of socialist rule, the major religious holidays were treated as ‘ethnic traditions,’” and not as overtly religious affairs. Yet over time, the conflation of religion with ethnicity turned institutionalized Islam into an source of ethnic separatism in the eyes of the CCP. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign Mosques were closed, imams (prayer leaders) were jailed, and people who wore obviously Muslim clothing, like hijabs, were arrested. Oppression intensified during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution: “the CCP purposely defiled mosques with pigs. Many Muslim leaders were simply shot.” Any outward expression of Islamic belief was quickly and brutally punished.
The 9/11 terror attacks and the resultant War on Terror allowed the Chinese government to cast Uyghur ethnic unrest as radicalized Islamism. As such, the CCP has tightened its grip over religious expression in Xinjiang. It allows only a certain amount of Uyghurs to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, a key expression of faith for Muslims, and those that do are subject to “compulsory political education courses” upon their return.
Chinese authorities sent thousands of armed troops and columns of armored vehicles to the province after three Uyghurs killed five people in early 2017. Sources claim that the attack was retaliation against police who punished a Uyghur family for holding Muslim prayer meetings in their home. Other, smaller regulations serve to embarrass, terrorize, or divide the Uyghur Muslim community. As The Economist explained earlier this year, these included forbidding students to fast during Ramadan; bans on “abnormal” beards and Islamic garb; prohibiting parents from “naming of children to exaggerate religious fervor” with names like Muhammad and Islam.
It is important to note that these policies apply only to the Uyghur Muslims. The Hui, the other large Muslim minority group in China, are not subject to such oppression. In fact, the party has identified the continued centrality of Islam to the Uyghur identity as a core obstacle to national stability. By such admissions, we see that regulations on Islam are not about the Muslim religion, but about breaking the Uyghur ethnic identity. The CCP fears Islam could be used as a unifying force that could galvanize Uyghurs to seek independence from China. Turkish minorities in the former Soviet Union, Chechens in modern Russia, and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine have all used Islam as an ethnic rallying point. The CCP is determined to prevent the religion from being used in such a way in Xinjiang.
Language and Literature
The Uyghur language employs the Arabic script, and by doing so affords the Uyghurs access to a rich literary history stretching from China to Spain and back over 1300 years. Yet in the early days of communist control of Xinjiang the CCP mandated a shift from the Arabic script to Cyrillic. This allowed the party to initiate a break within the Uyghur community from its Islamic ties and historical culture; Islamic texts and Uyghur culture were written in the Arabic script. The party again mandated a shift after the Sino-Soviet Split, this time to the Roman script, which allowed the CCP to ease the implementation of the pinyin system in Xinjiang. The influx of Han immigrants facilitated further change. To accommodate the new immigrants the CCP-controlled regional government stopped using Uyghur in official documents and began using Mandarin.
More than changing it, the CCP has sought to control how Uyghurs use their language. During the Cultural Revolution and its precursors, Uyghur intellectuals were assaulted, Uyghur poets were jailed, and Uyghur writers were barred from publishing. Works and writers that romanticize a golden Uyghur past and the Uyghurs’ independence from Chinese rule are viewed as especially dangerous, with public book burnings being not unheard of. Academics, particularly historians and anthropologists, are also targeted. At the first International Conference of Uyghur Studies, held at George Washington University in 2015, the convenors noted the absence of academics from China. Henryk Szadziewski wrote in the Turkish Review that “Officially sanctioned involvement may be viewed as an endorsement of Uyghur rights, while unofficial participation could have landed scholars in trouble.” By disconnecting the Uyghurs from their history and culture, the CCP hopes to break the psychological connection between Uyghurs and their non-Chinese past. If Uyghur culture and history are only viewed through a Chinese lens, the Uyghurs would be more amenable to Chinese control.
There are many ways that the Chinese Communist Party oppresses the Uyghur people. Yet each method of oppression has, at its core, a single motivating factor: the Uyghurs need to be tightly controlled in order for the CCP to realize its economic goals, which rely heavily on Xinjiang. Any disruption in security or stability in Xinjiang has the potential to derail billions of dollars worth of economics planning and investment. While we have examined the human costs of this control, we will next look to the economic benefits the CCP derives from control of the Uyghurs and Xinjiang.
Zachary Torrey is an MSc Candidate in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics, focusing on politics and the political economy of the Asia Pacific.