Notes from the Uyghur Homeland

On one of the recent protests after the Urumqi fire of 24 November 2022, a young Chinese student stood apologising to the Uyghur people for what the Chinese state has done to them. "Free Uyghurs!" he shouted out. The empathy that some Han Chinese have demonstrated towards Uyghur people's suffering in the aftermath of the Urumqi fire was rare and the solidarity during the protests in the past few days was something I've never seen before... For a long time, racist attitudes were common among the Han Chinese population; complicity and silence towards persecution of Uyghurs was the norm. 

This solidarity is no doubt a step forward. Hopefully, it will build and grow, to a point where Han Chinese people will eventually look into and see through the deceit of nationalism. Hopefully, they will come to see that the Uyghur suffering is not the result of isolated incidents of repression or periodic Islamophobic policies of bad governors. Their suffering is the consequence of the state's brutal assimilation and denial of their being... It is about the erasure of their social and cultural existence and stripping them of their personal and collective identities - the Uyghur suffering is fundamentally about being held in a chokehold in their own land. When Han Chinese people see this, then they will realise that the source of the Uyghur suffering is the occupation of "Xinjiang", known by Uyghurs only as East Turkistan.

I'm recommending the inspiring writings of Ilham Tohti, imprisoned in 2014 for speaking out about the situation of Uyghur people, which he referred to as Palestinization. At the time of his arrest, Ilham Tohti wanted to reform the system, not overthrow the state. For that, he is serving a life sentence

Photo: Hsiao-Hung Pai / Flaming mountain, Turfan, East Turkistan

Forced assimilation targeting Uyghurs and other minorities in East Turkistan

Reports & research archive:'s%20're-education'%20concentration%20camps%20in%20Xinjiang%20-%20BIBLIO.pdf  

Notes from time in East Turkistan in 2011

Photo: by Hsiao-Hung / Slogan "Build harmonious Xinjiang", Urumqi; Slogan "Promote Mandarin across the country", Kashgar

Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / First pic: China-Eurasia Exposition, Urumqi; Second pic: Exposition in the eyes of a local photographer

The first sight as I stepped out of the train station was the intimidating presence of fully armed police. They were carrying rifles, hurrying and rushing the crowds through the station gate. It was as if we were all escaping from a war zone. 

When I arrived, a two-month anti-terrorism crackdown had just been launched, scheduled to last until mid October. The measures involved the deployment of the "Snow Leopard" Unit under People's Armed Police, stationed in Aksu, Xinjiang, since early August. 

During this anti-terror campaign, security had been raised particularly in the midst of the China-Eurasia Exposition as well as the National Day celebrations. Flights and even hot-air balloons were banned. This meant full-scale surveillance in the middle of Urumqi: round-the-clock street patrols; increased security in public places; plain-clothes security stationed in major areas. I was told that there was one plain-clothes police officer for every ten people in Urumqi. 

The Chinese authorities stepped up using the global War on Terror to expand its anti-terror operations abroad. In late October 2011, the Chinese government expressed an interest in setting up military bases in Pakistan's northern areas, "to counter extremist activities." In the same month, the government drafted a bill defining the "precise meaning" of terrorism, putting new emphasis on acts that are "meant to disrupt social order or cause social panic," thereby widening the scope for the definition of terrorism and terrorist acts and making it easier to criminalise organisations beyond those that had long been blacklisted as terrorist (such as ETIM, the East Turkestan Liberation Organization, the World Uyghur Youth Congress and the East Turkistan Information Center).

What is certain about the new legislation is that it will provide the tools for the state to further blur the distinction between so-called terrorist groups and the pro-democracy or pro-independence organisations - therefore strengthening a process that has already been carried out for decades. 

In December 2011, the authorities in Urumqi began a house-to-house "security check", as part of a 100-day "Strike Hard" (yan da) anti-terror campaign in the region. Four Uyghur men were detained for "taking part in illegal religious activities," while many others were fined. The region's CCP party secretary Zhang Chunxian - brought into Xinjiang following the 2009 "Urumqi riots" - said that he would step up measures to preserve social stability during Urumqi's next China-Eurasia Exposition in 2012 and even more importantly, during the Party's 18th Congress.

     Photo: by Hsiao-Hung / The polluted Urumqi

Urumqi has developed beyond all recognition in the past decade: the high-rising buildings concentrated in the centre of the city were an immediate give-away. Construction projects are everywhere and developers are profiting massively. The meaning of this "development" can be seen most evidently in the fact that Urumqi has become one of China's most polluted cities. 

Pollution has become its well-known characteristic, embracing Urumqi with a grey, thick smog all year long - "And it will get worse in the winter," people kept telling me. The smog is caused by factories and coal-burning energy supply.

East Turkistan, officially known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), takes up one sixth of China. Rich in natural resources - its oil accounts for a third of China's oil production and is a major pipeline route into Central Asia - and significant in its strategic position bordering Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrghizstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, it is nevertheless seen as both culturally and geographically remote. The Chinese government claimed that the region is "an inalienable part" of the country, but it was only in 1884, during the declining Qing dynasty, that the region fell under Chinese territory and became a province under General Zuo Zongtang's policy of frontier defense.

During the chaotic rule of warlords following the fall of Qing in 1912, East Turkistan went through a period of relative autonomy when rebels declared independence in 1933 and formed the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan. However, the new republic of China regained control of the region in the following year. The Uyghur people sought independence once again, in 1944, and formed the second Islamic Republic of East Turkistan, supported by the Soviet Union, who soon turned against the rebels and helped the People's Republic of China to regain the region in 1949. 

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autunomous Region was set up by the Chinese state in 1955. A year prior to that, the Chinese state implanted an institution specifically for the region: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), also known as Bingtuan (literally means military corps). Following the tradition of Bintuan (referring to military cultivation) practiced during Qing dynasty, Bingtuan in East Turkistan is responsible for cultivating the region and defending the frontier. It built military agricultural settlements and has introduced waves of migrants from China's interior to settle in its farming villages.

Since the 1990s, Bingtuan has been operating in parallel to the regional government and been granted the same status. Its double-edged functions become even more prominent: It runs the economy of the region and serves as an arm of the PLA in putting down civil unrest. Therefore, in the eyes of many Uyghur people, Bingtuan is a colonial institution that stands above local societies in East Turkistan. 

The Uyghur people in East Turkistan have found little outlet for the decades of repression of basic civil rights and endemic poverty. Meanwhile, the re-opening of cross-border trade in the 1980s, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian states in the 1990s had opened up new channels of communication and revival of religions. Since the early 1990s, many Uyghur people have begun to protest and demand social change. 

Their demands for political freedom and economic betterment culminated in the Baren Uprising of 1990 and the Ghulja Uprising (or known as the "Yining riot" in Chinese terms) of 1997. The Chinese authorities responded with further repression, the worst of which was the bloodshed in Ghulja in 1997. It forced the Uyghur people into a long silence. But they revolted once again, throughout 2008, in Urumqi, Khotan and Kashgar. 

Nevertheless, the government would not loosen its grip on controlling the Muslim minorities. It would not allow space for civil dissent. All protests by Uyghur people have been put under the blanket of "promoting separatism" and "threatening national security."

Photo: by Hsiao-Hung / Left: residence permit; Right: police station, Urumqi

I finally settled in a twelfth-floor apartment in a housing estate behind People's High Court in northern Urumqi and ten minutes' walk from Xinjiang Normal University. Foreign nationals are required to register with the public security department within three days of arrival in a place. They are certainly required to register when they rent a property and to apply for a temporary residency permit. In Xinjiang, these rules are even tighter, for reasons of national security. The landlords who rent out properties to foreign nationals are required to apply for a registration. Foreigners' movements are strictly managed and controlled.

I don't know how many times I was asked to produce documents for the authorities during my time in Urumqi. Photocopies of my passport. Photocopies of my residency permit. Photocopies of my tenancy agreement. Even the well-guarded estate where I lived asked to have details of my identity. I came to learn that organising your daily life wasn't an easy task here.  

Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / faces of East Turkistan

State racism and nationalism

The prevalent racism is the ideological framework and justification for the state's ongoing anti-terror, anti-separatist practice in East Turkistan. This racism serves a political-economic purpose for the Chinese ruling class.

The idea of ethnicity and nationality in the post-1949 China had actually followed the tradition established in the Chinese Nationalist past at the beginning of the twentieth century. Assimilationism is at the centre of the conceptualisation of nation and "nationality" (minzu). The founder of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or the KMT), Sun Yet Sen, theorised the assimilation policy towards ethnic minorities in his idea of "five-group co-existence" (wu zu gonghe), which encompasses Han, Man (Manchurian), Meng (Mongolian), Hui, Zang (Tibetan). His ethnic identification and recognition, which at the same time rules out the possibility of self-determination of ethnic groups, was inherited by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its theory and practice towards the minorities. The CCP developed it into the classification of 56 ethnic groups in China and ensured the predominance of the ethnic majority by adopting the Chinese Nationalist conceptualisation of the all-encompassing "Chinese nation" (Zhonghua minzu).

Since 1949, China's state policies towards ethnic minorities have had two main sides: limited, superficial autonomy in stated principle (called "paper autonomy" in Binh G. Phan's research on China's regional autonomy) and repression in reality. In 1954, the Constitution formally illegalised secession and introduced the idea of "regional autonomy" (difang zizhi), meaning granting limited autonomy in areas where the ethnic minorities are the majority. Xinjiang, Tibet, Ningxia, Guangxi and Inner Mongolia became designated as autonomous regions. 

What "regional autonomy" really means on the ground in East Turkistan is that Han-Chinese migration has been imposed while segregated areas have been created among all ethnic minority groups: the state set up autonomous prefectures, separating ethnic groups from each other and minimising their opportunity to govern. Meanwhile, whilst Han-Chinese culture is represented as modern and monolithic, the ethnic differences of the minorities are highlighted and minority cultures are exoticised and therefore marginalised.

Under gaige kaifang (economic reforms and opening up to the world market), Chinese nationalism has evolved into a much-racialised ideology, particularly since the 1980s. This process contradicted with the idea and assumption that the free flow of capital and commerce would mean the end of a strong state and aggressive nationalism. What has actually happened in East Turkistan is a demonstration of the compatibility between the growth of trade across borders and the intensification of nationalist indoctrination and control. The state institutions, such as the media, have been instrumental in the propagation of this increasingly fierce Chinese nationalism, which forms the essence of the state's deepening assimilationist policies practiced in East Turkistan.

The racialisation that works to the benefit of a unified Chinese nation draws on cultural concepts of Chinese civilisation and "an imaginary boundary of the Chinese state" as Dr Abanti Bhattacharya put it. Within this conceptualisation, Han-ren, synonym of the Chinese people, are set opposed to the culturally "under-developed" yi, literally meaning "barbarian," and had historically assimilated yi and incorporated them into the sphere of Chinese civilisation by leading them to a higher stage of development. 

The Chinese Nationalists since the beginning of the twentieth century - and later the CCP since 1949 - had both adopted this cultural notion of the "Chinese" and the "Chinese nation". To be "Chinese" means being incorporated into Chinese culture and adopting Chinese cultural practices. Thus, the common derogatory comments often heard among Han Chinese people about the ethnic minorities are that "they are culturally backward."

The appointment of Wang Lequan as secretary of CCP's Xinjiang Committee between 1994 and 2010 certainly made things a lot worse. Wang was a prominent politician and had also served as a member of the Politburo since 2004. While developing industries and using the region's natural resources to fuel development of eastern China by linking up pipelines from Kazakhstan to the coastal region, he adopted the toughest approach towards the ethnic minorities. In the name of promoting "stability", he introduced the ban on beards and wearing headscarves, fasting and praying among workers in the state sector. As part of the national policy of standardisation of language since the early 1990s, Wang suppressed the need for Uyghur people to learn their own language and culture by strictly substituting Mandarin for ethnic minority languages in primary schools. Adding insult to injury, he made a notorious statement that "minority languages contain only limited amount of information."

However, it was only when the Han Chinese population began to feel frustrated with Wang's rule (because they believed he was incompetent in restoring social order after the 2009 Urumqi riot), that he was finally removed from his position. He was replaced by the new secretary Zhang Chunxian in April 2010. 

Zhang continued with the emphasis on stability and has carried out a series of anti-terrorist campaigns since he came into office, from the anti-terror crackdown between August and October 2011, to the 100-day Strike Hard campaign in late 2011. According to the Xinjiang Daily, Zhang called on regional officials to "make a watchful security stance the norm rather than the exception." He said: "Officials at all levels must harden their stance on opposing splittism and stepping up their crackdown on extremist religious forces and their activities."

 Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / Han-ized Urumqi

Photo (below): Children playing, old town of Kashgar

Photos: Top: People of Khotan; Bottom: Preparing for New Year, Khotan

Photos: Top: Sadir Palwan, Uyghur rebel against Qing rule, in Ghulja; Bottom picture: Ghulja street

Daily lives in Khotan, Kashgar and Ghulja  

All photos by Hsiao-Hung Pai

Photos (top, bottom, left): People of Gaotai old town, Kashgar

Photos (above & left): Livestock market, Kashgar

Photos: Top & Bottom: Market and bakery, Kashgar

Photo: Children playing, New Year, Khotan

Photo: Afternoon snacks at a friend's place, Ghulja

Deprivation of basic civil rights in the name of War on Terror

All photos by Hsiao-Hung Pai

Photos: Locked-up mosques in the old town in the middle of forced demolition, Kashgar, 2011

Photo: Top: A widely-used image representing national unity, Gaotai old town, Kashgar; Bottom picture: Official National Day celebration, central Kashgar

Photo: "Be patriotic, be grateful, be hardworking; Help one another, be open and make progress," says government slogan, Kashgar   

During my time there, the permanent question I had in my head was: How do you remain sane when the public speech is dominated by the state loudspeaker?

I often liked having conversations with cab drivers as they were usually full of colourful local information and clues to what goes on day-to-day. Here in Urumqi, like in most cities in China, cab drivers don't make a good living as the vehicle hire fee is too high - 160 yuan per day. As the number of cabs in Urumqi doesn't seem able to meet the demand, there are numerous unlicensed cabs (hei che) around - basically they are people who stop their cars anytime, anywhere, to get customers. Some are doing it on their way back home from a day's work, in order to boost their income a little.

One day, I got into one of these unlicensed cabs when trying to get away from a street packed with armed police who were guarding a job fare. "My friends are among those," the driver said, pointing to the police carrying pistols, "Special force police are deployed every time there is a major event in town." His line of work means constant contact - mostly hide and chase - with the public security authorities. "The cops searching us are all armed," he said, shaking his head. "Sometimes they find their own colleagues among us...I have two friends in the special police force and they take up the work as unlicensed cab drivers, while going on the streets penalising other unlicensed cab drivers for 10,000 to 30,000 yuan each time. It's their way of making extra cash." He laughed, shaking his head again.

Another day, when chatting with a Uyghur cab driver on my way to town centre, he pointed to a small camera at the right top corner of the cab, which I'd never noticed. He said: "Don't talk too much - it's all being recorded." He said that public security department takes care of these recordings and this is one of the ways they monitor suspicious activities. I asked him what "suspicious" meant. He replied, without a doubt, "separatist and terrorist."

The conscious linkage of "separatist" and "terrorist"- and the disappearance of a distinction between the two -- is a steadily growing phenomenon. The two terms began to surface jointly in the official Chinese political discourse in the 1990s. 

After September 11, 2001, the Chinese government began to internationalise its anti-separatist campaigns by publicising them outside China and linking them with the War on Terror of the Bush administration.

In late 2008 and early 2009, Chinese authorities have intensified its implementation of harsh security controls throughout the region, before the Olympics Games. A White Paper on national defence was announced in January 2009, declaring a war on "the three threats (separatism, terrorism, religious extremism) to China's unity and security." 

As Dr Abanti Bhattacharya, Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian studies, University of Delhi, points out, in the post-9-11 era, the war against international terrorism has influenced the region, and effectively allowed the Chinese state to blur the distinction between separatism and terrorism.  Campaigns were fervently launched, particularly over the past two decades, and anti-separatism became part and parcel of anti-terrorist campaigns. Under the anti-terror banner, the Chinese authorities were able to restrict religious freedom of Muslims (particularly the Uyghur Muslims) in East Turkistan by banning certain religious practices during Ramadan, closing down mosques and exercising strict control over Islamic clergy. The anti-terror banner helped the state to justify the suppression of Uyghur people's right to assemble, associate and organise. It has legitimised criminalisation of Uyghur civil and religious groups.

Dr C. Gladney, author of Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities and Other Subaltern Subjects and Ethnic Identity in China: The Making of a Muslim Minority Nationality, observes that many of the "terrorist" incidents that the Chinese government has attributed to "terrorist" organisations are actually "spontaneous and rather disorganised forms of civil unrest."

According to Amnesty International, "Separatism in fact covers a broad range of activities, most of which amount to no more than peaceful opposition or dissent." However, as Amnesty International recognises, in China, "preaching or teaching Islam outside government controls is also considered subversive." Amnesty International said in its report in 2008 that, Chinese government is using the War on Terror to justify repression of the Uyghur ethnic minority.

Breaking apart communities with the aim to achieve stability

The "New Frontier", a name acquired since the Qing dynasty's conquest of the region, is at the top of China's national security agenda. Military settlements have been deliberately enlarged over the years, and the armed forces are heavily deployed throughout the region. A series of anti-terrorist campaigns have been launched here as part of the US-led war on terror, while investment has been poured into a number of targeted cities in order to secure stability and maintain a "harmonious society".

Ten months after the 2009 Urumqi riot, Kashgar was designated by the central government as a new Special Economic Zone. Since then, this Uyghur-majority city near the border to Tajikistan has seen trade and investment come in from the much more developed eastern coast of China. 

The strategic importance of Kashgar, and East Turkistan as a whole, increased with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2015. This region is China's bridge to Central Asian, Middle Eastern and European markets, making it the heart of the BRI. East Turkistan is the largest logistical centre among the BRI countries. Of the six planned BRI economic corridors, three will pass through the region, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Kashgar to Port Gwadar in Pakistan. A distribution hub is also being developed in Khorgos on the Xinjiang-Kazakhstan border.

As Wei Shan, NUS East Asia Institute, points out, in 2017 around US$66 billion was invested in infrastructure in this region - a 50% increase year-on-year. "The government has promoted trade and financial cooperation between Xinjiang and BRI countries. Trade with BRI countries accounts for over 80% of Xinjiang's total trade. In terms of financial development, the region is expected to become a cross-border renminbi settlement centre."

Photos: by Hsiao-Hung / Old town, Kashgar

Despite investment, severe unemployment remained for Uyghur people. Chinese development projects in East Turkistan depend heavily on large corporations that always prefer to hire Han Chinese workers.

Massive income inequality across ethnic groups remained. "The 2012 China Labour-force Dynamics Survey indicates that the average annual income of a Han Chinese person in this region is 28,900 RMB (approximately US$4120), whereas the average income for Uyghurs is 12,800 RMB (approximately US$1830). This is also much lower than other ethnic minorities in China," according to Wei Shan. 

The real agenda for developing Kashgar has been clear to everyone: to keep it firmly under the thumb of the authorities. The first sign of this intention was the demolition of Kashgar's old town, home to the most ancient Islamic communities in East Turkistan.

September 9, 2012 

They've just sent Premier Wen Jiabao down to see us, the poor relatives, in the far west of China! "Grandpa Wen" smiled a lot in front of the cameras. He said promoting "leapfrog development" is the key to stability in this region and reiterated the state principle of "reform, development and security" for us. "We must step up efforts to build a more prosperous, harmonious and stable Xinjiang," "Grandpa Wen" said during his inspection tour of the region from the 3rd to the 5th of September. He urged the region to speed up construction of major bases for gas, oil, coal and wind energy, and he didn't forget to say that these infrastructure projects "should also focus on local people's livelihoods by increasing employment and income."

September 12, 2012 

China National Petroleum Corp. completed construction of its Yining-Horgos natural gas pipeline, designed to move coal-based synthetic natural gas (syngas) from Yining (Ghulja) to Zhejiang in the southeast coastal region. The company has consistently recruited workers from outside of East Turkistan, regardless of problems of unemployment among the local Uyghur and other communities. 

September 13, 2012 

Urumqi hosting its second China-Eurasia Exposition 

Heavy security deployment during the entire season, just like last year's Expo. 

Chinese authorities ban fasting in Xinjiang

Ethnic tensions are rooted in inequality

September 6, 2013 

Murders conducted by the Chinese state in the past few months

In June, in Khotan prefecture's Hanerik township, police fired on hundreds of Uyghurs protesting the arrest of a young religious leader and closure of a mosque. The authorities acknowledged that up to 15 people may have been killed.

In early August, police opened fire on a crowd of Uyghurs protesting prayer restrictions in Akyol town in Aksu prefecture ahead of the festival marking the end of Ramadan, killing at least three and injuring about 50 others.

As reported on 25 August, Chinese authorities have shot dead at least 15 Uyghur residents, accusing them of terrorism and illegal religious activity, in the Yilkiqi township in Kashgar prefecture. They were among a group of more than 20 Uyghurs surrounded and fired upon by police in a lightning raid.

Yilkiqi township police chief Batur Osman said that they were conducting an anti-terror operation and "have successfully and completely destroying the terrorists." He refused to give to the press the number of Uyghurs killed in the shootout, saying many of them were from out of town and some were not carrying identification documents.

August 4, 2014 

How Chinese government dismantled Uyghur internet

Ilham Tohti given life sentence for challenging China's historical narrative