Uighur Nationalism Resisting Beijing—for God Or Country?

Naturally, nationalism is a touchy subject in Xinjiang, where the opposing narratives of the Chinese government and the Uighur nationalists lay passionate claims to the province.

Uighur Nationalism Resisting Beijing—For God or Country?

Brent Crane

China’s Muslim ethnic minority has long bristled at government repression, but unrest and violence are now on the rise as the distinct forces of Islamist ideology and nationalism grow in tandem.

Published on September 28, 2014

In southern Xinjiang province there is a town called Yensigar renowned for the quality of the knives produced there. Like the rest of Kashgar prefecture, it is inhabited mostly by Uighurs, China’s largest Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group. It is known as the knife capital of China, and considering how skilled the Uighurs are at crafting knives, it may be the knife capital of the world.

Yensigar has another, more controversial claim to fame. It is the birthplace of Isa Yusuf Alptekin (1901–95), a prominent Uighur nationalist and co-founder of the Eastern Turkistan Republic (ETR). The ETR, also called the Turkish Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkistan (TIRET), was a short-lived but politically consequential breakaway state that lasted from 1933–34 in southern Xinjiang province. Though ultimately unsuccessful, it remains a touchstone in the development of modern Uighur nationalism.

Naturally, nationalism is a touchy subject in Xinjiang, where the opposing narratives of the Chinese government and the Uighur nationalists lay passionate claims to the province. While the Communist Party asserts that Xinjiang has since antiquity been an inalienable part of a multiethnic Chinese empire, Uighurs accuse the Chinese of unjustly occupying their historic homeland. In today’s Xinjiang, where interpretations of the past are used to shape the present, Uighur nationalism is an increasingly powerful and mercurial force. As ethnic violence rises in Xinjiang, it is all the more important to recognize that Uighur nationalism is far more complex a movement than the casual observer might assume.

On July 28th, violence broke out in Shache County (Yarkand in Uighur) in front of a police station, resulting in almost 100 deaths, according to the Chinese government. The exact nature of the unrest remains unclear. While Beijing deemed the event a premeditated terrorist attack, the exiled rights group World Uighur Congress claimed it was an act of police brutality—armed authorities shooting on peaceful protesters who had gathered to vent anger over controversial government restrictions on Ramadan observance.

A few days after the Shache incident, the head imam of China’s largest mosque, the iconic Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, was stabbed to death by three young Uighur men. The government has called the murder the work of religious extremists and broadcasted a supposed confession from the only captured killer. (The other two were shot dead by police.) While the ideological nature of current Uighur unrest remains contested, it is clear that an increased politicization of Uighur identity is taking place in Xinjiang, and that its various manifestations are being aggressively challenged by the Chinese state.

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Like many embattled minorities, Uighurs draw strength from a shared interpretation of history. Uighur nationalists today refer to Xinjiang as “East Turkistan”, an age-old name that pays credence to the dominantly Turkic history of the region. Beijing has essentially outlawed use of the term, which it equates with separatist intentions akin to those of the ETR’s founding members. “The Chinese state sees the prior existence of the East Turkistan Republic as a challenge to its sovereignty,” says Rian Thum, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans who researches Uighur historiography. “If you show support for [the ETR] you’re seen to be supporting independence for Xinjiang.”

Splittism, as the Party is fond of calling it, is a major worry in Beijing. Xinjiang offers China significant economic and geopolitical advantages; it is abundant in natural resources and provides both a buffer against volatile Central Asian states and a convenient trade route with them.Xinjiang offers China significant economic and geopolitical advantages; it is abundant in natural resources and provides both a buffer against volatile Central Asian states and a convenient trade route with them. It also remains crucial to upholding the Party’s legitimacy and the country’s sense of nationhood. Losing control of Xinjiang would not only enrage Han nationalists across the country, but would also heighten other dicey territorial conflicts, such as Tibet and the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. To make sure this never happens, Beijing seeks to cut separatist ideas at the roots. This includes weeding out any and all historical claims that may arise from Uighur nationalists. But the legacy left behind by the ETR is one that, much to Beijing’s chagrin, keeps popping up.

The Party, then, has gone to great lengths to discredit the legitimacy of the ETR and the proceeding claim that Uighurs have been and could be independent. According to Gardner Bovingdon, a professor of Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, the Chinese government has “put enormous amounts of money into research and writing about Xinjiang history.” In a book purchased at the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Museum in Urumqi entitled Xinjiang of China: Its Past and Present, the ETR is described as an “accidental splittist product in the particular historical period in the first half of the 1930s, when warlords were fighting each other and farmers rose up for commotions one after another in Xinjiang.” According to the agitprop authors, one of the “negative impacts” of the ETR was that it “accomplished the transition of splittism from ideas to practice and set a precedent of building a separatist regime.”

Uighurs, meanwhile, disseminate their own nationalist historiographies. Their methods, however, are by necessity more subtle. Thum describes a category of Uighur literature that, while legally published, is rife with hidden nationalistic subversions. “A lot of books that have been understood by Uighur readers as strongly Uighur nationalist have made it past the censors,” he says. “What often happens is these books will talk about ‘the nation’, but leave it up in the air as to whether that nation is zhongguo [the Chinese name for China] or something else. If you’re [a Uighur] reader, you can see the ‘motherland’ as the Uighur nation. If you’re a Chinese censor you can see that as the Chinese nation. There’s a ‘big miss’ there that [Uighur] people capitalize on.”

Among close observers of Xinjiang today there is an emerging debate over the extent to which Uighur nationalism is informing the apparent surge in unrest. Some claim that much of the violence can be attributed to an increase in religious extremism, inspired in part by Islamic terrorist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. Others insist that the motivation behind the unrest is simply more of the same nationalistic pique that Xinjiang has been seeing for decades. James Millward, a professor of intersocietal history at Georgetown University, believes it is a mixture of the two: “The train station bombing, the market bombing in Urumqi, indiscriminate violence against civilians; that is taking a play from the books of groups outside of China. But the sort of thing happening in Yarkand—where people are angry at local officials and surround the police station—that’s something else. We don’t know exactly what’s inspiring that, but there’s certainly anger at local officials.”

Jacob Zenn, an analyst of Eurasian Affairs at the Jamestown Foundation, says that for those Uighurs involved in militancy, “pan-Islamism is becoming more attractive. In the past few years the idea of an East Turkistan, as a nationalist concept, has been challenged more by the idea of a general Turkistan, which would be like a caliphate or a trans-regional country. That is a form of pan-nationalism as opposed to the nationalism that may have existed in previous decades.” Zenn’s observations dovetail with Beijing’s view that unrest in Xinjiang, which has been rising since the 9/11 attacks, is the work of a foreign-backed Islamic insurgency.

Others, however, remain unconvinced. Thum, for one, doesn’t see any evidence that it is religiously motivated: “There’s a lot more veil-wearing than there used to be, a lot more face-covering than there used to be, a lot more beards than there used to be. But I don’t see any direct connection between that and, say, the attack on the market in Urumqi or the train station attack [in Kunming].” While Thum acknowledges that recent instances of violence constitute an escalation in the conflict, he thinks they aren’t necessarily attributable to the radical Islam that has surged over the past decade: “I don’t see any evidence that the motivation has changed. Most of that motivation is, ‘We want you to leave. We want you people who are not like us to stop controlling our lives and stop limiting our movements, our communication and our economic prospects.’”

Bovingdon also remains skeptical, and offers a slightly conspiratorial hypothesis. “Another possibility is that the Chinese government—which controls almost all of the information that comes out of [Xinjiang]—has been inserting little religious signifiers into a lot of conflicts that were not originally religious in nature, because it knows that there is still a suspicion of the Muslim world in Euro-America. It calculates that it can get more support [from the international community] if it suggests that what’s going on right now in Xinjiang is an Islamic insurgency, a spread of so-called fundamentalism.”

Bovingdon’s theory certainly holds water. Earlier this week, an Urumqi judge sentenced moderate Uighur economist Ilham Tohti to life in prison for “separatism” and supporting terrorism. While outspoken and critical of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, Tohti was no separatist or religious extremist. In fact, he openly opposed Uighur independence and Islamic fundamentalism. Yet the government targeted him precisely because he is a moderate. Beijing doesn’t like cool-headed Uighurs because they make its heavy-handed counter-terrorism campaigns seem unnecessary. Uighurs like Tohti, who call not for independence but for greater autonomy, not for extremism but for religious freedom, are very bad for Beijing’s PR campaign in Xinjiang. If China isn’t fighting the monstrous terrorist threat that it claims to be fighting, than what argument does it have to continue on with its current policies? If Uighur agitators aren’t a bunch of religious extremists, than are they a people who have legitimate grievances?

These are questions that Beijing does not want the West to start asking. This is why it goes to such great lengths to keep up the terrorism charade. Wang Lixiong, a Chinese intellectual and friend of Tohti, clarifies this theory: “[China doesn’t] want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of [Tohti] and then you can say to the West that there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists.” But Tohti’s severe sentence may have the reverse affect of what Beijing wants. Western governments and human rights organizations have been unanimously appalled by the court’s ruling, and many are now calling Tohti China’s Nelson Mandela.

Given the high degree of governmental control over Xinjiang, it is all but impossible to obtain accurate information about how Uighurs are actually feeling, even for the few Western observers motivated enough to try. There is, of course, the Uighur diaspora, largely represented by the World Uighur Congress. There are also journalists and academics who travel there, trying to uncover as much truth as they can in a sensitive and closely-monitored environment. Analysts who seek to make sense of the situation in Xinjiang must rely on news clippings, hearsay, and scattered commentary from those Uighurs brave enough to speak out about what they’re seeing on the ground, including accounts of egregious cruelty. Random police raids, indiscriminate shootings of unarmed men, and people killed in front of their family members are all too common in Xinjiang. There is a real anger growing throughout the province as word of such abuses spreads.

Uighurs, then, are resorting to violence due to a combination of Islamist ideology, legitimate complaints against government repression, and ethno-nationalism. For a relatively small minority, the resistance may be motivated by a surprisingly wide spectrum of forces, from idealistic to nihilistic. It remains to be seen which force is the more powerful—and which should most unnerve the Chinese government.


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