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China and the Uyghurs: Introducing the genocide to fresh eyes and minds

Book Club: China's current persecution of the Uyghur minority fails to take into account generations of varied repression. Morris Rossabi traces this history, and provides an essential deep dive into the CCP's policies toward the Uyghur people.

By Marc Martorell Junyent

August 18, 2022

China and the Uyghurs traces the development of the ethnic group from imperial China to the present and its fraught relationship with the Chinese state [Rowman & Littlefield]

Last Month Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the northwestern province of Xinjiang in his first public visit to the region since 2014.

During his decade in power, Xi has presided over a severe crackdown on the religious, social, and political freedoms of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups living in Xinjiang.

The Uyghurs speak a language similar to Turkish and number around 12 million. They traditionally represented the majority of the population in Xinjiang but are now less than half of the province’s inhabitants due to massive Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) migration.

"After Mao died in 1976, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a certain relaxation of Beijing’s control over Xinjiang. The Chinese government eased restrictions on the Uyghurs’ cultural and religious practices"

Although the current efforts to suppress the Uyghurs’ identity and autonomy are unprecedented in their scale, the Chinese state has long tried to subsume Uyghur particularism.

Such policies actually predate the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In his book China and the Uyghurs: A Concise Introduction, Morris Rossabi dates back to the 1880s, when China was ruled by the Qing dynasty, the first efforts to thwart self-rule and encourage the migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang.

Rossabi, an Associate Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, has written a succinct account of the Uyghurs’ history and their relationship with Chinese rulers.

In contrast to recent books on the topic, Rossabi’s work does not focus specifically on the increasingly draconian measures imposed on the Uyghurs by China during the last decade. Instead, China and the Uyghurs spans the whole period of Chinese rule in Xinjiang, starting in the 1750s. The Chinese government’s claims that the Han have ruled Xinjiang for two millennia are, according to the author, “historically inaccurate.”

Uyghurs and UK Muslim organizations gathered outside the Chinese embassy in London to protest against the Chinese government's involvement in ongoing human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities [Getty Images]

Rossabi explains that Uyghur nationalism was largely born in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century among groups from Xinjiang that migrated to Turkey and Russia, where they witnessed first-hand the rise of different nationalist currents.

Upon their return to Xinjiang, these intellectuals contributed to popular culture and emphasized an Uyghur identity broader than the identification of many non-Han with the oases and towns where they lived.

After the triumph of Mao Zedong and his Communist partners in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the new Chinese leader “originally assumed that the minorities would gradually assimilate into Chinese society.” Xinjiang was granted limited autonomy in 1955 with the creation of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

The Uyghurs were recognized as the largest constituency in the XUAR but the region was politically controlled by Beijing.

The living conditions of Xinjiang’s inhabitants experienced a significant improvement during the following decade.

Nevertheless, Uyghurs deeply resented their lack of autonomy, the privileging of Han Communist cadres for key political and economic positions and the Chinese government’s encouragement of Han migration to Xinjiang.

In what would become a constant with Chinese leaders until the present day, Mao argued that the inhabitants of Xinjiang should be more grateful for the economic development of the area under Communist rule.

Also establishing a pattern that would outlive him, Mao decided to react to discontentment in Xinjiang with further intervention from Beijing. Freedoms to practice Islam were restricted and the herding economy that was so prevalent in northern Xinjiang was communized.

"Although the current efforts to suppress the Uyghurs’ identity and autonomy are unprecedented in their scale, the Chinese state has long tried to subsume Uyghur particularism"

After Mao died in 1976, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a certain relaxation of Beijing’s control over Xinjiang. The Chinese government eased restrictions on the Uyghurs’ cultural and religious practices.

Parallel to this, there was a campaign to increase the number of non-Han cadres in the Communist Party institutions in Xinjiang.

The reforms, however, were limited in both their scope and duration. The Uyghurs continued to have lower wages than the Han and were not allowed to access the higher echelons of power in Xinjiang.

In 1990, Uyghur militants and the Chinese army clashed in Baren, a township in western Xinjiang. The specific circumstances of the fighting and the ensuing number of casualties and detentions are unclear. What is clear is that “the government’s analysis of the Baren incident led to a return to a less flexible policy toward expressions of ethnic identity.”

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to eradicate Uyghur culture and presence in the Xinjiang/East Turkestan region [Getty Images]

In 1996, China launched its first “Strike Hard” campaign against what it called “splittism and illegal religious activities.” Beijing attributed different violent incidents that took place in Xinjiang during the 1990s to an obscure group called the East Turkistan Islamic Movement.

According to Chinese allegations, the movement had established ties with Al-Qaeda. After the 9/11 attacks, the Chinese government took advantage of the new “War on Terror” paradigm sponsored by Washington to apply further crackdowns on broad sections of the Uyghur population under the guise of countering terrorism.

Excruciating details of family separation, gang rape, mass sterilisation and now forced marriage continue to cast a deep shadow over the everyday lives of Uyghur women of China, with the diaspora of traumatised exiles still grieving

One of the main weaknesses of China and the Uyghurs is that it does not resort to primary sources that would have enriched the book. The Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who was given a life sentence on charges of “separatism” in 2014 and experienced the repression of the 2000s in Xinjiang, is undoubtedly one of these valuable sources.

Tohti explained in one of his articles that the Chinese government’s actions went far beyond the fight against religious radicalism. China’s policy towards Islam consisted of “opposing religious tradition and suppressing normal expressions of religious belief.”

Beijing’s interest in increasing its control of Xinjiang had an important economic rationale, explains Rossabi. After the collapse of the USSR, Xinjiang (which borders eight different countries) became China’s only gateway to the new post-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Trade with Central Asia doubled from 1992 to 1997, and the Chinese government intensified the exploitation of Xinjiang’s vast oil, gas, and coal resources. The region is also rich in raw materials that are used in solar panels.

The importance of Xinjiang for the central government reached a new level after Xi Jinping became President of China in 2013.

Rossabi writes that Xi perceived a need for “a safe and peaceful Xinjiang to embark on his three most significant objectives: trade with Central Asia, extraction of Xinjiang’s natural resources, and the Belt and Road Initiative.”

Whereas previous Chinese leaders had carried out a carrot and stick policy toward the Uyghurs, Xi has always privileged coercion over any kind of accommodation.

By exploiting its comparative advantage, #China's fashion industry has manipulated Arab influencers into buying & promoting their products. Little do they know these products are often linked to #Uyghurs imprisoned in concentration camps.#UyghurGenocide

In 2014, Xi visited Xinjiang and demanded “the use of the weapons of the people’s democratic dictatorship” against the so-called forces of religious extremism.

During the following years, the number of formal arrests in Xinjiang multiplied and the Chinese government established detention camps where the Uyghurs and other Xinjiang minorities have been subjected to forced labour, torture and mass indoctrination.

It is disappointing that Rossabi titles the subchapter discussing the topic with the question “Training Centers or Camps?” The reason for this disappointment is that by now there is a significant amount of evidence about the Uyghurs’ forced internment by the Chinese authorities.

Those who have not been imprisoned live in a context of mass surveillance and police intimidation. In line with the findings of other NGOs, Amnesty International has recently defined the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs and other Xinjiang minorities as a “dystopian hellscape on a staggering scale.”

China and the Uyghurs is a go-to book for those who want to read about the Uyghurs and the Chinese state for the first time. In present times, the plight of the Uyghurs is receiving increasing attention, but their situation is still often misunderstood.

Furthermore, and due to the study in China and the Uyghurs of a longer time frame than other books on the Uyghurs, those readers who are relatively familiar with the topic will still benefit from the original historical perspective of Rossabi’s work.

Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate in International Relations, currently finishing a MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society at the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East Blog, Middle East Monitor, Inside Arabia, Responsible Statecraft and Global Policy.

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