The Uighurs – a Chinese ‘problem’?

Uighur protest

By Beatrice Maria Zanella

Xinjiang province is one of China’s autonomous regions. While their independence was declared in the early 20th century, it was brought back under permanent Chinese control in 1949. Its population, the Uighur, are Turkic-speaking Muslims and their history is marked by many bloody events. The most recent of them happened a couple of weeks ago, when on an attack on a market in Urumqi (the capital city of the Xinjiang province) led to 39 deaths and more than 90 injuries.

Beijing blamed the Uighur separatists for this and previous attacks (on Beijing and others city in the Xinjiang province) and announced a one-year campaign against militant violence, underlining again the economic investments into the region and, nonetheless, the threat that Uighurs still represent. Despite these efforts, the Uighur continue to demand their freedoms and traditions, claiming that there is a continuous and ongoing erosion of rights.

Over the last few years, many Uighurs have been imprisoned and others have emigrated. Many Han Chinese have immigrated into Xinjiang province. Not only has this made the Uighur, traditionally the dominant ethnic group, a minority in their province; they also feel that the Han have taken their jobs and their land.

Beijing accused members of the Uighur are part of al-Qaeda. This incrimination originates from the participation of a number of Uighurs in the civil war in Afghanistan after the 2001 US invasion. This shift towards a more fundamentalist form of Islam could be the response to neglected religious rights. In fact, only a limited number of Uighurs are allowed to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca every year and they are not permitted to fasten during the holy month of Ramadan, for example.

Besides this, other freedoms have also been restricted: the official Uighur language has been replaced by Mandarin in higher education, and Uighurs are often denied the right to travel outside of China. This last violation of rights is down to the government’s belief that the Uighurs outside of the country are the designers of the attacks and riots in the Xinjiang province and outside.

Just this week, the Chinese government has banned all religious activities connected to the holy month of Ramadan, such as fasting and daily praying. According to Beijing, this will prevent them from instilling religion into public places and activities.

How has this situation been created? While the Uighurs gained independence in 1933 (when the Republic of East Turkestan was announced), in 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was created, the Second East Turkistan Republic became the Kazakh Autonomous Region. The Chinese government is particularly keen on this oil rich territory because of its economic importance.

Nowadays, there are about nine million Uighurs living in China, while some other 300,000 are spread over Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. After 9/11, the Chinese government persuaded the US government to list the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organisation. However, even after the attacks that hit the Xinjiang province during the Beijing Olympics, their connection with terrorist groups remains unclear.

Being the Uighur are now a minority in their own region (it is thought that they now make up only 25% of the population) and their feeling of being mistreated by their own government leaves any scenario open; as long as Beijing remains incapable of managing this prickly situation, the difficulties will continue.

Beatrice Maria Zanella

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