What the Media Is Getting Wrong about China, Uyghurs and Conflict in Xinjiang

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By Kimberly Miller

It was April 1990. Reports of violence and rioting in China’s northwestern most region of Xinjiang (near the Afghanistan border), had rocked American media from Newsweek to the Chicago Tribune. Headlines such as “China’s Ethnic Turks May Wage Holy War,” “The Children of Tamerlane and Attila the Hun” are on a “rampage,” and “Uyghur Rebellion Against the Chinese State” began widely circulating as western press salivated over the opportunity to depict conflict in China, in a particularly sensational way. Fast-forward to today, headlines that boldly assert “1 million Muslims Forced into Chinese Internment Camps,” as well as “Show Communist Loyalty by Eating Pork, Beijing Tells Muslim Uyghurs,” have emblazoned well-respected media outlets from The Guardian, The Times, NPR, to Al Jazeera-despite specious sourcing and incendiary framing.

Such “reports” have even incentivized American neoconservative hawks like Senator Marco Rubio to call on more aggressive policies against the People’s Republic of China. Rubio has advocated for sanctions and other economic measures in order to combat China’s “efforts to strip [Uyghurs] of their identity [and] faith.” The irony of islamophobic US politicians expressing concern for the well-being of Muslims internationally aside, these de-contextualized narratives are also being exploited by click-bait media. This is only compounded by heightened tensions of trade war with China. Unfortunately, these hyperbolic headlines are informing much of the Western left’s general perception of China and the Communist Party of China’s treatment toward ethno-religious minorities, in a reductive and orientalist way. By utilizing scholarship from prominent social anthropologists of Xinjiang as well as researchers of Islam in China, this article provides a more holistic representation of the complexities, history, and factors fueling this ongoing conflict.

Who are the Uyghurs?

In its modern ethnic context, the designation of “Uyghurs” to describe the Turkish-dialect speaking Muslim population of oasis dwellers in Xinjiang, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The term “Uyghur” has had varied meanings throughout history. Around 744-840 C.E., the term was used to describe a Turkic, steppe, and nomadic society in Mongolia. Between 844-932, it became the name for a sedentary, oasis Buddhist, Manichaean, and Nestorian Christian society centered in Turpan Basin, located in the East of Xinjiang. By 1450, “Uyghur” was used to denote an elite Buddhist, Turkic society in Turpan which was called “Uyghuristan” with the sole purpose of distinguishing it from Islamic Turks living to the west of them. For the next 500 years, the term was virtually in disuse as Buddhist ‘Uyghurs’ converted to Islam in the 15th century. Several scholars on Uyghurs have argued the re-emergence of the label as an accepted modern ethnonym derived from Central Asian Soviet advisors in Xinjiang from their experience with official designations of Central Asian populations. At a 1921 conference in the capital of Uzbekistan, “Uyghur” was proposed to identify all the groups who had previously been known by the localities from where they lived such as Kashgarlikhs, Aksuliks, Lobniks, etc. This proposal was generally adopted in 1934 by the Sinkiang provisional government-Thus, the ethnogenesis of Uyghurs, or development of “Uyghurs” as an ethnic group, has been largely influenced by the evolving politics of the Chinese nation-state.

The PRC, Changing Demographics of Xinjiang and Ethnic Conflict

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, there has been massive sociopolitical integration of Xinjiang into the Chinese nation-state. In 1955 the PRC officially recognized Uyghurs as one of 55 ethnic minority nationalities in China. Uyghurs were categorized as a formerly self-identified oasis peoples, along with 13 designated autonomous areas for non-Uyghur native groups to the region. While there has been ongoing migration to the northern region of Xinjiang since the 18th century, the CPC under Mao Zedong’s leadership played a direct role in orchestrating massive population movement of (largely) Han but also Hui migrants to Xinjiang.

Before 1953, 75% of the region’s population lived in the Tarim Basin (southern province). The Chinese Communist Party attempted to prioritize Uyghur autonomy by settling Han migrants into sparsely populated northern areas so as to not disturb the already existing Uyghur communities largely in the southern region. Through the creation of an economic and paramilitary organization-Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in 1954, the Chinese state sought to promote economic development, healthcare, education, farms and eventually strong border defense during heightened Sino-Soviet tensions, to the region. The XPCC oversaw an influx of “skilled” Han migrants to develop Xinjiang’s infrastructure and natural resource extraction industries such as oil and cotton, altering the ethnic composition and geographic distribution of population for the region. The Uyghur population in Xinjiang benefitted from some of these policies like improved medical care and preferential treatment in China’s family planning program leading to a decline in their infant-mortality rate and population growth from 4 million in the early 1960’s to 8 million by 2001.

Since the economic reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era, Han and non-Han migration to autonomous regions like Xinjiang for employment opportunities have been increasingly self-initiated, as opposed to the state strategy associated with the Mao era. Within Xinjiang, characterizations of Han migration as furthering Han-Uyghur socioeconomic divide, has been a dominant source of ethnic tensions and separatist violence over the last several decades. Uyghur migrants emigrating from less economically developed rural southern regions, to the more Han populated urban north, are typically concentrated in lower-paying service sector jobs but underrepresented in Xinjiang’s “high skilled” technical and administrative positions.

Ugyhurs and Han Chinese are also socially segregated and perceptions have arisen that Han migrants are exploiting minorities and attempting to monopolize Xinjiang’s natural resources, despite Han Chinese playing a significant role in the economic development of the region. Moreover, competition with Han migrants for scarce resources in a tighter labor market has culminated in several Uyghur uprisings and violent clashes. This depicts the spatial and income inequality fostered by inequitable regional development in Xinjiang and the struggle for the “ethnic harmony” the CPC originally outlined. While programs have been initiated by the CPC to resolve regional inequality in autonomous areas through investing in infrastructure, expanding job opportunities, and accelerating economic development, inequality still persists. The push to use economic tools to address ethnic separatism conveys the Chinese government’s belief that people ultimately want good economic life for themselves and their families.

The CPC and Religion

While the Chinese Communist Party gave preferential considerations to ethnic/religious minorities, during the first ten years of Communist Party rule in China, there was an orientation toward secularization culminating in the chaotic extremes of the Cultural Revolution to denounce “old customs, old cultures, old habits, and old thinking.” Regions like Tibet and Xinjiang were particularly affected. However, the 1978 economic liberalizing reforms under Deng Xiaoping, also saw the loosening up of religious restrictions and emphasis on cultural vitality for ethnic minorities unseen in previous decades. Document 19 which outlines the CPC’s 1982 religion policy states that while conventional religious beliefs and practices are permitted, religion will not be allowed to regain feudal power/privileges:

“…we communists are atheists and must unremittingly propagate atheism, and yet at the same time, we must understand that it will be fruitless and extremely harmful to use simple coercion in dealing with people’s ideological and spiritual questions, and this includes religious question.”

What is missing from the one-dimensional narrative that “China represses Muslims” is the overarching context of CPC’s varied approach in targeting regional separatism and how that overlaps with religion, as opposed to targeting the religion itself. When looking at the history of evolving policies adopted on religious freedoms toward Muslim Uyghurs in Turpan (eastern Xinjiang) vs Uyghurs in Kashgar (southwest Xinjiang), these nuances become clearer. Despite CPC’s restrictions on religious education, following 1978 reforms, Islamic schools were permitted for Uyghur children in Turpan and Islamic celebrations and the Hajj were encouraged for Uyghur communist party members. In fact, 350 mosques were built in Turpan between 1979-89 and large mosques were built with government assistance in Xinjiang’s capital of Ürümqi, improving perceptions of the Chinese government by some Uyghur Muslims, especially in Turpan.

However, areas of Xinjiang with greater proximity to externally funded movements for secessionist violence like in Kashgar faced more regulated and stringent policies on religious expression. These complexities are also highlighted in the 1989 Uyghur led student protest against distribution of a book deemed offensive toward China’s Muslim populations. Dubbed the ‘Salmon Rushdie protests’ of Beijing, it called on the banning of the book Sexual Customs (Xing Fengsu) for its islamophobic and vulgar depictions of Islam. In support of Muslim solidarity, representatives from 4 of the 10 Muslim nationalities in China, including a Uyghur, Hui, Kirghiz, and Kazakh formed a list of demands to the state. The Chinese government strongly supported the demonstration and met all the demands of the Muslim protesters, banning the book and allowing its burning in the main square of Lanzhou city, arresting the authors, and closing the Shanghai Cultural Publishing House where the book was distributed. Additionally, Chinese authorities provided police escort and transportation for many of the protesters. However in the aftermath, the state has been accused of showing less punitive measures toward Hui Muslim participants than Uyghurs who faced disproportionate jail time in some of protest’s violent clashes.

China’s largest population of Muslims, the Hui people are more integrated in mainstream China and share greater cultural proximity to Han citizens. The Hui have generally experienced less scrutiny from the Chinese state and in recent years even a “faith revival” with newly built mosques and Sufi shrines in Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, along with increased pilgrimage to Mecca. The Chinese state has greater caution of Turkic unrest on its northwest border with Post-Soviet Central Asia, than amongst its more internal and domestic Hui Muslims. While there are multiple avenues of “unfettered religious expression in China,” explains Dr. Dru Gladney who studies Islam in China, “when you cross these often nebulous and shifting boundaries of what the state regards as political,” you enter shaky territory, and that is a fair takeaway on the state’s differing approach to Hui and Uyghur Muslims. Despite this, Hui migrants to Xinjiang have long expressed frustrations that their People’s Government (largely staffed with Turkic Muslims) is too accommodating to its Uyghur population both linguistically and culturally. Ethnic tensions remain.

While the legitimate perception that Muslim minorities are treated differently persists, ethno-religious plurality has remained the official line of the Chinese Communist Party. Socio-culturally, the last several decades have seen gains in the self-representation of China’s Muslims, aiming to combat the exoticized depiction that has often dominated state-sponsored media of the nation’s national minorities. The China Islamic Association along with Muslim writers, artists, and photographers from Xinjiang to Beijing, have published pictorials and novels representing Muslims as studious, devout people, dedicated to their family and societies while highlighting Islamic architecture, art and scholarship.

Separatist violence in Xinjiang, Extremism, and Chinese State Response

Back to April 1990 and the story that rocked Western media. The Baren Township riot is acknowledged as a “turning point” in heightened relations between Beijing and Xinjiang. Akto county, the westernmost region of China, bordering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan saw a violent uprising of 200 Uyghur militants led by the East Turkistan Islamic Party, an extremist separatist organization with funding and training from Afghan militias. Causes for the unrest are varied, but protesters called on the immediate halt of Han migrants to the region, suggesting ethnic in nature. The Afghan forces are believed to have encouraged Uyghurs in Xinjiang to create an independent Uyghur Islamic state to be led by the ETIP. Mass arrests and crackdowns followed.

Two years later the capital of Xinjiang was rocked with four bombings on public transportation by separatists resulting in the death of three civilians and dozens injured. These events caused the Chinese state to adopt a “strike hard” approach toward separatist activities in Xinjiang, causing additional protests, dynamics only to be exacerbated post-9/11. In 2002, the Chinese State Council issued a report stating from 1990-2001, various separatist groups were responsible for over 200 terrorist incidents in Xinjiang that resulted in the deaths of 162 people and injuries of over 440 others. In 2004 Chinese President Hu Jintao stressed that unrest and terrorism in Xinjiang “is not automatically related to certain ethnic groups or religions” and that the cause for regional conflict and separatism was primarily economic in nature, aiming to enhance the material conditions of Uyghurs as a deterrent to extremism.

While the Western Development project pledged to combat regional inequality in autonomous areas like Xinjiang, and has brought infrastructure and greater economic activity, political unrest has not been completely resolved. Incidents of terror attacks against provincial government structures, police and Han and Uyghur residents, in addition to the Syrian civil war, has furthered recruitment for extremist/separatist violence in the region. However as of October 2018, Shohrat Zakir-the Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region stated that in the last 21 months, “no violent terrorist attacks have occurred and the number of criminal cases…has dropped significantly.” According to Zakir, Xinjiang has sought educational assistance as a preventative measure in addressing petty crime that makes young Uyghur men more vulnerable to extremism and separatist violence. Moreover, in attempting to tackle the perceived economic nature of the conflict, vocational training programs have been undertaken in the four prefectures of southern Xinjiang with employment as its key initiative for areas most prone to extremist violence. These vocational centers are being labeled “re-education/indoctrination camps” by Western media, but involve departments of teaching, management, medical care, legal knowledge, and multi-skilled training to help diversify Uyghur representation in the job market.

While international calls for an “independent Turkestan” persist from some Human Rights advocates located in the West and Uyghur nationalists in the diaspora, views on Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang along religious and ethnic lines are quite varied as expected.  China’s 9 other official Muslim minorities do not generally support Uyghur separatism. Few Hui Muslims support an independent Xinjiang and the over 1.3 million Kazakhs living in the autonomous region are also ambivalent on what a separate ‘Uyghuristan’ would mean for them. Many local activists are instead calling for increased attention to environmental degradation, nuclear testing, recent limits imposed on childbearing, religious freedoms, and over-taxation. Many are advocating for the “full autonomy” outlined by Chinese law for its five autonomous regions instead of separation from the Chinese state entirely. Balancing cultural autonomy for ethnic minorities in China’s borderlands as well as forging a sense of community with the Chinese state needs further scrutiny given prevailing feelings of Han chauvinism and Uyghur Otherization. However, this nuance and historical context are largely missing from our increasingly sensational Western media diet about these ongoing developments in Xinjiang.

Kimberly Miller is a Marxist-Leninist researcher studying black aesthetic consumer choices, and the impact on global political economy and geopolitics.


Elizabeth Van, Wie Davis- “Uyghur Separatism in Xinjiang China” Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2008.

Gladney, Dru C. Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects. London, University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Rudelson, Justin Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism Along China’s Silk Road. Columbia University Press, 1997.

Anthony Howell and Cindy Fan- “Migration and Inequality in Xinjiang: A Survey of Han and Uyghur Migrants in Urumqi” Eurasian Geography and Economics, Bellweather Publishing, 2011.

Kunal Mukherjee- “The Uyghur Question in Contemporary China” Strategic Analysis Vol. 34, 2010.




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