China's Forgotten Dissenters

By Hasan, Nader | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

China's Forgotten Dissenters

Hasan, Nader, Harvard International Review

The Long Fuse of Xinjiang

While the struggles for liberation in Kosovo, East Timor, and Chechnya have taken turns capturing the world's attention, the Chinese province of Xinjiang is quietly continuing its own rebellion. This predominantly Muslim region has been chafing under Chinese authority for over 400 years, and it shows no signs of stopping. Sharing neither religion, language, nor ethnicity with the country's majority Han Chinese, the Uighurs of Xinjiang province are eager to assert their nationhood. Anti-government activity since the fall of the Soviet Union has been on the rise. Clashes between protesters and Chinese authorities are becoming increasingly violent and frequent, and executions for "counter-revolutionary activity" have become almost weekly occurrences, increasing foreign awareness of the human rights violations in the region.

While the West prefers to bestow its sympathies upon neighboring Tibet, the international media has begun to open its eyes to the oppression of the Uighurs. China appears to have adopted a two-pronged approach to quell dissent; while quickly executing suspected Uighur nationalists, Beijing has also encouraged mass immigration of Han Chinese to the region to dilute the preponderance of the majority Uighur population. These tactics have brought mixed success. While Xinjiang remains under Chinese control, the Uighurs have grown increasingly resentful toward the government and the immigrant Han.

A Turbulent History

Known today as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China's largest province has long played a major role in the geopolitics of Central Asia. Its location in the northwestern corner of China, stretching from the Gobi Desert to the Himalayas, made it the historic meeting place of ancient Chinese, Persian, and Turkic empires. As a result, it has fallen under the yoke of many different rulers, each of whom affected the ethnic and cultural makeup of the region.

It was through Xinjiang that the Chinese first established diplomatic and commercial ties with the empires of Persia. Chinese expansion into Central Asia in 102 BC created a buffer zone around the Han empire of China and provided a safe passage between China and Persia. Subsequently, the legendary Silk Road was established, initiating commercial trade between China and the West. However, control of the region constantly shifted among the rising and declining empires of China and Central Asia. The greatest challenge to Chinese domination came over the region came in 711 AD, when crusading Arab armies brought Islam to Xinjiang. At about the same time, the Uighurs, fleeing from Mongolia, moved into the region and adopted the new religion.

It was not until the early 1700s, under the Manchu Qing dynasty, that China reestablished military control of what is now Xinjiang. It remained under Chinese control until the mid-19th century, when, weakened by frequent, albeit unsuccessful rebellions, parts of the region fell under Russian and British control. After enjoying a brief period of independence between 1864 and 1877, Eastern Turkestan (whose borders approximate today's Xinjiang), Xinjiang was retaken by China and declared an official Chinese province in 1884. Frequent rebellions remained unsuccessful until 1944, when the Uighurs took advantage of the turmoil generated by World War II to establish the East Turkestan Republic (ETR). At the time, lasting sovereignty seemed possible, as Mao Zedong had promised autonomy for China's minority groups in an effort to bolster support for his Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, most of the ETR leadership died in a mysterious plane crash en route to Beijing for negotiations with the CCP. After their vic tory in the Chinese civil war, Mao's troops moved into Xinjiang and brought the province under communist control. The years that followed were turbulent for the Uighurs. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), mosques were closed, the Qu'ran and other religious texts were burned, religious leaders were arrested, and thousands were sentenced to labor camps. …

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