Academic journal article Insight Turkey

The Securitization of the Uyghur Question and Its Challenges

Academic journal article Insight Turkey

The Securitization of the Uyghur Question and Its Challenges

Article excerpt

Although, the Uyghur question in China dates back to hundreds of years, one of the critical turning points of the issue took place after the establishment of the East Turkestan Republics in the 1930s and 40s. These republics later were taken over by China. Founded under the name of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the new regime assured the cultural, social and political rights of Uyghurs and other minorities living in the area. However, the totalitarian system subsequently established by the communist state suppressed the entire Chinese nation and its minority regions. The Mao regime adopted policies for the homogenization of the society, where Muslim Uyghurs and their cultural and social differences were perceived as counter-revolutionary threats. As religious and cultural pressures peaked, Uyghurs, along with millions of other citizens became victims of hunger and outright famine as a result of the problematic economic policies of the central authority.

Later, the Chinese regime chose XUAR as a pilot region for both nuclear tests and a search for natural resources. In the run up to the end of the Cold War, the region was isolated from the world and Uyghurs existed under tremendous pressure and threat from the central authority. Temporary relief came alongside basic freedoms granted to the region in the early 1980s. These new freedoms were enacted as a result of major policy changes toward minority regions by the central authority. In fact as a result of changing policies in China as a whole, after the death of Mao, the XUAR region and its people took advantage of the limited liberalization policies in these years.

With the adoption of repressive policies in the XUAR 1949 onwards, a Uyghur movement emerged amongst the group's diaspora population with the goal of establishing an independent Eastern Turkestan Republic for Uyghurs. Cabinet members from the Republic of East Turkistan, which was previously established in 1944, settled in Turkey and the Central Asian Republics during the Cold War years, giving birth to the first diaspora movements of Uyghurs. In particular, Uyghurs who gathered around the political leaders, such as Isa Yusuf Alptekin, laid the foundation for an organization that was to become a source of inspiration for subsequent diaspora movements. However, these diaspora organizations suffered from financial and operational difficulties because of their continued isolation and systemic constraints in international relations.

Things in China changed dramatically with Tiananmen Square, the end of the Cold War, and the corresponding wave of independence for the Central Asian Republics. Together with the shattering of the Eastern Bloc, the events in Tiananmen Square created a climate of insecurity and paranoia among the policymakers in Beijing. In the last years of the 1980s, under pressure from rising public unrest, the Beijing government approached every hint of dissent as a potential destabilizer and threat to the survival of the regime.

For most of this period, foreign journalists and researchers were largely denied access to the region. There was not much information available due to the strict travel regulations and controlled access to information. Outside of the region, the problems of Uyghurs were only reported through anecdotal evidence. The Uyghurs and their cultural traits were seldom discussed in terms of relations with the greater Turkic world. Historical studies about the region became more prominent than studies about the contemporary situation of Uyghurs. Even in Turkey, the situation was not that different, the Uyghur issue, other than the work of newly established foundations of Uyghurs, first came to prominence via a Japanese production, the Silk Road Documentary.

The Internationalization of the Uyghur Question

The late 1980s were the years of transformation and change for much of the Eastern bloc. Communist regimes were overthrown or collapsed and new more democratic, liberal regimes began to be established. …

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