It is only in recent years that the headlines of the most prominent Western media publications have fully communicated the extent of China’s human rights violations in the region of Xinjiang. To be sure, the damning charges that have been brought against China reflect the increasingly authoritarian edge of Xi Jinping’s regime. However, (without being too teleological) the roots of cultural genocide and oppression in Xinjiang can be traced deep into China’s past. A brief synopsis of Xinjiang’s history is integral to gaining a firm understanding of the current political situation in the region.
The region, located in the Northwest of China, has long been demarcated as an autonomous zone. However, the situation on the ground scarcely aligns with the purported theoretical framework of a self-sufficient region. Indeed, the Chinese central government have long kept close de facto control of Xinjiang through what can only be described as brazenly intrusive measures.
In more recent years, Xi Jinping’s CCP has inflicted a series of ethnoreligious and political clampdowns on the Uighur population. The catalogue of abuses levelled at the Chinese government makes for bleak reading. Namely, the authorities are reported to have detained large swathes of Uighurs in ‘re-education’ camps under strict surveillance. Reasons for detention are as trivial as attending services at Mosques, sending texts with Quranic verses, and having contact with Afghanistan and Turkey. Large numbers of detainees are said to have been left with no legal avenues to challenge their detention. Shockingly, in December 2020 the BBC reported that up to half a million people were forcefully being made to pick cotton in the region which bears a repugnant reminiscence to slavery. Reports of forced sterilisation and abortion are also abhorrent. Furthermore, population figures suggest the occurrence of a state-sanctioned mass migration of the Han Chinese population into the region that had thinned the indigenous Uighur population. China’s policy in the region appears to be nothing short of cultural genocide.
This unforgiving and frankly brutal policy of ‘Sinicization’ underscores the CCP’s ambition of securing Han political and cultural hegemony in the nation. We can trace back similar policies initiated by central governments in China that have culminated in the current situation today. Xinjiang was first conquered by forces belonging to the Qing Dynasty in 1759 but officials initially adopted a hands-off non-integrationist approach that respected cultural plurality. Yet, the ascription of provincehood to the region in 1884, after the Qing regained control of the area, marked the first didactic attempt to assimilate the region into Han society. Nonetheless, when the new Republic of China inherited the region in 1911 it remained nothing more than a distant colonial appendage. This relationship was to change drastically when the Chinese Communist Party took the reins of power.
Mao Zedong proclaimed a ‘new China’ which was to be defined by the relationship between ‘China proper’ and outer lying areas such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. To mimic Soviet ‘ethnofederalism’, Xinjiang was designated as an autonomous region in 1955. Yet, this categorisation scarcely devolved power to the indigenous population of Xinjiang. The region could not secede from China and very few indigenous populations were able to secure authority through political office as the Han maintained their position as the ruling class. Population demographics from the 1950s to the 1970s are particularly telling. Somewhere between 60,000 and 200,000 Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minorities fled the country as a direct result of the Great Leap Forward. Conversely, the state exacerbated ethnic tensions by encouraging the movement of Han into the region with the proportion steeply rising from 7% to 40%.
Reforms in the 1970s and 1980s brought a period of short-lived promise for the Uighur population. Between 1982 and 1987, the general secretary under Deng Xiaoping’s government, Hu Yaobang, spearheaded liberalising reforms that respected ethnic self-determinism and local culture. However, conservatives in the party were to eventually oust Hu and blame his policies for stoking agitation in the region. Troubles in the 1990s were partially driven by the collapse of the Soviet Union which was misleadingly interpreted by those in authority as engendered by ethnic self-determinism. Thus, China begun the uncompromising ‘Strike Hard’ campaign in 1996, which saw mass arrests, executions, and human rights violations against protest groups. Whilst the Uighur population did use violence as a vehicle for change throughout the 1990s, such as the Ürümqi bus bombings, this was a reaction to the execution of 30 suspected separatists in 1997 following what was described as a peaceful protest by Western media organisations. After Washington called for a ‘war on terror’ in the early 2000s, Chinese authorities pounced on the opportunity to reframe their oppression of the Uighur populations as an act to suppress terrorism rather than ethnic self-determinism.
A brief synopsis of Xinjiang’s association with China that stretches back into the nation’s dynastic past reveals that its relationship has been long and complex. Levels of oppression and intrusion into the region have ebbed and flowed. The true picture of the repulsive violation of human rights that the Chinese government are presently carrying out is still emerging. Nonetheless, what is certain is that is has roots deeper into the past than most are aware of.
Ben Carter, History in Politics Summer Writer