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China’s Uyghurs

What You Need to Know

With increased attention being given to the treatment of Muslim minority peoples in far-Western China, the Oxford Research Encyclopedia’s recent article on "The Uyghurs in Modern China" is a timely addition.

Historian Rian Thum traces the Uyghurs’ roots in Russian and Chinese Central Asia and the construction of the modern Uyghur political identity in the early 1900s, culminating in the establishment of the short-lived East Turkestan Republic.

Thum examines the Uyghurs’ complicated relationship with both the Soviet Union and China, and the far-reaching changes that would eventually occur during the early years of PRC sovereignty. As in the rest of China, Xinjiang experienced an expansion of civil society space in the 1980s that engendered a revival of Uyghur culture and tradition, accompanied by strong economic growth. Growing tension with the Chinese state in the 1990s, however, along with China’s designation of the Uighurs as a terror threat, led to a progressive escalation of violent encounters and the increasingly repressive measures that have drawn international criticism, particularly in recent months.

Some takeaways from this brief but instructive history:

  • The Uyghurs constitute the majority population of the Tarim Basin, which eventually fell under Chinese rule after the Qing conquest of 1759.
  • The ancient Uighur people played prominent roles in the history of China and Inner Asia from the 8th to 15th centuries.
  • After Xinjiang became a full-fledged province in 1884, Qing rulers launched a sinicization campaign by installing Chinese political leaders and introducing Confucian education in local schools. Still the traditional Islamic legal and educational institutions prevailed.
  • The modern Uyghur political identity emerged in the 1930s but was only solidified as a formal ethnic designation under the PRC (one of the few historical assumptions shared by both the Chinese state and Uyghurs who advocate for independence from the PRC).
  • Although Uyghurs experienced more change in the early decades of the Mao era than at any other time, this period constitutes a “historical black hole.” Documentary records are scant, and oral histories are difficult and dangerous to collect.
  • From 1953 to 1964 the proportion of Han Chinese in Xinjiang increased from 6.1 to 32.9 percent. Despite the continued influx of Han settlers, Uyghurs still constitute the majority people of the Tarim Basin.
  • A literary renaissance during the openness of the 1980s produced a rich body of texts that implied a glorious Uyghur national heritage.
  • The state dominates the economy of Xinjiang, with extractive industries, particularly oil, accounting for most of the industrial sector.
  • Exile communities in Turkey, Germany and the United States have sought to make the status of Uyghurs in China a political issue of global concern.
  • In 2016, the current regional party secretary Chen Quanguo’s first year in office, the provincial government advertised over 90,000 security positions and constructed thousands of new “people’s convenience” police stations, spaced no more than 500 meters apart in urban areas.

Thum follows his overview with a comprehensive review of existing scholarly literature on the Uyghurs, a listing of archival sources, and a bibliography for further reading. Noting that “the recent flurry of publication on the Uyghurs belies continued challenges of access,” Thum enumerates the barriers to a deeper understanding of Uyghur life today, which are both linguistic and political. In the current era, Thum states, research inside Xinjiang today is nearly impossible.

Image credit: Glenn Herr
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio

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