While the international press echoes the oppression that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) exercises in the Xinjiang province against the Uyghur population, the president of the China Globalization Center, Wang Huiyao, denies the accusations made in this regard. On the contrary, Huiyao affirms that the region has been favored by the eradication of poverty in the PRC, and that the fake news is only propaganda to damage the image of the President Xi Jinping’s government.
Since 1955, Xinjiang has been one of the five autonomous regions in China, along with those of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Guangxi, and contains a large number of ethnic minorities, among which the Uyghurs and Kazakhs stand out. These are Muslim Turkic groups that have inhabited Central Asia for centuries.
The origin of the Turkic people
Many historians and linguists say that the first Turkic peoples arose around 700 BC. in Central Asia, specifically between Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Lake Baikal in Siberia. They were nomadic peoples, hunter-gatherers, who over time passed to herding.
These proto-Turkic peoples created what is called the Xiongnu Confederation around 215 BC. in present-day Mongolia, which lasted for four centuries until AD 220, when it fragmented giving rise to various Turkic tribes such as the Tiele, the Dinglings, the Yenisei Kyrgyz, or the Ogurs (the latter became the Huns centuries later).
Just a century later, the nomadic tribes of the steppes reunited under the Rouran Khaganate in 330 AD. until one of their vassal clans, the Ashina’s, rebelled from the Altai Mountains and destroyed the Rouran in 552 AD. This event allowed the foundation of the Köktürk Khaganate (Göktürk, also known as the heavenly Turkic), that is, the first Turkic people to be named as such.
The First Turkic Khaganate
The Köktürk Khaganate was also the first great Turkic kingdom in history, expanding for a century from the Manchurian plain in northern Korea to the Aral Sea, with its capital at Otügen, located in central Mongolia. This kingdom was able to prosper thanks to the Silk Road, which connected East China with Europe, and was one of the reasons why some tribes began to establish permanent settlements.
The Turkic and Mongol peoples professed Tengrianism. They believed in a celestial god named Tengri, and this religion mixed shamanism, animism, totemism, and ancestor worship.
In 582 A.D. the Köktürk Khaganate suffered a civil war to seize power, but in the end it resulted in the division of the kingdom into two halves: the western and the eastern. The fragmentation of the khanate weakened their military power and in the end both were conquered by the Tang dynasty for a hundred years.
Meanwhile, other Turkic peoples appeared as independent tribes in the steppes of Kazakhstan under the Kangar Union in 659 AD, who converted to Islam, and from which the Seljuks and Ottomans would be born centuries later.
The second Köktürk Khaganate resurfaced as a result of the rebellion against the invaders of the Tang dynasty in AD 682.
The Uyghur Khaganate
In 744 AD, a group of vassal tribes rebelled against the Köktürk Khanate to create the Uyghur Khaganate, which lasted barely a century, as they had to face the Tang dynasty from the south and the Yenisei Kyrgyz from the north. With the defeat of the short-lived Uyghur Khaganate, all the subjugated tribes were liberated (Naimans, Keraites, Mongols and Tatars, among others), and many Uyghurs converted to Buddhism and migrated to China.
One of the factions liberated after the disappearance of the Uyghur Khaganate was the Kara-Khanids. This tribe formed the first great Muslim Turkic kingdom in 841 AD, founded on the shores of Lake Balkhash and with its capital at Balasagun, one of the cities on the Silk Road. They came to conquer all of Transoxiana, obtaining control of important cities such as Samarkand or Bukhara.
At this time, the Muslim world predominated in Central Asia, where the Samanids and the Ghaznavid Sultanate occupied much of Persia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. From there it was said that the Oxus River, which separated them from the Kara-Khanids Khaganate , was the border between the civilized world and barbarism.
Finally, in 1041 the Khaganate was divided into two large areas separated by the Tian Shan range (‘Heavenly Mountains’) and the Hindu Kush Mountains. To the west, the capital was established in Samarkand, and to the east, in Kasgar (a city that today belongs to Xinjiang).
The western khaganate fell into the hands of the Seljuk Empire in 1089, while the eastern part ruled from Kasgar resisted, largely protected by the mountains. However, in 1125 they would be conquered by the Kara Khitai, a Kitan ethnic group from Manchurria that had formed the Liao dynasty and who had migrated westward until they ended up occupying all of the Kara Khitai territory.
The Mongol Empire
The years that followed in Central Asia were marked by instability and internal rebellions of the Kara Khitai Khaganate until 1219, when Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire wiped out the Khaganate and took control of much of Asia (Mongolia, northern China, Turkestan and Persia).
After the death of the Mongol conqueror in 1227, the Empire divided into four great khanates: the Yuan Dynasty, the Chagatai Khanate, the Persian Ilkhanate, and the Golden Horde. Paradoxically, all the extermination carried out by Genghis Khan and his armies would favor the Mongolian or Tartaric Pax proclaimed by his grandson Kublai. This would allow the reopening of the Silk Road and make Marco Polo’s trip possible.
Xinjiang was ruled for a couple of centuries by the Chagatai Khanate until the 15th century, when it disintegrated into small states.
Already in more recent times, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the region was at the center of the battles between the Russian Empire and China. Both countries disputed the control of the territory, considered as a strategic step and the door between China and the western world.
In 1884, the Tarim Basin was finally conquered by the Qing Dynasty of the Manchu and declared as one of the provinces of China. The name Xinjiang, which means ‘new frontier’, was used for the first time to name this province.
The Islamic Republic of East Turkestan
When the Qing dynasty came to an end in 1912, the Republic of China (ROC) was proclaimed under the nationalist Kuomintang party (KMT). In this period, tensions between the local Uyghurs and Kazakhs against the Han ethnic population, who had recently settled in Xinjiang, began to build, resulting in the uprising of the Turkic in Kasgar and prompting the proclamation of the First Islamic Republic of Turkestan in 1933. This, however, would only last one year.
During the following decade, nationalist movements remained dormant with the help of Chinese and Soviet communists until, in 1944, a revolution against the ROC began. Again, the Second Islamic Republic of East Turkestan was proclaimed, this time of a pro-Soviet character.
However, the triumph of Mao Zedong and the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) conditioned the survival of this second independence in Xinjiang, since the USSR did not want the existence of an independent Turkic state that could inspire an uprising in its Central Asian regions. Thus, in 1949 the Xinjiang region became part of the PRC again and has not changed its status since then.
The Turkic flag of Uyghuristan
Despite having only five years of history, the Second Republic of East Turkestan has permeated the imagination of the Uyghur community, and the flag of the independence movement in Uyghuristan is a powerful symbol with which they demonstrate in Xinjiang.
The color blue predominates in the Turkic flag, called Kök Bayraq (Blue Flag), and represents the color of the sky. It is very common to find blue in the symbols of the Turkic peoples, such as the Kökturk Khaganate, and even in current independent states such as Kazakhstan. This color is probably related to the roots of Tengrianism, the Heaven’s God.
The crescent moon represents the concept of victory or unbeaten, or in this case the resistance to the PRC, and is not necessarily associated with Islam. The five-pointed star represents the Turkic nation, which has been found on other historical flags such as that of the Hephtalites: one of the original Altai peoples who occupied Pakistan, the Punjab, Kashmir, the Kunlun Mountains and part of Afghanistan between the 5th and 6th centuries.
Since the occupation of the PRC in 1949, the flag has been officially banned (only Hong Kong and Macao are allowed to keep their flag), although the colors white and blue are frequently used in Xinjiang. The crescent moon rises on minarets, signs, and some flags, almost always with a white or blue background.
Xinjiang under the control of the PRC
Since 1955, Xinjiang has been one of the autonomous regions of mainland China along with Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Guangxi. Its administrative capital resides in Urumchi.
During the second half of the 20th century, the Uyghur region has undergone a policy of cultural assimilation carried out from Beijing, in an attempt to reduce the relative weight of the Uyghur population. The Uyghurs made up 76% of the total population of Xinjiang in 1949, while the Han made up only 6.8%. In 2017, the proportion of Uyghurs fell to 45.8%, and the Han ethnic group has reached 40.8%.
The PRC thus favored the arrival of new inhabitants of the Han ethnic group, the majority in the rest of the country, who also held political and governmental positions. This situation relegated the Uyghurs to a lower echelon in society, and many of them were forced to emigrate.
The 1990s saw a resurgence of Uyghur independence, inspired by the fall of the USSR and the creation of new independent republics in Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan). The difference is that the PRC is not a union of republics like the USSR was, but a centralized state that contains, on paper, several autonomous regions.
Terrorism and repression
This growing frustration led to violent episodes such as the attacks in Urumchi in 1992, Kasgar in 1993 and Yining (Ghulja) in 1997. The repression increased in Xinjiang there were multitudes of arrests, followed by protests and demonstrations by thousands of Uyghurs, along with the police response that killed several people. The following days, mass arrests and the conviction of 13 people accused of terrorism were carried out, who were executed the following year.
As a result, government measures on the Xinjiang territory and the Uyghur population were hardened in such a way that human rights have been violated ever since to quell nationalist activism.
When the Xinjiang re-education camps became known internationally, the Chinese government was questioned many times about it. United Nations ambassadors from 22 countries sent a signed letter to Beijing condemning the detentions of ethnic minorities and demanding the closure of the re-education camps (PDF).
Future prospects in Xinjiang
For the PRC it is an internal matter, like the conflict with the ROC (Taiwan), and it does not like that international organizations want to intervene in its territory. But on the other hand, the PRC’s government tries to control Uyghur activism outside its borders through diplomatic cooperation and economic investment in Central Asia. This is how the construction of the New Silk Road aims to be not only an axis for the exchange of goods, but one more tool to exert influence over its Central Asian neighbors.
Away from Asia, the influence over the exiled Uyghurs is weakening, and the PRC is unable to silence criticism and international opinion on the management of Xinjiang and Muslim minorities.
The millennial presence of the Turkic people in Xinjiang (or East Turkestan) is at serious risk. If international pressure on the violation of human rights in Xinjiang fails to overcome the power of economic influence of the ‘Asian giant’, the resurgence of protests and new episodes of violence cannot be ruled out, as happened in the 1990s.
- El conflicto de Xinjiang: La minoría uigur y la política de Pekín. Nicolás de Pedro. OPEX, Fundación Alternativas. UNISCI Discussion Papers, Nº 16 (Enero / January 2008) ISSN 1696-2206.