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Oil painting of prominent Uyghur / Turkic scholars, artists, and leaders throughout history.

 

Who are the Uyghurs?

Genetic studies show that the Uyghurs are the modern hybrid descendants of the indigenous Indo-European and Turkic tribes that inhabited Central Asia. Due to no satisfactory census of population being made, most Uyghur and East Turkistan organizations estimate that the  population of the Uyghurs are around 30 – 35 million globally, while other sources generally put them around 20 – 25 million.

Due to the occupation and colonization of their homeland, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have fled their traditional homeland often seeking refuge and settling in nearby Central Asian states, the Middle East, Turkey, and more recently in Europe and North America. Officially, there are over 500,000 Uyghurs in the independent Central Asian states. However, Uyghur activists and East Turkistan diaspora groups claim there are at least 1 million Uyghurs in Central Asia, with an estimated 25% of Uzbekistan’s population having close blood ties to the Uyghurs. According to then Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, Bulent Aric, there were more than 300,000 people of Uyghur origin living in Turkey as of 2010, although others estimate the number to be around 100,000. Additionally, in 2013 the Saudi Labor Ministry stated there were some 50,000 Turkistanis (most of which are believed to be Uyghurs) living in the kingdom. Although there hasn’t been an official census, there is an estimated to be 50,000 or more Uyghurs living in Europe, most of them in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. Similarly, estimates put the Uyghur population in North America –mainly the United States and Canada–at around 20,000.

The majority of Uyghurs are Muslim and much like their Central Asian and Turkish brethren they follow the Hanafi school of thought, one of the oldest and most liberal of the five main school of thoughts in Sunni Islam. There are also significant adherents of Sufi Islam, along with small pockets of Uyghur Buddhists, Christians, and Shamanists across Central Asia. Overall, most Uyghurs practice a moderate liberal form of Islam far from the ‘religious extremist’ misconception that the Chinese government has been actively pushing forward in a bid to justify its brutal repressive policies against the Uyghurs in East Turkistan. 

Although much of the aspects of Uyghur language and culture is moderately Turkic in origin, there are elements of Persian culture and language that coincide making up the unique hybrid Uyghur culture. The language of the Uyghurs is also called Uyghur, deriving from Eastern Turkic or Chaghtai Turkic. It is one of the oldest Turkic languages in use today. The Uyghurs in East Turkistan use the Arabic script for writing, whereas the majority of the Uyghurs in Central Asia use the Cyrillic alphabet system of writing, and Uyghur diaspora communities use both the Arabic script and Latin script interchangeably. It should also be noted that the traditional Uyghur script was adopted by Genghis Khan in the 13th Century and has been used by Mongols since then.

 

Historical Background of the Uyghurs

Tang Ambassador paying tribute to the Uyghur Khagan-756 CE

The Uyghurs are one of the oldest    ethnic groups in   Central Asia with a history going back over 6000 years. The term Uyghur, meaning “united or allied” emerged as powerful political confederation of the various Turkic and Indo-European tribes that inhabited Central Asia in the 6th century.  The modern Uyghurs are a hybrid mixture of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia and the Indo-European tribes of the Tarim Basin. Genetic research conducted in 2008 revealed that the initial mixing between Hunnic-Turkic tribes and Indo-European tribes of the Tarim began between 2140-2920 years ago, repealing the dubious Chinese claims that the Uyghurs originated from Mongolia in the 8th century.

For millennia the Uyghur homeland of East Turkistan was ruled by ancient Indo-European kingdoms, discoveries of ancient Indo-European mummies and other archeological evidence led Uyghur historian Turghun Almas to conclude that the Uyghurs have a history of over 6400 years.

In around 209 BCE, the Turkic Huns (Xiongnu) would take control of the ancient Uyghur homeland intermixing with the indigenous Indo-European tribes. In around 110 BCE the Chinese Han Dynasty would launch a series of invasions into the Tarim Basin  to control the Silk Road; however, it was only in 60 CE that the Han Dynasty would be able briefly seize parts of the Tarim Basin. The Turkic and Indo-European tribes would rebel the Chinese invasion and continue to govern themselves under independent kingdoms. Following the rise of Turks in the 6th century, Central Asia would be dominated by Indo-European and Turkic tribes. The Uyghurs would play a crucial role in establishing the Kokturk Khanate (552-744), the Uyghur Khanate (744-840), the Kara-Khanid Khanate (840-1212), Gansu Uyghur Kingdom (848-1036), and Idiqut State (856-1335), and the Kara-Khanid Empire (840-1212). Uyghurs would also play a crucial role in the administration of the Mongol Empire (1206-1328), Genghis Khan would adopt the Uyghur yasa law system and their script to govern his vast empire. 

It was through the Kara-Khanids that Islam began to replace the religions of Buddhism, Manicheanism, Nestorian Christianity, and Tengrism (Shamanism) that was practiced by the Uyghurs, however it wasn’t until the 15th century that Islam prevailed as the dominant religion.

In the 18th century, the Uyghurs would decline politically, socially,  culturally, and economically being weakened by internal power struggles and the rise of Sufi Khojas. In 1759, the Manchu Qing dynasty would invade East Turkistan and make it a new colony, with the Uyghurs rebelling against Manchu Qing rule some 42 times–and in 1863 breaking free and establishing Kashgaria (East Turkistan). However, caught in the middle of a rivalry between the British and Russians, in what became known as the ‘Great Game’, the Uyghurs would be invaded once again by the Qing dynasty and in 1884, East Turkistan would formally be incorporated into the Manchu empire as “Xinjiang,” or what translates as the “New Territory” in the Chinese language.

US Treasury Map from 1899 showing East Turkistan as a “Chinese Dependency.”

With the fall of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1911, much of East Turkistan was controlled by former Qing officials who governed the region independently, with some parts being ruled by independent Uyghur / Turkic rulers. By the 1920s   nationalism began to take shape amongst the Uyghurs, with Uyghur political movements being established leading to an increase in the desire and push for independence.   

In 1931 Uyghurs rebelled in Qumul and on November 12, 1933 the various Uyghur leaders and warlords  from Khotan, Turpan, Kashgar, Kucha, Aksu, and Qumul united under one banner and declared independence as the East  Turkistan Republic. However, within several months it was invaded by  Huis (Chinese Muslims) fighting under the Republic of China (the Guomindang). Due to Chinese invasion and Soviet intervention, the first East Turkistan Republic was overthrown on April 16, 1934. Though the  first East Turkistan Republic was short-lived, it did leave a legacy and exactly 11 years later Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples would declare the formation of the second East Turkistan Republic (ETR) on November 12, 1944.

Uyghur soldiers upon establishing the East Turkistan Republic, 1933.

Although the second East Turkistan Republic was much more organized and powerful, it   became the victim of secret negotiations between the China and the Soviet Union and was ultimately betrayed at the Yalta Conference of 1945. In August 1949, the senior leaders of the ETR including the President, Defense Minister, and Interior Minister were executed on the orders of Stalin for refusing to sign away the independence of the Uyghur nation, it was publicly announced in December 1949 that they died in a plane crash. By September, 1949 Stalin would be airlifting Mao’s troops into East Turkistan and dismantling the ETR, leaving the Uyghurs under Chinese Communist occupation. The ETR was officially dismantled on November 22, 1949 ending Uyghur independence and officially making their homeland a Chinese colony, leading to the subjugation of the Uyghur people that continues to this day.

 

The Current Situation of the Uyghurs

Although Mao Zedong had initially promised the Uyghurs the right self-determination and a choice for independence or federated republic status (like that of the Soviet Union), he went back on his promises and established the so called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955. Yet the Chinese government would launch policies to settle millions of Han Chinese to “modernize and develop” East Turkistan, significantly changing the demography of the region. Furthermore, in 1958 Mao launched the large-scale collectivization program which forced the Uyghurs to abandon their indigenous customs and traditions, forcing them to learn Chinese and embrace Chinese culture.

During the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs were  massacred by the Chinese regime for being “counter revolutionary and nationalists”. It was during this period that China began to rewrite the history of the Uyghurs and East Turkistan, distorting the realities and claiming that “Xinjiang (East Turkistan), has always been a part of China since ancient times, and the Uyghurs are part of the larger Chinese family.” Millions of Uyghurs would be killed by various means, including some 750,000 who died as a result of 46 nuclear tests in East Turkistan. Yet over the decades, Uyghurs continued to resist Chinese domination, with numerous uprisings and demonstrations.

Following the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989, Uyghur militants launched an armed uprising on April 5, 1990, which was brutally crushed. However, with the independence of their Central Asian brethren in 1991, Uyghurs once again pushed to strive for theirs. Due to an increase in trade relations with the international community, China began to assert its economic dominance into Central Asia and across the globe to crush any sign of Uyghur political activity. Taking advantage of 9/11, China launched its own ‘War on Terror’ to crush any and all forms of Uyghur   dissent. Ultimately, China used the pretext of “combatting terrorism, and extremism” to ban the teaching of the Uyghur language and restrict religious and cultural practices, while making way for the influx of Han Chinese settlers.

Over the years China intensified its repressive policies on the Uyghurs and in 2009 demonstrations erupted all across East Turkistan to protest China’s colonial policies. The protests were brutally crushed and hundreds if not thousands of Uyghurs were killed and tens of thousands more were detained as the international community stood in silence.   

In 2014, China launched the so-called “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism,” which began the extensive securitization of the region. China claimed it was fighting a war against the “Three Evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism in order to justify its brutal policies of colonization and genocide in East Turkistan. Rather than targeting individuals, China began to openly target the entire Uyghur population labeling them as “terrorists” and “separatists.”

 By early 2016, hundreds of so-called “re-education”   concentration camps where built across the East Turkistan. Uyghurs in the United States led by the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement began weekly demonstrations to call on US support and lobbied Congress to pass a Uyghur Policy Act. It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 that the international community began to take notice. 

At the State Department’s 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, DC, US Vice President Mike Pence criticized China’s interment of Uyghurs. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated in August 2018 that “estimates that upwards of a million people were being held in so-called counter-extremism centres and another two million had been forced into so-called “re-education camps” for political and cultural indoctrination.” Though by 2019, the situation in East Turkistan was getting worse, satellite imagery analysis showed China was expanding its system of concentration camps and prions in the region. In May 2019, the US Department of Defense’s Assistant Secretary for the Asia-Pacific publicly stated that China was holding possibly 3 million Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in concentration camps. 

In July 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s treatment of the Uyghurs “the stain of the century.” China originally denied the existence of the camps but later acknowledged the existence of “voluntary vocational training centers.”

Numerous reports stated that Uyghurs and other Turkic detainees including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tatars were subjected to political and cultural indoctrination, forced medication, forced sterilization, rape, organ harvesting and death. Radio Free Asia reported in October 2019 that at least 150 detainees died in one internment camp over the course of six months. Outside the camps Uyghurs and other Turkic people are subject to 24/7 surveillance using artificial intelligence and even have Han Chinese minders living and sleeping with them in their homes as “relatives.” Hundreds of thousands of children have been forcibly separated from their families and over 36 million peoples’ DNA and biometric data was collected by the Chinese government. 

China’s 2019 National Defense Strategy made it a strategic goal to “prevent the creation of East Turkistan.” Internal Chinese government documents leaked by the New York Times showed that China’s leaders have ordered that “no mercy” be shown to the Uyghurs. All of this have led the overwhelming majority of Uyghurs and other East Turkistanis in the diaspora to call for “Independence for East Turkistan,” seeing it as the only solution to ensure their survival. Despite having vowed “Never Again” following the Holocaust, the international community continues to watch silently as China engages in colonialism and genocide in the 21st century.