This file photo taken on May 31, 2019, shows a watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

For more than a decade, increasing international attention has been focused on China’s treatment of Xinjiang’s Uighur population.

While Beijing is wary of all forms of separatism – Hong Kong and Tibet being its other major concerns in this regard – maintaining an iron grip on Xinjiang is of utmost importance. The Xinjiang region’s  natural-resource deposits, strategic location in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which involves the creation of economic and trade corridors, and links to the physical defense of China are the most obvious reasons for Beijing to want to keep a stronghold in the region.

But the appeal of Islamic and Turkic nationalism in Xinjiang has also highlighted the difficulty China faces in managing internal stability without upsetting the wider Islamic and Turkic worlds.

Xinjiang’s largely flat terrain made it a primary part of the historical Silk Road route. The region’s geography and proximity to numerous Eurasian cultures and civilizations have also made it a contested land for centuries, with competing narratives over its history and cultural traits.

The name “Xinjiang,” for example, translates to “New Frontier” or “New Dominion” in Chinese, while Uighur nationalists refer to the region as East Turkestan.

Chinese scholars posit that Uighurs are descended from nomadic peoples from modern-day Mongolia and settled in Xinjiang in the 9th century (joining other groups, including the Han Chinese). Uighur historians, on the other hand, tend to stress their Central Asian Turkic origins, with East Turkestan their historical homeland.

Regardless of the historical debate over the lineage of Uighurs, a distinct Muslim and Turkic identity had emerged among portions of Xinjiang’s population in the 18th century when China’s Qing Dynasty reconquered the region.

According to historical records, the Chinese campaign split the Uighur population from the other Turkic groups of Central Asia, which later came under the control of the Russian Empire. Hostility toward Chinese rule in Xinjiang among Muslims from a variety of different cultural backgrounds culminated in the Dungan Revolt from 1862 to 1877, with rebels receiving support from both the Ottoman and British empires.

Despite the successful Chinese suppression and pacification of Xinjiang afterward, nationalist sentiment grew within the Muslim-Turkic population, and the term “Uighur” began to be used to describe much of the local Muslim-Turkic population around the Tarim Basin by the early 20th century.

The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 gave way to China’s Warlord Era and ensuing civil war. Chinese nationalists, communists, Uighur groups, and Russian/Soviet expeditions all competed with one another for control of Xinjiang.

While the Communist Party of China (CPC) emerged victorious in 1949, the Kuomintang Islamic Insurgency (1950-58) across Xinjiang and nearby regions underlined the threat of political Islam to China’s fragile new leadership.

In addition, the Soviet Union encouraged Uighurs to revolt (as well as Kazakhs living in Xinjiang) to destabilize China after the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s.

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Uighurs’ resistance to Chinese rule of Xinjiang changed in nature. The Soviet collapse allowed independent Turkic states to emerge in Central Asia, inspiring similar nationalist sentiment among Uighurs. The rise of international terrorism also led Islamic and Turkic militant groups within Xinjiang and across the region to coordinate activities.

These developments caused considerable alarm in Beijing, and after public demonstrations by Uighurs against Chinese rule in the city of Yining in 1995 – after “the Chinese authorities [had already] tightened their control over Islam in Xinjiang” – the CPC issued a document called the Central Committee Document No 7 in 1996, which stated that “national separatism and illegal religious activity” should be categorized as “main threats to the stability” of the country in response to the situation in Xinjiang.

Thereafter, a “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” was adopted in the Xinjiang region in 2014, and further public demonstrations were violently suppressed, while numerous Uighur political figures were imprisoned or killed.

However, violent resistance against the policies of the CPC in Xinjiang continued to grow during the first two decades of the 21st century. Knife attacks and bombings increased, while riots in Urumqi in 2009 saw almost 200 people killed.

To quell the protests by the Uighurs, Chinese authorities responded with force and arrests and in 2017 introduced further new and oppressive measures, which included detaining “many hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in internment camps,” according to The New York Times.

These camps have been referred to as re-education camps by the state. Mass surveillance, checkpoints, and an increased security presence in Uighur regions have placed greater pressure on the Uighur population.

International outcry

The suppression of Uighur cultural norms and creation of detention centers where more than a million Uighurs have been detained “against their will over the past few years” have drawn the greatest international scrutiny regarding China’s policies in the Xinjiang region, which have been defined as “crimes against humanity and possibly genocide” by several countries, including the US and human-rights groups.

China continues to restrict international access to the region in the lead-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, leading to some countries announcing diplomatic boycotts of the Games.

For several reasons, Beijing is willing to maintain its pressure on Xinjiang in the face of international outcry from the West and certain elements from across the Islamic and Turkic worlds. 

Xinjiang contains 40% of China’s coal, roughly 20% of its oil reserves and the largest natural-gas reserves, and significant deposits of building materials such as marble and granite. As the Chinese economy continues to increase its energy requirements, maintaining access to Xinjiang’s coal, oil and gas reserves is vital to China’s current and future energy security.

Additionally, the region’s location makes it an essential part of the route for China’s BRI project to connect European and Asian economic markets.

The success of greater regional autonomy (or outright secession) in Xinjiang would also not bode well for Chinese attempts to dissuade similar attempts across the country. Hong Kong, Tibet, and even less notable secession movements would be incentivized to increase their own efforts should secessionists in Xinjiang succeed.

The loss of Xinjiang would also make China more susceptible to hypothetical future invasions. A more likely and immediate scenario would be challenges to Chinese authority across its border regions, including the violently disputed territory of Aksai Chin, which forms part of Xinjiang and Tibet, and which India claims is part of its Leh district in the country’s Ladakh union territory.

While China’s motives for its tight control on Xinjiang are clear, the consequences of its policies are also becoming more pronounced. Anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia has risen in recent years, despite attempts by Central Asian governments to curtail it and ensure continued Chinese economic investment.

Turkic unity

While many Turkic countries and communities continue to fight among themselves, they are often unified by their disdain toward China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. For China to realize its BRI project, a positive perception of it among the Turkic populations in Central Asian states’ populations will be crucial.

China’s outreach to Central Asian states has been further complicated by Turkey. Because of its own Turkic heritage, the country has been a primary proponent of pan-Turkism, hosting the first Summit of the Heads of Turkic Speaking States in 1992.

Turkey has taken a particularly hard line with China on the issue of Uighurs, leading to several diplomatic disputes over the past decade. Organizing greater international objection to China’s treatment of the Uighurs could galvanize pan-Turkism into a viable ideology, with Turkey seeking to take a leadership role in the movement.

Muslim states

So far, China has managed to avoid widespread condemnation from the Muslim world. Beijing has been careful to emphasize its more favorable treatment of the Hui Muslim population who also inhabit Xinjiang and other Chinese regions.

China’s positive relations with major Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia show it has been somewhat successful in its efforts to avoid any backlash from these nations for its treatment of Uighurs. But these countries must themselves take care not to play down the issue, for fear of incentivizing extremist Islamic forces.

Radical Salafism has become increasingly popular among Uighur and other Chinese Muslim populations in Xinjiang, exemplified by the popular support for the Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement). If Uighurs feel they have no international Muslim allies, the appeal of extremism will grow further.

While China’s domestic security situation is of paramount importance to the CPC, it remains sensitive to international perceptions of its policies in Xinjiang. In addition, its repressive policies may help instill a stronger and more resistant identity among the local Uighur population.

The CPC’s economic development of Xinjiang will not be enough to erode centuries-old beliefs and cultural loyalties significantly. The historical precedent has shown that foreign states will take advantage of unrest in the region to promote their own interests.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

John P Ruehl

John P Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, DC. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign-affairs publications. His book Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West with an Economy Smaller than Texas’ was published in December 2022.