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History: The Xinjiang Conflict

Updated: Apr 8

Trigger Warning: Descriptions of physical and psychological torture

In order to understand what’s happening in Xinjiang right now, we need to understand its past.

Xinjiang is a central Asian region geographically within China, but politically autonomous. The Xinjiang Conflict was an ongoing separatist issue that began in the 1950-1970s, with state sponsored Han-Chinese migration into Xinjiang, which was inhabited by Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group. [Separationist: advocacy of a state of cultural, ethnic, tribal, religious, racial, governmental or gender separation from the larger group.] State policies attempting to push for ‘Chinese cultural unity’, which really meant erasure of freedom to cultural expression, led to a surge in Uyghur separatist organizations. There have since been activists speaking out on restrictions against Islam, including strict control over religious schools and clampdowns on peaceful religious activity. Economic instability also caused unrest amongst the Uyghur population; many developmental projects in the Xinjiang region attracted Han workers who filled up employment opportunities, and complaints on unjust pay gaps have also stirred Uyghur resentment. In the early days of the conflict, demonstrations broke out, and were portrayed as violent by Chinese media, peaceful by western media.

In the following years, consecutive terrorist attacks and bombings created turmoil in Xinjiang as extremist organizations took the place of peaceful Uyghur activists in protesting against cultural infringement and the influx of Han immigrants. There was no single Uyghur agenda; some groups desired an independent state and some desired political integration with China while maintaining a distinct culture. The major parties involved were the Turkestan Islamic Party and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and other organizations with links to Al Qaeda. The most common attack strategies included bus bombings, suicide bombings and knife attacks on Han civilian workers, with frequent insurgent attacks on railways and markets; two large-scale attacks included the bombing of the Chinese Embassy and the bombing of a Thai shrine.

The response was a crackdown in 2009 by the Chinese military, known as the People’s Liberation Army at the time, and led to on-sight shootings of assailants, captured suspects being sentenced to death. After the events of 9/11 and the capture of Uyghur groups fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, large-scale crackdowns and repression were labelled by the government as counter-terrorism measures. The cycle of extremist attacks and military suppression triggered a change in policy in which Chinese nationalism would be promoted as a unifying ideology in order to reduce the oppressive implications of communist integration. Beijing’s first official publicization on the issue was more a solution to domestic politics and a forced address to military suppression, rather than to dissolve any real external threat. The death count from these incidents, however, did not begin to drop until late 2017 as terrorist attacks continued.

Crucial to understanding the basis of Xinjiang today, the Xinjiang Conflict is not distant from our times. In fact, the reminders of it are so alive that bomb detection is a necessity in public buildings, and household knives are etched with a QR code derived from the passport/ID number of the holder and chained to the floor.

Despite the fact that the level of control in Xinjiang affects both the Han and the Uyghur population, bias and segregation have been unfairly prevalent towards the Uyghur group due to perceptions based on the history of the conflict. Narratives pushed by the Chinese government have also disregarded the Uyghurs’ cultural validity as an ethnic group and created sentiments of nationalism within the Han population living in Xinjiang. Overall, extreme levels of safety control and surveillance in Xinjiang have become normalized along with the perpetual ethnic tension and systemic marginalization of the Uyghur minority.

The present situation

Officially known as “Xinjiang Re-education Camps”, evidence for large scale detention facilities in Xinjiang have been coming to light in recent years. Allegations of indoctrination practices have existed as early as 2017, but were shut down by the Chinese government on the basis that all those held in the camps were participating voluntarily and were part of counter-terrorism measures.

The number of detainees since 2018 range from several hundred thousand to more than a million, but no news source has been able to provide an exact value due to the Chinese government’s lack of transparency, meaning that the real numbers could very well exceed the million. These allegations were rejected a second time at UN 2019, by China along with 54 other nations, despite a resurgence in footage and government documents being leaked. A majority of these nations were in fact Muslim, but economic and political ties meant they were unable to condemn China without losing the benefit of economic uplifting. “Economic interests reign supreme… Ideological differences proved no barrier to doing business,” wrote Tamara Qiblwai, CNN producer.