The Uyghurs in China: A review of their struggles throughout the history of PRC

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The Uyghurs in China: A review of their struggles throughout the history of PRC

Gary Sun ’22

     Racial Crisis in Xinjiang has no longer been an internal issue of People’s Republic of China, it is widely known nowadays internationally due to its close relationship to Uyghur nationalist movement and similarities to Tebet racial crisis in 1980s. However, different from all other racial conflicts that Chinese government has dealt with, Uyghur issue is the sole one now that has great relationship to cultural differences. While Han Chinese, the major ethnic group of China, and Chinese government as well, are prone to non-religious behaviours, Uyghurs are traditionally Islamic, and possess many restrictions in their daily lives that Han people do not understand. The author has been friends with several students from Xinjiang, whose families are deeply related to Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a military unit responsible directly to State Council of PRC, having almost equal political and economic influence on Xinjiang as the Province government. The passage will also be mainly based on the author’s study of Xinjiang from seminars of Xinjiang in former school, written in chronological order, describing conflicts in different phases of time.


1950s: Establishment of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp(XPCC later in text)


     Military success in Tibet in the early 1950s made Chinese government to do the same in Xinjiang. By 1953, 200,000 soldiers were implemented into Xinjiang, stabilising the rule. (1) On 1954 Oct. 7th, 175,000 of those soldiers were appointed to the new XPCC to improve agricultural, economic and industrial performance of Xinjiang by the State Council. The soldiers of this newly born corporation all experienced Chinese Civil War and part of WWII, and were educated well about Islam prior to their entry to Xinjiang, therefore they maintained peaceful relationship with Uyghurs and other locals. There is a distinction between XPCC Han Chinese and inland Han Chinese among Uyghurs even nowadays, the former would be treated in hospitality and enjoy many discounts when buying stuffs, while the latter would have none of those and even have to suffer the risk of being attacked. The way Uyghurs differentiate them is to see whether they could speak Uyghur, who are definitely from XPCC,  or not. By the end of 1950s XPCC accomplished great success in boosting the economy, extending the agricultural areas into those traditionally barren places, and resisting the desertification.

(1) 50年,影响兵团历史的50件事,兵团建设2004年09期. Author note: the resource is not available on internet; this resource is from the newspaper of the XPCC.

1960s: Soviet Union’s hostility and negative influence of Cultural Revolution


     By 1962 PRC was no longer in good relationship with Soviet Union. While Brezhnev, leader of USSR, didn’t desire an open hostility, he ordered the embassy of Soviet Union in PRC to encourage Xinjiang locals to flee to Soviet Union. By April of the year, 60,000 locals fled to Soviet Union, in promise of fortune and greater grazing land and fields. That was a great strike on local economy, and Cultural Revolution several years later would also reduce the performance of XPCC greatly.


     Starting from 1966, Cultural Revolution lasted for an entire decade, literally destroyed the economy of Xinjiang. Many educated youths from 15-20 from big cities were summoned by the government to continue their study through farming in Xinjiang. These arrogant youths, used to luxuries they were in contact back in their hometowns, grew a great dissent on locals and Xinjiang. They mocked the locals on their Islamic practices and their clothes, and they even celebrated the Pig year in Chinese zodiac calendar, and invited locals to eat dumplings with pork inside, which is strictly forbidden in Islam. Their behaviours enraged the locals, causing them to actively attack, sack and burn the farms these youths lived, and harmed and even killed many of them. The movement was in such a bad shape that the central government identified it as a revolt, and ordering XPCC to execute all rebels. The soldiers absolutely felt very ambivalent when they had to point their guns at those with whom they used to be friends and even brother-in-arm, and thus the result of this oppression was neglectable. But the casualty number of Han had gone through the roof. Economic development was halted as well. By 1967 the XPCC already developed deficit of 38.49 million RMB, and that number continued to increase until October 1975, when the deficit reached 0.794 billion RMB. (2) The 1960s saw a total mess of Xinjiang situation, with great number of both Han and Uyghurs killed.


(2) 恢复兵团建制助新疆长治久安. 和讯. 2014-08-22. The resource is in Chinese.

 O’Neill, Mark (2008-04-13). “The Conqueror of China’s Wild West”. Asia Sentinel. Retrieved 2018-09-30.


1970s&80s: Escalation of racial conflicts and harsh measures implemented by the government


     XPCC continued to reform itself and successfully transformed to a real corporation, paying salary to its employees in 1975, and no longer exist as a simple military unit. But the strikes of locals still appeared now and then, regardless that friendly act of the government. In 1980 March, Hu Yaobang, then top chairman of the government, addressed that “most Han employees, soldiers and administrators in Tibet should be sent back to inland gradually and organised. ” XPCC leaders misinterpreted the message and released voices that Xinjiang would do the same. The rumours were then spread around, inspiring Urghurs teens to upgrade the extent of their violent conducts as they believe that the government was afraid of them and submitted. It was commonly said in early 1980 that one in three Han women in Xinjiang had been either sexually harassed or assaulted, and Han people should always go out of their home in a group no less than 10.

     The worst incident appeared on August 2nd, 1980. Gao Xu, a Han soldier on the military trucks, accidentally shot some cattles of local farmers. The farmers asked the road workers to block the road and attacked the trucks, disabling them and started to beat the soldiers. Gao Xu, again, didn’t behave himself as a soldier, and shot one of the farmers. The XPCC immediately ordered him be put behind bars and executed in a few days, without trying to prove that somebody was actually killed. No formal jurisdic process was done. This favour on Urghurs enraged Han community, and they attacked the soldiers executing him and escorted him back to a safehouse. Some Urghurs teens were enraged by these Han, and they started to stab Han on the street randomly, causing over 400 casualties and over 80 Han, including women and children, killed. The central government was shocked by what was going on and sent more soldiers into Xinjiang, and started to extensively execute the mobs to take down the rebellion. Many Uyghurs consider this as a key turning point of government’s measure on Uyghurs. Foreign media started to focus on the question as China improved relationship with US, and they started to claim that PRC government is committing genocide upon Uyghurs. To avoid rumours and bad reputation, the government started to exempt Uyghurs from some light crimes a few years later, such as theft and sexual harassment. However, the government again failed to tranquilise the dissent of Uyghurs, and extensive terrorist attacks still existed, such as 10.30 crisis in 1981 and 5.19 attack in 1989.


1990s: Uyghur nationalism


     Continuation of tolerance and the so-called “reformation and opening” gave rise not only to economy of Xinjiang, but also nationalism. Emergence of internet enabled some extremists overseas, such as those notorious ones in Middle East and those who fled from Xinjiang and stayed in Kazakhstan to plan terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. They convinced some young and innocent Urghurs students to secretly join their groups online, producing explosives and plan to bomb the train stations. They asserted that all Islamic people are destined to be one unified community, and that unification should start from China. Those teenagers were convinced that there would be a “East Turkishtan”, and from there they would move westward and unify the entire Middle East, restoring the community Muhammad, the prophet, wished. During 1990-1995, over 10,000 bullets, 80 guns, 40 explosive apparatus and 500 grenades and other weapons were found during a strike to shut down terrorist groups, and the situation rose to its peak in 1998, when thousands of Uyghurs terrorists and hundreds of terrorist forces were found out and dealt with. Throughout the entire 1990s the police force and XPCC lost over 600 people, and the civilians suffered greater casualties: In 1992 over 110 civilians regardless of Han or Uyghurs were killed by bombs set on the Line 2 buses, and in other years the government had lost count in how many people died in everywhere in Xinjiang. Beijing failed to recognise the problem, and only ordered local forces to “exterminate the rebels”, without realising that as long as Uyghurs still regard Han as enemies of their religion, and as long as the foreign terrorists still get to contact the locals, there would be endless terrorist attacks. By the end of 1990s, it is said that the Chinese National Security achieved consensus with CIA, and they temporarily blocked many internet activities suspected of terrorist traits, and thus a short time of peace was brought to Xinjiang.


21st century: Diminishing of terrorist attack and continuing discrimination


     Violent incidents only happened three times in the last 18 years. First in 2003, second in 2013 and third in 2017. No people died in these incidents according to official report. But the funny thing is, the tolerance of government in last century turned to be disadvantageous to Uyghurs. In 20th century, the education rate in Uyghur population stayed rather low, and the government tried to be friendly and ordered that 40% of the best educated Uyghur teenagers would be able to get into college, whether their test performances permit or not. In the new century, however, that same education rate has gone above 40%, but the government hasn’t sent out any order to change that rule, preventing many great Urghurs teens from going to college. Meanwhile, sexual harassment and cheating in trading has been common among Uyghurs who live outside Xinjiang, leading to a bad impression on Uyghurs in Han people’s mind. The government has been dedicated on wiping out drug use, prostitution and corruption in inland China, and it obviously has lost its focus on Xinjiang. The misunderstanding of the both ethnic groups against each other remains to be a major problem in China and is yet to be started to be solved. Some schools, like the author’s own middle school, however, established connections with schools in Xinjiang, and they offer exchange programs and seminars on Urghurs and Tibet issues. While on a national level this problem is left unresolved, individuals and organisations already started to act. We hope to see a final peace reached between Urghurs and Han, and urge people to stop supporting separatism that exists nowadays.