China has made another bold statement that highlights its leaders’ determination to remain in control of the restive northwestern province of Xinjiang. Twenty separatists (or jihadists depending on your stance) have been given life sentences for threatening the security of the region. A large, resource-rich province, Xinjiang has a Muslim majority (43% of its population belongs to the Uighur ethnic group) and during the past few years, in particular, a battleground has developed here between forces loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and those keen for separate development.
Struggle and repression are not new to the people of Xinjiang. The Uighur have fought for centuries for an independent homeland, ever since the vast Uighur Khaganate (744-848) disintegrated. Since the 9th century, the Uighurs have been frustrated by first the Mongols and subsequently by the Chinese and Russians.
The successors to the Mongol Empire, the Chagatai, Yuan and Dzunghar dynasties, kept the Uighur lands in vassalage. When the Qing Dynasty rose to power in the 17th century, a semi-independent fiefdom was established in the Uighur lands under the Khojas, who practiced Sufi beliefs. However, unrest and rebellion soon spread to the Khoja lands as full independence from the Qing was sought. The Qing rulers, knowledgeable to the fact that the Khoja lands were agriculturally rich, repressed successive rebellions and established direct military rule.
In the 19th century, Xinjiang became a battleground between Chinese and Russian forces, each seeking to extend their imperial mandate and have access to rich and vast lands. During such times, designs for independence were futile and the Uighur attempts to bargain with either side ultimately ended in frustration, repression and an indentured populace.
Of course, none of present day China was able to escape the tumult that the first part of the 20th century brought, with the curtain brought down on the Qing at last, only to be followed by the Warlord Era and the rise of the Kuomintang. Yet in 1933, the Uighurs made a statement as bold as it was foolhardy. They declared an independent republic, the East Turkestan Republic, which would last but a year. By 1934, having subdued other unruly swathes of the country, the Kuomintang turned on Xinjiang. During the Battle of Kashgar between January and February 1934 they laid waste to the fledgling republic and had the Uighur leaders executed.
Worse was to follow in 1934 when Soviet Russia invaded Xinjiang, leading to the dividing of the province in two between them and the Chinese. War would grip the province, like the rest of the world, until 1945. At this point, a Second East Turkestan Republic was created, although it did not have the aspirations of autonomy that the First Republic had inspired. A Soviet client state, the Second Republic would last only four years until in 1949 the red flood of communism swarmed over the province.
The CCP has maintained control over Xinjiang with characteristic relentlessness ever since. Having said that, the Uighur have never been cowed. Throughout history they have fought for independence and territorial integrity amidst foreign oppressors. Even today, when CCP assimilation tactics and the prospects of oil have seen massive Han migration to Xinjiang, the Uighur Muslims remain vocal in their protests. Too vocal for the CCP, as the police crackdown to the 2009 Ürümqi Riots and yesterday’s sentencing testify to.
Whilst there are no concrete links between the Uighur and Islamic extremist groups, the CCP has been keen to paint the picture that way. For a start, it legitimises the regime’s frequent crackdowns in Xinjiang but it is also a way of diluting foreign criticism. Whilst Uighur terrorism may not yet be a reality, the unscrupulous principles of radical Islamists worldwide means it may still become one. Harnessing a historic desire for freedom and independence is something terrorist organisations will not shy away from. For this reason, at least, we can be grateful for Chinese vigilance and forcefulness.
The Uighur look set to continue their struggle for identity and freedom within a territory dominated by the ‘outsider’. For some, this will be a silent struggle, for others an increasingly violent response to state-sponsored aggression. Whichever way, the people will be waiting sometime for their Third East Turkestan Republic.