The Uyghurs: Surviving in China

Police patrol the streets as Uyghurs leave the Id Kah Mosque in the old town of Kashgar in Xinjiang, on June 26, 2017.

In August, a UN human rights panel reported that around 2 million Uyghurs and Muslim minorities have been forced into political indoctrination camps in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as part of a brutal crackdown. In this series, The Epoch Times delves into the persecution of the Uyghurs in China as they try to survive amid increasing surveillance and rights violations.

By Jocelyn Neo
Epoch Times Staff


Since 1949, after China came under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), many religious and minority groups have been targeted and persecuted. Some of these groups include the Christians, Tibetans, Falun Gong, and Uyghurs.

In this article, we will be focusing on the persecution of the Uyghurs, one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, who have been subjected to discrimination and marginalisation for years due to their culture and religion.

History of the Uyghurs

So who are the Uyghurs and where do they live?

The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group, native to Central Asia, that live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, commonly known as Xinjiang, in China’s northwest. The region, which borders eight countries, including Mongolia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and India, is home to a number of ethnic groups with the Uyghurs making up more than 40 percent of Xinjiang’s population. The rest of the population is made up of Han Chinese and other ethnic groups.

Xinjiang was also known as East Turkestan, while West Turkestan consists of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

The area was historically known for its rich resources like oil, gas, and minerals. Though the area is landlocked, it could produce enough fish for local consumption through rivers, fishponds, and lakes. In addition, since the 19th century, it has been known for its cotton industry.

But how did East Turkestan end up under China’s rule?

The Xinjiang region was ruled for 2,000 years by nomadic Turkic empires, especially the Uyghur Khanata, after the Uyghurs migrated there. In the 14th century, following one of their leaders, Satuk Bughra Khan, the Turks converted to Islam.

During the Qing Dynasty in 1884, or more accurately between 1759 and 1862, East Turkestan was under the Manchu government and became known as “Xinjiang”. In Chinese, the name means “new territory” or “new frontier”.

In history, the Uyghurs had twice declared the region independent in 1933 and 1944. However, after communism took over China in 1949, the region has since remained under China and was renamed Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955.

A Culture That Sets Them Apart

Being from a different ethnic group, the Uyghurs differ greatly from the Han Chinese in terms of their appearance and culture.

The Uyghur people speak the Uyghur language, a Turkic language similar to Uzbek but written in Arabic script. Spoken by more than 10 million people in the region, it is an official language, together with Mandarin Chinese.

The language is also spoken by some people in other countries such as Kazakhstan.

What about Uyghur food?

Most of their food dishes include mutton and one of their famous foods known in China is their kebabs, or kawap, a meat grilled and covered with cumin and other spices.

Another traditional food is fresh hand-pulled noodles known as laghman, served with vegetables, lamb, and spicy sauce.

The polo rice pilaf is another traditional dish, a food made of seasoned rice, lamb, cumin, and vegetables such as carrots.

Unlike most cuisines prepared with exact measurements, Ekber Kayser, an Uyghur chef who opened a restaurant in Washington, D.C., told VOA News that they do not follow such cooking methods.

Instead, taking cooking polo as an example, Uyghurs taste the dish every few minutes.

“When he or she feels right about it, then that’s where it’s right,” he said. “So, it has to be tasted and confirmed by the person who cooks it. There’s no way to measure.”

He added that the dish, which is a popular food to be eaten at any time of the day, is often served at gatherings.

“Polo is traditionally served at parties and weddings—gatherings—as a way of showing respect to your guests and to your friends or family,” he said. “And it’s also a way of celebrating or enjoying the rich cultural elements, I mean in this case, Uyghur culture.”

In traditional Chinese music, many would be familiar with the guzheng, a Chinese zither.

So what musical instruments do the Uyghurs have? Is there any instrument that has spread to China?

The Uyghurs have various instruments ranging from plucked string to percussion. One of them is santur, a dulcimer that looks and plays with a pair of little hammers that have ends covered in rubber, just like the Chinese instrument yangqin.

According to James A. Millward, a faculty member of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the yangqin and some other Chinese instruments like suona were actually originally from Central Asia or India.

In modern society, everyone has the right to freedom of religion and belief. However, this is not the case for the Uyghurs, who have been discriminated by the CCP for being different.

Restriction of the Uyghurs after 1949

After the CCP took over China along with Xinjiang, there was not a moment when the Uyghurs were not suppressed or controlled, be it ethnically, religiously, culturally, or politically. Moreover, the Uyghurs have their culture restricted and faced being sent to forced labour camps if they are found to be disrespectful to the CCP.

The Uyghurs are discriminated for being who they are and they are increasingly feeling uncomfortable in their homeland.

Uyghur men at a local market in Kashgar, Xinjiang.

Migration of the Han Chinese

The numbers of Han Chinese migrating to Xinjiang have been rising since the CCP took over the area. By 2000, there were 7.5 million Han Chinese in the area, compared to less than half a million in 1953, Al Jazeera reported in 2008. The mass migration increased the Han population from six percent in 1949 to 38 percent in 2011, AFP reported.

And the Uyghurs are feeling the pressure from the increase in population.

“There are more and more Han arriving here all the time,” said Tursuntay, who lived at the Xinjiang border city of Ily. “When I was young there were very few – this place belonged to us.”

Hislat, a young woman from Urumqi, added: “Before, looking for work was easy, but now they all want Han people, they don’t want us. It’s really difficult, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The increase in Han population was due to the economic development in Xinjiang by the government in Beijing at that time, or to be more specific, in 2010 by the then general secretary and state president of the CCP, Hu Jintao.

After the deadly riots between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi in July 2009, Hu Jintao visiting Xinjiang and told the local officials: “The fundamental way to resolve the Xinjiang problem is to expedite development in Xinjiang.”

According to research analysis, the CCP’s restrictive religion policy plays a part in the issue in Xinjiang.

The CCP’s atheist, anti-religion ideology has restricted the Uyghurs in practising Islam, thus leading to many Muslim Uyghurs joining underground Koran study groups, just like the Christians.

And in Hu’s speech, he had reiterated that the CCP’s stance on religion remained unchanged: “[Fully] implement the Party’s ethnic policy and religion policy, fully strengthen and improve propaganda and ideological work…”

In May 2010, the Xinjiang Work Conference was held to propose a new solution—invest hundreds of billions of yuan to the region to boost the economy and improve the living of all ethnic groups.

“The economic issue in Xinjiang is an immigration issue. Encouraging economic growth means to encourage more Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang,” explained Dilshat Reshit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, the Epoch Times reported. “It is the outsiders who will eventually benefit from the increased economic investment.”

By 2008, Xinjiang had been maintaining a 10 percent annual growth for over 10 years and the economy was dominated by two organisations—oil industry and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps—which accounted for almost 70 percent of Xinjiang’s GDP in 2008. The organisations were dominated by Han Chinese. In the Xinjiang Petroleum Administration, it was reported that less than one percent of the 40,000 employees are Uyghurs.

The Han Chinese also enjoy several government incentives that the Uyghurs don’t receive.

“The government has plenty of money, but any subsidies we’re entitled to just get taken by officials,” said Abduljan to South China Morning Post. “But we can’t do anything, we have no voice, no power.”

“Han Chinese immigrants have the advantage of being able to convert unused land into farmland because the government pays for all of their agricultural expenses. That is why they have more land,” one farmer from Kashgar told RFA on condition of anonymity. “Farm equipment is expensive and Uyghur farmers have no money to purchase it.”

“Let alone an expansion, we can’t even work on the land that we own because we have no money—no subsidies from the government,” the farmer added. “Even if we had money, we would not be allowed to expand like the Han Chinese.”

An Uyghur farmer from Aksu said that in addition to the subsidies, the Han farmers enjoy the resources provided by the authorities.

“The government is not only refusing to subsidise our farm equipment, but they are also cutting our access to water resources,” the farmer said. “The government cut the water for us, but not for the Han Chinese. We had no water so we couldn’t use the rice farm. But the Han are given water and have squeezed into our land.”

Another reason for the migration was the reforms of the hukou, i.e. household registration, which allows residents entitlement to education, social insurance, healthcare, etc. For larger cities, new migrants will need to have special skills, a higher degree, or a job at a reputable company in order to secure their hukou.

But in Xinjiang, a hukou is available for those who have no skill or education.

“The hukou reforms are about trying to encourage Han migration to southern Xinjiang, even though it’s not phrased in that way,” James Leibold, an expert on ethnic relations in China at Australia’s La Trobe University, explained the reason for the reforms.

Compared to the Han Chinese who benefitted from the hukou reforms, the Uyghurs are not able to move as freely.

“If they are from Kashgar or Hotan, the higher-level authorities will decide accordingly. But, in short, [granting hukous] is not applicable to people from southern Xinjiang,” said a police officer from Ghulja (Yining) city, in northwestern Xinjiang’s Ili (Yili) Kazakh Autonomous prefecture. “We don’t know why it is like this. This is an order from the top.”

The migrants have also affected prices in the southern Xinjiang area, a businessman told RFA.

“The migrants coming from Chinese cities have affected transportation fares in the area, increasing them—no matter whether it is by airplane, bus or train, fares have become prohibitively expensive.”

Continued in next issue

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply