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Assimilation of China's Muslims, from Mao to 2012

A revived sense of identity increased Uyghur nationalism, protests and violence against Han Chinese and the CCP

Anders Corr

Anders Corr

Updated: March 08, 2019 09:22 AM GMT
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Assimilation of China's Muslims, from Mao to 2012

Uyghurs protest in Urumqi in China's Xinjiang province on July 7, 2009. Riots in the city left about 200 mostly Han Chinese citizens dead as police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of Han armed with makeshift weapons and vowing revenge. (Photo by AFP)

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The Soviet approach to the Uyghurs has vacillated depending on the shifting calculations of different Soviet leaders as they simultaneously attempt to limit the power of nationalists in China and support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The Soviets had supported the Uyghurs in Xinjiang against the nationalists since 1921, but in 1950 Josef Stalin betrayed them by agreeing to Mao Zedong’s demand to absorb the Second East Turkestan Republic (SETR) into the new Moscow-backed People’s Republic of China. On the way to Beijing peace talks in 1950, the entire SETR negotiating team died in a plane crash over Soviet territory.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the Sino-Soviet split of 1956, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev rekindled relationships with the Uyghurs and continued to use the idea and movements related to East Turkestan as pawns against Beijing. But perhaps in anticipation of such a fifth column strategy, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) had in 1950 already started to assimilate Muslims in Xinjiang.

CCP colonialism in Xinjiang

Mao’s policies towards the Uyghurs are particularly important to understand, for Xi Jinping has imitated Mao on many of his major policy initiatives, within Xinjiang, in the country as a whole and in the PRC’s relations with the newer frontiers of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Some would argue that Xi is even treating former British colonies such as Australia and New Zealand as frontier regions.

The CCP banned Islamic law in 1950, according to one source. It dismantled the Islamic court system shortly after taking power in Xinjiang, replacing the courts with state institutions. This eliminated traditional Islamic divorce, by which a Muslim man can divorce his wife by saying so three times. Religious lands were confiscated and high religious institutions were funded by the state but at a much decreased level.

For a short time, the party sought to incorporate an approved version of Uyghur culture. The CCP promoted a party-controlled Islamic Association of China that promoted a stricter orthodox Sunni version of Islam and undermined the Uyghurs’ heterodox (and therefore, according to party thinking at the time, threatening to the CCP) Sufi traditions. The CCP has now reversed course and is against both “Arabization” of the Uyghurs and their Sufi traditions.

The Uyghur language and music were codified and systematized, including a new grammar and Latin script. The tomb of Afaq Khoja was restored in 1956. Researchers collected and preserved Uyghur folklore. At the height of this exception to assimilation, there were even party campaigns against “Han Chauvinism” to encourage putting Uyghurs in leadership roles, which some achieved.

Those Uyghur positions were soon lost when the PRC returned to strictly assimilationist policies. The Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-59) purged more than 1,000 Uyghur officials for links to the Soviet Union or “local nationalism.” Around the same time, the Religious Reform Campaign started to dismantle Uyghur religious practices and institutions.

Han officials then imposed collectivization of agriculture on Xinjiang via the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), which brought economic disaster and starvation and severely eroded Uyghur social structures like communal meal preparation and household organization. Customs of hospitality and daily ritual were lost.

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The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) followed, again imposed by Han Chinese officials in Xinjiang and throughout the country. Ethnic policy in Xinjiang became more openly assimilationist. Public Islamic practice and schooling became increasingly difficult. The party took over mosques as offices and destroyed religious texts. There was extensive emigration to neighboring countries.

Steve Young interviewed some of the resulting refugees in Kyrgyzstan decades later when he was U.S. ambassador from 2003-5. He wrote in an email that there was “massive unrest caused by the collectivization efforts of the nomadic herders during the disastrous Great Leap Forward (GLF) in 1958-62. As ambassador to Kyrgyzstan 40 years later, I met elderly Uyghurs and Kazakhs whose families had fled in terror into Soviet Central Asia, having lost all they owned in the dispossessions of the GLF.”

He continued: “I visited the local markets both in Bishkek and neighboring Kazakhstan’s Almaty in the late 90s and early 2000s. Speaking in Russian with local traders, many recounted their frightened headlong flight from Xinjiang in the GLF and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution periods. An underappreciated mass tragedy.”

Residents of Urumqi celebrate the 16th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the 10th anniversary of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on Oct. 1, 1965. (Photo from seaghkehoe.com)


When the CCP took over from the nationalists and occupied Xinjiang in 1949, the mostly Uyghur Turkic population was 93 percent of the total, according to official statistics. But the CCP pushed Han Chinese migrants and refugees from central China into the north of Xinjiang, creating a Han majority that lived in semi-militarized colonies and exported Xinjiang’s abundant natural resources. Ethnic Chinese grew from 6-7 percent of the population in 1949, who were from old and well-integrated Han settler families that typically knew local customs and languages, to 42 percent of the population in 1997.

These newer migrants to Xinjiang self-segregated in the north, separating themselves from the majority-Uyghur Tarim Basin in the south. Consequently, northern Xinjiang is currently majority-Han, while southern Xinjiang is majority Turkic Muslim. That cannot be easily changed, and so any future independent state of East Turkestan should limit its geographic boundaries to the south. However unjust was past Han colonialism in northern Xinjiang, it is now rooted there and cannot be reversed without extensive human rights violations.

Demobilized soldiers of both the nationalist and communist armies formed the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (the Bingtuan) in the early 1950s. It facilitated migration and accounted for more than 25 percent of Xinjiang’s economic production during most of Mao’s rule. Between 1955 and 1960, Xinjiang’s cultivated land doubled. This privatized communal pasture land and, as two million Han flowed into Xinjiang during this period, Uyghurs and Kazaks fled by the tens of thousands to the Soviet Union and Afghanistan.

When Mao died in 1976, Deng Xiaoping loosened the CCP’s grip on Uyghur culture and religion. While Uyghurs were still forbidden from taking high official positions in Xinjiang, a revived sense of Uyghur identity increased Uyghur nationalism, protests and violence against Han Chinese and the CCP, both in Xinjiang and, to a lesser extent, in other parts of China.

In the 1980s, Uyghurs built thousands of mosques, pilgrims visited shrines publicly, a modified form of old Arabic script flourished, and religious schools multiplied. Uyghur literature flourished, including plays and short stories by Soviet-trained authors. Nationalist historical and biographical literature created a sense of Uyghur history.

This cultural and religious opening, along with a relaxing of CCP control, appears to have released previously pent-up Uyghur resentment. Protests, riots and violence started as early as 1980 and were common thereafter. Some protesters called for an independent Uyghuristan. The CCP might then have started a process of democratization, state building and decolonization, as did the U.S. and Britain following World War II, but instead the CCP tried to maintain control with increasing levels of state violence and repression.

Xinjiang erupts in a cycle of violence

On April 5, 1990, in the village of Baren in Xinjiang, government forces killed up to 50 villagers following their dispersal from a protest in front of the local government offices. Some were reportedly killed while running away. Others, while hiding in a wooded area, were killed by mortar attacks and helicopter gunfire.

Ignoring the CCP’s supposed support for decolonization movements, the Chinese government blamed the violence on “splittists” and significantly increased repression of the Uyghur cultural and religious identity in what is now the “open air prison” of Xinjiang.

This fueled an escalating cycle of revolt and repression that advantages the militarily and economically powerful Chinese state against a poor, isolated and outgunned Turkic Muslim minority. It has brought us to the current situation of one to three million Uyghurs in forced re-education camps and thousands of Uyghur children put into new orphanages surrounded by barbed wire.

After the Baren insurrection, the CCP imposed major restrictions on Islam, including the closing of mosques and a requirement that all imams register. This increased Uyghur support for an independent homeland. In 1996, Uyghur separatists assassinated a Uyghur official, leading to further government crackdowns, including disruption of Muslim prayers and gatherings in homes and mosques, and arrests of students who took a stand against appointments of politically loyal mullahs.

In 2004, the CCP started a process of phasing out Uyghur-language education. This further increased Uyghur hostility to the state. Riots in Urumqi left about 200 mostly Han citizens dead in 2009. Turkic Muslims caught with pictures of those riots on their phones are now at heightened risk of being sent to internment camps.

After 2009, the CCP moved from opposing political Islam to opposing Islam itself. Contrary to Islamic practice, the CCP required singing and dancing at weddings, and feasts at funerals. It forbade giving newborns Islamic names, unauthorized religious study abroad, Quranic study, praying in undesignated locations, refusing alcohol and performing religious travel to Mecca (the hajj).

In 2012, the CCP started a predecessor to the current "home stay" program, which they called the One Village, One Police Station; One Household, One Police Officer program that required extensive numbers of new low-skilled security staff. This led to extensive hiring of both Han and Turkic Muslim officers. The hiring of Turkic Muslims as security officers was in part meant to employ those who might otherwise cause unrest. That led to a split in the Turkic Muslim community, some of whom felt sympathy for the Turkic Muslim security guards and others who considered them traitors to their linguistic and religious culture.

The newly hired security not only manned checkpoints but did home searches. According to Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti in 2014: “Personnel making visits to the villages and households include cadres, unemployed people whom the government hires, even some young ruffians, people on government subsidies, police officers, special weapons and tactics (SWAT) officers, and so on. I absolutely could not put up with people like this randomly breaking into my house.”

Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Chinese government and in January was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

This is the fourth article in a nine-part series on Xinjiang by Anders Corr, who holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia.

Monday: Xinjiang since Xi Jinping

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