Who are the Uyghurs and why are they important to Chinese/U.S. Relations?
by Sierra Davis
When you hear the words “China” and “conflict” in the same sentence, there’s probably a few things that come to mind. Although, the idea of two battling ethnic groups occupying the Northwestern region of the country probably isn’t your first thought. A recent topic here at the Tai Initiative has been the current conflict between the Chinese government and the Uyghur people. A sensitive topic such as this one requires an open mind and thorough research to better understand what’s currently happening. The Uyghurs are recognized as native to the Xinjiang (SHIN-jiang) Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. They are considered to be one of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. The Uyghurs are recognized by the Chinese government as a regional minority within a multicultural nation. Official Chinese views assert the Uyghurs to be of Tiele origin and only became the main social and political force in Xinjiang during the ninth century when they migrated from Mongolia after the collapse of the Uyghur Khaganate, replacing the Han Chinese.
Beginning over 200 years ago, the Uyghur people have battled with the Chinese government over politics and land expansion. Although, more recently, the start of a more serious Han/Uyghur conflict began again just over ten years ago, coincidentally inside a toy factory. July 5th, 2009 marks the beginning of the Urumqi riots that have led to some of China’s worst ethnic violence. After allegations had come out that a Uyghur migrant worker had assaulted a Han Chinese woman, other Chinese workers at the factory retaliated, resulting in at least two Uyghur deaths. Video footage of the attack quickly spread online all over the country. Uyghur students in Urumqi staged a demonstration that turned into deadly riots. Chinese authorities report over 197 people killed and 1700 injured, with most of them being Han Chinese. Han Chinese people were furious and began to take to the streets to get their revenge on the Uyghurs. This led to an internet ban across Xinjiang, which makes up one sixth of China’s territory. China blamed the riots on overseas Uyghurs for stirring up hostilities on the internet. It took over six months for citizens of Xinjiang to get internet access back, with highly propagated outlets being the first to resurface. Fast forward ten years and the lasting effects from the Urumqi riots are as serious as ever.
In May 2014, the Chinese government launched what it called the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang (SHIN-jiang), which included a dramatic expansion of surveillance of the Uyghurs and a harsh crackdown on their movement and communication.
The Chinese government claims reports that it has detained Uyghurs are false. It says the crackdown is necessary to prevent terrorism and root out Islamist extremism and the camps are an effective tool for re-educating inmates in its fight against terrorism. The Chinese government insists that Uyghur militants are waging a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage, and civil unrest. Some authorities have in turn accused the Chinese government of exaggerating these threats to justify repression of the Uyghurs.
A U.S. State Department report says that China has engaged in “mass detention” of more than 1 million Uyghurs and other minorities, and the government has subjected another 2 million people in Xinjiang to “re-education” training in less severe settings.
China initially denied that the detention facilities were real.
Once proven the detention facilities existed, researchers mounted a greater effort to account for their construction. Some researchers now believe there were at least 380 detention facilities built by 2017, a number which could possibly have expanded to 1400 camps in 2021.
The treatment of the Uyghurs today brings up a long history of conflict that they’ve endured over the last few centuries. It’s important for us to stay educated about topics like this because history always tends to repeat itself. Hatred and mistrust have been inevitable throughout civilization, but learning to understand the roots can help us be better people to those around us. Our way to positively contribute to the Uyghur people and those suffering in China is to continue to educate ourselves and others on this difficult topic. Here at the Tai Initiative we explore an array of America-China related topics. We recognize the importance of diving into deeper topics that can severely affect Chinese and American relations, such as the Uyghur crisis happening in Xinjiang.