The plight of the Uyghurs
  • Fri, 02/10/2012 - 00:00

Published Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 3:16PM EST
Last updated Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 3:20PM EST

Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Asians who live mainly in western China. Their history has been interwoven with that of China since they rose to prominence in the eighth century, when they established their first true state in Mongolia. Relations between the Chinese and the Uyghurs were never entirely comfortable, however, and the Chinese considered them a barbarian people.

In fact, the Uyghurs were advanced in art, architecture, music and medicine, and they practised a complex agriculture, using an extensive system of canals for irrigation. Their history had included adherence to shamanism, Manichaeism and Buddhism, but at about the turn of the 10th century, they embraced Islam.

In 1911, after the Nationalist Chinese overthrew the Manchu dynasty and established a republic, the Uyghurs, who had been forcibly annexed by the Manchu rulers, staged a series of uprisings in favour of independence. Two successful attempts to set up their own republic were overthrown by military intervention.

After the Chinese revolution in 1949, the Uyghurs fell under Communist Party rule. The government flooded Xinjiang, the province in which most Uyghurs live, with Han Chinese migrants; pushed the locals to learn Mandarin; and restricted the practice of Islam.

Relations between the modern Chinese state and its Uyghur minority are still fraught. Beijing believes the Uyghurs pose a separatist threat and Uyghurs complain that oil and gas production in Xinjiang has been conducted at their expense, without just recompense. In the mid-1990s, Uyghurs carried out widespread protests and even bombings against Chinese rule.

China, for its part, has launched a crackdown on the Uyghurs, arresting and executing many in trials criticized by human-rights groups as unfair. China has long linked the region to terrorism, and has attacked what it says are terrorists and training camps in the province.

But while many Uyghurs want greater autonomy for their region, few advocate the cause of independence that motivates a handful of extremist groups.

Human-rights observers believe China uses the idea of a Uyghur terrorist threat as an excuse to crack down on all dissent. They accuse the government of carrying out arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, torture and religious discrimination in the region.