Allied Committee: Common Voice Vol. 2(1992) Central Asia and the minority question

Common Voice

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Common Voice: Volume 2 (1992) Central Asia and the minority question

By a Uighur nationalist

On 4/5 April this year an incident between the People's Armed Police (PAP) and Muslims began at Baren Township in Akhtu Country in the Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture of Xinjiang Province. In the weeks following 4/5 April other incidents involving non-Han, mainly Muslims, occurred in other parts of Xinjiang, some in places like Baren, near Kashgar, others in the extreme West in the Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. One of my purposes in visiting Xinjiang from 7 to 20 September was to learn something of the background and course of these disturbances, to relate them to the disturbances in Tibet which have continued through the last three years and to attempt to examine the implications.

As always in this area, where disinformation is spread liberally by the authorities when public order breaks down, it is difficult to determinc precise events. Most probably the series began at Baren township, S W of Kashgar on 4 April, i.e. during Ramadan.

It was in Akhtu Country in 1944 that the Puli Revolt against the Kuominatang government broke out under Kirghiz leadership. (In the 9th century the established Uighur Kingdom was overthrown by invading Kirghiz.) According to a circumstantial story from a Uighur source, the primary cause was a decision by the authorities to stop privately financed construction of a mosque/madrasseh in Akhtu Country, probably in Baren Township. This caused a protest demonstration which led to a series of clashes in which at least seven members of thc PAP were killed, among them a political instructor and three officers.

In reprisals many Muslims, including a high proportion of women and children, were killed and wounded. By 6 April most of the armed demonstrators in this incident had been killed or arrested after pursuit. Figures ranging from 60 to 200 have been given for demonstrator casualties.

Within the next few days it appears that a further clash occurred at Artuxa (Artush), N W of Kashgar, near the tomb of Saduq Bughra Khan, the Karakhan Ruler of Kashgar who was converted to Islamism in the 10 century. Visiting Artwa on 11 September, some five months later, I had an impression of sullen watchfulness suggesting an aftermath of a breakdown of public order.

The Xinjiang Daily later in April reported a further outbreak of violence, described as "separatist activities" in the Yili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. This surrounds Ining City and is on the fringe of the newly-industrialised area based on the oil wells at Karamay, recently further opened up by the extension of the main Chinese east-west railway axis beyond Shihedzi as far as Hulgos on the Russian frontier. These Kazakhs have caused the Chinese authorities special concern for at least three years.

On 14 September 1987 in the high pasture West of Ining, I witnessed personally a clash between Kazakh horsemen and the PAP at a "Goat Tussle" (Diao Yang), organised for the 5th birthday of the Kazakh commissioner's grandson.

Firm evidence exists that from 4/5 April Chinese troops for several months maintained strict control in Kashgar and other urban centres, with a curfew and armed standing patrols. Foreigners were prohibited from leaving the city. Arrests were widespread and led to executions as far afield as Turpan and Urumchi. Reports circulate of 200 to 600 Muslim casualties in PAP and PLA actions. The main southern access to Xinjiang, over the Khunjerab Pass (Karakorum Highway) was closed from May to July, possibly because the Chinese believed that Xinjiang Kirghiz were receiving weapons from fellow tribesmen across the border.

Pakistan's good but wary relations with China militate against that country being the overt source for weapons - Pakistani officials gave out that the closure was due to landslips - but supply from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan is entirely possible.

Another consequence of the incidents may be the closure to tourists in September of the important shrine of Mahmoud Kashgari, the renowned Turki Iexicographer, at Wupoer, 28 miles west of Kashgar.

Local Implications

These events may be analyzed from an immediate, local point of view, from the point of view of Xinjiang as a whole and from the still wider point of view of the Central Asian region. There is little to say on the first. Four months later it was clear that order had been restored and was being maintained without much apparent effort. Troop levels in Central Xinjiang around Kashgar and Khotan appeared relatively low. If the circumstantial account of the outbreak at Baren is true it could be a purely local and Kirghiz affair. Rumours, whether inspired or not, that some 100 Kirghiz had been trained as "mujahidin" "in the mountains" reinforce this view.

The Kirghiz, with their hegemony in Xinjiang long over, though hardy and warlike, are basically pastoral nomads insufficient (100,000) alone to present a threat in Xinjiang. The base for Kazakh unrest, at 900,000, is much larger; but there were no signs of discontent among the semi-nomadic southern Kazakhs I visited West of Urumchi in September. As the most numerous (6 million plus) people almost equal to the current, but rising, total of Han in Xinjiang, the Uighurs present the most obvious and weightiest threat.

The fact that Baren and Artuxa both lie in the Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture has given rise to reports in the English-language press that the main thrust in the disturbanccs was Kirghiz. For the reason already indicated, this seems unlikely. At other centres mentioned except Ining, ie Kashgar, Khotan and Turpan, and in Artuxa, the majorities are Uighur. Whereas the Chinese authorities can shrug off unrest among the Kirghiz or the Kazakhs (or, indeed, the Tadjiks, the Uzbeks, the Tunga'an) they must take serious account of signs of Uighur nationalism or of any coalition among Muslims, whether for fundamentalist or other religious reasons, or generally anti-Han feelings.

This is recognised in the naming of Xinjiang as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, (for the thirtieth anniversary of which a special medal was struck in 1985 using both the Uighur and Mandarin script). It serves Chinese purposes well that the April disturbances be labelled Kirghiz or Kazakh.

I heard from a reliable source in Kashgar that demonstrations, primarily among the Uighur, had been planned throughout the Province for a date around 12 April. The main motive for these was the increasing feeling among the Uighurs that they are being steadily swamped by the sustained wave of Han migration into Xinjiang (possibly paralleled in Gansu where the Huis have been similarly marginalized over a longer time.) The Kirghiz activity in Baren was, according to the same source, either a separate action or a premature move, sparked by a sense of religious outrage at the end of Ramadan, in the wider movement planned for 12 April. Whichever it was, it evidently caused confusion among the dissidents and/or provided the security apparatus with a pretext for moving against them on a wider front, including a Uighur centre, as far afield as Turpan, and in the provincial capital.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution the main thrust of Chinese policy towards religious elements in the population has been one of cautious relaxalion. Considerable resources have been devoted to the restoration of important religious monuments and buildings, partly to win back religious adherents alienated by the excesses of the Red Guards and Mao's atheism, partly to capitalise on tourist attractions. This is as evident in Tibet as it is in the Muslim, Confucian and Taoist zones of cities like Xian and Beijing or among the Christian communities of the seaboard provinces. Xinjiang over the past decade has provided ample evidence of vigorous mosque building in most townships as well as in the cities. Where the resources have been put at the disposal of local Muslim communities, buildings with startlingly distict national characteristics have resulted, a notable example the Uighur mosque at Karghalik.

It is, however, significant that the Chinese channel these resources to individual minority groups. It is quite common to find a Kirghiz or Tunga'n mosque even in small towns where the principal mosque is Uighur. As indicated, it is in Chinese interests that the various Muslim nationality groups across Xinjiang should not unite. The dangers from Muslim fundamentalism for the USSR are so salient as to bring the policy of divide and rule to the forefront of Chinese government programmes among the Muslims. It is relevant that the incident at Baren resulted from the construction of a mosque being stopped and that the spread of disturbances led to the closing off of the shrine of Mahmoud Kashgari, a rallying point for the Uighurs, (with some officially inspired attempts to question the reputation of the scholar as a harmoniser), while the tomb of Saduq Bughra Khan, an earlier Uighur leader not born a Muslim, was extensively (if rather cackhandedly) restored this summer. A recent report in the Xinjiang Times (Observer, 11 November) says that, apart from imposing draconian penalties in Baren, the government has brought in new regulations for the control of imams and other muslim leaders while requiring all citizens to put, as the Observer phrases it, "Mao ahead of Mohammed". At the local level, therefore, the official line appears to be that the primary drive of the disturbances was religious.

Province-wide Implications

These reprisals for the April disturbances show that Uighur nationalists and those from other minorities across Xinjiang have a hard row to hoe. Ranged against them is the panoply of Chinese imperial expansionist weapons, honed for millennia. I was struck on returning to Urumchi after three years by the imposing character late developments have given the city. The effect on a Uighur villager seeing it for the first time must be one of overwhelming, virtually impregnable strength. While the technology must seem beyond anything his own culture could produce, his religious feelings are massively massaged by such imposing (though tasteless) structures as the Muslim Institute, as well as many grandiose mosques.

In the educational system he finds that the best avenues for advancement are in Chinese education all the way through university. In how many budding irredentists have the tempting prizes of sinification been too much for their nationalist impulse? Even the memory of their distinct Uighur past down to the semi-independence of the 1930s under General Sheng is dimmed by the constant, conscious process of rewriting history at which the Chinese are world masters. (In Xinjiang around Khotan, apart from a few monuments and ruined cities all traces of the Buddhist ascendancy described by Fa-Xian in the fourth century, or of the kingdoms of Yutian and Kustana, or of the Karoshthi and Sanskrit literatures, or of the links with the Skythian kingdoms of the Kushans have been obliterated; no hint remains of different religions, languages, peoples; to ask about them invites rebuff.)

On the other hand, life has become easier as Chinese control has increased, partly through the benefits of their technical skills and hard work, partly through massive subventions from the East maintained as a national priority: this is only marginally offset by the facts that the most profitable segments of the economy are now in Chinese hands and the best of the food in Chinese stomachs (as anyone who has "gone Uighur" in travelling through Xinjiang will appreciate.) The outlook within the province for would-be minority separatists, especially the Uighur, is virtually hopeless, the more so as the divide and rule policy succeeds.

Central Asian Implications

When this situation is examined in its wide Central Asian context, the picture changes. To the south and east lies Tibet. Stories of the Tibet resistance filter through to Kashgar and its neighbours. Uighur activists readily concede that their will to sacrifice cannot compare with the Tibetans' and they admit that their patrician disdain for hard grind does not help in their struggle. An obvious desire exists for closer links with the Tibetans. To the North-East Uighurs see the moves towards multi-polarity in Outer Mongolia and hear about unrests among Mongols in Inner Mongolia. On the Western side the changing kaleidoscope of Soviet Central Asia stirs the thought that, although Deng has been able to keep Gorbachev on his side, there is no telling in what direction semi-independent republics in Kazakhstan, Tadjikhistan, Kirghizia and Uzbekistan might move vis-a-vis China.

If there is any truth in the story about military help from Kirghiz across the border for their fellow tribesmen in Xinjiang, this thought will be all the stronger. The radical changes in a short span of two years in Central Europe and the winding down of the Cold War in other parts of the world encourage hopes of fundamental changes in central Asia also.

A few Uighurs have heard of the Joint Committee for the Manchu, Mongol, East Turkmen and Tibetan peoples and are particularly anxious to obtain by whatever means possible the Committee's publication Common Voice. They have some links with Isa Alpteken, leader of the Turkestan Liberation Movement, and also with the Uighur student, Urtaish, understood to be a leader of the Tiananment Square student movement. It is noteworthy that Isa Alpteken's son, Erkin Alpteken, took an active part in the International Consultation on Tibet in London from 6 to 8 July, 1990.


The conjunction of dissidents in and around Tihet and Xinjiang need scarcely give the Chinese Government pause. Their population base in terms of the total number of the people for whom they claim to act is a very small proportion of the total Chinese population, 6.5%, or some 68 million, against over a billion. Further, in China as a whole, some 80% of the people fall into the peasant category, a great mass with little inclination to support the pro-democracy movement. Attempts to bring it into the Tiananmen Square events had virtually no success. These two facts alone mark Central Asia as very different from Central Europe.

Behind the Chinese Government are all the resources of a vast country (including recent major finds of oil and gas and other important minerals in Xinjiang and Tibet) and an infrastructure which now includes a railway network spanning the East-West axis of China and much improved north-south road networks in both Tibet and Xinjiang. They also have the resources of tried and long-tested imperial techniques.

In addition, in the case of Tibet, the Chinese have to wait only a few years for the inspiration of the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, prophesied to be the last of his line, to disappear. But, despite these major adverse factors, the conjunction of revived minority discontent on both national and religious grounds, of improved access across the frontier to fellow tribesmen, of major political changes in neighbouring countries and of the sustained world reaction against genocide, colonialism and apartheid, creates a situation in Central Asia in which radical change is just possible.

It is known that there are elements in the Chinese leadership which favour greater democratisation as an essential collateral of the opening up of the economy over the last decade. On past form the Chinese are susceptible to criticism at the international level in the fora of the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission. The present campaign to arouse world opinion on the subject of genocide, colonialism and apartheid in China could be the lever which prises out from a Politburo due for change radical concessions in areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet. Not to pursue it would be a betrayal of the ideals of self-determination and democracy; it would also be very short-sighted. Many informed observers such as Alastair Lamb in Tibet, China and India, 1914-I950 think it is already too late to salvage the Buddhist culture of Tibet. Certainly a few years only remain in which significant parts of the distinct and ancient cultures of Tibet and Xinjiang can be saved from becoming mere picturesque folkloristic survivals, while they still have in them the life derived from continuous, living, religious tradition.

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