To Help Uyghurs, America Should Back East Turkistan’s Independence


Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Most global and American efforts to help the oppressed Uyghur people in the China-occupied Uyghur country of East Turkistan, or “Xinjiang” province as China calls it, rests on a faulty assumption.

Whether explicitly or implicitly assumed, it posits that Uyghurs are a “minority” of China proper and that the Chinese government oppresses them for their religious and cultural differences. 

Bearing this assumption, activists, congresspeople, and other friends of the Uyghur nation call for sanctions, boycotts, and other forms of political pressure to force China to roll back its concentration camps in “Xinjiang” and grant Uyghurs greater rights.

Because such efforts find their foundations in wrong assumptions, they fail to achieve their goals. Instead, the Chinese put their boot on the neck of the Uyghur nation and progressively tighten their grip to snuff the Uyghur soul.

The root of the ongoing ethnocide against the Uyghur nation rests in China’s annexation and occupation of another country, the Uyghur homeland, which it now claims, with historical distortion, to be an inalienable part of China. 

The imperialist roots of China’s occupation of East Turkistan are visible in its exonym for the land: Xinjiang, which means “New Frontier.” By no means is East Turkistan an “Old Frontier” of China. Instead, it is an invaded country, like America would be if China were to invade it and proclaim it to be a Chinese province.

For centuries, the Turkic, Mongol, Xiongnu, and other nomadic peoples whose descendants comprise the present-day Turkic Uyghur nation ruled the areas comprising present-day East Turkistan independently. Yes, the Chinese Empires occasionally carried raids and held pockets of Central Asian territory for brief periods. Yet, the present-day Uyghur homeland never was under Chinese grip for an extensive period. The region never was fully integrated into China-proper. 

Neither was the land an uninhabited wasteland: several Turkic and Mongol governments, kingdoms, and empires, such as the Uyghur Khaganate, the Yuan, and the Karakhanids, ruled East Turkistan.

Extensive Chinese occupation began when the Qing Dynasty, in an eighteenth-century raid against the Dzhungars, massacred them and imposed their reign on the East Turkistani people. The Qing Dynasty crushed subsequent Turkic revolts, including an 1833 Turkic state named Kashgaria. To forcefully integrate East Turkistan into the Qing Empire, it renamed the Uyghur homeland “Xinjiang,” an exonym excluding the Turkic people in what seems to be an early ethnic-cleansing attempt.  

The Uyghurs, however, preserved their culture and identity and constantly pushed for the autonomy and independence they once had. During the early twentieth century, freedom fighters and poets like Abduxaliq Uyghur and Memet Ali Tewfiq contributed to a growing national consciousness that culminated in the 1931 Kumul revolt and the 1933 Declaration of East Turkistan’s independence. The Republic of China, the successor to the Qing, brutally re-occupied the Uyghur nation and executed its freedom fighters and intellectuals. 

Uyghur freedom fighters did not give up and in 1944 re-established East Turkistan as an independent state. However, the People’s Liberation Army of Communist China invaded the fledgling republic in 1949 and occupied it thereon, calling it “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” The Chinese government, except for a brief period of détente, brutally suppressed Uyghur national consciousness, trying to forge an artificial “Chinese” identity in an attempt to make people who were never Chinese, Chinese. 

Being an Uyghur, distinct from the Han Chinese majority, is essentially a crime in the eyes of China. The Uyghurs continued to resist Chinese occupation multiple times. In response, China persistently imposed collective punishments and restrictions on Uyghur people’s liberty, just like in Tibet. Finding convenience in the vague War on Terror definition of terrorism, China even took its repression of Uyghurs global, mischaracterizing Uyghur resistance fighters as “terrorists,” and enlisting the support of its Belt and Road allies like Pakistan and Kazakhstan.

With Xi Jinping, repression intensified. Branding Uyghur liberation efforts as “extremism” and Uyghur nationalism as “separatism,” China has put Uyghurs in concentration camps, euphemistically called “re-education camps,” and turned Xinjiang into an open-air prison for the Uyghurs with blatant discrimination against them in favor of the Han and Hui Chinese, with token minority quotas intended to paint a tolerant picture of the Chinese invaders like allowing an Uyghur person to light the Olympic torch. China has also engaged in settler colonialism by encouraging Han immigration into the occupied territories to transform the region’s demographic make-up. 

The issue of Uyghur oppression is not an issue of “minority rights.” It is an issue of neo-imperialism, settler colonialism, and ethnic cleansing. The only solution for Uyghur emancipation is the restoration of Uyghur independence. Therefore, to help Uyghurs, Americans should support the liberation of East Turkistan and help shatter the Chinese chains imprisoning the Uyghur people.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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