China, the Uyghurs and the left

Issue: 172

Simon Gilbert

In June, the leaders of the G7 countries, meeting at a three day summit in Cornwall, issued a strongly worded statement demanding that China “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang” and Hong Kong.1 The backers of Israel’s murderous assaults on Gaza and Saudi Arabia’s bloody war against the people of Yemen have no right to accuse anyone of human rights abuses, and the real concerns of these hypocrites soon became clear. China’s rising economic power presents “challenging non-market policies and practices which undermine the fair and transparent operation of the global economy”. As a communique at the subsequent NATO meeting in Brussels made clear, China is seen as a strategic competitor whose “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”.2

China’s rise has made it a serious competitor to the interests of the West’s ruling classes, and if the rules of your “rules-based” order are not enough, then they need to be bent a little. Donald Trump took the lead, imposing a set of tariffs on Chinese goods in 2018, and then banning Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE from United States government contracts. Despite major differences in other areas, his successor, Joe Biden, has maintained this confrontational stance towards China.3

Xinjiang and the plight of the region’s Muslim Uyghur population, along with the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, are invoked to give a high-minded gloss to measures that are really about trying to protect the dominance of Western corporations. This newly discovered concern for the Uyghurs has led to allegations that a million or more of them—at least a tenth of their total population—are incarcerated in labour camps. China has also been accused of genocide.

How should the left respond to all this? Predictably enough Keir Starmer’s Labour have uncritically accepted the accusations and urged sanctions on China. However, there are also those on the left who, taking China’s side, try to excuse the repression that undoubtedly does take place. For instance, in October last year, the US-based Monthly Review journal hosted a report by the Qiao Collective, a group that “willfully ignores domestic repression of political dissidents in China” according to one Taiwanese activist.4

Others have taken more creditable positions. Critical China Scholars, a group based in the US that has opposed both US propaganda against China and racism against American Asians, issued an open letter criticising both the Qiao Collective’s report and Monthly Review for hosting it.5 This article attempts to outline a similar position, based on Marxist understandings of imperialism and national liberation, that supports Uyghur self-determination while opposing co-option of their cause by US imperialism and its British junior partner.

The evidence

Where does the often quoted figure of one million detainees come from? Jessica Batke, senior editor at the ChinaFile website, suggests that there are two key sources.6 One is a Washington-based non-governmental organisation, Chinese Human Rights Defenders, whose figure is extrapolated from interviews with just eight Uyghurs asked to estimate the number detained in their villages.

The other source is Adrian Zenz, whose findings have been widely drawn on by the mainstream media. He describes himself as an “independent researcher”, but, as a born again Christian, Zenz reports to a higher authority. He claims he feels “very clearly led by God” to investigate Xinjiang, though he admits he is no specialist on the area.7 He is also a senior fellow at the rabidly anti-communist Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. This organisation has form when it comes to providing conveniently round numbers as soundbites. It claims that communism is responsible for a “holocaust” of 100 million victims globally, a figure repeated by Donald Trump when still president. Like Trump it also blames China for the coronavirus pandemic.8

The claims of Zenz have been amplified by “think-tanks” aligned with the US establishment. For instance, another of his reports, “Coercive Labor in Xinjiang”, is published by Newlines Institute, an organisation that claims to be a “non-partisan think-tank” but actually has close ties to the US military.9 Its parent organisation, Fairfax University of America, was nearly shut down by regulators in 2019 for plagiarism and providing “patently deficient” education.10

Another feature of the “evidence” is the use of aerial photographs, a technique surely discredited by the Iraq war.11 There is clearly a wide margin of error in assumptions about the purposes of institutions identified in these images and estimates of their capacities, let alone their actual populations. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) implicitly acknowledges this, stating that estimates of the number of re-education camps in Xinjiang range from 181 by Agence France-Presse to 1,200 by our friend Zenz.12 ASPI is another “independent, non-partisan think-tank” that is a little shy about its connections—fully 85 percent of its funding comes from the Australian, US and UK governments.13

The Chinese government provides no figures for camp inmates, so estimates are inevitably based on supposition and guesswork, unsurprisingly varying widely. Political scientist Sean Roberts, for instance, quotes figures of 100,000, 500,000 and 800,000 from different sources.14 Nevertheless, organisations close to the US government, such as the various think-tanks and Radio Free Asia, take the highest figures and most sensational stories and promote them. These are then adopted uncritically by more widely respected organisations such as the BBC and Human Rights Watch, helping to create a consensus that supports the US’s agenda.15

Both the Trump and Biden administrations have used propaganda from such dubious sources to label China’s treatment of the Uyghurs as “genocide”. This seems deliberately designed to imply that something akin to the Nazi Holocaust is taking place, something worse than human rights violations being committed elsewhere. It is not a word, for instance, that they would ever apply to Palestine, despite Israel’s well-documented crimes.

The self-serving and opportunist nature of US “support” for the Uyghurs is shown by its earlier accommodation with China’s attempt to hitch its repression of the Uyghurs to the newly declared global “War on Terror”. In a sordid piece of political horse trading, the US complied with demands for the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) to be condemned as terrorist in order to get Chinese acquiescence in the war on Iraq. ETIM remains on the terrorist list despite apparently only ever having been a figment of the Chinese government’s imagination.16 The US also incarcerated 22 Uyghurs in Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Despite the US later admitting they should never have been detained, the last of them were only released in 2013.17

However, this does not mean that the left should take a “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” attitude and become apologists for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Qiao Collective are rightly “skeptical that the US—having engaged in two decades of perpetual war in Muslim-majority nations—has any legitimate moral interest or grounds on which to defend Muslim religious rights in Xinjiang.” Yet, having stated that “there are aspects of PRC policy in Xinjiang to critique”, the Qiao Collective instead try to justify China’s actions in terms borrowed from the “War on Terror”, offering no criticism whatsoever.18

It is unnecessary to accept all the claims made by supporters of US imperialism in order to recognise the abundant evidence of the Chinese state’s oppression of the Uyghurs, and that it has taken a decided turn for the worse in recent years. In fact oppression and exploitation of national minorities was built into the Communist Party’s nation-building programme from the start.

The Communist Party and China’s minorities

Although people who are not Han Chinese make up only around eight percent of the population, they occupy a much larger proportion of the country’s land.19 Thus, relations with these groups was an important consideration for the early Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Initially they followed the Bolsheviks, who at the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution supported the right of self-determination of minority peoples, including the right to secede and form independent states.

The point was to break Russian workers from the chauvinism of their own rulers. Thus, it was not “a demand for separation, fragmentation and the formation of small states’’, but an “expression of struggle against all national oppression”.20 To do otherwise would “play into the hands” of “the absolutism of the oppressor nation”.21 The right of secession was crucial because it made the oppressed peoples agents of their own destiny. Anything less would hand the initiative to the dominant power.

A resolution of 1930 declared that “the toiling masses” of those areas where the non-Chinese population was in the majority “have the right to determine by themselves whether they want to secede from the Chinese Soviet Republic and form their own independent state”.22 However, “from the moment they included Lenin’s principle of national self-determination in the party’s political program, CCP leaders attempted to circumscribe it”.23 By the time they came to power this about turn was complete and it was officially stated that no region could secede.24 This reflected the essentially nationalist nature of the 1949 Revolution.

This new nation, Mao Zedong explained, “is a country vast in territory, rich in resources and large in population; although, as a matter of fact, it is the Han nationality whose population is large and the minority nationalities whose territory is vast and whose resources are rich.” When Mao said this, he was polemicising against Han chauvinism. Unfortunately, this was a pragmatic rather than a principled position, as became clear. Mao set out his logic: “No material factor can be exploited and utilised without the human factor. We must foster good relations between the Han nationality and the minority nationalities…in order to build our great socialist motherland”.25 Winning the hearts and minds of the minorities would allow the state to exploit their resources.

Chinese Communist theories on the national question drew on Stalin’s formula of a nation as “a historically formed stable community of people arising on the basis of common language, common territory, common economic life and a typical cast of mind manifested in a common culture”.26 Although too rigid to be applied without modification, by rejecting the right to self-determination in favour of such ostensibly objective criteria, the CCP took the initiative away from the minority peoples. Instead, it arrogated to itself the power to decide who qualified for nationality status and what their rights would be.

This top-down approach is manifested in paternalistic attitudes to the minorities. Leading sociologist Fei Xiaotong, for instance, writes:

The national minorities generally are inferior to the Han in the level of culture and technology indispensable for the development of modern industry… Our principle is for the better developed groups to help the underdeveloped ones by furnishing economic and cultural aids.27

The similarity with the “white man’s burden”, the supposed civilising task of the European empires, led one writer to dub this idea the “Han man’s burden”. The same author shows how such elitism also “denied the minorities any political agency of their own”.28

Once officially endorsed, minorities were granted autonomy at provincial level, as with Xinjiang and Tibet, or, moving down the hierarchy, at prefectural, county or township level. In theory this gives them the right to develop their own policies but only under approval of the higher level authority.29 Although supposedly run by their eponymous minority, in reality, with a single exception, “all party secretaries in all five provincial-level autonomous regions have been Han”.30 Only the less powerful chairmen of the regional governments belonged to the relevant ethnic group.

The actual implementation of nationalities policy followed the political swings of China as a whole. Hence, during the Cultural Revolution period, many of Tibet’s monasteries and Xinjiang’s mosques were closed or destroyed as part of a campaign to eliminate the “four olds”.31 However, in reaction to the excesses of the preceding period, the 1980s were relatively liberal. Many places of worship were reopened and religious practice was accepted once again. Xinjiang’s Muslims, for instance, were allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage for the first time in 15 years.32

However, from around the turn of the millennium there has been a distinct hardening of official attitudes. Already in 2000, Becquelin detected a “radical alteration of nationalities policies”.33 This was made explicit in 2011 when two academics close to the government coined the term “second generation ethnic policy”. This policy advocates the abandonment of any positive discrimination measures that assist minority people in favour of a more assimilationist “proactive forging of a common culture, consciousness and identity”.34

The second generation policy has not been formally adopted. However, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping there has been an assault on minority “privileges” such as one child policy exemptions and lower university entrance requirements. The right of people to be taught in their mother tongue has also come under attack as Chinese language instruction has been imposed, and concerted efforts have been made to curtail religious practice.35 Both of these measures contravene the constitution of the People’s Republic.36 Political scientist Christian Sorace describes the new policies as “undoing Lenin’’. Indeed, they are certainly a further step away from the Bolsheviks, but in truth the CCP left Lenin behind more than 80 years ago.37


When the Communists came to power in 1949, they inherited the vast territories accumulated by the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, which ruled between 1644 and 1912. The region that became known as Xinjiang was carved out in the mid-18th century following a long and ultimately genocidal campaign against the Western, or “Zunghar”, Mongols.38 It was acquired for strategic reasons—to prevent another great nomadic confederation emerging—rather than for economic ones.

The conquest of Xinjiang, meaning “New Frontier”, was part of a longer-term process by which the once open steppe of Central Asia was partitioned by the expanding Russian and Chinese empires, with significant involvement from British India.39 The frontier stopped “where the Tsarist conquests stopped”, dividing “similar peoples instead of separating different peoples from one another”.40

Xinjiang covers a huge area—more than six times the size of Britain—so although it has less than 2 percent of the population, it makes up around a sixth of China’s land mass. The region is divided in two by the Tian Shan mountains. To the north is the former steppe land of the Zunghars, which in Qing times shared a frontier with Russian Central Asia, but now borders Kazakhstan.

Following its bloody conquest, the Qing repopulated this northern region by forcibly relocating Muslims from the Kashgar area. These people became known as “Taranchi”, meaning farmer. However, in the 20th century, they were subsumed under the rediscovered “Uyghur” ethnic category. This created the basis for Uyghur nationalists to lay claim to “Xinjiang in its entirety” rather than just the southern Uyghur heartland.41

The extremely arid Taklamakan desert lies at the heart of the larger southern part of Xinjiang. Most of the population lives in the oasis towns at the feet of the Tian Shan to the north and the Kunlun mountain range to the south. The “typical oasis”, orientalist Owen Lattimore wrote in the 1920s, “is placed near the end of a river flowing from the mountains into the desert, at a point where the flow of water retains enough impetus to be carried out fanwise in irrigation ditches.” Trade was “vertical” and “self-contained” between the mountain pastoralists who “bring down wool, hides and metals” to exchange with the oasis farmers for grain, cloth and simple manufactured products. There was little incentive for commerce between similar oases, and lateral trade was mostly long distance; both the northern and southern oasis towns lay along the routes that became known as the Silk Road.42

Two maps in Lattimore’s book Pivot of Asia neatly illustrate the congruence between the way people made a living and their ethnic group. In the northern steppe Kazakhs and Mongols practised pastoral nomadism. The Uyghurs were (and many still are) oasis agriculturalists, and the upland areas of the south were home to Kirghiz “alpine nomads”.43

According to government figures, by 2018, Uyghurs made up just over 50 percent of the 22.8 million population of Xinjiang, with Han comprising 34 percent. There were also 1.5 million Kazakhs and just over a million Hui—Chinese Muslims who are spread across China but concentrated in the northwest. Smaller numbers of other groups, such as Mongols and Kirghiz, make up the remainder.44

East Turkestan or an inseparable part of China?

Different versions of Xinjiang’s history are used by both Chinese and Uyghur nationalists to lay claim to this land. Communist Party dogma asserts that “Xinjiang has since ancient times been an inseparable part of China”.45 This is based on the efforts of the Han Dynasty, which ruled China between 206 BCE and 220 CE, to establish military colonies in the area in the last decades of the first millenium BCE as part of its long conflict with the nomadic Xiongnu people. However, as historian James Millward points out, full Han control of the Turfan and Tarim basin oases lasted only 125 years and they “never had a foothold in Zungharia”.46

The Tang dynasty, which ruled between 618 and 907, then enjoyed “some hundred years of relatively firm sovereignty over the Tarim city states” and “about twenty” years over Zungharia. However, they relied on an alliance with the East Turks to make their conquests and their rule was “indirect, with local elites left in place”. There were very few Chinese settlers.47

Almost a millenium passed before another dynasty, the Qing, established permanent Chinese control. This was a by-product of the Zunghar wars and was certainly not seen at the time as reconquering an integral part of the nation. “During the military campaign”, Gardner Bovingdon argues, “there was not a word about ‘unification’ or ‘reunification’.” Neither was it considered an “inseparable” part of the empire after the event; “on numerous occasions both the imperial house and much of the Qing policy elite seriously contemplated abandoning the colony”.48

In contrast to the contemporary situation, at least until the late 19th century, the Qing ruled with a “light hand”.49 Authority was delegated to the traditional local elites of the various peoples, supervised by Qing officials, and the state did not “interfere much in the Islamic legal system or religious matters”.50

Therefore, far from being an integral part of the empire, parts of what is now Xinjiang were only intermittently ruled by a Chinese state. When they did take over, it was to deny the oases’ resources to any hostile nomadic confederation rather than to integrate it into the empire.51 It was only after defeating a major rebellion, which had expelled Qing forces from the region for 13 years, that Xinjiang was incorporated as an imperial province in 1884.52 As late as the 1960s, when there was a real fear of invasion following China’s split with their erstwhile Russian allies, “planners viewed Xinjiang primarily as ‘strategic depth’ to slow a soviet assault and stretch out its supply lines rather than as a piece of the motherland to be held at all costs”.53

Unsurprisingly, Uyghur nationalists also draw on history to develop their own nationalist vision. However, although China’s historical claim to Xinjiang is flimsy, Uyghur assertions of “a history of more than 4,000 years”, in what they prefer to call “East Turkestan”, are highly problematic too.54 The mobility of the steppe nomads and the presence of the Silk Road trade routes made the region a melting pot of peoples and beliefs rather than the preserve of a single “nationality”.

The centre of the Uyghur empire, which lasted from 744 to 840, lay not in East Turkestan but in what is now Mongolia and helped keep the Chinese Tang dynasty in power.55 When the empire fell, some of these Uyghurs migrated to the oases of what is now Xinjiang, integrating with the existing population. They retained their language but, over the following centuries, their culture changed in almost every other respect. These former nomads settled as farmers, and they adopted the religions of the Silk Road—Manichaeism and Buddhism—and then later Islam.56

These small oasis settlements dotted along continental trade routes were absorbed by a variety of kingdoms and empires, none of which aligned with modern borders. When conversion to Islam was finally completed by the 16th century, the name “Uyghur” dropped out of use.57 Identities were both grander (Turkic or Muslim, befitting the vast sweep of Central Asia) and more local (Kashgarlik, Turpanlik and so on, reflecting the parochialism of oasis life).

The World Uyghur Congress claims the “Uyghurs and other peoples of East Turkestan valiantly opposed” foreign rule, revolting 42 times “with the purpose of regaining their independence”.58 Yet it is completely anachronistic to see these events as nationalist uprisings. Xinjiang was an entity carved out by the Qing that had never had an independence to regain. Revolt was prompted, as the Qing dynasty entered its terminal crisis in the mid-19th century, by “economic distress” and the “rampant misrule” of both Qing officials and the local elite they relied on.59

The biggest uprising was started in 1864 by Hui Chinese Muslims (then known as Dungan) before spreading to Turkic Muslims, none of whom would have identified as Uyghur at this time. Various aristocratic factions attempted to lead the movement, but Yakub Beg eventually took over at the head of an army from neighbouring Kokand. Conquering most of Xinjiang, Yakub Beg at times allied with Han Chinese and at others fought Uyghurs. However, he alienated the population to such an extent that the ailing Qing could retake Xinjiang with little resistance in 1877. Yakub Beg, Millward concludes, “was no Uyghur freedom fighter”.60

The development of Uyghur nationalism bears comparison to that of early Chinese nationalism, which emerged among disgruntled intellectuals at the end of the 19th century in response to the depredations of the European powers. Sun Yatsen, the statesman and political philosopher often seen as the father of the nation, could still complain that in 1924, “The Chinese people have shown the greatest loyalty to family and clan with the result that in China there have been family-ism and clan-ism but no real nationalism”.61 It was only the experience of the brutal Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and the resistance to it, that spread nationalist thinking to the mass of the people.

Similarly, the term “Uyghur” began to be revived by exiled Taranchi and Kashgari intellectuals under Russian influence in the early 20th century.62 In the 1920s, according to one contemporary account, identification as “Uyghur” was still “not widespread”.63 The experience of life under brutal Chinese warlord regimes in the Republican period between 1912 and 1949 strengthened nationalist sentiment sufficiently to ensure Uyghur inclusion in the Communists’ ethnic classifications after 1949.64 Yet the goal of “fostering national identification among the province’s Turkic-speaking Muslims” was “still far from realised at the inauguration of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” in 1955.65

Based on research in the 1980s, Justin Rudelson argues that, due to the fragmentation inherent in oasis society, nationalist sentiment remained weak among the Uyghurs. Intellectuals tended to be “secular, virulently anti-Islamic, pan-Turkic nationalists”, whereas peasant farmers were “devout Muslims” with strong local identities, and merchants trading outside the region identified more with China. However, the greater mobility occasioned by rapid economic development and the experience of Chinese repression have since strengthened Uyghur identity.66

Mass Uyghur nationalism has been forged, as Chinese nationalism was, in the furnace of foreign oppression. However, there is a conflict at the heart of Uyghur nationalism between the promotion of Uyghur ethnicity and its claims to East Turkestan, which is very much a multi-ethnic area. The Chinese state can play on fears among the other minority groups that Uyghur rule would reproduce ethnic oppression on a more local scale.

Development and exploitation

Until the late 19th century, there was little attempt to exploit Xinjaing’s natural resources along the lines of the contemporary European colonies.67 Nevertheless, after being elevated to provincial status in 1884, the borders of Xinjiang were more clearly delimited, marking its transformation from a traditional tributary zone to a fully fledged colony.68

In the early 20th century, China lacked both the capital and expertise to develop the region effectively and so turned to Russia for investment. Enormous distances and a severely underdeveloped infrastructure—the railway line to the capital city, Urumqi, was only completed in 1962—meant that transport to cities in China proper would be prohibitively expensive. Because of this, assets such as the oil wells at Dushanzi and various mining operations were all situated in the northernmost parts, where their output could be exported across the border to Russian Turkestan.69 This was to have long term consequences for patterns of economic development and ethnic demography in Xinjiang. To this day, industry is concentrated in the north, where Han Chinese make up the majority of the population, but most Uyghurs live in the less developed (and so poorer) south.

If the Communists initially took over Xinjiang primarily for security reasons—China and the Soviet Union were already uneasy allies—there were important economic considerations too. The oil and non-ferrous metal extraction operations pioneered by Russians were soon in Chinese hands. A programme of infrastructure development was initiated to orient trade eastward towards China proper, rather than over the border to Russia.70

Another product of the security-economy nexus was the creation of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (XPCC), also known as the “bingtuan”. Based on a long tradition of settling soldiers in border regions as farmers, the bingtuan was created to consolidate Communist control of this frontier region. It remains under the direct control of Beijing rather than the provincial government. In subsequent years, this quasi-military organisation grew to gargantuan proportions. It had 3.1 million members by 2018, almost 14 percent of the provincial population.71 About 86 percent of these were Han Chinese, reflecting the organisation’s history of absorbing the majority of Han immigrants.72

Despite this, development in Xinjiang remained slow until the 1990s. Then, through campaigns such as “Open up the West” and later the Belt and Road Initiative, the central government began concerted efforts to spread China’s economic boom westwards from the eastern coastal cities.

This was also a process of “assimilation and national territorial integration”.73 Economic growth and repression are seen by the Communist leadership as mutually reinforcing. In the words of President Xi: “Development is the foundation of security, and security is the precondition for development”.74 Although this approach worked to some extent in much of China, recent growth in Xinjiang has only served to exacerbate existing divisions, and the level of repression has reached a level that inhibits the economy.

In practice, development in Xinjiang turned out to mean ramping up output of primary products, which already dominated the economy, for use as raw materials in factories in China proper. Under the slogan “One White and One Black”, cotton production and oil extraction dramatically increased.75

Figure 1 shows how Xinjiang’s contribution to national cotton output leapt from just a few percent in the 1980s to no less than 85 percent by 2019. It also indicates how marginal Xinjiang was to the national economy before the 1990s. Over the same period, cloth production declined proportionally, highlighting the province’s continuing role as a source of primary products rather than as a manufacturing centre. In 2018, 37 percent of the province’s cotton was produced by the overwhelmingly Han XPCC.76 The XPCC’s control of water sources and economies of scale give it a distinct advantage in agriculture over the small scale farming prevalent in the Uyghur south.77

Figure 1: Xinjiang cotton and cloth production as percentage of national totals

Source: China Data Online.

Xinjiang’s growing importance as a site of energy production is shown in figure 2. The region already accounted for 5 percent of national oil output in 1990, but production has almost quadrupled since then. In the same period coal and electricity output multiplied by over 10 and 50 fold respectively. Xinjiang also accounts for nearly 30 percent of national natural gas production.78

Figure 2: Xinjiang energy production as percentage of national totals

Source: China Data Online. Gaps reflect the incomplete data for coal.

China has been a net importer of oil since 1993.79 However, imports from the Middle East come by tanker through the strategically vulnerable Strait of Malacca, a narrow shipping lane between Malaysia and Indonesia. So, to diversify supply, since the early 2000s oil has been imported from neighbouring Kazakhstan via a pipeline that runs through Xinjiang, making the province a key component in China’s energy security.

All this required a massive investment in infrastructure. Figure 3 shows a sudden increase from around the millennium following decades of much slower development. This infrastructural development is about control as well as commerce. US researcher Jonathan Hillman draws a comparison between China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in which Xinjiang is a key link, and the expansion of European powers in the 19th century. These states used infrastructure projects to “expand their influence at the expense of indigenous people, the environment and economic stability”.80 The extension of the rail network to Kashgar and beyond has drawn isolated Uyghur communities closer to China.81

Figure 3: Railways, pipelines (left axis) and highways (right axis) in kilometers

Source: China Data Online.

Immigration and inequality

Economic growth and improved living standards were supposed to “promote the unification of all peoples towards the Communist Party”, as one official hoped, but the Uyghurs have become progressively more alienated from the CCP.82 One cause of resentment is the influx of Han Chinese to the region. In 1949, Han made up just 7 percent of the population, and Uyghurs accounted for 76 percent. However, as a consequence of government resettlement policies, by 1978, they were almost equal, with Han at 42 percent compared to 46 percent for Uyghurs.

It is a common assumption that the recent push to develop Xinjiang has been accompanied by mass Han immigration, but the figures do not bear this out. Though the Han population continued to increase in absolute terms until recently, it has been declining proportionally since 2003 and absolutely since 2015, as can be seen in figure 4.83

Figure 4: Percentage of ethnic groups in Xinjiang population

Source: China Data Online and Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook, 2019.

The perception of increasing Han dominance may partially be because Uyghurs are moving from the countryside to the cities, where the Han presence is more visible and inequality between the two groups is more obvious. The urban population grew from 33 percent of the total at the turn of the millennium to just over 50 percent in 2018.84

Ethnic inequality is in part a legacy of the historic development of Xinjiang’s economy. Industry continues to be concentrated in the north while most Uyghurs live in the poorer south. This is shown in figure 5, which plots per capita GDP against the proportion of the population made up by non-Han people in each district of Xinjiang. It clearly shows a negative relationship between the two—the larger the non-Han population, the lower the GDP per head. Uyghurs are also more likely to live in rural areas, where incomes are on average 38 percent of urban ones.85 Inequality between Han and Uyghur has been exacerbated by marketisation and attacks on positive discrimination under the influence of the second generation ethnic policy thinkers. Thus, Xiaogang Wu and Xi Song show in their analysis of 2005 census data that Uyghurs were more likely to work in government or public institutions where wage disparities with Han were smallest. However, marketisation meant that employment in these areas declined, and wage differentials were much greater in both the state and private sectors. What is more, Uyghurs lost out in competition with local Han workers for state employment and migrant Han workers for private employment.86 They were also more likely to be self-employed but again earned less than their Han counterparts. The same authors also show that “ethnic earnings gaps in Xinjiang were larger in the agricultural sector, where most Uyghurs work, than in the non-agricultural sector”.87 In one cotton mill “Uyghurs drive the trucks, shovel the cotton and hold a few of the low and mid-level factory managerial positions”, but the managers are “almost exclusively Han”.88

Figure 5: District per capita GDP (yuans) versus percentage of non-Han people in Xinjiang

Source: Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook, 2019.

Most observers focus on the average differences between Han and Uyghur in Xinjiang, but these statistics do not tell the whole story. As Rune Steenberg and Alessandro Rippa note in a study of the predominantly Uyghur city of Kashgar:

Although Han Chinese from the eastern provinces economically dominate both the public and private sectors…Uyghur elites have also benefited from state policies, while many Han migrants have experienced marginalisation and poverty.89

The real beneficiaries are “domestic Chinese companies and state entities” who channel investment into “commercial and infrastructural projects that do not benefit the broader local population”.90 One Chinese researcher dubbed the “Open up the West” campaign as “western exploitation, eastern development”.91

The surge of new investment and strengthened ties with China proper has had a devastating effect on the traditional economy. Steenberg and Rippa describe a Kashgar neighbourhood, once a centre of shoemaking and leatherwork but now marginalised by cheap imports from eastern China. A few former shoemakers flourished, but many were left scratching a living doing repair work, or were forced to migrate east.92


The drive to develop Xinjiang’s economy since the mid-1990s has been accompanied by an intensification of repression, catalysed by three key events: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the advent of the global “War on Terror” following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the outbreak of ethnic violence in Urumqi in 2009.

This happened at a time when, as marketisation and foreign investment were taking off, socialist rhetoric faded from the lips of China’s rulers and they increasingly turned towards crude nationalism. As the self-appointed guarantors of stability and national unity, any perceived threat to either was magnified by fear it would damage their credibility.

This is brought into sharper focus by the regime’s reliance on a substantial Han population as a counter to Uyghur separatism. The average Han in Xinjiang is not in a position of privilege. False promises have, for instance, been used to persuade poor farmers from other provinces to come and work on XPCC farms that “effectively lock them into a highly exploitative, almost feudal, relationship”.93 The Uyghurs may seem suspicious and alien to them, but they can turn against the government if they do not feel they are being protected.

The sudden independence in 1991 of the former Soviet Central Asian republics bordering Xinjiang was a huge shock to the CCP. It also raised Uyghur hopes of independence. As one writer put it, “Now there is a Kazakhstan, a Kyrgyzstan and an Uzbekistan, where is Uyghuristan?94 The 1980s had been a period of liberalisation following the Cultural Revolution, but now the regime started to crack down on any expressions of nationalism. They also tried to undermine Uyghur culture, introducing curbs on religious practice and imposing the Chinese language in education, policies that have been applied increasingly stringently ever since.

In the 1980s, Han children were offered lessons in Uyghur, but by the early 2000s the emphasis was on “bilingual” teaching, meaning that Uyghurs had to learn Chinese. By the end of the first decade of the new millennium, “All senior high school classes in Urumqi were being taught exclusively in Chinese.” Chinese predominates even in “remote primary schools”.95

Following the attacks in New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001 and the launch of the War on Terror, China reframed its Xinjiang policies as counter-terrorism. The regime had already identified the “three forces” it had to combat as “separatism”, “extremism” and “terrorism”, aiming to blur the distinctions between them. Now all the various incidents of the previous decade were redefined as terrorist actions by groups linked to Al Qaeda or the Taliban, although most “appear to have been spontaneous outbursts, non-premeditated clashes between Uyghurs and security forces”.96 Such exile groups as did exist in Afghanistan, and later Pakistan, were tiny, lacked resources and were incapable of mounting operations in Xinjiang.97

As part of a “People’s War on Terror”, the “number of police and military checkpoints in southern Xinjiang increased dramatically, and street checkpoints for inspecting mobile phones and bags became common. House searches were conducted on a regular basis, often at night”.98 Any religious activities outside very narrow, authorised limits have been banned, impacting on a “wide range of popular religious practices that are far removed from fundamentalist Islam”.99

There have also been campaigns against outward signs of Islamic belief such as beards and headscarves. This could be particularly difficult for women who, according to one Khotan resident, could be sacked for wearing a headscarf to work and have stones thrown at them for failing to wear one to the bazaar.100 However, the creepiest campaign was 2013’s “Project Beauty”, which aimed to coerce Muslim women into abandoning the veil and wearing less modest clothing—reminiscent of the French state’s burkini ban. Checkpoints and CCTV cameras were used in some areas to monitor compliance, with recalcitrants subject to “re-education”.101 These campaigns were never going to deter people from deeply held religious beliefs; indeed, they may have had the opposite effect. Anti-religious propaganda in one school is reported to have “encouraged many of their graduates to embrace Islam more forcefully than before”.102

Initially the stick of repression was tempered by the carrot of acceptance. There were opportunities in the new economy for Uyghurs who were willing to learn Chinese and limit expressions of religiosity. However, the increasingly broad sweep of these restrictions has moved from targeting perceived potential opponents of the regime to Uyghurs as a whole. “Counter-terrorism” legislation introduced in 2015 “criminalises virtually any Uyghur expression of dissent or religiosity as well as many Uyghur cultural traditions”. These laws “targeted the entire population”, with “severe ramifications for even many of those who have sought to demonstrate loyalty to the state and to integrate into the PRC”.103 The vindictive life sentence imposed in 2014 on Ilham Tohti, a respected Uyghur intellectual who accepted Chinese rule, was a signal that the door had closed on any possibility of acceptance in Han society.104

Resistance or terrorism?

Although the regime claimed the harsh security measures were necessary to combat groups linked to international terrorist organisations, there was little that could be called terrorism in Xinjiang before 2013. Instead, they faced a simmering, inchoate insurrection that often responded violently to the violence inflicted on it. This took various forms: protests that often ended in confrontation with the police, attacks on police stations or other state institutions, and occasional assassinations.

Writing long before the Uyghurs’ plight came to the world’s attention, Chris Harman explained how increasing repression against an oppressed group can serve to exacerbate the very problem a government claims to be solving:

The logic of the situation leads to a vicious circle of oppression: the minority protest at the discrimination against them, the state regards them as disloyal, arrests their spokespeople, disbands any representative institutions they possess, censors their press, encourages further discrimination against them, and thus heightens their feeling of alienation from it. What begin as mild protests aimed at securing a better place within the existing state often end up as irreconcilable demands for secession.105

The conflict between the Uyghurs and the PRC has very much followed this trajectory, as Roberts describes:

Repression increasingly has begotten violent resistance from some Uyghurs, which, in turn, has led to more repressive state policies and the fostering of more violent resistance. Gradually, this cycle…has led to a complete breakdown in trust between the PRC government and its Uyghur population and has rendered integration virtually impossible.106

Until 2009, most targets of the resistance were representatives of the regime or sometimes Uyghurs seen as collaborators. However, that year, ethnic bloodletting erupted onto the streets of Urumqi. The immediate cause was the murder of two Uyghur migrant workers in a factory in Guangdong province after some of their number had been falsely accused of raping two Han women. The two Uyghurs were part of a “labour export” programme that sent tens of thousands of workers from their homes in Xinjiang to the southern heartland of Chinese manufacturing, ostensibly to alleviate poverty. Contrary to many Western media reports, most went willingly, coerced by unemployment and poverty rather than the state.107

The weekend after the Guangdong murders, an initially peaceful Uyghur demonstration in Urumqi’s Peoples’ Square was attacked by riot police. Some Uyghurs then vented their fury on the Han population. Two days later, gangs of Han vigilantes exacted revenge while security forces allegedly turned a blind eye. According to the official figures 197 people had been killed, the majority of them Han.108

The ferocity of the Uyghur response was more than just a reaction to the senseless murder of their two countrymen. As anthropologist Chris Hann explains, “perceptions of widening differentials vis-a-vis the Han and frustrated expectations” had caused a “negative cycle of violence” over the previous two decades.109 This in turn led to a “blurring of the line between hatred of the authorities and hatred of Han Chinese”.110

The predictable intensification of repression following the 2009 riots led to an equally predictable escalation of violence, driving some to more desperate attacks on Han citizens. In a particularly horrific and widely reported incident in 2014 in Kunming, a group of eight Uyghurs wielding long knives “moved through the station, from victim to victim, killing indiscriminately” and leaving 29 dead.111 Later that year, another 43 people died when a bomb exploded in Urumqi, and the following year 50 Han coal miners were slaughtered at a mine near Aksu.112

Although these attacks could more plausibly be labelled “terrorist”, there was no evidence of the links to international jihadists that the government claimed. These were not the actions of well organised and funded groups. The Kunming attack seems to have been committed as a last minute act of desperation after the perpetrators failed to flee into exile.113 There was also a suggestion that the Aksu miners were killed in a dispute over land.

Shortly before his arrest, Ilham Tohti explained why some Uyghurs turned to such desperate acts: “The use of violent means happens because all other outlets for expression are gone”.114 The same point was made to Nick Holdstock by a young Uyghur interviewee: “There are three ways for us. The first is help from abroad”, meaning the US or Britain. “This will not happen… The second way is peaceful protest”, which was not possible either. “The third way is the Taliban”.115 The regime has created the very monster it claimed to be fighting. Its suppression of any opposition in the name of combatting terrorism became a self-fulfilling prophecy, driving some Uyghurs to adopt the methods of which they were already accused.

Once again the regime ramped up repression, sweeping much larger numbers of Uyghurs into its “re-education” camps. Although it is impossible to know exactly how many are involved because many detainees may not be formally arrested, an abrupt rise in the number of arrests gives a clue to the scale of the clampdown (see table 1). Although Xinjiang accounts for just 1.6 percent of the national population, it already had double the arrest rate in 2016 before leaping eightfold in 2017. This figure is an estimate but the following year’s number is still a huge increase. Whether the subsequent reduction represents a real decrease in incarcerations or just a change of tactics is impossible to tell.

Table 1: Number of arrests by year and percentage of national total in Xinjiang





























* Numbers estimated based on percentage increase or 5 year totals.

Source: Supreme People’s Procuratorate—; Xinjiang People’s The figures to 2017 are compiled in Chinese Human Rights Defenders, 2018. Subsequent years are added from the original sources.

Securitisation versus development

By 2016, the Chinese state seemed to have given up on the idea that development could incorporate at least a layer of Uyghurs. Instead, it turned to an all-embracing securitisation. However, this is starting to hold back growth in a region that has become an important source of resources for the national economy.

Alessandro Rippa describes repeating a journey along the Karakoram Highway in 2017 that, despite what must have been very costly improvements to the road, took longer than it had eight years earlier. The reason? “Speed trap cameras, car-tracking devices and imposing checkpoints”: all part of a “massive surveillance technology apparatus”.116 The Karakoram Highway connects Southern Xinjiang to Pakistan. This is a key link in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, according to Hillman the “flagship effort” of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is the core of Xi Jinping’s international development strategy.117

There are other signs of the negative effects of securitisation on the economy. Regional GDP growth has slowed in the last few years, while exports dropped sharply in 2018, down by over seven percent. Most strikingly, the Han population apparently fell by 750,000 between 2015 and 2018—almost nine percent in just three years.118 Whether through fear of Uyghur violence or frustration at the state’s security measures, the province’s Chinese have apparently been voting with their feet and returning home.

Thus, it seems that the CCP’s own security measures are undercutting the long-standing strategy of building up the Han population as a counterweight to Uyghur “separatism”. If the Han population continues to decline, resource extraction will become increasingly dependent on Uyghur labour. This may be the reason for whatever truth there is in Zenz’s allegations of coercion in cotton picking.119

The recent development of Xinjiang has made it a much more important part of the Chinese economy. Nonetheless, the contradiction between development and obsessive securitisation, combined with a massively increased security bill, suggests that the current situation is unsustainable.120


It is difficult to be optimistic about the possibility of united struggles by Han and Uyghurs in Xinjiang at this time. Nevertheless, if labour actions in China as a whole are to move from fragmented economic struggles in individual workplaces to a movement that can challenge CCP rule, and its strategy of development at any cost, then it will need to take up the cause of the Uyghurs and China’s other minorities.

As Karl Marx wrote in the context of British rule in Ireland, “A nation that enslaves another forges its own chains”.121 Supporting minority peoples’ right to self-determination would help break Chinese workers from the ideological hold of their own ruling class and combat attempts to divide them on ethnic lines. When the struggle rises, it is possible to build this kind of unity—one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing was a Uyghur, Uerkesh Davlet (better known by his Chinese name, Wuer Kaixi).122

For some on the left though, support for the Uyghurs or the struggle in Hong Kong just plays into US hands. Apologists for the Chinese state see it as “simply ‘outside’ of the logic of imperial powers”.123 The Marxist theory of imperialism, developed by Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin during the First World War, understood it as a system rooted in capitalist economic competition that had reached a stage where the most developed states confront each other as “state-capitalist trusts”. In order to get exclusive access to resources and markets, they carved up the less developed parts of the world into colonies. Competitive pressures then drove them into existential confrontation with each other.124

Both tendencies can be seen in the triangular relations between China, the US and the Uyghurs. Firstly, Xinjiang is for China, like Europe’s former colonies, a source of raw materials and a market for manufactures.125 Secondly, capitalism’s current problems are driving the US and China into more aggressive competition.126 Military conflict certainly does not seem likely any time soon, but war is “only one of the methods of capitalist competition”. Others include tariffs and sanctions.127

In this situation, US co-option of the Uyghur cause should not be an excuse for withholding support from the oppressed. Lenin was very clear on this: “The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain conditions, be utilised by another ‘great’ power for its own, equally imperialist, aims” is no reason to “refuse to recognise the right of nations to self-determination”.128 It is crucial, as Brian Hioe says, to “maintain a critical position towards both the US and the PRC’’ and avoid positions that are “simply campist ones embracing one form of nationalism or empire in opposition to another”.129

Nearly 20 years ago, anthropologist Dru Gladney asked whether Xinjiang could become “China’s West Bank”.130 The Uyghur intifada has apparently been suppressed for the time being, but the Western left should support the Uyghur struggle as it does the Palestinian one. However, this needs to be combined with complete hostility to US machinations against China, including sanctions and trade wars.

Simon Gilbert is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and is based in Oxford.


1 G7, 2021.

2 NATO, 2021.

3 Choonara, 2021.

4 Qiao Collective, 2020; Hioe, 2020.

5 Critical China Scholars, 2020.

6 Batke, 2019.

7 Chin, 2019.

8 Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, 2020.

9 Zenz, 2020.

10 Redden, 2019. Initially called Virginia International University, it was renamed after this scandal.

11 Aerial photographs were used to “prove” the existence of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that subsequently turned out not to exist.

12 Ryan, Cave and Ruser, 2018.

14 Roberts, 2018.

15 BBC, 2018; Human Rights Watch, 2021.

16 Roberts, 2020, pp79 and 81.

17 New York Times, 2021.

18 Qiao Collective, 2020.

19 The overwhelming majority of China’s population, around 92 percent, are considered to be members of a single ethnic group, the Han. However, this categorisation only arose with the development of modern Chinese nationalism from the late 19th century.

20 Lenin, 1986, p153.

21 Lenin quoted in Harman, 1992.

22 Lattimore, 1950, p115.

23 Leibold, 2007, p106. The Soviet Union itself had abandoned self-determination in practice by the 1930s despite keeping the rhetoric.

24 Benson and Svanberg, 1998, p89.

25 Mao, 1956.

26 Heberer, 1989, p30.

27 Quoted in Gladney, 1996, p73.

28 Leibold, 2007, p101.

29 Heberer, 1989, pp40-41.

30 Bulag, 2019.

31 Heberer, 1989, pp25-27; Shakya, 2000, pp315-24; Benson and Svanberg, 1998, p107. For more on what Charlie Hore calls a “wholesale assault on Tibetan culture” during the Cultural Revolution (Hore, 2008) see chapter 12 of Shakya’s book.

32 Rippa, 2020.

33 Becquelin, 2004, p373.

34 Roche and Leibold, 2020, p32.

35 Holdstock, 2015, p153.

36 Bulag, 2019, p153.

37 Sorace, 2020.

38 According to one contemporary account, “40 percent died of smallpox, 20 percent fled to the Russians and Kazakhs, and 30 percent were killed” by the army, with the remaining women and children taken as slaves—quoted in Perdue, 2005, p285.

39 Lattimore, 1962, p168.

40 Lattimore, 1950, p206.

41 Brophy, 2016, pp30-31 and 35; Millward, 2007, p152.

42 Lattimore, 1962, p68.

43 Lattimore, 1950, pp121-122.

44 XSY, 2019.

45 Bovingdon, 2020, p24.

46 Millward, 2007, p24.

47 Millward, 2007, pp32 and 37.

48 Bovingdon, 2020, p33.

49 Brophy, 2016, p12.

50 Millward, 2007, p93; Benson and Svanberg, 1998, p43.

51 Lattimore, 1950, p187; Millward, 2007, pp25, 38.

52 Brophy, 2016, pp72-73.

53 Millward, 2007, p297.

55 Mackerras, 1968, p11.

56 Lattimore, 1950, pp123-124.

57 Gladney, 2004, pp213-124.

59 Millward, 2007, pp116-118.

60 Millward, 2007, pp117-118. Britain played a typically duplicitous role, offering support to Yakub Beg while also providing loans to finance the Qing reconquest—Lattimore, 1950, pp32-33.

61 Sun, 1925, p2.

62 Brophy, 2016, pp178-179.

63 Brophy, 2016, p245.

64 Millward, 2007, p188.

65 Brophy, 2016, p274.

66 Rudelson, 1997, pp117 and 168.

67 Kinzley, 2018, p37.

68 Brophy, 2016, p7.

69 Kinzley, 2018, p65.

70 Rudelson, 1997, p35.

71 Figures from Xinjiang Bureau of Statistics.

72 XPCCSY, 2017, table 3.4; Millward, 2007, p253.

73 Becquelin, 2004.

74 Rippa, 2020, p175.

75 Millward, 2007, p299.

76 Figures from Xinjiang Bureau of Statistics.

77 Fischer, 2014; Chaudhuri, 2010.

78 Cappelletti, 2020.

79 Bovingdon, 2020, p11.

80 Hillman, 2020, pp17-18.

81 Kashgar was linked to the rail network in 1999 and the expected opening of the Hotan-Ruoqiang line in 2022 will complete the loop of the Taklamakan desert.

82 Millward, 2007, pp295-296.

83 Natural population growth is higher among the Uyghurs, so this does not preclude some Han immigration. These are Chinese government figures so they should be treated with caution, but the World Uyghur Congress actually claims that they understate the size of the Uyghur population. Another caveat is that several authors quite reasonably assume that most of the “floating”, transitory population is Han, and this grew from 41,718 in 1990 to 1,791,642 in 2010. More recent figures are not available but nationally the floating population only grew by 9 percent between 2010 and 2018, so, if Xinjiang followed a similar pattern, it would not change the general trend much—Wu and Song, 2014, p161.

84 XSY, 2019, table 3.1.

85 XSY, 2019.

86 Local Han are those with a Xinjiang “hukou” (residence permit). Migrants hold hukous from other provinces, making it more difficult for them to obtain employment in the state sector.

87 Wu and Song, 2014.

88 Cliff, 2016, p136.

89 Steenberg and Rippa, 2019.

90 Steenberg and Rippa, 2019.

91 Holdstock, 2015, p147.

92 Steenberg and Rippa, 2019.

93 Cliff, 2020.

94 Roberts, 2020.

95 Holdstock, 2015, p153; Hann, 2014, p196.

96 Roberts, 2018, p233.

97 Roberts, 2020.

98 Steenberg and Rippa, 2019.

99 Harris, 2014, p294.

100 Harris, 2014, pp303-304.

101 Roberts, 2020, p167.

102 Roberts, 2018, p240.

103 Roberts, 2018, pp246 and 249.

104 Roberts, 2020, pp177 and 201; Holdstock, 2015, pp230-231. As Roberts notes, this is “a much harsher punishment than that usually given to prominent Han dissidents”.

105 Harman, 1992, p52.

106 Roberts, 2018, p236.

107Steve Hess suggests that the programme may have been intended to sow divisions at a time of growing labour unrest—Hess, 2009.

108 Bovingdon, 2020, pp168-169; Roberts, 2020, pp146-147.

109 Hann, 2014, p189.

110 Holdstock, 2015, p101.

111 Holdstock, 2015, pp1-3.

112 Roberts, 2020, pp173 and 181.

113 This route through southwest China was commonly used by Uyghurs seeking exile at the time—Roberts, 2020, pp183-184.

114 Holdstock, 2015, p231.

115 Holdstock, 2015, p217.

116 Rippa, 2020, pp198-199.

117 Hillman, 2020, p127.

118 Figures from Xinjiang Bureau of Statistics.

119 Zenz, 2020.

120 Rippa, 2020, p194.

121 Marx, 1870.

122 A source of great pride to Uyghurs according to Rudelson, 1997, p131.

123 Hioe, 2020.

124 Bukharin, 2003.

125 Hunerven, 2019; Becquelin, 2004, p362.

126 Budd, 2021.

127 Bukharin, 2003, p54.

128 Lenin, 1986, p155.

129 Hioe, 2020.

130 Gladney, 2002.


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