MARCH 30, 2016

The treatment of the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China (a.k.a. East Turkistan), as well as the treatment of those Uyghurs living in exile, is an issue worthy of concern for American policy makers. Foremost among the reasons why is that tolerance of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) violation of internationally recognized human rights in the pursuit of its interests incentivizes future violations. A related reason is the CCP’s reliance on the counter-terrorism narrative to justify its actions, a reliance intended to blur the issues at stake. It is important that the American public and its leaders pay attention to the facts on the ground and draw the hard distinctions that may need to be drawn, as this is necessary to better formulate American policy and support the rights and liberties of all.


Xinjiang is the homeland of the Turkic speaking Uyghurs, as well as other central Asian peoples, such as Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Uzbeks, and Tajiks. Although the Chinese census records the population of these Muslims as slightly more than 11 million (with 8.68 million Uyghurs constituting a majority), some sources assert the Uyghur population alone is close to 20 million.[1]

Uyghur history in the region stretches back more than 4,000 years, with Uyghur Islamic heritage dating from the year 934AD. The Islamic Uyghur Kingdom of East Turkistan was independent until the Manchu Empire invaded the nation in 1876, and annexed it eight years later, renaming it “Xinjiang” on November 18, 1884. When Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire in 1911, Xinjiang fell to the nationalist Chinese government. The Uyghurs wanted to free themselves from foreign occupation and twice rebelled successfully, once in 1933 and again in 1944, establishing an independent East Turkistan Republic. The republic fell again to the CCP in 1949. The character of dictatorial and communist regimes makes conflict between the ruling CCP and minorities, such as the Uyghur population, inevitable.[2]

Under the CCP

In trying to combat the Uyghur desire for liberty and cultural survival (what the CCP conflates with “separatism”), the CCP has created a dire human rights situation.[3]

Xinjiang is ruled militarily by the CCP. Like Tibetans, Uyghurs struggle for cultural survival in the face of the regime-supported in-migration of Han Chinese.[4] As a result of related CCP policies, the percentage of ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang has grown from six percent in 1949 to 40 percent 2014.[5] According to Joseph Grieboski, writing for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, because the Uyghurs also face “harsh repression of political dissent, and limitations on the expression of their distinct identity, the Uyghur people are struggling for cultural survival. The arbitrary arrest, torture, and ‘disappearance’ of those considered ‘separatists’ is widely perpetrated against Uyghurs.”[6] Moreover, mosques are arbitrarily closed, the Uyghur language is banned from use in universities, and restrictions have been placed on weddings, funerals and pilgrimage, or hajj.[7] In the case of the hajj, China has loosened travel restrictions for the Hui, another ethnic group who enjoys better relations with the ruling CCP, which is evidence that the CCP is specifically targeting the Uyghurs.[8] 

The CCP blames violent episodes in the region on Uyghur “separatists” (or “terrorists” as they label them), including at least 200 incidents between 1990 and 2001. However, both violence and Uyghur demonstrations have decreased since the late 1990s. What violence that has occurred over the past decade has been used, especially since terrorism became an international issue after 9/11, to justify harsh CCP treatment of the Uyghur population.[9] In statements directed toward both domestic and international audiences, the CCP has equated “Uyghur separatism” with Islamic terrorism. The continuation of current CCP’s policies may increase the potential for future violence.

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 3.03.48 PM

      Ediological Rong Map the   Locations of Uyghur Population in Uyghuristan (Source: Joshua Project/Global Mapping International)


Exile and Intimidation

Uyghur human rights activists continue to be harassed and threatened by the the CCP. Moreover, such intimidation does not stop at China’s borders.

A particularly effective form used by the communist country has been designating legitimate, non-violent Uyghur organizations and human rights activists as terrorists, accusing them of organizing violence in East Turkistan. A notable case of China taking such action is Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent businesswoman.[10] In her case, the CCP went so far as to imprison some of her relatives who still resided in the country.[11] In a report prepared for the members and committees of the US Congress, Shirley A. Kan, a specialist in Asian security affairs for the Congressional Research Service, noted that since 2002, “the United States has refused to designate any other PRC [People’s Republic of China]-targeted and ‘East Turkistan’ or Uyghur-related organization as a ‘terrorist organization’” due to a lack of evidence justifying such a designation.[12]

Another means of harassment and intimidation is coercing members of the Uyghur exile communities to spy on their fellow Uyghur expatriates or to become politically inactive.[13] With the power to use family members who still reside in Xinjiang or other parts of China as hostages, the CCP has strong leverage over members of the exile community. Using this method, the CCP has built an extensive, global intelligence gathering and harassment apparatus against the Uyghur community outside its borders.[14] Thus, while the ex-pat Uyghur community may be exiled, it is not free from the long reach of the CCP.

Read the remarks delivered by Dolkun Isa, Executive Chairman of the World Uyghur Congress, on March 30, 2016 in Washington, DC here.



  1. Kan, Shirley. “US-China Counterterrorism Cooperation: Issues for US Policy.” Congressional Research Service. July 15, 2010.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Mooney, Paul and David Lague. “The Price of Dissent: Holding the Fate of Families in its Hands, China Controls Refugees Abroad.” Reuters Investigates. December 30, 2015.
  4. Grieboski, Joseph. “Tension, Repression, and Discrimination: China’s Uyghurs Under Threat.”Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. September 24, 2014.
  5. Kan, “US-China Counterterrorism Cooperation: Issues for US Policy.”
  6. Grieboski, “Tension, Repression, and Discrimination: China’s Uyghurs Under Threat.”
  7. Ibid.; Kan, “US-China Counterterrorism Cooperation: Issues for US Policy;” Feith, David. “The Chinese Empire’s Burning Peripheries.” The Wall Street Journal. January 6, 2015.
  8. Beech, Hannah. “If China is Anti-Islam, Why Are These Chinese Muslims Enjoying a Faith Revival?” Time. August 12, 2014.
  9. Kan, “US-China Counterterrorism Cooperation: Issues for US Policy.”
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 6.
  13. Mooney, Paul and David Lague. “The Price of Dissent: Holding the Fate of Families in its Hands, China Controls Refugees Abroad.”
  14. Kan, “US-China Counterterrorism Cooperation: Issues for US Policy.”


To download a PDF of this briefing, please click here.



The Plight of the Uyghurs in China

About The Eastturkistan Government in Exile
The Official Website of Eastturkestan Government in Exile

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