Chinese official media (Global Times, Xinhua, China Daily) are making much of a “white paper” issued by the State Council Information Office entitled “Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang,” which seeks to deny the national aspirations and even very identity of the Uighur people of China’s far western Xinjiang region. It especially takes aim at the “separatism” of the emerging “East Turkistan” movement, asserting that never in history “has Xinjiang been referred to as ‘East Turkistan’ and there has never been any state known as ‘East Turkistan.'” It denies that there has ever been an independent state in what is now the territory of Xinjiang (a name not in use until the 18th century): “Xinjiang was formally included into Chinese territory during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and the central government of all dynasties maintained jurisdiction over the region. The region has long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory. Never has it been ‘East Turkistan.'” The Turkic roots and identity of the Uigurs are even challenged: “The main ancestors of the Uygurs were the Ouigour people who lived on the Mongolian Plateau during the Sui (581-618) and Tang (581-907) dynasties, and they joined other ethnic groups to resist the oppression and slavery of the Turks.”
All of this is easily refuted. The attempt to deny the Turkic ethnicity of the Uighurs by invoking the ancient Ouigours is a transparent sophistry, as this is just an alternative spelling of Uighur (as is Uyghur). The authoritative Ethnologue makes clear that Uighur is indeed a Turkic language. The Han Dynasty established a protectorate rather than direct rule over what is now Xinjiang, largely to keep the Xiongnu (Huns) at bay. But this ended with the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 220 CE. The next Chinese dynasty that attempted to establish dominance in the region was the Tang, some 500 years later—and they were decisively defeated by an Arab-Persian force loyal to the Abbasid caliphate in the 751 Battle of Talas (in contemporary Uzbekistan). The area then came under Muslim rule, with power eventually devolving to a local Uighur Khaganate (kingdom). Chinese rule would return, briefly and tentatively, under the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in the 13th century. The region would only come firmly under Chinese rule under the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty in the 18th century. And both the Yuan and Qing were what are called “foreign” dynasties—not ruled by ethnic Han. Furthermore, most Qing-era maps (like this one) show “East Turkestan,” like Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, as distinct entities from “China” within the “Chinese Empire.”
With the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in the 1911 revolution, the Uighurs would attempt to re-assert self-rule. In fact, East Turkistan republics were declared in the region in 1933 and 1944—the second one lasting until the Communists took over in 1949.
China’s rulers may be creating exactly what they fear with their intransigent denialism on Uighur identity and recent ultra-draconian measures in Xinjiang. Clearly, many Uighurs have given up hope for peace or dignity under Chinese rule and are embracing “separatism.” And this inevitably leads to some problematic politics…
Japan’s Singetsu News Agency reports that as Xi Jinping arrived for the G20 Summit in Osaka earlier this month, several hundred Uighurs and their supporters held a demonstration in the city. One prominent slogan was: “Japanese government! Please raise up the Uyghur genocide issue!”
The appeal to Japan has obvious and disturbing historical resonances. These are made even clearer by the prescriptions of the Uighur pro-independence leadership in the exile diaspora. The website of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement states, legimately enough:
China colonized and annexed East Turkistan, also know as the land of the Eastern Turks (Tarim Basin, Junggar Basin, and Kengsu), in December 1949 when the Communist Party took over. This area encompasses present-day administrative areas of the so-called ‘Xinjiang’ Uyghur Autonomous region and parts of western Gansu and Qinghai Province that China invaded.
China renamed the region to ‘Xinjiang (New Territory),’ a highly offensive term, which East Turkistanis despise. Throughout its unique history, East Turkistan has maintained a distinctive, sovereign, national and religious identity separate from China’s. Except during periods of illegal Chinese occupation, East Turkistan has also maintained a separate and sovereign political and territorial identity.
But a map on the page shows not only East Turkistan and Tibet as independent entities, but also “South Mongolia” (Inner Mongolia) and “Manchuria.” These are somewhat tricker cases…
The ethnic Mongols, like the Uighurs and Tibetans, are indeed facing persecution under Chinese rule—and utterly counterproductive charges of “separatism” for raising any dissent or demands for redress. But the last “independent” state in South or Inner Mongolia was Mengjiang—set up under the nominal rule of a Mongol prince by the Japanese occupation in 1936. It served as a staging ground for the Japanese invasion of Outer Mongolia (that is, the independent state of Mongolia) in 1939, which was repulsed by a joint Mongolian-Soviet force. This was the only battle between Soviet and Japanese forces in World War II before the USSR formally entered the war against Japan in August 1945.
More blatantly problematic is the case of “Manchuria.” This obviously recalls the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo established between 1932 and 1945—the only “independent” state that ever existed in “Manchuria” in the modern era. After the war, it was broken up (for obvious reasons) into the contemporary provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang, and the name “Manchuria” is no longer used in China. While the Manchus remain an official “minority nationalty” in China, Ethnologue lists the Manchu language as “nearly extinct.”
Nonetheless, the old Manchukuo ruling party, the Concordia Association of Manchuria, still has a Facebook page and Twitter account, with propaganda glorifying figures associated with the Manchukuo regime, such as Yamaguchi Shigetsugu, founder of the Japanese-collaborationist “Manchurian Youth League.”
Manchukuo-nostalgists are obviously impolitic allies for the Uighurs.
These problematic alliances are obvious in far less esoteric ways as well. The conservative Christian website Stream makes note of Donald Trump’s recent lip service to the cause of Uighur rights with the following gushy headline: “Trump Wants to Save China’s Muslims From Genocide.”
No he doesn’t. We can blame no Uighurs for taking heart at the White House and State Department finally speaking out on the horror unfolding in Xinjiang, but nobody should have any illusions about Trump’s motives. He is exploiting the Uighurs for his own Sinophobic agenda. The man who is building concentration camps for “illegals” here in the US is not truly concerned with concentration camps in China. If anything, he is looking to what the People’s Republic is doing in Xinjiang as a model for what he’d ultimately like to do to Muslims and migrants here at home…
While we do not presume to dictate policy to those struggling under Chinese rule, we submit that there is a case against separatism—even now. For instance, the Hong Kong protesters ultimately have little chance for success unless there is democratic change within China. Even if they seek an independent Hong Kong, building solidarity with dissident and rebellious forces on the mainland will be critical to securing it. We’ve been encouraged by the emerging signs of Han-Uighur solidarity and Han-Tibetan solidarity within China. One reason China’s rulers are so intransigent on the Uighurs and Tibetans could be the potential for an alliance between such oppressed “minority nationalities” and Han Chinese workers and peasants against the Beijing bureaucracy.