Uyghur Independence

12 Mar

On 1st March 2014, a devastating knife attack took place in a crowded train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in the southwest of China (The Economist, 2014). The attack left 29 people dead, and 130 injured. Since the attack, government officials have claimed that it was carried out by separatists from Xinjiang – a province in the northwest of China, where the majority ethnic group is the Uyghur people.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic people who live in Eastern and Central Asia, primarily in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province in China (EPW, 2008). In fact, over 10m of the Uyghurs live in Xinjiang where they make up 46.4% of the population – the largest ethnic group (The China Story, 2012). Throughout history this province has been intermittently independent and ruled by various Chinese empires; since 1949, it has been a part of the People’s Republic of China having been incorporated by the People’s Liberation Army (BBC, 2013a).

Although there is not yet concrete evidence that this attack was carried out by a separatist group associated with the Uyghurs, they have been blamed – the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant group supporting the East Turkestan Independence Movement, reportedly committed over 200 terrorist acts between 1990 and 2001 (NBC, 2005). One notable incident was 4 days before the start of the Beijing Olympics when 16 Chinese border police officers were killed in the far-western city of Kashgar, in Xinjiang (EPW, 2008).

The first question is: why is there a separatist movement in Xinjiang? The second is: what should the Chinese government do about it?

China is an extremely vast country with a population of 1,350 million people spread over an area of 3.7 million square miles (CIA, 2014). To put this into perspective, the European Union has a population of 509 million spread over an area of 1.7 million square miles so China is over twice as vast, yet the EU is made up of 28 member states all representing significantly different peoples and cultures. Europe is made up primarily of Slavic, Germanic and Latin Europeans but also smaller ethnic groups including, for example, the Basque people of Northern Spain and Southern France. In the same way, China’s population consists of primarily Han people, but also 55 recognised minorities – 9 of which have over 5 million people (the population of Norway). The Uyghurs are the 4th largest of these ethnic minorities, after the Zhuang, Hui and Manchu people.

Some people might argue that unlike the European Union which was a collection of independent states first and a union after, the Uyghurs have been a part of numerous Chinese empires and a part of the PRC continuously for the last 65 years and thus their desire for independence should be lessening if anything. However, there are significant differences between the Uyghurs and the rest of China. Firstly, their religion; the majority of modern Uyghurs follow Islam which is a tiny minority group in China with Muslims accounting for only 1.7% of the population (Wenzel-Teuber, 2011). Another major sticking point is that the Uyghurs have their own language and although there are 292 recognised languages spoken in China, 70% of Chinese people can speak Mandarin and the majority of those that don’t, speak another Sinitic language (BBC, 2013b). The Uyghur language on the other hand does not even belong to the same family of languages as the PRC’s official language.

It is no surprise then that the Uyghurs have a desire for independence given that they have such a strong cultural identity and have significant differences with the majority of other Chinese peoples. However, the Chinese national government have not helped the Uyghurs feel at home in China and have instead tried to integrate them through force and repression. For example, as Islam is seen as feeding the Uyghur identity, anyone who practices their religion in a manner “deemed unacceptable” are arrested, possibly tortured, and sometimes even executed (HRW, 2005). Celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts and even showing one’s religion through personal appearance is prohibited at state schools in Xinjiang. As well as attacking the Uyghurs’ religion, their language has also come under attack with “assimilationist policies aimed at removing Uyghur as a language of instruction in East Turkistan” (Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2007).

The Chinese State Council has also tried to artificially integrate Xinjiang province through state-directed colonisation into Xinjiang (Hilton, 2014). They have also invested massively in infrastructure in the province which has made Xinjiang richer but it is the Han people who have migrated there that have seen the lion’s share of this new wealth.

It seems then that the Xinjiang province have a right to be dissatisfied with their current status despite being an “autonomous region” and it also seems like independence would be the next logical step for the Uyghurs. This would bring some benefits to China – some people have claimed that China is too vast and too populous for a successful democracy – by annexing Xinjiang, along with some other western provinces, e.g. Tibet, would bring a decrease in China’s size and also reduce terrorism throughout the country from separatists. However it is unlikely China will ever allow Xinjiang independent status. The reason: oil and gas. The Chinese National Petroleum Corporation, an oil and gas producing SOE, plans to build Xinjiang into China’s largest oil and gas production base by 2020 (People Daily, 2010).  

China’s alternative to allowing Xinjiang independence is allowing them genuine autonomy, and ending the suppression of Uyghur religion, language and culture. The government also needs to aim to stop prejudice against minorities such as the Uyghurs in Chinese society, and any future economic development in Xinjiang should be focussed on Uyghur communities and not on Han migrants. Without these changes, the unrest will continue and further violence like the Kunming knife attack is inevitable.



BBC. (2013a). Q&A: China and the Uighurs. Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.

BBC. (2013b). Beijing says 400 million Chinese cannot speak Mandarin.Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.

The China Story. (2012). Xinjiang 新疆. Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.

CIA. (2014). The World Factbook. Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.

The Economist. (2014). China’s restless West. Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.

EPW. (2008). China’s Uighur ‘Problem’. Economic and Political Weekly. 43 (33), 6-7.

Hilton, I, 2014. China’s Muslims will pay a heavy price for the Kunming knife attacks. The Guardian, 03 March.

HRW. (2005). Devastating Blows. Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.

NBC News. (2005). Al-Qaida: Dead or captured. Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.

People Daily. (2010). Xinjiang to build largest oil, gas base over 10 years. Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.

Wenzel-Teuber, K. (2011). People’s Republic of China: Religions and Churches Statistical Overview 2011. Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.

Uyghur Human Rights Project. (2007). Uyghur Language Under Attack: The Myth of “Bilingual” Education in the People’s Republic of China .Available: Last accessed 11th March 2014.


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