Salih Hudayar, prime minister of the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile, spoke to participants in a November 13 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the history of the Uyghur people and their persecution by the government of China.
The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group native to East Turkestan, which was conquered in 1759 by China's Qing Dynasty. The Chinese renamed this northwest corner of their empire "Xinjiang" (literally "New Frontier") in 1884.
With the decline of the Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s, many Uyghurs who had traveled to Europe returned with nationalist ideas. They declared an independent East Turkistan Republic in November 1933 with British support. The Soviets, fearing the British presence, intervened and crushed the republic, but later supported the establishment of a second East Turkistan Republic in 1944 in hopes of accessing its mineral resources. East Turkistan remained independent for five years before falling back under Chinese control.
The Chinese government has been waging a colonization campaign since then. Although the ethnic Han Chinese population in East Turkistan was less than five percent in 1949, today it is approaching forty percent.
Agitation for independence by the people of East Turkistan began to grow following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, leading to more heavy-handed repression by the Chinese government. Those suspected of being Uyghur nationalists were jailed.
After the 9/11 terror attacks, the Chinese government sought to portray the East Turkistan independence movement as dominated by a largely non-existent violent Islamic extremist group called the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Chinese government atrocities were justified as a fight against terrorism.
Although Chinese officials have pointed to the fact that thousands of Uyghurs traveled to Syria to fight alongside jihadist groups as evidence of Islamic extremism, Hudayar argued that Turkey lured "naïve and disgruntled" young men to fight in Syria with false promises of being trained to "fight against China," and played on the Uyghur sympathies of a shared common ancestry with the Turkish people. He said that their departure was "part of a Chinese intelligence operation to deliberately label and portray Uyghurs as terrorists" and would not have been possible without the Chinese regime's connivance:
The Chinese government had taken away everyone's passports. There are checkpoints every 500 meters. There is no way you can go 500 meters without hitting a checkpoint. You can't even leave your own hometown without getting special permission from your local public security bureau. So, how is it possible that 20,000 people were just able to walk out of East Turkistan ... without Chinese intelligence or security forces being aware?
In 2014, the Chinese government tightened its control over East Turkistan. The Chinese government "rounded up approximately 200,000 men between the ages of 15 and 45 and put them into so-called re-education camps, concentration camps, and prisons on the basis that they were prone to becoming radicalized." When there was no international outcry, China escalated its campaign. By 2016, Beijing began detaining millions of non-Chinese people – Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars – of all religions.
Although the Western media has tended to portray this issue as an attack on Uyghur Muslims, it's actually "an attack on Turkic identity" designed "to prevent the ... independence of East Turkistan."
In contrast to the Obama administration, which "did not even speak out once against what China was doing to Uyghurs and the Turkic peoples in East Turkistan," the Trump administration has been quite vocal. In June 2020, President Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act into law. The following month, his administration imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials involved in abuses against Uyghurs and on the Xinjiang Production Construction Corps, a paramilitary force that runs many of re-education camps and is involved in resettling ethnic Chinese in the area. In October 2020, the Trump administration removed the so-called East Turkistan Islamic Movement from its terror list on the grounds that there is "no credible evidence" that this group still exists.
"No Muslim government has spoken out against these atrocities."
Because of China's economic influence, however, "no Muslim government has spoken out against these atrocities," said Hudayar. Uyghurs have actually been deported from some Muslim countries to China and jailed; Pakistan's prime minister has lied about having knowledge of the Uyghur's dire situation, and Saudi Arabia has praised China's "counterterrorism" and "modernization" efforts in East Turkistan.
Hudayar argued that the U.S. and the E.U. should officially recognize the Chinese government's atrocities against the Uyghurs as genocide and treat the Uyghur issue "on par with the Tibetan issue." Outsiders should "refer to our country as East Turkistan," not "the Chinese colonial term Xinjiang," said Hudayar. "Nobody refers to Tibet as Xizang, which is the colonial name that China imposed on Tibet." Since Tibet is recognized as an occupied country, East Turkistan should also be recognized as "occupied."
Hudayar welcomed actions taken by the Trump administration to combat China's "colonization and occupation in East Turkistan" and "brutal campaign of genocide against the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples" who inhabit it, but expressed fear that the Biden administration will return to the Obama administration's policy of silence.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.