Is Xinjiang a cashmere for China

Domestic conflicts

Kristin Shi-Copper

To person

Kristin Shi-Kupfer is Professor of Contemporary Sinology at the University of Trier and Senior Associate Fellow of the Berlin think tank MERICS. From October 2013 to October 2020 she headed the research area Politics, Society and Media. From 2007 to 2011, Shi-Kupfer reported from China as a correspondent for various German-language media. Among other things, she was in Lhasa, Tibet in March 2008 and in 2009 as a reporter on the riots in Urumuqi, Xinjiang.

In order to stifle attempts at autonomy in the bud, the Chinese government has set up a nationwide surveillance and detention system in the Xinjiang region. Beijing defends these measures as necessary to counter extremist tendencies.

Uyghurs and sympathizers demonstrate against the Chinese government's suppression of the Uyghurs. (& copy picture-alliance / AP, Remko de Waal)

Current situation

After the Chinese government still denied the mass arrests and detention camps in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR = Xinjiang Autonomous Region) in a report to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August 2018 [1], it changed it in autumn 2018 Procedure: In "educational institutions", "people influenced by extremism" are freed from their thinking and given "advanced training" for a better future, declared the "People's Congress" of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Former detainees, investigative journalists and scientists who have fled have demonstrated the existence of a comprehensive surveillance and internment system with clear facts: The "China Cables" published in November 2019 by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists contained numerous documents from local authorities in the northwest region that included a systematic The arrest and "re-education" of Uighurs in particular, but also Kazakhs and Kyrgyz people, are documented.

Lists of prisoners leaked abroad (the "Karakax list" from February 2020 and the "Aksu list" from December 2020) document a wide range of arbitrary internment criteria: Already telephone calls abroad, clicking on certain websites, practicing actually legal religious ones Practices or being under 30 are sufficient for an automated classification as "generally untrustworthy". The report by the sinologist Adrian Zenz, also backed up by numerous local documents, on a campaign on forced sterilization and the associated population slump, is presented in a report by Beijing as a contribution to the "emancipation" of Uighur women.

Many liberal democracies criticize the situation in Xinjiang and support the cause of Uighur activists. The Uyghur economics professor Ilham Tohti, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014, was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the EU Parliament in December 2019. In 2020 and most recently in January 2021, the USA published, among other things, a "Law to Prevent Uighur Forced Labor" and passed further import bans on products from the region. Sanctions against senior officials in the region have also been expanded. Canada and the UK have launched similar import bans and stricter corporate reporting requirements. In mid-December 2020, the EU Parliament passed a resolution condemning forced labor in Xinjiang. It is noticeable that apart from a few exceptions, such as Turkey at times, Muslim countries actively or passively support the position of the Chinese government.

Causes and Background

As in Tibet, the conflicts in Xinjiang are determined by ethno-political contradictions. Growing religiosity and aspirations for autonomy among Uyghurs, as well as Beijing's rigid control policy, exacerbate the conflict. The World Uyghur Congress, which was formed in 2004 from various groups and is based in Munich, advocates the right to political self-determination in "East Turkistan". This region, traditionally populated by Turkic peoples, includes parts of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and western China.

Due to a lack of access to educational and capital resources, the Uighur population benefits much less from economic development than the Han Chinese, who are increasingly settling in the region. Uyghurs are also exposed to general distrust and numerous forms of discrimination.

Any questioning of the territorial affiliation of Xinjiang to China is from the point of view of the government in Beijing not only politically but also geostrategically (borders with six countries) and economically unacceptable. Around 30% of the continental oil reserves and 34% of the gas reserves of China are located in the autonomous region. The Xinjiang region has increased in geostrategic importance in the context of the new "Silk Road Initiative" ("One belt, one road") formulated by party and state leader Xi Jinping: Xinjiang is for the infrastructure projects, China's goods, standards and influence via Central Asia, among others to bring to Europe, a central corridor.

Media reports about the arrests of Uyghurs abroad and connections to various international terrorist networks have further complicated and aggravated the conflict. Beijing is concerned that more and more Uyghurs are leaving the country, including to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) or the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Foreign media have repeatedly reported Uyghurs among extremist fighters in Syria.

Since the beginning of 2016, there have only been minor attacks and shootings in individual parts of the XAR. In 2014-2015, a series of attacks in various places in China against authorities and civilians rocked the population (including on March 1, 2014 at Kunming train station in Yunnan province with 34 dead). After the execution of a Chinese hostage and propaganda videos targeting China at the end of 2015, ISIS did not send any further threat signals or demonstrably carried out attacks.

Processing and solution approaches

In order to ensure comprehensive control over Xinjiang, Beijing had already set up the so-called production brigades ("bingtuan") in 1954. Today they comprise around 2 million people, over 80% of whom are Han Chinese. Equipped with autonomous administrative authority over various cities and their own social infrastructure, they should develop the border region economically and guarantee control over the Uyghurs. The proportion of the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang has risen from just under 4% in 1947 to over 40%.

Beijing is also committed to regional development. In the south of the region in particular, the infrastructure and access to public services are to be improved. At the beginning of January 2015, the State Council decided on a program to specifically promote the textile industry in the region until 2020. By expanding the security apparatus, Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, who has been in office since August 2016, has created new jobs - including for Uyghurs. Entrepreneurs who offer products in the context of security earn well. On the other hand, the private sector activities of Uyghurs and Han Chinese are severely impaired by increased controls. In autumn 2017, Chen announced that it would recruit 30,000 Han Chinese teachers and employees through high salaries and free apartments in order to promote immigration and the spread of the Chinese language.

Since September 11, 2001, the Chinese central government has used the terrorism charge to discredit the desire for Uighur self-determination across the board. In response to the unrest in July 2009, Beijing exchanged a number of high-ranking cadres in the region and increasingly adopted extensive repressive measures. With the anti-terror law passed in December 2015, China placed its policy on a significantly stricter legal basis. With a very broad definition of terrorism, the law gives the authorities plenty of scope for arbitrary and blanket repression against Uyghurs.

With the appointment of Party Secretary Chen Quanguo in August 2016, the view that the region could only be under control from Beijing's point of view through a comprehensive assimilation of the cultural identity of the Uyghurs as well as through indoctrination, systematic surveillance and violent intimidation evidently prevailed within the Chinese leadership bring is. At his previous post in Tibet, Chen stopped the resistance that had escalated there with a concept of systematic repression.

In October (2018), the People's Congress of the Xinjiang Autonomous Government passed legislation legalizing the "conversion" of "extremist people" into "vocational education and training institutions" to record potential "crimes" and "suspicious activities" Authorities have created an integrated data platform (Integrated Joint Operations Platform - IJOP), which mostly stores and evaluates cell phone data across the board and automatically marks "suspicious" people. [2]

According to estimates by foreign experts, between 1 and 3 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were interned in the re-education and penal camps against their will for several weeks or months and were often relocated several times during this time. After their release, according to scientific studies based on local documents, Uyghurs are often forced to work in low-wage sectors such as cotton picking or textile work in production facilities monitored by paramilitary forces.

In September 2020, Chinese authorities had admitted the drastic decline in the birth rate (from around 15.88 per 1,000 people in 2017 to 10.69 per 1,000 people in 2018) documented by foreign researchers and the simultaneous drastic increase in sterilizations. The authorities rejected allegations of coercion and presented this as a "successfully implemented family planning policy" and "liberation and emancipation" of women.

History of the conflict

After the consolidation of Chinese rule by the production brigades and the establishment of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (1955), protests broke out regularly. 50 people died in a revolt in the Baren local authority district in April 1990. The first large-scale wave of Uyghur arrests in 1996 was followed by the Ghulja / Yinning uprising in February 1997, in which at least nine people died. After repeated bomb attacks with fatalities and acts of repression in the 1990s, the situation remained largely calm from 2000 to 2007. A bomb attack on a police station in Kashgar city just before the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics, in which 16 Chinese security officers were killed, heralded the escalation of the conflict that has continued to this day.

The unrest in July 2009 added a new dimension to the Xinjiang conflict. On July 5, 2009, peaceful demonstrations by Uyghurs in the region's capital, Urumqi, escalated into violent attacks against Han Chinese passers-by after clashes with security forces. According to official figures, 197 people died and more than 1,600 were injured. Days before, Uyghur exile groups had called for demonstrations on the Internet. The demonstrators demanded the investigation of the deaths of two Uyghur migrant workers who had died in a clash in a toy factory in southern China at the end of June. Rumors about the rape of a Uyghur migrant worker had led to the violent clashes.

As in the Tibet conflict, the Uighur and Chinese sides have different views on the history of Xinjiang. In addition to the emergence of independent Uyghur empires in the region of today's Xinjiang after the 8th century, Uyghurs refer particularly to the proclamation of the first republic of East Turkistan by Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in November 1933 in the area around the city of Kashgar. She fell through the incursion of hui Chinese warlords in 1934. From 1944 to 1949, with Soviet help, the second republic of East Turkistan was established in northern Xinjiang, which came to an end with the arrival of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

From the perspective of the Uyghurs, the Chinese then forcibly occupied the independent state. For China, the establishment of the 2nd Republic was part of the communist revolution. According to Beijing, the Chinese soldiers were welcomed by the Uyghurs as liberators. China also refers to the region's affiliation to the Chinese Empire of the Qing. In 1882/84 the then emperor Guangxu joined the area as a province with the name "Xinjiang" (New Land) to the empire.


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