Xinjiang geographically can be split into two main regions: the low-lying Tarim Basin in the south, and Dzungaria in the north. The Tarim Basin has also been referred to as Altishahr (ئالتە شەھەر), or the Six Cities, in reference to the oasis cities that flourished in the region in the 18th and 19th century (Urumqi is not one of these cities, as it was established as the capital of Xinjiang only in 1884). Today, the main difference is that the Tarim Basin is the traditionally Uyghur area of Xinjiang while Dzungaria, including Urumqi, is much more multicultural, with more significant Han, Hui, and Kazakh presence in addition to Uyghurs.
What is now Xinjiang has for a long time been of critical interest to successive Chinese empires. The Han Dynasty was the first to establish a protectorate in Xinjiang. The Tang would go further and would extend military protection to regions as far as modern-day Uzbekistan. Buddhism spread to China via Xinjiang, creating potent Buddhist centers of learning in the early history of this region.
Obviously, all this (trade, the Silk Road, religious prestige) played a role in this interest (and wealth and religious legitimacy were some of the many reasons the Tibetan Empire would challenge the Tang, sometimes successfully, for control of Xinjiang), but it also played a vital role in protecting China’s frontier from northern incursions. Cutting off nomadic access to potential allies (and rupturing powerful nomadic empires whenever possible, such as Taizong Emperor’s defeat of the Turkic Khaganate) as well as securing access to equestrian bloodlines from Central Asia were strategic reasons for early Chinese empires to maintain interests in what is now Xinjiang.
China would not regain control of Xinjiang until the Qing Dynasty (even the Yuan dynasty largely found themselves shut out of modern-day Xinjiang by the contemporary sibling Chagatai Khanate). By this time, the Mongols had attempted to reunite several times, with varying Mongol groups vying for supremacy. The Dzungars would eventually win this supremacy, and were powerful enough to eject a rival Mongol lord from Tibet and install themselves as overlord of Tibet (from which they were evicted in 1720 by the Qing). However, the Dzungars, the last nomadic empire of history, were ultimately defeated by the Qing by 1758, who used local rulers to administer the Tarim Basin and Dzungaria (and resettling Dzungaria with Han, “Uyghur”, Hui, and Manchu people, thus Dzungaria’s current multiculturalism). A brief rebellion by the Khoja brothers (“Uyghur” Sufi power brokers) attempted to take advantage of Qing’s Dzungar campaign to seize control of the Tarim Basin, but they were put down by 1759, marking Qing’s firm control over Xinjiang. (for a general overview of the Qing conquest of Xinjiang, Peter Perdue’s China Marches West is a solid volume, but be aware that as one of the frontrunners of the “New Qing History”, some of the theses in the work are controversial and still being debated, namely whether the Dzungars were genocided or not).
Qing would maintain consistent control over Xinjiang with somewhat frequent unrest (due to the distance of Xinjiang from Beijing, leading to a laxer administration), the most significant being Yaqub Beg’s occupation of the Tarim Basin from 1865-1877 (supported by the British, who moved immediately to establish diplomatic relations with Yaqub Beg). When the Qing fell, the Republic of China inherited Qing’s territorial claims (including a curious claim on Tajikistan’s Kühistoni Badakhshon, most likely based on the Qing’s stele erected at Yashilkül when pursuing the Khoja brothers).
During the turbulent early 20th Century, Uyghurs established two East Turkestan Republics. To summarize, the First was short-lived and crushed by a Chinese warlord not long after its establishment. It reportedly was founded by a Pan-Turkist and did not receive support from the Soviets due to its religious character (official name: (ئىسلام جۇمھۇرىيىتى شەرقىي تۈركىستان) or East Turkestan Islamic Republic). The second (official name: (شەرقىي تۈركىستان جۇمھۇرىيىتى) or simply East Turkestan Republic) had a good chance of survival due to its Soviet support, but once the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in other parts of China was certain, its leaders (and the Soviets) read the winds and either threw their lot with the CCP or escaped. (see generally Mark Dickens’ blogpost The Soviets in Xinjiang: 1911-1949 for a dated but very detailed and succinct overview of Xinjiang in the Republican era)
The reason the contributor put Uyghur in quotation marks in some instances earlier is because Uyghur, in reference to Turkic-speaking inhabitants of the Tarim Basin in the time periods between Tang and Republic of China, is more a term of convenience than an accurate ethnic appellate (which possesses an identity that people feel affinity towards). The term Uyghur was coined in a 1921 Conference in Tashkent (modern-day capital of Uzbekistan, then Turkestan ASSR of the Soviet Union), reviving the name of the Uyghur Khaganate, which refers more to a historic Turkic empire contemporaneous with the Tang based in what is now modern-day Mongolia which famously adopted Manichaeism as the imperial religion. By the time of the Qing, it was unclear whether the occupants of Altishahr possessed an identity that would be akin to nationality as understood in modern social sciences. Most likely, their primary identifier was the locality of their birth, and indeed the modern Uyghur language, much like the modern Uzbek language, is the compilation and construction based on the primary dialects of Altishahr. (see generally David Brophy’s Taranchis, Kashgaris, and the ‘Uyghur Question’ in Soviet Central Asia, findable here)
Extremism, Terrorism, & Deradicalization Efforts
The Chinese government has set up education and training centers (教育培训中心) in Xinjiang in order to combat extremism mostly in southern Xinjiang. The goal of these facilities is to deradicalize Chinese citizens returning from terrorist activity (whether via involvement with ISIS in Syria or in the East Turkestan Independence Movement) by providing them with marketable skills (usually blue collar practical skills which could be useful in daily life as well) as well as with functional knowledge in Chinese language and law.
They are not hidden facilities: one can go to Baidu and search 新疆教育培训中心 and get news articles, and international journalists were invited (and accepted the invitation) to visit the camps earlier in 2019 (it was in fact Western actors who sometimes refused the invitation). These kind of “re-education camps” are also not unique to China: France tried their hand at a similar type of programming earlier.
China has faced intense Western criticism of the facilities starting around August of 2018. The criticism first arose in spades when the sole American member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Gay McDougall, during a regular review of China’s compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, commented that “credible reports” alleged detention of millions of Uyghur Muslim minorities in “internment camps.” McDougall failed to produce a source in this discussion. Furthermore, the Committee is an independent body that is not representative of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and thus cannot make statements on behalf of a UN organ. (see generally) (see official OHCHR press release)
McDougall herself, again, offered no source or report to back up her assertion at the UN Human Rights Council. So one can only extrapolate where the “millions” number comes from. Many data-backed reports are produced by the Jamestown Foundation. There is however one report that was submitted to the CERD by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders and the Equal Rights Initiative which perhaps McDougall was relying on to support her position. In this report, one finds critically erroneous statistical assumptions. Such as the millions number was arrived by interviews with 8 villagers in Kashgar county. The villagers estimated how many people were in the education centers. They then calculated, averaged, and applied this rate to all of Xinjiang. It should go without saying just how statistically faulty this method is.
Despite all these facts, Western news media reported the meeting with such headlines as “U.N. says it has credible reports that China holds million Uighurs in secret camps”, even though the CERD does not have the authority to make statements on behalf of the United Nations as a whole, McDougall did not in fact have a credible report and could not cite a credible source, yet this message was picked up by American media as an absolute fact without reviewing the source of the allegations. (keep in mind too that this is Reuters, America’s “most trustworthy” media platforms)
Additionally, the severity of the facilities as alleged by the West (and insinuated by their word choices, mostly “concentration camps”, “internment camps”, and “re-education camps”) can be called into question. Most notably, BBC accepted an invitation to visit a facility in early July, releasing a video shortly afterward. While the video displayed Uyghur-led instruction in vocational skills and decent facilities, BBC attempted still to frame the facilities negatively through mistranslations, word usage, and over-focus on barbed wire, a common sight around any Chinese educational facilities. Furthermore, the video in fact provided some evidence that students of the facilities are allowed to go home over the weekends, questioning the narrative that these are prison camps purposed for maximum oppression. (see generally)
Although the Western news media would have people believing otherwise, this campaign to discredit China’s deradicalization project in Xinjiang has hit a brick wall and failed to convince Muslim countries from joining the West in criticizing China.
The first blow was when the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an international organization consisting of 57 member states, 53 of whom are Muslim-majority, with a collective population of 1.8 billion and possessing permanent delegations to the United Nations and the European Union, not only failed to criticize the facilities, but passed a resolution in support of China’s position. The OIC Council of Foreign Ministers met on March 2nd, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, declaring that it “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens.” (OIC resolution: see page 5, paragraph 20, and response)
The second blow came on July 12th, 2019, when a three-week session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) ended with a letter signed by representatives of 37 countries praising China’s position two days after 22 countries signed a letter condemning China’s position. Of the 37 countries in support of China, 18 were Muslim-majority countries. Of the 22 countries condemning China, 0 were Muslim-majority countries, and 17 have been involved in some way with military operations (i.e. bombing) Muslim countries in the 21st Century (the United States did not sign since it withdrew from the HRC on June 19th, 2018, citing “bias”, particularly against Israel). (see generally) This HRC session in fact ended with a statement by 50 countries in support of China (note: link will download a file).
Another PR blow to the Western position took place on October 29th, 2019, in a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The UK read a joint statement on behalf of 23 countries once again condemning China’s position. Immediately in response, Belarus read a joint statement on behalf of 54 countries (the exact list will be referenced when found and updated), and an additional 30 countries (exact list will be referenced when found and updated) issued statements in support of China’s position. (report) If we go by the joint statements then, the condemning camp had grown by 1 country from July HRC to October General Assembly. Meanwhile, the supportive camp had grown by 17 in the same time period, signaling yet another Western (American-led) diplomatic failure as well as less support for the narrative of massive and egregious human rights violations in the region.
While naturally Western media continued to press the Xinjiang issue, the combined dent inflicted by these two incidences (especially given the weight of the OIC) along with the rising violence in the Hong Kong riots ensured that media attention would be diverted to Hong Kong.
The only remaining question then is why the United States and Western media was and is so adamant on pushing the Xinjiang angle, especially considering the simmering Islamophobia and related social tensions in the West, particularly in the United States and France (to say nothing of the United States’ currently ongoing Muslim Ban). The timing and circumstances are these criticisms are most interesting. The trade war with China has just begun to heat up, the CFO of Huawei would be arrested shortly after these news broke in December 2018, the Belt and Road Initiative is going smoothly, China-Pakistan relations have been riding at an all-time high, and there has not been a terrorist attack in Xinjiang since 2016. (see generally)
With the withering support for the “Uyghur concentration camp” narrative on the global stage and with the fuller context of the Western media response to the education facilities, it becomes clearer that at best, the narrative serves as a distraction from the West’s own potent Islamophobia, from American constitutional Muslim ban and hate crimes against Muslims, including murder, to France’s hijab bans and Europe’s rupturing migrant crisis leading, in part, to the resurrection of right-wing extremism. At worst, it is a concerted effort by the West to contain China by (1) attempting to wrest Muslim countries’ support for the BRI (which has failed); and (2) ensuring the pipeline for Chinese citizens to radicalize and become terrorists remains active for the purpose of striking China’s stability directly (which has evidently also failed).
It is not this contributor’s intention to categorically deny that the facilities have elements or practices that would strike the common person as unjust. However, it is the contributor’s intention to question the narrative of “genocide” and “mass internment”, especially numbers such as 1 million (about 1/10 of the total Uyghur population in China) (or even the fact that news media cannot agree on whether it is 1 million Uyghurs and Muslims in the facilities, 3 million, or just hundreds of thousands – credible reports normally do not have such a wide divergence). This is particularly irksome considering that China’s response to domestic terrorism has been kept domestic, while the United States (and its allies) have responded by waging war on decade-long wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.