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Independence Is the Only Way Forward for East Turkestan

Chinese colonization is the root of the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs.

By , the author of Worse than Death: Reflections on the Uyghur Genocide, and , the founder of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement.
Uyghur women hold East Turkestan flags as they demonstrate near the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul on March 8.
Uyghur women hold East Turkestan flags as they demonstrate near the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul on March 8. Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

On July 27, Foreign Policy published an article titled “Calls for Independence May Not Help the Uyghur Cause,” which argued that most Uyghurs don’t seek independence from China, and that pro-independence arguments damage attempts to protect Uyghurs’ human rights inside China. But in the long run, independence is the only way to guarantee protection for Uyghurs from the Chinese state.

At present, the conversation on East Turkestan, which China calls Xinjiang, is framed in terms of human rights violations instead of being addressed as an international conflict.

China falsely claims East Turkestan has been part of China “since ancient times.” But despite almost 2,000 years of contact, China never really established hegemony over the region until the late 19th century. Various dynasties briefly occupied parts of the region, brought parts of it into tributary relations, and manipulated local politics, but it was never successfully integrated into the Chinese empire.

On July 27, Foreign Policy published an article titled “Calls for Independence May Not Help the Uyghur Cause,” which argued that most Uyghurs don’t seek independence from China, and that pro-independence arguments damage attempts to protect Uyghurs’ human rights inside China. But in the long run, independence is the only way to guarantee protection for Uyghurs from the Chinese state.

At present, the conversation on East Turkestan, which China calls Xinjiang, is framed in terms of human rights violations instead of being addressed as an international conflict.

China falsely claims East Turkestan has been part of China “since ancient times.” But despite almost 2,000 years of contact, China never really established hegemony over the region until the late 19th century. Various dynasties briefly occupied parts of the region, brought parts of it into tributary relations, and manipulated local politics, but it was never successfully integrated into the Chinese empire.

In 1877, the Qing invaded East Turkestan; in 1884, they formally annexed it as “Xinjiang,” meaning “new territory” in Mandarin. Subsequently, the Qing began to colonize the area by settling Han Chinese and Hui (Chinese Muslims) colonists in East Turkestan.

As with the names of many modern nations, “East Turkestan” itself is a relatively recent coinage—but one that resonates with its people. Historically, beginning in the fifth century, much of Central Asia, including East Turkestan, was referred to as “Turkestan.” With the Russian occupation of “West Turkestan” in the early 19th century, the term “East Turkestan” was coined to distinguish the two. Systematic discrimination, political marginalization, and Chinese colonization gave birth to an anti-colonial national movement, with Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples declaring independence in 1933 as the East Turkestan Republic. This short-lived state was overthrown in 1934 by a combination of Hui and Chinese forces under the Republic of China and Soviet-backed Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai.

In 1934, under Soviet pressure, Sheng proclaimed the “Eight Great Proclamations,” which promised, among other things, racial equality, religious freedom, and self-government for the region. However, by 1937 Sheng began to implement Sun’s blueprint for the colonization of East Turkestan, by moving in Chinese colonists and beginning a mass purge of Uyghur and other Turkic peoples that resulted in the imprisonment and deaths of an estimated 100,000 people. This in turn led to a renewed anti-colonial national movement, in which Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tartars joined together, backed by the Soviet Union, to declare independence once more as the East Turkestan Republic in 1944. They were later joined by Mongols and Xibe (Manchus).

Some Uyghurs, led by Isa Yusuf Alptekin, sought peaceful coexistence and autonomy within China during the Kuomintang era, but their requests fell on deaf ears. On Aug. 27, 1949, top leaders of the East Turkestan Republic, who were prepared to negotiate with the Chinese communists for the future of East Turkestan, were killed in a mysterious plane crash. At least 30 top officials of the East Turkestan Republic were assassinated in September 1949 by the Soviets, according to CIA reports declassified in 2014.

The People’s Republic of China invaded East Turkestan on Oct. 13, 1949, and overthrew the East Turkestan Republic on Dec. 22, 1949. Despite China officially calling its occupation of East Turkestan “the peaceful liberation of Xinjiang,” Urumqi radio reported in 1952 and 1954 that a total of 150,000 “enemies of China” had been eliminated.

Since the occupation of East Turkestan, Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples have been constantly subjected to the repressive colonial policies of the Chinese government. Regardless of whether Uyghurs have pursued peaceful coexistence with the Chinese or fought against their rule, they have not been able to escape persecution.

Even Ilham Tohti, a famous Uyghur economist considered by the author of the July 27 article as “a vocal opponent of Uyghur independence,” is currently serving a life sentence in China on separatism-related charges. Ironically, former Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Nur Bekri, whom Tohti openly criticized for “always stress[ing] the stability and security of Xinjiang” instead of “car[ing] about Uyghurs,” was accused in 2018 of taking bribes and sentenced to life in prison.

Their fates show that no Uyghur is safe under Chinese rule.

Is seeking independence harmful or beneficial to the current anti-genocide narratives? The East Turkestan independence movement is neither a recent phenomenon nor an opportunistic movement taking advantage of the Uyghur genocide. The opposite is true—the Uyghur genocide is the direct, though delayed, result of Chinese colonialism and the occupation of East Turkestan.

As a result, the East Turkestan independence movement is gaining momentum among the Uyghur diaspora. In September 2018, two contesting petitions were launched on the White House’s official “We The People” petition page that shed some light on what Uyghurs, at least in the diaspora, want for their future. The first petition, endorsed by the World Uyghur Congress and its affiliates and using the terms “Xinjiang,” “re-education camps,” “human rights abuses,” and “minorities,” receiving 12,705 signatures from the global Uyghur diaspora. The second petition, endorsed by the East Turkestan Government in Exile and using the terms “East Turkestan,” “concentration camps,” “genocide,” and “occupied territory,” receiving over 108,564 signatures at the time.

Calls to restore East Turkestan’s independence do not jeopardize the anti-genocide narrative; instead, they shed a historical light on what preceded this genocide and strengthen the pressure on the international community to recognize and address the centuries-old Sino-East Turkestan conflict. The anti-genocide narrative and the independence movement are complementary—the former serves as an urgent priority for the solution to the current East Turkestan crisis while the latter offers a long-term and sustainable framework for a peaceful future for Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in East Turkestan and beyond.

The East Turkestan independence movement forces us to think about a post-genocide situation in a broader and more constructive way. It opens up the complexities of the issue at stake—to truly save Uyghurs, the world needs to listen to their plea for freedom from fear, humiliation, and tyranny. If this plea is ignored, there is no meaningful future for Uyghurs.

What awaits Uyghurs after this genocide? Who can guarantee that China will stop this genocide after all Uyghurs relinquish their ideals of independence? The tragic experience of the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples of East Turkestan in the past two centuries show tha it is the East Turkestan independence movement that has enabled the Uyghurs to make it into the 21st century as a distinct nation.

Even if the Uyghurs currently in camps and prisons were released back to their communities tonight, they would still be forced to live in an oppressive environment—with the menacing surveillance of countless security cameras, aggressive Chinese police forces, and lack of legal protection and political rights for Uyghurs. What awaits Uyghurs in the future is nothing but attempts to convert them to being “Chinese.”

The Uyghurs need to live in peace, freely and independently on their own ancestral land as they can no longer do under Chinese rule. Independence is the only way for Uyghurs to live in dignity, peace, and freedom.

The argument made by some that the sympathy of the Han Chinese public can be won by abandoning calls for independence is nothing but wishful thinking. There has been little outcry and criticism by Chinese communities, intellectuals, and human rights activists in the West against this genocide. On the contrary, following an online discussion earlier this year on the role of Chinese chauvinism in the Uyghur genocide, Wei Jingsheng, a prominent Chinese “democracy leader” based in the United States, not only denied the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs but also shamelessly accused Uyghurs of committing genocide against the Han Chinese.

The Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples of East Turkestan have many times been the victims of atrocities perpetrated by Chinese colonialists. But many of them still hold fast to their political goal of independence. If the meaning of this steadfastness and sacrifice is undermined, then it is difficult to explain why Uyghurs have often paid a fatal price to keep their desire to regain their freedom very much alive. This is where Uyghur pride lies—in having the courage to refuse to be Chinese and stick with whom they are despite risk of losing everything. If we push this pride to its limit, we can see that, for Uyghurs, it is better to die free than to live as slaves.

Mamtimin Ala currently resides in Australia and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. He is the author of Worse than Death: Reflections on the Uyghur Genocide.

Salih Hudayar is the prime minister of the East Turkistan Government in Exile and the founder of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement.

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