Xinjiang, China's Restive Northwest

Increasing separatist activity in China's restive northwest region of Xinjiang over the last five years has led to heightened repression. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence in the early 1990s of the independent Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kirgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and others were key factors prompting Beijing to focus the central government's attention on a region that covers one-sixth of China's territory. It is also home to eight million people of the Uighur ethnic minority, who have much closer ethnic, religious and cultural ties with their newly independent neighbors than with the rest of China. The level of political violence in Xinjiang is higher than anywhere else in China; human rights violations are clearly widespread, but the combination of restrictions on access and the lack of an international support network akin to that of Tibet has meant that those violations are poorly documented. Xinjiang is important in the context of President Clinton's visit because the Chinese government has accused the United States of "openly supporting the separatist activities inside and outside Xinjiang." (See below).

Xinjiang was once best known, by its old spelling, Sinkiang, as the site of Lop Nor, China's nuclear testing site. Today it is as famous for its petroleum-producing potential, its prison network, and its Muslim nationalists, some of whom are believed to have links with groups in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and the Middle East. The human rights violations reported from Xinjiang are almost all linked to state efforts to curb separatist activity, as a major internal policy document quoted below, called Document No. 7, well illustrates. These violations range from arbitrary arrest and execution after summary trials to curbs on freedom of expression, association, and religion. A precise assessment of the human rights situation in Xinjiang is complicated by the fact that some sectors of the Uighur pro-separatist movement, unlike that in Tibet, have not infrequently resorted to violent means in pursuit of national independence. In such a context, the Chinese government clearly has legitimate security concerns in the region. It is equally apparent, however, that the hardline policies and means by which the government has sought to deal with the civil conflict in Xinjiang has served primarily to exacerbate the situation and further radicalize the opponents of Chinese rule.

Roots of a Nationalist Movement
Xinjiang (a Chinese name meaning "New Frontier") has long been inhabited by a mixture of different Muslim peoples including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks as well as the majority Uighurs. The region enjoyed independent statehood until 1759, when it was conquered by the imperial armies of China's Manchu dynasty, and numerous periodic attempts at armed insurrection against Chinese rule occurred well into the twentieth century. The most significant of these was in 1945, when local forces took advantage of the looming civil war between Communist and Nationalist Chinese to revive the independent republic of East Turkestan, which survived until 1949 when it was crushed by divisions of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The defeated Uighur leadership fled to Turkey, where one of the main opposition movements is still based; several other Uighur separatist groups, including the United National Revolutionary Front of East Tukestan, maintain headquarters in Almaty, the capital of neighboring Kazakhstan.

During the 1950s, a large network of quasi-military Han settlements, known as the "Production and Construction Corps" (PCCs) and populated mainly by demobilized soldiers and their families, was established in the northern half of Xinjiang. Today, the PCCs survive and prosper as semi-autonomous "state farms" and remain overwhelmingly Han in composition. Besides accounting for much of the region's industrial and commercial output -- predominantly cotton and livestock production, as well as gold, salt, iron, coal and other types of mining -- the PCCs also administer, in some cases almost independently from Beijing, several dozen forced-labor camps and other notoriously harsh penal institutions where long-term prisoners have for decades been dispatched from around China to serve out their sentences. (The northwestern part of Xinjiang contains probably the worst prison in the country: a uranium mining facility where inmates' average life expectancy is said to be appallingly low.) According to the official news media, the PCCs have established no fewer than 170 urban settlements and some 2,000 villages across Xinjiang since 1949; they are home to around two million mostly Han settlers and, through the longstanding policy of "combining economic and military functions," the PCCs serve as a bastion of Beijing's security preparedness in the region.

Han Chinese migration and settlement into Xinjiang greatly increased with the onset of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in the early 1980s, to the point where there are now almost as many Han as Uighurs living in Xinjiang. The two main ethnic groups live in virtual segregation, with the former concentrated mainly in the major urban areas and in the PCCs, and the latter concentrated mainly in the oases zones, especially in the south and southwestern part of Xinjiang. In December 1992, the state-run media announced plans to relocate to Xinjiang an additional half million Chinese from the inland provinces.(1)

Around the same time, there were widespread reports that several hundred thousand inhabitants of the Three Gorges area of Sichuan and Hubei provinces would be resettled in Xinjiang as part of the million-plus population transfer program in preparation for the Three Gorges Dam; following an international outcry over this proposal, it was apparently shelved by Beijing for several years, but there are increasingly clear signals that the authorities have now begun to implement a revised plan to relocate, on the basis of per capita payments to the receiving local government, at least 100,000 Three Gorges residents to resettlement zones in the general area of Kashgar.

Another source of contention is the central government's policy of allowing increasing numbers of migrant workers from China proper to take up seasonal employment in the PCCs without undergoing the usual temporary residency formalities; reports indicate that large quantities of these Han migrant workers are subsequently remaining in the PCC farm colonies as permanent settlers.

According to most independent accounts, there is substantial resentment among Uighurs toward the steadily growing Han immigrant population. While senior government posts are often allocated to Uighurs, the real administrative and political power resides in the parallel organizational hierarchy of the Communist Party, whose leading officials at all levels (except at the grassroots, in certain areas) are mostly Han Chinese. Thinly-veiled institutionalized discrimination against Uighurs and other Muslim groups ranges from the educational system, where ethnic minority children attend their own schools and colleges but where the language of instruction is Chinese, and where nightime patrols are carried out in student dormitories to check that no prayers or other manifestation of religious worship are going on; to the administrative and business employment sector, in which the "distinctive" religious, dietary and linguistic characteristics of Muslims is used as a pretext to deny them access to positions of responsibility on the grounds that the employing unit is "inadequately equipped" to meet their special needs.

Government controls on religious worship provide perhaps the most intense focus for Uighur anger and resentment throughout the region. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as part of the ultra-leftist Maoist policies that viewed inter-ethnic relations unders socialism as consisting mainly of antagonistic relations between different "social classes," Islamic and other forms of religious worship were effectively outlawed as "bourgeois" in nature; mosques throughout Xinjiang were closed down and Muslim clerics were widely persecuted and jailed; Uighur families were forced to rear pigs, in violation of religious prohibition, and many mosques were reportedly used as pork warehouses. Under the more liberal central government policies inaugurated by Deng and Hu Yaobang in 1978, mosques reopened across the region and, for most of the 1980s, freedom of religion was afforded greater official protection in Xinjiang that at any time since 1949. Since the early 1990s, however, the growing strength of the Islamic cultural and religious movement in Xinjiang, combined with the politically centrifugal effects of the breakup of Soviet power in Central Asia, has led the central government once again to impose increasingly tight restrictions on religious worship and practice in the region.

Economic reforms began in Xinjiang, as in the rest of China, in the early 1980s, but instead of producing greater stability and social cohesiveness in the region, they seem only to have exacerbated the longstanding roots of ethnic, political and religious discord between the local Uighur people and their mainly Han Chinese rulers. High among the list of specifically economic causes for such conflict are disputes over land and water-supply access, with newly established Han Chinese enterprises often monopolizing access to scarce natural resources at the expense of the indigenous rural population, particularly in the region's fast-growing cotton industry, which consumes prodigious amounts of both land and water. In such cases, increased resource scarcity is often accompanied by extensive environmental damage, including rising levels of soil salination and increased desertification. Channels of complaint or official redress, moreover, are often severely curtailed: although the PCCs are reportedly among the worst offenders in resource-related disputes, local Uighur communities are in most cases unable to pursue legal action because the PCCs are "autonomous" even in judicial matters: they have their own system of courts and police. Beijing's current drive to expand the PLA's institutional presence in Xinjiang, especially in the South, also places an additional economic burden on the local indigenous population, which is required to pay increased taxes to support the "fraternal" military deployment.

The large-scale riots that rocked the city of Yining in early February 1997 and that were suppressed with considerable violence by the local authorities were only the most visible and dramatic manifestation, along with a continuing series of bomb attacks against Chinese targets by alleged Uighur activists, of rising tensions in Xinjiang. The precise origins of the troubles in Yining (known locally as Ghulja) are unclear, but large-scale street protest demonstrations staged by local Uighurs during the last week of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan appear to have been sharply exacerbated by the government's decision to send in armed anti-riot police units at the initial stages of the protests, thereby fuelling further public animosity. The government immediately imposed a news blackout on the city, closed the border with Kazakhstan, and attributed the clashes that then raged for several days across the city to "hostile foreign forces." According to the subsequent official count, ten people were killed, 198 were injured and around 500 demonstrators were arrested. Exiled Uighur groups estimated the numbers of dead, injured and detained to have been many times higher. Earlier incidents in the region included the Baren uprising of April 1990, in which an entire Uighur township in the vicinity of Kashgar reportedly rose in armed rebellion against the local Han authorities, who responded with massive military force. A reliable tally of the casualties at Baren may never be known: according to the government, the death toll came to around twenty; but Uighur sources claimed that several hundred rebels were killed.

China's Strategy for Curbing Separatism: Document No. 7
The rise of the independent Central Asian states provided both an opportunity and a major source of concern for the Chinese leadership: on the one hand, the prospect of extending China's influence into vast neighbouring regions to which it had previously been denied access; and on the other, the alarming scenario of Islamic nationalist and religious influence permeating into a part of China that had already once declared independence from Beijing.

Beijing's policy solution to this ambiguous new set of developments has been to declare Xinjiang a "bridgehead" (qiaotoubao): a military metaphor denoting a bastion from which rapid advances can be launched into new territory, but one requiring heightened defensive precautions against possible counterattacks from the other side. This, plus the growing importance of China's extensive oil reserves in Xinjiang and the evident rise in nationalist sentiment among the region's indigenous Uighur population, has led to an increasing assertion of direct control over Xinjiang by the central government.

In March 1996, the Standing Committee of the CPC Politburo--the seven most powerful men in China--convened a special session to discuss the "Xinjiang question." The official record of that meeting, issued as a "top secret" classified document, called Document No. 7, is indicative of the Beijing leadership's current theoretical perspective on, and its practical policy response to, the challenges confronting Chinese rule in Xinjiang in the post-Soviet era.(2) It is probably the most important policy document on Xinjiang to have been issued by the Chinese government for over a decade. Document No. 7 covers ten major issues ranging from intensified controls over religious activity throughout the region to the need for wholesale reinforcement of military and security preparedness. It was a clear indication that Beijing was preparing itself for the emergence of massive social and ethnic unrest in Xinjiang, a fear that became reality when the Yining riots erupted almost a year after the document was issued.

Because of what it reveals about how efforts to suppress ethnic separatism lead to controls on fundamental freedoms, Document No. 7 is worth quoting in some detail. Point 1 of the document summarizes the central government's principal concerns in Xinjiang as follows:

[N]ational separatism and illegal religious activity are the chief threats to the stability of Xinjiang. The main problem is that international counter-revolutionary forces led by the United States of America are openly supporting the separatist activities inside and outside of Xinjiang. The outside national separatist organizations are joining hands and strengthening the infiltration of Xinjiang sabotage activities with each passing day. Within our national borders, illegal religious activities are widespread; sabotaging activities such as the instigation of problematic situations, the breaking-and entering of party government offices and explosions and terrorism are occurring sporadically. Some of these activities have changed from completely hidden to semi-open activities, even to the degree of openly challenging the government's authority.

Point 2 of the document then addresses the need for "strengthening the construction of all levels of government" in Xinjiang, a policy that appears mainly to consist of importing large numbers of "reliable" Party cadres from China proper:

During this year and next, the weak and disorganized party branches have to be reorganized. Most importantly, the village level organizations which have fallen into the hands of religious powers have to be organized with great attention. The chairmen of village party branches and the heads of neighborhood districts have to be chosen carefully.

More specifically, while Document No. 7 gives token acknowledgment of the need to "Trust and depend on cadres of every nationality, train a number of minority cadres who can determinedly defend the unity of the nation, fight against ethnic separatism and establish a close relationship with people while maintaining strong, revolutionary professionalism," the major emphasis falls clearly upon the following:

[T]ake real measures to train a large number of Han cadres who love Xinjiang and who will stick to the basic theory, principles and guiding policy of the Party to correctly implement the ethnic and religion policies of the Party and then relocate them to Xinjiang...

In Point 3, which deals with "strengthening the legal control of ethnic and religious affairs," the real human rights implications of the document begin to emerge:

Take strong measures to prevent and fight against the infiltration and sabotaging activities of foreign religious powers. Restrict all illegal religious activities. Severely control the building of new mosques. Mosques built without permission from the government have to be handled according to registration methods of practicing sites of religion. Relocate or replace quickly people who are hesitant or support ethnic separatism. Give leadership positions in mosques and religious organizations to dependable, talented people who love the motherland. Stop illegal organizations such as underground religious schools, kung-fu schools and Koran studies meetings.

The "illegal activities of underground religious students" must be "dealt with according to the law," and people trained in "underground religious schools" must be registered and tightly controlled "one by one." Moreover:

A young generation of patriotic religious leaders who will defend motherland unity and ethnic unity has to be trained and prepared by systematic training and sent to China proper for visiting and studying in order to fully utilize the function of patriotic religious organizations.

Point 4 of the document then proceeds to considers the task of "Stabilizing the ideological and cultural stronghold against separatism by means of strong propaganda and investigating and organizing schools" -- in other words, the question of cultural and educational censorship and control. The first aspect of such controls is directed against ethnic Uighur Party cadres who "believe in religion and refuse to change": they have to withdraw from Party membership. In addition, strict prohibitions are placed on any attempt to introduce Moslem ideas into the school curriculum:

Do not allow religion to corrupt the schools; do not allow anyone to teach school children ethnic separatism and publicize religious ideas. Remove textbook contents which inspire ethnic separatism and publicize religious ideas.

From here on, Document No. 7 becomes a litany of unqualified mandatory restrictions imposed by the central authorities on freedom of expression, religious belief, foreign travel and so forth:

Tightly limit cultural exchange activities, such as foreign teachers teaching at Xinjiang schools....When choosing students for study abroad, pay great attention to their attitude and their actual behavior. Do not send those without a good attitude....Severely restrict elementary and high schools from developing cultural exchange programs with schools in foreign countries....Tightly control the media market. Books, journals, audio and video tapes which twist the history and inspire ethnic separatism and illegal religious ideas should be prohibited and confiscated without exception; the involved personnel have to be investigated.

Point 5 of the document, addressing the question of Xinjiang's internal security, calls for full-scale mobilization by all levels of the security apparatus in readiness for large-scale social unrest in the region:

Strengthen the democratic dictatorship organizations, such as Public Security and State Security, and fully utilize their functions in fighting separatism and sabotage activities.... Increase their combat readiness. Public Security, State Security branches and the PLA's intelligence branches should all cooperate and work together to investigate and analyze the enemies inside and outside the border and strengthen the work of collecting intelligence information.

Crucially, this hardline security policy involves, above all, extending the government's control mechanisms into southern Xinjiang, where most of the Uighur population of the region lives and which hitherto had been the last part of Xinjiang enjoying even minimal "autonomy" from Beijing:

Make Southern Xinjiang the focus of attention; establish a sensitive information network and strive to get information on a deep level which can serve as a covert prior alert of any trouble. Establish individual files; maintain supervision and vigilance. Legally strike against separatism, sabotaging and criminal activities of the internal and external hostile forces in a timely manner. Strengthen the management of labor camps (laogai) and prisons in Xinjiang.

Continuing the above theme, Point 6 of the document calls for an extensive expansion of the Production and Construction Corps network--the chief organizational nexus for Beijing's "bridgehead" operation in Xinjiang--throughout the region as a whole and especially into the south:

[S]ponsor and mobilize ambitious young people in China proper to come and settle in the PCCs, expand their forces and fully utilize their special function of defending and developing the border regions....Seize the opportunity to develop Southern Xinjiang and expand the PCCs there. Government at all levels should...properly resolve conflicts and confrontation between the PCCs and local farmers and nomadic peoples concerning grasslands, water supply and other natural resources.

Next, in Point 7, the CPC Politburo orders a heavily increased deployment of People's Liberation Army units in the region and a comprehensive increase in their combat preparedness:

A stronghold against ethnic separatism should be formed by greatly strengthening the construction of the People's Liberation Army in Xinjiang. The military forces in Xinjiang will only be strengthened, not weakened. Education on ethnic and religious policy must be selectively carried out within the Army. Tighten controls and increase the military and political ability of officers and soldiers to prevent enemy forces from causing confusion so that they can infiltrate and carry out sabotage activities

Document No. 7 then turns (in Point 8) to consider the related issue of China's foreign diplomacy in the Central Asian region. Here the focus is exclusively upon using China's growing clout in the region as a means of pressuring neighboring states into cracking down on the various exile Uighur groups based on their territory:

Limit the activities of outside ethnic separatist activities from many sides. Bear in mind the fact that Turkey, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan are the home-bases for the activities of outside separatists forces. Through diplomacy, urge these countries to limit and weaken the activities of separatist forces inside their border...and prevent, by all means, such forces from making the so-called "Eastern Turkistan" problem international....Establish homebases in the regions or cities with high Chinese and overseas Chinese populations.

The ominous human rights implications of Document No. 7 make the lifting of restrictions on access to the area by journalists and human rights monitors all the more imperative.

The "Strike Hard" Campaign in Xinjiang
Not by coincidence, the first major initiative taken by the central government, in April 1996--a mere one month after the issuance of Politburo Document No. 7--was to announce the launching of the country's most severe and extensive "Strike Hard" (Yan Da) campaign since the fall of 1983, when the first such periodic anti-crime campaign took place in China. In the case of Xinjiang the scope of the 1996 Strike Hard campaign was specifically extended by the central government to include not only the "major common criminals" who had always been the main targets, but also both "ethnic splittists" and "illegal religious" forces and individuals throughout the region. That campaign resulted in hundreds of thousands of arrests of criminal suspects, and several thousand judicial executions, across China--and in Xinjiang, too, the campaign more than lived up to its description by the authorities as a "quasi-military action."

In the area of official religious policy, the implications of Strike Hard were spelled out in the Xinjiang Ribao in September 1996 as follows:

The CPC committee has taken measures to tighten the regulation of religion. Rules have been adopted to explicitly prohibit any mosque from allowing traveling religious figures from outside to preach there and [to prevent] any individual from allowing outside religious figures to conduct religious activities at his home. All Islamic religious figures must enroll in the "training course for religious figures" organized by the [government] county department in charge of religion....Religious figures are required to undergo a round of studies in the township on a semi-monthly basis and an assessment is conducted every three months, thus instilling among religious figures a sense of complying with the law.(3)

The government's offensive against unauthorized Moslem religious activities had clearly been on the drawing board since the appearance of Document No. 7, but it was intensified by the Xinjiang security authorities in the aftermath of the February 1997 Yining riots. Dozens of people were reportedly sentenced to death and executed for their roles in the riots and in a bombing incident that occurred soon afterwards in Urumqi, the provincial capitol, and dozens more were sentenced to prison terms of seven years to life. In late June 1997, news began to filter out about the wider ramifications of the post-Yining crackdown. A major purge of local officials had reportedly been carried out: according to the Xinjiang Ribao, 260 grassroots cadres had been sacked, including thirty-five Party secretaries of villages and towns in Ili Prefecture and nineteen village mayors or factory managers. A parallel crackdown on "underground" religious activities had resulted in an official banning of the construction or renovation of 133 mosques. Altogether forty-four "core participants in illegal religious activities" had been arrested in the Yili region. In addition, more than one hundred "illegal classes" teaching the Koran had been broken up by the security authorities, five school principals had been sacked and numerous teachers threatened with dismissal for allegedly stirring up separatist sentiment. The report even boasted that in Ili, "illegal religious activities were cleaned up...district by district, village by village and hamlet by hamlet."(4) In July, Amudun Niyaz, chairman of the Xinjiang People's Congress, publicly called for the "waging of a people's war against separatists and illegal religious activities."

According to the United National Revolutionary Front, a Uighur nationalist group based in Kazakhstan, the crackdown was not confined to Yining, but also extended to the town of Turpan, where schools and mosques were searched.

Meanwhile, thousands of common criminals were being rounded up across the region and summarily sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, or even death, after trials that fell far short of international standards of justice. In many of the reported cases, it was left unspecified as to whether or not those referred to as "national splittists," "terrorists" and the like had in fact been responsible for any kind of violent activities against the state. It was quite clear, however, that the government had made unauthorized religious activity and pro-separatist sentiment two of the prime targets of Strike Hard.

The precise details of the wholesale offensive waged by the government against Uighur separatist groups during 1997 are extremely hard to come by, but according to an April 1998 report in the Hong Kong Standard,

An anti-crime "Strike Hard" campaign has smashed several terrorist groups in Xinjiang in the restive region where Muslims are fighting for a homeland. The campaign over the past three months in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, had uncovered eighty-seven criminal groups, it was reported.(5)

In late 1997, the authorities declared that Strike Hard would henceforth become a permanent feature of daily life in China, and the latest massive round of "quasi-military" mobilization against crime is just now getting underway in the Xinjiang region. This time the official focus on combatting and crushing "ethnic splittists" and "illegal religious activities" is even more pronounced than before.

One of the chief difficulties in attempting to track and monitor human rights abuses arising out of the Strike Hard campaign in Xinjiang is that official reports rarely distinguish between authentically violent or terrorist actions by Uighur separatists and peaceful cultural or political protests carried out by those in the ethnic separatist movement who eschew any use or advocacy of violence. In a rare official report on a specific case, for example, the region's main newspaper reported in March 1998 on a crackdown against "illegal publishing" in Urumqi:

Not long ago, according to reports by the masses, the Urumqi City Public Security Bureau discovered 86 copies of illegal books of nineteen different kinds from an individual book dealer at a hotel. The Press and Publications Bureau examined these books and found that fourteen kinds were pirated books which had serious political problems. Two kinds of books were banned by [government] order, and the other three kinds were lewd books. During the large-scale investigation and audit checks, the bureau also confiscated a number of illegal religious publications which distort the Party's nationalities policy and undermine national unity. These publications were destroyed.(6)

In the official view, peaceful advocacy of ethnic independence or cultural autonomy on the one hand, and violent or terrorist espousal of similar aims on the other, constitute two extremes of the same continuum.


1. China Daily, December 5, 1992.

2. The full translated text of Document No. 7 appears in Human Rights Watch [Update No. 1 State Control of Religion.....]

3. "Township Party Committee Steers Party Members from Religion," Xinjiang Ribao, September 18, 1996; in FBIS-CHI-96-252.

4. "Ili Prefecture's Intensive Rectification Develops in Depth," Xinjiang Ribao, June 21, 1997; in FBIS, July 8, 1997.

5. Hong Kong Standard, April 1, 1998; no source is provided for the reports in question.

6. "Xinjiang Confiscates Publications Which Undermine Unity," Xinjiang Ribao, March 13, 1998; in FBIS-CHI-98-094.

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