Nation profile

East Turkestan
Sherqiy Türkistan

General information
22,980,000 inhabitants (est 2014)
1.660.001 km²
Government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
Major cities
Urumqi (capital), Turpan, Kashgar, Karamay
State administration
People's Republic of China
Territorial languages
Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Oirat, Dongxiang, Tajik, Xibe
Official languages
Mandarin Chinese, Uyghur
Major religion
Sunni Islam, Chinese religions, Buddhism

Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang, in Chinese) is a vast country located in the confines of Central and East Asia. It is populated by several peoples, among which Uyghurs and Chinese currently make up the majority of the population (more than 40% each). Other peoples include the Kazakhs (7%, mainly concentrated in the far north) and the Huis (4%), with Kyrgyz, Mongol, Xibe and other minorities below 1%.

Geographically, the vast territory of East Turkestan can be subdivided into two major areas: Jungaria, in the north, which is better connected with China and has a higher share Chinese population, and the Tarim river basin, in the centre and south, where Uyghurs form the vast majority of the population and which includes one of the most inhospitable deserts in the world —the Taklamakan.

The roots of the conflict in East Turkestan

Two historical narratives are in conflict as regards East Turkestan. Broadly speaking, that of Uyghur nationalism says Uyghurs were the first people to be formed as such in today’s territory of East Turkistan, and that their differentiated characteristics can be traced at least since the 9th century AD. This narrative underlines the Turkic nature of the Uyghur people, their links with the geographic area of Central Asia, and the fact that Uyghurs had established several medieval states in the area. It rejects that the Chinese have any historical right to settle the territory.

The other narrative —that of Chinese nationalism— argues that before the arrival of the Uyghurs, several Chinese dynasties had already incorporated East Turkestan into the East Asian world, and that some settlements had been founded there. On that basis, this narrative justifies the migration —relatively modest since the 18th century and much more intense since 949— of Han and Hui Chinese towards the territory.

The Uyghur movement recalls that, prior to its incorporation into the current People’s Republic of China, two East Turkestan republics (1933 and 1944) had been proclaimed, a fact that would show the determination of the local society to have a state of its own, independent from China.

The Uyghur movement, therefore, rejects current Chinese domination, which it deems illegitimate —not only from the institutional point of view but also because of market, political, linguistic and religious discrimination against Uyghurs— and demands the right to self-determination, whether it is to establish a new Chinese republic in which constituent units enjoy a high degree of self-government or to establish an independent state.

The Uyghur movement

The most representative organization of the Uyghur movement in exile is the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), based in Munich. The WUC is mainly dedicated to lobby on behalf of the rights of the Uyghur and to denounce their situation under Chinese rule. The group is a member of the Unrepresented Peoples’ and Nations’ Organization (UNPO).

The WUC rejects the resort to violence advocated by certain Uyghur armed organizations, such as the Islamic Party of Turkestan (formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement).

(Last updated March 2017.)