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 (46% of the population, 2010 census) and Chinese (40.5%) currently make up the majority of the population. Other peoples include the Kazakhs (6.5%, mainly concentrated in the far north) and the Hui (4.5%), 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.
For decades, the Uyghur have been enduring from a process of national minoritisation and oppression by the Chinese authorities. In addition to the subordination of the Uyghur people’s language, culture, and religion, since 2017 the implementation of a system of internment camps has seen at least one million people forcibly interned in them. Human rights organisations, several media, and eyewitnesses denounce that the internments are carried out through mass arrests without judicial guarantees. Inmates are subjected to indoctrination, forced labour, torture, and other human rights violations.
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, reaching to the establishment of two self-declared republics —the first one in 1933-34 and the second one, from 1944 to 1949. Appealing to this narrative, Uyghur nationalism 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.
Most Uyghurs speak Uyghur, a language of the Turkic family with about 10 million speakers. It is official East Turkestan, along with Chinese, the language spoken by the Han and Hui Chinese and the privileged language by Chinese authorities.
Other Turkic languages are also spoken in East Turkestan, such as Kazakh and Kyrgyz, as well as a language of the Tungusic family (Xibe) and one of the Mongolic family (Oirat).
East Turkestan is nominally an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China under the name of Xinjiang Uyghur, with its own government and assembly. In practice, all institutions in Xinjiang Uyghur are under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party.
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). Chinese authorities say the WUC receives funding from the USA and other western powers.
The WUC rejects the resort to violence advocated by certain Uyghur armed organizations, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which advocates the establishment of an Islamic state in East Turkestan and, eventually, in the whole of Central Asia.
Two other Uyghur organisations are based in Washington. The East Turkistan Government in Exile (ETGE), formed in 2004, considers East Turkestan to be a country illegally occupied by China since 1949. In a similar vein, the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM) was founded in 2017.
(Last updated January 2021.)