East Turkestan independence movement

The East Turkestan independence movement, also known as the Xinjiang independence movement or the Uyghur independence movement, is a political and social movement seeking independence for Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China as a homeland for the Uyghur people, to be named "East Turkestan". The territory of Xinjiang has been continuously controlled by the People's Republic of China since it incorporated the Republic of China's Xinjiang Province in 1949.

Part of a series on the
History of Xinjiang

The Chinese government considers all support for the East Turkestan independence movement to fall under the definitions of "terrorism, extremism, and separatism".[1] Currently, the movement is supported by both militant Islamic extremist groups, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party, and certain advocacy groups, such as the World Uyghur Congress, which generally do not have verifiable links to terrorism but are also designated as terrorist organizations by China.[2]

Proposed name

The most common name for Xinjiang used by independence advocates is "East Turkestan" (or "Uyghurstan"). There is no consensus among secessionists about whether to use "East Turkestan" or "Uyghurstan";[3] "East Turkestan" has the advantage of also being the name of two historic political entities in the region, while Uyghurstan appeals to modern ideas of ethnic self-determination. Uyghurstan is also a difference in emphasis in that it excludes more peoples in Xinjiang than just the Han,[4] but the "East Turkestan" movement[5] is still a Uyghur phenomenon. The name "East Turkestan" is not currently used in an official sense by most sovereign states and intergovernmental organizations.


Yaqub Beg establishment of Kashgaria

The Kokandi Yaqub Beg invaded Kashgar during the Dungan revolt to establish an independent state after taking advantage of local rebellions.

Also during the Dungan revolt, the Taranchi Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang initially cooperated with the Dungans (Chinese Muslims) when they rose in revolt, but turned on them, because the Dungans, mindful of their Chinese heritage attempted to subject the entire region to their rule. The Taranchi massacred the Dungans at Kuldja and drove the rest through Talk pass to the Ili valley.[6]

Within the Republic of China (1912–1949)

One of the earliest attempts at East Turkestan independence was the establishment of the short-lived "First East Turkestan Republic" (aka "Turkish Islamic Republic of East Turkestan"), which lasted between 1933 and 1934. This republic was formed following a rebellion in Kashgar against the Republic of China (1912–1949) (ROC), which was still in the process of conquering Kashgar after two decades of Warlordism in China (ROC). The Chinese Hui Muslim 36th Division (National Revolutionary Army) re-annexed the First East Turkestan Republic following Chinese (ROC) victories at the conclusions of the Battle of Kashgar (1933) and Battle of Kashgar (1934).

During the later years of China under the ROC, which was engaged against the Chinese Communists in the context of the Chinese Civil War, the Soviet Union under leader Joseph Stalin invaded Xinjiang and assisted a local rebellion at Ili (Yining City). The rebellion led to the establishment of the Second East Turkistan Republic (1944–1949), which existed in three northern districts (Ili, Tarbaghatai, Altai) of Xinjiang with secret aid from the Soviet Union. After emerging (mostly) victorious at the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the People's Liberation Army annexed Xinjiang from the ROC and the Second East Turkestan Republic.

Within the People's Republic of China (1949–present)

Since the Chinese economic reform from the late 1970s has exacerbated uneven regional development, more Uyghurs have migrated to Xinjiang cities and some Hans have also migrated to Xinjiang for independent economic advancement. Increased ethnic contact and labor competition coincided with Uyghur separatist terrorism from the 1990s, such as the 1997 Ürümqi bus bombings.[7]

A police roundup of suspected separatists during Ramadan resulted in large demonstrations that turned violent in February 1997 in an episode known as the Ghulja Incident that led to at least 9 deaths.[8] The Urumqi bus bombs of 25 February 1997, perhaps a response to the crackdown that followed the Ghulja Incident, killed 9 and injured 68. Speaking on separatist violence, Erkin Alptekin, a former East Turkestan National Congress chairman and prominent Uyghur activist, said "We must emphasise dialogue and warn our youth against the use of violence because it de-legitimises our movement".[9]

Recent events

Despite much talk of separatism and terrorism in Xinjiang, especially after the 9-11 attacks in the United States and the US invasion of Afghanistan, the situation in Xinjiang was quiet from the late nineties through mid-2006. In 2005, Uighur author Nurmemet Yasin was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for inciting separatism following his publication of an allegorical short story, "The Blue Pigeon".[10]

Rebiya Kadeer claimed that Turkey is hampered from interfering with Uyghurs because it recognizes that the Kurdish-Turkish conflict may receive interference from China in retaliation.[11]

Views on independence

Arguments in favor of independence

Several proponents of independence state that the Uyghurs have had a defined history in Xinjiang for "over 4000 years",[12] a claim which has neither been proven nor disproven. There are historical arguments for the independence of Xinjiang, such as the argument that the People’s Republic of China is a colonial occupier of Xinjiang, rather than the sovereign state which has traditionally ruled over Xinjiang. Evidence for this argument usually consists of claims that the PRC is not the legitimate successor state to either the ROC (now based in Taiwan) or the previous imperial dynasty of China, which is the Qing dynasty, or that previous regimes were also illegitimate.[13]

Arguments in opposition to independence

The main camp which is opposed to Xinjiang (East Turkestan) independence is the Government of China and its supporters (including Chinese nationalists). China officially claims that Xinjiang has been part of China (the historical region) since the year 60 BCE, when the Han dynasty of China established the Protectorate of the Western Regions.[14] China claims that Xinjiang has always belonged to China even when it was mostly occupied by several other countries. Historically, various Chinese governments have described invasions of Xinjiang as a sort of "re-conquering" of previously lost territories ever since the Han dynasty.

Some Uyghur nationalist historians such as Turghun Almas claim that Uyghurs were distinct and independent from Chinese for 6000 years, and that all non-Uyghur peoples are non-indigenous immigrants to Xinjiang.[15] However, the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) established military colonies (tuntian) and commanderies (duhufu) to control Xinjiang from 120 BCE, while the Tang Dynasty (618–907) also controlled much of Xinjiang until the An Lushan rebellion.[16] Chinese historians refute Uyghur nationalist claims by pointing out the 2000-year history of Han settlement in Xinjiang, documenting the history of Mongol, Kazakh, Uzbek, Manchu, Hui, Xibo indigenes in Xinjiang, and by emphasizing the relatively late "westward migration" of the Huigu (equated with "Uyghur" by the PRC government) people from Mongolia the 9th century.[15] The name "Uyghur" was associated with a Buddhist people in the Tarim Basin in the 9th century, but completely disappeared by the 15th century, until it was revived by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.[17]

Chinese government views

The Chinese government considers all support for the East Turkestan independence movement to fall under the definitions of "terrorism, extremism, and separatism".[1] The Chinese government fears that independence movements are largely funded and led by outside forces that seek to weaken China. China claims that despite such movements, Xinjiang has made great economic strides, building up its infrastructure, improving its education system and increasing the average life expectancy.[18]

Republic of China (Taiwan) views

Chinese Muslim General Ma Bufang, the Republic of China's (Taiwan) ambassador to Saudi Arabia between 1957 and 1961, in response to a request by a former Uyghur Mufti living in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Ahad Hamed for accommodations to be granted to Uyghurs living outside of China who held Republic of China passports, sent the following letter, which rejected Abdul Ahad Hamed's demands and his usage of the term "East Turkestan", upholding the official position of the Republic of China (Taiwan) that Xinjiang was a part of China and that it did not recognize the East Turkestan independence movement.[19]

Support for independence

Non-militant organisations

In general, the wide variety of groups who seek independence can be distinguished by the type of government they advocate and the role they believe an independent East Turkestan should play in international affairs. One of the most noticeable events towards the East Turkestan independence movement was the establishment of the East Turkistan Government in Exile by a group of immigrants led by Anwar Yusuf Turani in Washington D.C. on 14 September 2004.[20]

Since 1995 the Chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization has been Erkin Alptekin, the son of the Uyghur leader Isa Yusuf Alptekin.

Non-militant organisations which support the East Turkestan independence movement include:

Militant organisations

Some of the groups that support independence for East Turkestan are militant, most of which have been labeled terrorist organizations by many governments. For example, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM, also Turkistan Islamic Party), which has claimed responsibility for attacks in Xinjiang, has been identified as a terrorist organization by the governments of China, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkey and the United States, as well as the United Nations.[21][22][23]

Historical support

Historical organisations which have supported the East Turkestan independence movement include:

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union supported the Uyghur Second East Turkestan Republic in the Ili Rebellion against the Republic of China. According to her autobiography, Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace with China, Rebiya Kadeer's father served with pro-Soviet Uyghur rebels under the Second East Turkestan Republic in the Ili Rebellion (Three Province Rebellion) in 1944–1946, using Soviet assistance and aid to fight the Republic of China government under Chiang Kai-shek.[27] Kadeer and her family were close friends with White Russian exiles living in Xinjiang and Kadeer recalled that many Uyghurs thought Russian culture was "more advanced" than that of the Uyghurs and they "respected" the Russians a lot.[28]

Many of the Turkic peoples of the Ili region of Xinjiang had close cultural, political, and economic ties with Russia and then the Soviet Union. Many of them were educated in the Soviet Union and a community of Russian settlers lived in the region. As a result, many of the Turkic rebels fled to the Soviet Union and obtained Soviet assistance in creating the Sinkiang Turkic People's Liberation Committee (STPNLC) in 1943 to revolt against Kuomintang rule during the Ili Rebellion.[29] The pro-Soviet Uyghur who later became leader of the revolt and the Second East Turkestan Republic, Ehmetjan Qasim, was Soviet educated and described as "Stalin's man".[30]

The Soviet Union incited separatist activities in Xinjiang through propaganda, encouraging Kazakhs to flee to the Soviet Union and attacking China. China responded by reinforcing the Xinjiang-Soviet border area specifically with Han Bingtuan militia and farmers.[31] The Soviet Union supported Uyghur nationalist propaganda and Uyghur separatist movements against China. The Soviet historians claimed that the Uyghur native land was Xinjiang and Uyghur nationalism was promoted by Soviet versions of history on turcology.[32] The East Turkestan People's Party received support from the Soviet Union.[33][34][35] During the 1970s, the Soviets supported the URFET to fight the Chinese.[36]

See also



  1. Hasan, Mehdi (15 September 2018). "Has China detained a million Uighur Muslims?". Al Jazeera (This is an interview published by the news channel Al Jazeera on the video-sharing website YouTube. The interview was conducted between the presenter of the show (named Mehdi Hasan), the chairman of the Uyghur Human Rights Project at the time (named Nury Turkel), and the vice president of the Center for China and Globalization at the time (named Victor Gao)). Retrieved 18 June 2019. I know [what] the importance of law is in China. I really hope everyone respects the law. However, in Xinjiang, the major threat we face is terrorism and extremism and separatism, and I think the authorities have the right to ensure that innocent people are not harmed and that extreme versions of religions of all kinds are not penetrating through the population, and then people cannot misuse religion as an excuse to stir up trouble, to destabilize, and to bring the society to a halt. And I think the people are justified to that.
  2. Lynch, Colum (25 May 2018). "U.S. Once Jailed Uighurs, Now Defends Them at U.N." Foreign Policy. Retrieved 18 June 2019. Chinese officials claim that a Germany-based organization led by Isa, the World Uyghur Congress, is a political wing of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, which the U.N. Security Council designated a terrorist organization in September 2002.
  3. Bellér-Hann, Ildikó (2008). "Place and People". Community Matters in Xinjiang, 1880-1949: Towards a Historical Anthropology of the Uyghur. Brill. pp. 35–38, 44–45.
  4. Priniotakis, Manolis (26 October 2001). "China's Secret Separatists: Uyghuristan's Ever-Lengthening Path to Independence". The American Prospect. Retrieved 5 February 2011.
  5. Pan, Guang (2006). "East Turkestan Terrorism and the Terrorist Arc: China's Post-9/11 Anti-Terror Strategy" (PDF). China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly. Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program. 4 (2): 19–24. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 January 2011.
  6. Great Britain. Parliament. House of Commons (1871). Accounts and papers of the House of Commons. Ordered to be printed. p. 35. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
  7. Hopper & Webber 2009, pp. 173–175.
  8. "China: Human Rights Concerns in Xinjiang". Human Rights Watch Backgrounder. Human Rights Watch. 17 October 2001.
  9. Priniotakis, Manolis (19 December 2001). "China's Secret Separatists". The Prospect.
  10. McDonald, Hamish (12 November 2005). "China battles to convince terror sceptics". The Age. Archived from the original on 30 March 2014.
  11. Kadeer, Rebiya (2009). Dragon Fighter One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace with China. Kales Press. p. 273. ISBN 978-0-9798456-1-1.
  12. "Who are the Uyghurs?". East Turkestan Australian Association. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  13. "East Turkestan; Brief History". World Uyghur Congress. 29 September 2016. Retrieved 13 June 2019.
  14. "About Xinjiang". Sinkiang China Government Official Website. Retrieved 12 June 2019.
  15. Bovingdon 2010, pp. 25, 30–31.
  16. Bovingdon 2010, pp. 25–26.
  17. Bovingdon 2010, p. 28.
  18. China White Paper on Xinjiang 26 May 2004
  19. Page 52, Ismail, Mohammed Sa'id, and Mohammed Aziz Ismail. Moslems in the Soviet Union and China. Translated by U.S. Government, Joint Publications Service. Tehran, Iran: Privately printed pamphlet, published as vol. 1, 1960 (Hejira 1380); translation printed in Washington: JPRS 3936, 19 September 1960.
  20. "China Protests Establishment of Uighur Government-in-Exile in Washington – 2004-09-21". Voice of America. 29 October 2009.
  21. Cody, Edward (10 May 2006). "China demands that Albania return ex-U.S. detainees". Washington Post.
  22. "Governance Asia-Pacific Watch". United Nations. April 2007. Retrieved 23 August 2007.
  23. "Country Reports". United States Department of State. 27 April 2004.
  24. Dillon 2003, p. 57.
  25. Clarke 2011, p. 69.
  26. Nathan, Andrew James; Scobell, Andrew (2013). China's Search for Security (illustrated ed.). Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-51164-3.
  27. Kadeer 2009, p. 9.
  28. Kadeer 2009, p. 13.
  29. Forbes 1986, p. 173.
  30. Forbes 1986, p. 174.
  31. Starr 2004, p. 138.
  32. Bellér-Hann 2007, p. 37.
  33. Dillon (2003), p. 57.
  34. Clarke (2011), p. 69.
  35. Nathan & Scobell (2012), p. 278.
  36. Reed & Raschke (2010), p. 37.


Further reading

  • Burhan Shahidi, Xinjiang wushi nian [Fifty Years in Xinjiang], (Beijing, Wenshi ziliao, 1984).
  • Clubb, O. E., China and Russia: The 'Great Game'. (NY, Columbia, 1971).
  • Forbes, A. D. W. Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: A Political History of Republic Sinkiang, 1911–1949 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  • Gladney, Dru C. (2013). Separatism in China: The case of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Secessionism and Separatism in Europe and Asia: To have a state of one's own. Routledge. pp. 220–236.
  • Hasiotis, A. C. Jr. Soviet Political, Economic and Military Involvement in Sinkiang from 1928 to 1949 (NY, Garland, 1987).
  • Hierman, Brent (2007). "The Pacification of Xinjiang: Uighur Protest and the Chinese State, 1988–2002". Problems of Post-Communism 54 (3): 48–62.
  • Khakimbaev A. A., 'Nekotorye Osobennosti Natsional'no-Osvoboditel'nogo Dvizheniya Narodov Sin'tszyana v 30-kh i 40-kh godakh XX veka' [Some Characters of the National-Liberation Movement of the Xinjiang Peoples in 1930s and 1940s], in Materially Mezhdunarodnoi Konferentsii po Problemam Istorii Kitaya v Noveishchee Vremya, Aprel' 1977, Problemy Kitaya (Moscow, 1978) pp. 113–118.
  • Lattimore, O., Pivot of Asia: Sinkiang and the Inner Asian Frontiers of China (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1950).
  • Rakhimov, T. R. 'Mesto Bostochno-Turkestanskoi Respubliki (VTR) v Natsional'no-Osvoboditel'noi Bor'be Narodov Kitaya' [Role of the Eastern Turkestan Republic (ETR) in the National Liberation Struggle of the Peoples in China], A paper presented at 2-ya Nauchnaya Konferentsiya po Problemam Istorii Kitaya v Noveishchee Vremya, (Moscow, 1977), pp. 68–70.
  • Shichor, Yitzhak. (2005). Blow Up: Internal and External Challenges of Uyghur Separatism and Islamic Radicalism to Chinese Rule in Xinjiang. Asian Affairs: An American Review. 32(2), 119136.
  • Taipov, Z. T., V Bor'be za Svobodu [In the Struggle for Freedom], (Moscow, Glavnaya Redaktsiya Vostochnoi Literaturi Izdatel'stvo Nauka, 1974).
  • Wang, D., 'The Xinjiang Question of the 1940s: the Story behind the Sino-Soviet Treaty of August 1945', Asian Studies Review, vol. 21, no.1 (1997) pp. 83–105.
  • Wang, D., 'The USSR and the Establishment of the Eastern Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang', Journal of Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, vol.25 (1996) pp. 337–378.
  • Yakovlev, A. G., 'K Voprosy o Natsional'no-Osvoboditel'nom Dvizhenii Norodov Sin'tzyana v 1944–1949', [Question on the National Liberation Movement of the Peoples in Xinjiang in 1944–1945], in Uchenie Zapiski Instituta Voctokovedeniia Kitaiskii Spornik vol.xi, (1955) pp. 155–188.
  • Wang, D., Clouds over Tianshan: essays on social disturbance in Xinjiang in the 1940s, Copenhagen, NIAS, 1999
  • Wang, D., Under the Soviet shadow: the Yining Incident: ethnic conflicts and international rivalry in Xinjiang, 1944–1949, Hong Kong, The Chinese University Press, 1999.
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