Image source: Private Album
By Dr. Mamtimin Ala
Politically speaking, in the physical world, where there is pressure, one also finds resistance: The greater the pressure, the stronger the resistance against it.
In a colonial state setting, the colonialized subjects respond to the growing sense of pressure (from the colonialists) with sustainable resistance: Disobedience, peaceful protest, and national emancipation movements.
If the pressure is too high to resist, these subjects turn their resistance inwardly, causing internal conflicts, infightings, internalized oppression, and (self-) destruction.
Within this context, the principle of causality explains the pressure (oppression) as the cause and a resistance method as the effect. From this perspective, the mechanisms of this resistance get clearer—the colonization is the cause, and the resistance to this (by the colonized) is the effect, whether it is national, factional, or group-based. This is the simplest way to understand the anti-colonial movements across the world.
In the case of the colonization of Uyghurs and their resistance against it, this mechanism turns out to be far more complex. Uyghurs have suffered under the yoke of colonialism since the annexation of the Second East Turkistan Republic by the Public Liberation Army (PLA) of China in 1949.
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Since then, Uyghurs have collectively been facing a gradual loss of their human rights, ending up in the vast networks of concentration camps and ongoing genocide. One may wonder how Uyghurs have ended up like this. Has their resistance to colonization caused their demise? Has their increased an inevitable resistance out of desperation to colonial pressure increased the speed of their termination?
Arguably, from the Chinese perspective, it is reasonable to perceive they created the concentration camps to eliminate the Uyghur threat, whether real or perceived. Given this, the intensity of the Uyghur resistance should have historically posed a significant threat to the national security and interests of China, providing the CCP with the primary justification to use drastic and effective means to defend itself.
However, Uyghurs have perceived their resistance as a response to the existential threat of Chinese colonialism normal, rational, and self-defensive response to China. This resistance began as anti-colonialism (the right to live in and defend their land as their ancestral territory), evolved into being anti-discriminatory (the right to live in their land as they are), and is now mere self-survival (compliance to stay alive).
Chinese propaganda communicates to global audiences that Uyghurs threaten China’s national interest, allegedly with terrorism. The Chinese regime uses this narrative as one of the key reasons to justify its genocidal policies. China created these alleged threats, which allowed some Uyghur Islamic hardliners, led by Hasan Mahsum, to go abroad right after the introduction of China’s groundbreaking policy on East Turkistan on 19 March 1996 (The Maintenance of Stability in Xinjiang, otherwise known as CCP Document No.7 of 1996).
This policy ushered the Chinese management of the Uyghur resistance movement into a new era, which was gradually shifting from being nationalistic to being Islamic.
These hardliners, who outrightly rejected the goal of national independence for the sake of the creation of the Islamic Khalifate, ideologically clashed with Uyghur nationalists in Central Asia and beyond. The opposing parties could not solve their conflict at that time; instead, it defined the internal factionalism inside the Uyghur resistance movement abroad.
Accordingly, the Islamic factors were externalized first into Afghanistan at the end of the 1990s and later in Syria in the 2010s, all under the watchful eye of China. Uyghurs were able to travel to these countries, and subsequently, China falsely accused them of being radical extremists based on where they traveled after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US.
Fake imagery and carefully crafted travel statistics, labelling Uyghurs as a fatal threat to Chinese national security as part of the global Islamic terrorism networks, emerged to support these claims. The Chinese government has placed its threat safely outside of its borders and controlled it without any disruption against Chinese interests to date.
Image source: Private Album
Instead, its importance has predominantly and unsurprisingly faded away now. The CCP propagates itself to the people of China and the rest of the world as a savior, having eliminated this imaginary threat they created. In reality, it is not a threat but rather a race of people, the Uyghurs, they have attempted to eliminate.
No Islamic terrorist organization has ever declared any war or threat against China, nor has any Muslim country publically condemned China for its indiscriminate persecution of Uyghurs (the majority of whom are Muslim). Still worse, no Muslim leader has ever issued any fatwa against China for committing the Uyghur genocide. Uyghurs, therefore, have paid a fatal price for being Muslim and practicing Islam and have shamelessly been abandoned by the Muslim world.
In fine, the Uyghur terrorism threat is a blatant and fatal fabrication. Then, why do Chinese communists determine to commit genocide on the Uyghurs, who are clearly not a threat but were already struggling for self-survival before this genocide?
There is something deeply intriguing about the ulterior motives of China to eliminate Uyghurs, despite or because of Uyghur resistance. China exaggerates the Uyghur resistance to the point of paranoia. China’s intention behind this genocide has been to eliminate Uyghurs as the lawful owners of the land of East Turkistan that they invaded and occupied.
For Uyghurs, resistance is the only way to reclaim their rightful land. However, they must engage in person. This resistance is further required to safeguard their identity and ultimately defend themselves against ever-increasing pressure to be what they are not – assimilated or sinicized.
Given the historical tension between Uyghurs and Chinese in East Turkistan, the Uyghur resistance has evolved from being organized to being disorganized, being armed to being peaceful, and ‘from targeting Chinese occupiers’ to being ‘self-targeting’. These changes can be categorized into three chronological and conceptual stages in Uyghur history from 1949 onwards—compromise (from 1949 to 1976), compliance (from 1976 to 1997), and conversion (from 1997 to the present).
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Since the occupation in 1949, the Chinese authorities have systematically forced Uyghurs to choose either extinction or conditional survival with political autonomy as a compromising mechanism. The CCP increased the incentives for compliance while making punitive measures incrementally harsher to assimilate Uyghurs into Chinese (as a compliance measure).
It could be called a carrot-and-stick policy. These compliance measures have sharply escalated since 2017, converting Uyghurs mercilessly to Han Chinese through a genocide. China is indoctrinating them through torturous brainwashing in concentration camps, forced sterilization, abortion, organ harvesting, separating children into orphanages to re-engineer their identity, etc.
These changes demonstrate how the anti-colonial resistance from Uyghurs has over the decades transformed into resistance against assimilation and finally into self-survival.
This article analyzes the trajectory of the nature, stages, methods, and results of the Uyghur resistance against Chinese colonization to demonstrate how China has transformed itself from a colonialist power into a paternal savior through manipulative policies. Further, how Uyghurs, in turn, and accordingly, have gradually lost all their rights digressing to struggle for their mere existence. Analyzing the complexity of the Uyghur resistance provides, along the way, the rationale behind the Chinese determination to eliminate Uyghurs through genocide.
- Types of Uyghur resistance
Uyghurs have never ceased their resistance against the Chinese occupation of their homeland, East Turkistan. However, the intensity, prevalence, and nature of the resistance vary over time. It has adapted to the strictness of the regime at any given time. Since the Chinese occupation, the Uyghur resistance has also taken other subtle forms, such as using abstract literature and poetry enmeshed with jokes, puns, and stories to express the yearning for freedom.
The political life of Uyghurs reached a turning point in 1949 when they first became the colonial subjects of China. Commencing the occupation, the CCP promised to help Uyghurs establish their own socialist country with autonomous governance. However, China reneged on its promise. Instead, Uyghurs received the status of an autonomous region with no constitutional possibility of independence.
Uyghurs adapted to China’s socialist idealism while maintaining the right to live as Uyghurs, a Turkic people with a majority Muslim religion. China retracted this new promise also. Instead, China turned East Turkistan into a new colonial space, Xinjiang, literally translating as ‘new frontier’ enclosed in itself and subject to the suppressive rule to enforce assimilation into Han Chinese atheist culture.
Disillusioned with the reality of colonialism disguised as socialism, some Uyghur political leaders and former members of the Second East Turkistan Republic asked China to honor its promises of helping Uyghurs establish their independent socialist state in the name of the Republic of Uyghuristan. In the early 1950s, several Uyghur leaders wrote a letter to Zhou Enlai raising their concerns. The CCP ignored the request as it further alarmed their upper echelons and caused them to panic. They planned to extinguish the dream of Uyghur independence memories, aspirations, and movements for good.
The CCP interpreted this action as a sign of local nationalism, an act of counter-revolution, and a threat to the national unity of socialism—and the Chinese motherland. The fight against local nationalism ensued ruthlessly and widely. Most of these Uyghur leaders were either incarcerated, purged out of the CCP, or killed right then or during the Cultural Revolution. Only those, who demonstrated unquestioning loyalty to the CCP, were spared as they had to submit to the rule of the CCP.
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The battle escalated, and the authorities ruthlessly suppressed many Uyghur politicians, intellectuals, and community leaders across East Turkistan. The brutal oppression continued until the end of the Cultural Revolution. The underground Uyghur resistance movement organized by The People’s Party (created during the Second East Turkistan Republic in Ghulja) was almost completely dismantled and left defunct. It heralded the end of the nationalistic resistance.
At the beginning of their colonial rule, the CCP did not show hostility to any existing religion in East Turkistan, including Islam. In part, it was because they intended to show socialistic tolerance to religious practices as the tactical use of the communist party not to provoke the possible revolt of Uyghurs against China over religious infringements or intolerance. Thus, China was extremely cautious in handling the complexities of minzu (民族) problems (the problems of ethnic minorities). It wanted to gain more time to implement the full-fledged assimilation policies later, striping Uyghurs of their spiritual resources to make them surrender to the communist ideology.
For Uyghurs to live under the rule of an atheist communist state as Muslims required an ideological compromise. Uyghurs were initially content with the lack of direct restrictions on their religious practices. Eventually, they were forced to compromise, and reconcile the antagonistic and irreconcilable ideologies: Islam and atheistic communism. They had no other option than to show their loyalty to Allah and the CCP congruently.
However, in this pseudo-tolerant compromise, the CCP was intolerant of Uyghurs to have their faith only in Allah, demanding that they also show their unconditional ‘faith’ to the CCP. Being squeezed between these two irreconcilable ‘beliefs’, Uyghurs have attempted to compartmentalize them psychologically. They pray to God in the mosques or on prayer mats and praise the party in front of the CCP flag or on political occasions.
It would be utterly wrong to see this compromise as mercy shown to Uyghurs by the CCP, as they also needed it. For China was not powerful enough at that time, economically, politically, and diplomatically, as it is now, to declare that religion is opium or Islam is a virus and ban it completely, as Marx had taught.
Student movements in the 1980s
Uyghurs felt more disadvantageous in the framework of an autonomous status by losing their political, cultural, religious, and economic rights slowly but surely after the Cultural Revolution. More natural resources such as oil, gold, uranium, and cotton were taken to inner China, while Uyghurs could not reap any economic benefits from them.
More Chinese migrants came to East Turkistan with government incentives, including good employment opportunities, accommodation, and health services, while Uyghurs found it increasingly difficult to get social and economic security. Uyghurs became aware the Chinese army had repeatedly been testing nuclear bombs in the Lopnur area of East Turkistan. AS a result, there was considerable environmental degradation and many health issues, including cancer, rare skin, respiratory diseases, etc.
All these issues were manifestations of colonial reality. Uyghurs have gradually lost their political rights to decide who came to their land and on what conditions. They could no longer determine who controlled and distributed their resources from their land and how to educate their children.
In the end, it became clear the CCP had failed them by not denying them any autonomy but precisely fooling them with a fake autonomous rule. The sense of being deceived resurged again. It was a painful reminder of the experience of their predecessors in the 1950s, deceived by the CCP with a fake socialist mission to help establish their independent Uyghur state. As a result, Uyghurs felt disempowered and excluded from the decision-making process for the matters closest to them —wealth, security, and justice.
Therefore, disillusionment became the arresting political mood of the 1980s. Young, passionate, and angry Uyghur students from Xinjiang University and other universities protested in the streets of Urumqi. They were seeking social justice, equal political treatment, and governmental transparency on the distribution of wealth. Further, they sought to halt the influx of Chinese migrants in East Turkistan as stipulated in the Autonomous Laws of China in 1984 and 1988, before the Tiananmen Square Student Movement in 1989, where Chinese students demanded democratic reforms in China.
The government harshly and violently suppressed all these demands: It expelled the student leaders from the university and punished the rest through continuous coercion. It heralded the end of hope for the promised autonomous region status given to Uyghurs, who were desperate in a fast-changing situation, and their rights had diminished abruptly.
Western forgiveness of China for the violent suppression of the Tiananmen student resistance had emboldened the CCP to apply more suppressive measures to any unrest, grievances, and calls for reforms. The voices of exilic student leaders Wang Dan and Örkesh Dölet faded away in the West. It reflected the shifting attitudes of the West, softening criticism of human rights abuses committed by China, gradually diminishing into acquiescence.
This change coincided with the growing number of foreign, indeed Western, investments in China. Consequently, this propelled China onto the world stage, becoming an economic superpower and locomotive for the world economy in the era of globalization.
The disintegration of the mighty SRSS and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia in the 1990s sent shockwaves through the CCP. Alarmed and resolute, the CCP cracked down on politically motivated liberalism and democracy movements and ideas at all costs, including the suppression of political reforms within the CCP.
As such, anti-separatism became the top political agenda of the CCP. It was more evident in East Turkistan, where China used harsher measures to eliminate any possibility of the Uyghurs gaining independence of Uyghurs like their other Turkic brothers in Central Asia—Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz. Thus, the Chinese authorities suppressed all Uyghur resistance in East Turkistan under the justification of anti-separatism. The more brutal the suppression, the more desperate Uyghurs became to keep their cultural identity with these last resistance movements: The Barin revolution and Ghulja uprising.
The Barin revolution and Ghulja uprising
The Barin revolution was an armed uprising in Aktu town in 1990, a small-scale challenge to the colonial presence of the Chinese in East Turkistan, aiming to re-establish the East Turkistan Republic. The Chinese authorities received information about the protests in advance. Thus, it started in a hurried manner and without sufficient preparations. As such, the well-prepared Chinese military forces brutally suppressed the uprising. Its leaders and participants were massacred or languished in Chinese prisons with long sentences.
The protests opened a new chapter in the Uyghur resistance, becoming more founded on religious principles than secular ones. This turn resulted from the frustration of some Uyghurs towards a secular and nationalistic faction in Uyghur society led by Uyghur intellectuals who, from their perspectives, became more and more compliant with Chinese rule. Thus, some Uyghurs felt a sense of urgency to make themselves stronger by incorporating Islamic principles into their strategies of resistance and confrontation to achieve national emancipation.
However, the revolution failed tragically. This failure revealed the impossibility of any armed, organized, and local uprising in East Turkistan with the guidance of Islamic principles due to the sophisticated infiltration, monitoring, and response capabilities of the CCP.
Comparatively, the Ghulja uprising was a peaceful movement to resolve some social issues among the Uyghur community in Ghulja through the teachings of Islam. This attempt was a conscious and urgent collective attempt at relying on an internal control mechanism of Uyghurs to resolve their social issues, which Uyghurs believed the CCP were either largely indifferent towards or, still worse, caused deliberately to weaken the cohesion of Uyghur society from within. These social issues included the growing use of drugs such as heroin and cocaine, widespread prevalence of HIV, abject poverty, broken families, alcoholism, and other social issues. The underlining motivation for the movement was public awareness of the shrinking tolerance for expressions of Uyghur culture and the need for internal social control aligned with Islamic principles as one of the foundational aspects of Uyghur identity.
Both movements had religious connotations in the Uyghur resistance against Chinese oppression. Both were suppressed ruthlessly and traumatically. They proved to the rest of the world the rapidly increasing confidence of China on the global stage: economically, diplomatically, and culturally. On these two occasions, the CCP committed massacres with impunity. It was such an anxious time for Uyghurs. A stronger China only meant a more emboldened and oppressive China.
Notably, the suppression of Uyghurs by China due to alleged radical Islamic tendencies coincided later with the more Islamization of the Uyghur resistance movement abroad and with the global war on terror led by the US in 2001. The CCP utilized the increasing global Islamophobia to justify the enforcement of the Strike Hard Campaign against what it termed the Three Evils: terrorism, extremism, and separatism.
Using these terms interchangeably, the CCP escalated its enforcement of Uyghur compliance with an iron-fisted rule. It created a cyclic trap for the Uyghurs that they could not easily escape: the more resistance Uyghurs used against the Chinese colonialism, the easier it became for China to label Uyghurs as terrorists. The more bluntly and broadly Uyghurs are labeled as terrorists, the harsher and more indiscriminate the Chinese response to Uyghur grievances has become.
The ever-growing tension simmering under the surface between the Chinese and Uyghurs reached a breaking point on July 5, 2009. The protests in Urumqi ended in a massacre, owing to the local government’s failure to listen to the Uyghurs’ calls for justice for the killings of Uyghur factory workers in Guangdong in the previous few days.
On that day, the peaceful demonstration quickly got out of control and was turned into bloody mayhem. Tens of thousands of Uyghurs were arrested, disappeared, killed, or given a long-term jail sentences. Since then, China introduced a more repressive modus operandi under the guise of fighting the Three Evils.
After 2009, the Uyghur resistance lost its momentum of mobilizing more disgruntled people and slowly diminished as time went by. There have been instances of small-scale Uyghur resistance met with a whole-scale, destructive eradication. For example, more than a thousand Uyghurs in a village called Elishku in Yarkent county in 2014, who peacefully expressed their dissatisfaction with restrictions the CCP put on their religious practices, were indiscriminately massacred by Chinese forces, including women and children. Chinese forces used drones to indiscriminately and mercilessly suppress and kill Uyghurs in the entire village.
Uyghur resistance was promptly quenched when the CCP commenced the arbitrary detention of millions of Uyghurs in concentration camps in 2017.
These protests before the concentration camps were portrayed by the CCP to fellow Uyghurs, to the Chinese, and to the world as ‘riots’ and Uyghurs as violent people who China needed to contain to maintain social order. In the eyes of the world, the concept of East Turkistan as a country became a distant memory, if known at all.
The CCP, therefore, justified a nationalistic agenda as ‘Xinjiang’ was now known as part of China, and the Uyghur resistance was framed more like China’s internal affair. There was no other choice for Uyghurs at this time than to remain compliant with the CCP, facing much more stringent measures with the consequences, including possible detention in a ‘re-education centre’.
The government set up a system of mass surveillance in East Turkistan and Uyghurs felt their every move was being watched, recorded, and analysed to ensure they were not terrorists. In such an environment, paranoia surfaced in the minds of the people. Hundreds more rules followed any wrong move could lead to Uyghurs’ imprisonment.
In summary, the Uyghur resistance has shown the following key features over decades:
- It was a secular movement in an organized way in the 1950 and 1960s intending to re-establish their lost country, East Turkistan;
- Through the 1970s and 1980s, the resistance included peaceful protests focused on political, economic, and educational rights;
- It became more religious following the calls of some of the global Islamic movements from 1990 onward.
It explains the trajectory of resistance from the claim for outright independence driven by Uyghur nationalism to the concerns about maintaining their cultural and religious rights and less about their political rights, none of which the CCP has ever compromised.
Despite the Uyghur resistance to Chinese occupation having become less threatening after the Barin revolution, the more severe the CCP suppressed further protests and was justified by its claims of an anti-terrorism response.
After the July, 5 massacre Uyghurs have seen the most brutal suppression in the name of the Three Evils, even though their methods of resistance have been peaceful. Ultimately, regardless of the nature, prevalence, and intensity of the Uyghur resistance, China has predetermined to resolve the Uyghur issue permanently through the most brutal means. For the Uyghur to exist in their homeland has only ever been perceived as a thorn in China’s colonial flesh, as irritating, inconvenient, and risky.
The question remains: what methods do Chinese communists use to eradicate Uyghurs?
- The methods of Chinese cruelty
Historically, from Sun Yatsen to Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, it was a political goal to colonialize East Turkistan as a crucial step for the prosperity of the Chinese nation. The CCP propagated the annexation of East Turkistan as a liberation of the Uyghurs from the Kuomingtang oppression. Only socialism would deliver them from feudal darkness to socialistic enlightenment as inevitable historical progress.
The propaganda tactfully painted a dualistic world where Uyghurs were portrayed as backward people needing Chinese liberators. It has been a historical burden for the Chinese to bring civilization to these ‘poor’ people living in a forgotten and wretched corner of the world. Thus, Chinese colonization is not an occupation but a civilizing mission to modernize Uyghurs and liberate them from their uncivilized society.
Therefore, any resistance to this propagated idealism with the hidden agenda of chauvinistic and colonial ambition of China was considered an anti-historical and anti-revolutionary act requiring management through dictatorial measures of socialism. The suppression of this resistance was hence justified as ideological righteousness by both Chinese colonialists and also by some Uyghur communists.
The tension between the occupiers and the occupied was shifting from being ethnic to being ideological, culminating in a class struggle. Inspired by the teachings of Marx, the CCP divided the Chinese society into two categories based on the means of production—the oppressing class (the bourgeoisie or the ‘haves’), and the oppressed class (the proletariats or the have-nots). In East Turkistan, this sharp new division caused by Chinese colonialism was purposely diverted from the colonial division (of the colonialists and the colonialized) to a new division based on class. Within this context, the communists legitimized the use of what Lenin described as the dictatorship of proletariats, ensuring the CCP will remain in power at all costs.
It changed many Uyghurs’ perspectives of their colonial reality, now viewed through the lenses of class consciousness, accepting this non-colonial dichotomy as a new reality, something rational and necessary. It continued until the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Afterward, the CCP continued to use this dictatorship to quell any challenges to its legitimacy, including the Uyghur resistance against it.
Further, the CCP exclusively and systematically used, in behaviorist style, the reward and punishment methods to manage the Uyghur resistance thoroughly and profoundly. This method was nothing new to CCP culture.
Historically, the legalists recommended a system of laws for governments, applying rigidly prescribed punishment and rewards to regulate social behaviors during the Qin dynasty. For example, currently, in China, the social credit system is implemented to monitor the behaviour of its citizens, scoring them and attributing punishments and rewards accordingly.
Since 1949, Uyghurs were subjected to this oppressive colonial system. Whoever deviates from pathways of unquestioning and unconditional conformity to the CCP is punished severely without mercy – not only individually, but collectively – as a whole family, clan, village, and most recently as a people.
Punishment would include public criticism, expelling from the CCP, separatism charges ending in imprisonment, unemployment, or massacre. More importantly, the severity of these punishments has only increased incrementally over the years, reflecting the levels of so-called crimes Uyghurs have allegedly been committing against the laws, policies, and expectations of the CCP. These laws and policies have changed, becoming more oppressive over time. However, the expectations of the CCP have always remained the same: conformity or annihilation.
In this system, Uyghurs were categorized as anti-revolutionists and revisionists in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, separatists in 1980 and 1990s, and terrorists from the 2000s to the present. Previously, the CCP appeared to show some “mercy and clemency” for those who repented and returned to the “right” path. It was demonstrated through thought reforms, under the guidance of the CCP members, playing the role of a paternal savior.
Gradually the CCP showed no mercy to Uyghurs as part of its paternalistic violence, historically condoned in Confucius’s morality and social etiquette, staged against ‘wayward and ungrateful’ children as Uyghurs were perceived.
The violence committed by the CCP was never considered violence but unconditional “love” of the father—i.e., of the party. This love was simply always expressed in violent ways for the well-being of the children. Thus, this violence is justified in love—they are not antinomies but synonymies. If we further analyze this connection, we will understand its complete absurdity— The worst violence is the expression of the deepest love. The Uyghur genocide is a tragic example of this understanding, propagated as the benign efforts of the CCP to save Uyghurs from the ideological viruses of Islamic terrorism corrupting their minds.
Oppositional to this approach are the rewards for perceived, promoted, and idealized good behavior. The CCP has bestowed certain privileges upon Uyghurs who show their overt conformity and unconditional loyalty. This approach is a continuation of governing policy of the Qing Dynasty in East Turkistan. The central government carefully selected puppet leaders and religious figures, giving specific privileges, and protection and lavishly rewarding them for their loyalty to the ruling occupiers.
More importantly, some Uyghurs were mandated to suppress their people, potentially increasing their rewards, as the surest sign of their unwavering loyalty, on the levels of their cruelty of eliminating threats, perceived or real.
The approach strategically created politically hand-picked ethnic elitism, which historically had facilitated the rule of the Qing Dynasty, Chinese militarists, Kuomintang, and the CCP in East Turkistan. It used Uyghurs both as useful tools and as a self-annihilating force to destroy themselves from within.
This phenomenon helped Chinese occupiers shield themselves against taking complete responsibility for the violence committed against the Uyghurs, and hence against the hatred of some Uyghurs. In extreme cases, they were regarded voluntarily as the cause of their misery, due to their unlimited and state-sanctioned cruelty. This cruelty also became a form of internalized oppression. Uyghurs who accepted the Chinese perceptions of themselves treated fellow Uyghurs in similar and even worse ways.
Additionally, the CCP has created role models for so-called ethnic unity by setting an exemplary ideal for other Uyghurs to aspire to. With their images, Uyghurs were given the most favorable option as the only way to survive. These images, despite their glamour, were oppressive by nature and manipulative in their propaganda. Their uniqueness is they incorporated both aspects of this system—reward and punishment.
Sacrificing themselves for the CCP’s colonial agenda is the only rewarding act without a punishment. That is, the reward is nothing but the absence of punishment. This approach served as a suppressive compliance method that delineated the scope of political permissibility for acceptable behavior, allegiance, and thought processes.
There is an ongoing inner Uyghur conflict between fierce resistors (those who resisted Chinese rule) and the collaborators of this rule. The Five Monkeys Experiment explains this well. The normalization of ever-growing state violence has imprinted on the collective minds of Uyghurs as a collective defense mechanism: Any resistance against the Chinese rule is dangerous as it only results in more violence and destruction. Therefore, many favor compliance over resistance. Fear has become a key guarantee of self-preservation.
The CCP propaganda has historically labelled Uyghurs that resist as a minority, calling them “a handful of separatists” and in more recent times as terrorists, against the majority who are happy under their benign rule.
This categorization has also impacted Uyghurs in general, dividing them into two groups: the pro-Chinese (the collaborators) and the anti-Chinese (the resistors). In this division, the former has accused the latter of being troublemakers to agitate the CCP, testing their paternalistic tolerance.
Thus, they see the Chinese reaction to Uyghur resistance as legitimate as deserved. These Uyghurs have caused their own misery; had they not resisted, Chinese rulers would not have suppressed them in such a brutal way. To comply with the CCP is the only rational option for self-survival. A few would even stipulate that all Uyghurs must be eliminated for being ungrateful for the benefits bestowed upon them by the CCP—the death wish I have heard from a few Uyghurs several times.
In this line of thought, this extreme minority in Uyghur society can even understand why the CCP is committing genocide against Uyghurs—for it is exclusively caused by Uyghurs resisting it. Their hatred against their fellow Uyghurs appears to be stronger than their hatred against the CCP. Their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors resemble a Stockholm Syndrome. In the case of Uyghurs, the symptom of this syndrome is that to be killed is self-inflicted; to avoid it, one must love their captors.
Furthermore, for the resistors, the collaborators are treasonous in conformity with their oppressors. They are cowards without dignity in accepting their slavery and are even proud of and grateful for it. The incompatibility of these antagonistic perceptions is indeed the source of endless conflicts traced back to the internal strife among Uyghurs during the Second East Turkistan Republic.
Consequently, these two groups see each other as enemies, more dreadful than their real enemy —the Chinese invaders. The animosity of the collaborators to the resisters is accentuated in such a way, that their resistance is perceived as the cause of the national annihilation. Vice versa, the resistor thinks that the only way forward is to end Chinese occupation as the source of all evil, which the invaders could and will do in East Turkistan.
As such, the tensions have neither ended nor reconciled but only deepened, leading to even greater mutual hatred, making it more difficult, if not impossible, for them to unify in an alliance as common victims of the same oppression. These tensions are now mostly happening to Uyghurs in exile.
Another point is that the CCP has established vast, omnipresent, and effective networks of Uyghur spies inside and outside of East Turkistan. These spies were recruited either voluntarily or involuntarily, to work for Chinese intelligence services, with promises of protection, promotion, and prosperity in exchange for providing valuable information about Uyghurs who harbor anti-CCP and anti-China tendencies.
They would also be directed to sabotage Uyghur communities by spreading and amplifying slanders, lies, and gossip. With the help of these networks, the CCP successfully observes, infiltrates, and influences almost all movements of Uyghurs inside and outside of East Turkistan, including their thought processes.
As Uyghurs in exile are aware of these spy networks, they are too cautious of each other, and as a result, there is a considerable sense of mistrust among them.
Finally, Uyghurs are hyper-vigilant against the image of terrorism. This image was ingrained so powerfully in the psyche of Uyghurs right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. China has gradually changed the nature of the Uyghur resistance to be more Islamic since 1996, as part of “The Maintenance of Stability policy in China”. China has since exploited this opportunity of anti-Islamism to vilify Uyghur resistance to the world, portraying them as vicious and fanatic people.
The US support of this vilification in exchange for Chinese support for its war in Iraq was a disastrous blow to the Uyghurs. The support delineated what is an internationally acceptable action of resistance in the eyes of the hopeful savior of Uyghurs.
More importantly, this narrowed the scope of the Uyghur resistance to protecting the human rights of Uyghurs only. Many Uyghurs are scared of the world labeling them as terrorists, being guided by Islamic principles of Jihad. They knew the amplified and exaggerated threat of ‘Guantanamo Uyghurs’ and Uyghurs in Syria as a minority cause in the overall Uyghur resistance. However, the image of these Uyghurs played a crucial role in sending the wrong message to the world that Uyghurs are no different from other Islamic jihadists and that they are perceived as violent, primitive-minded, and fanatic.
Many Uyghurs in exile are so afraid this kind of message would jeopardize the legitimacy of their cause in the West. This fear has inhibited their resistance from being more organized, forceful, and effective. Ironically, this fear is being fully exploited by China to corner Uyghurs into the last space of their spiritual resource—Islam. It remains the last religious belief system to cling on to, fighting against the assault of merciless assimilation working against them.
The more fearful Uyghurs are of being labeled as terrorists, the more adamant and successful China is in labeling them indiscriminately and viciously. Uyghurs were lured from China into Syria as a preparatory step for China, with the assistance of Turkey to label them to the world as terrorists and justify the establishment of the vast and horrific networks of concentration camps.
The Chinese government propagated that Uyghurs’ minds are ‘infected’ with ideological Islamic extremism. Thus, they must be healed and rehabilitated through re-education to be released into Chinese society safely. Uyghurs have long ago abandoned any form of armed resistance – with or without Islam as a guiding force – due to this deep fear.
- Compliance as a condition of survival
The gradual diminishing of Uyghur resistance over time is congruent with the increased use of state-sanctioned violence of the CCP throughout the Uyghur society. This reverse proportion has created an immense sense of fear among the Uyghurs and an existential urgency to keep themselves safe and alive by adopting the mechanism of self-defense and self-preservation at all costs.
At large, this is how Uyghurs perceive their existence in East Turkistan. Uyghurs have only two options—cherish or perish. If they comply with the wishes of the rulers, they might survive; if not, they will perish mercilessly. Therefore, not being killed is cherished as paternalistic care of the CCP, however, distorted, abnormal, and even sick this mindset is.
Uyghurs are conceptualized in China as a minority brother and the Chinese as a big brother, living in a big family under the paternalistic rule of the CCP. Uyghurs are perceived as children of the parent-state and are forced to accept their punishment caused by their alleged ‘misbehavior’. Thus, the CCP always promotes this emotional indebtedness to the fatherland through propaganda, saying that Uyghurs must be eternally grateful for them to be allowed to exist and prosper.
Under such context, to be liked by the father is a way for a child to survive, at least emotionally. Gaining this love guarantees basic protection. Thus, absurdly, a punishing father is perceived as a caring one, when a child lacks the basic sense of self-control and self-safety. Punishment is perceived as exerted, not as an evil, but as a good intention to provide this safety.
This image of a family, however, is deeply flawed and emotionally toxic. Normalized violence appears to be the only rule. It is promoted as love, care, and compassion. More problematically, this family is a closed system. Everything happens within the four walls of it, and stays within them, making it impossible for family members to understand their situation objectively, let alone allow external observers to know what is happening inside.
This total isolation from the world brings about the disintegration of Uyghur society, due to the inescapable daily punishment and humiliation, and the impossibility to see themselves from an outside—indeed objective—perspective. In such a world, the daily fear of normalized violence shapes Uyghurs into a form the CCP is expecting to create.
With the absence of central self-governance, Uyghur society in East Turkistan can be atomized, as they are not allowed to form any of their institutions or take care of their affairs. They are only allowed to be scattered in their corner, without being able to form any collective resistance on a large scale, thanks to the widespread and penetrative existence of Uyghur spies in Uyghur society.
This was aptly captured by the following saying “among three Uyghurs, one of them must be a spy for Chinese”. As such, in Uyghur society, mutual trust among Uyghurs is thoroughly and systematically destroyed.
Within Uyghur society, two political groups are formed as a response to the merciless oppression of the CCP—the resistors and the collaborators. The former has played a vital role in suppressing the latter as part of the whole suppression of the CCP colonial forces.
Some collaborators are Uyghur political and law enforcement elites favored by the CCP, who have internalized the colonial values, goals, and methods. These collaborators are encouraged to oppress other Uyghurs as much as and, on some extreme occasions, even worse than Chinese occupiers.
They discriminate against other Uyghurs with escalated violence and suppression, proving to the Chinese their loyalty by being more aggressive than ordinary Chinese could show or do. The Chinese reinforce the repetitive message that Uyghurs have no future without Chinese rulers and without whom they could not live peacefully by themselves, as they lack self-governing capabilities.
The impacts of this internalized oppression are devastating—if only the Chinese oppressed them, Uyghurs would have thought it is in their nature to do it to keep the colonial presence safe as the nature of a snake is to bite. However, being ill-treated by their fellow Uyghurs, they are confronted with a living, and indeed a perplexing example of how Uyghurs would end up under the rule of the Chinese, eventually as if this same snake bit itself off to death.
They may question in silence: If this is what the reward for compliance looks like, what is the point of suffering from this un-ending punishment? The example challenges their determination to keep their fighting spirits alive and ever more robust as it questions, deep down, if all this sacrifice is necessary and worthwhile.
Of course, Uyghur resistors would not entertain these questions too long as they know well that freedom is far more dignified than being compliant, compromised, and converted— in other words, being a slave. Thus, they could still hate and despise these same internal oppressors and collaborators. Some Uyghurs use limited means either to shun them or mock them through a pun, jokes, and other ways. For example, Uyghurs make fun of other Uyghurs who are politically over-loyal to the CCP as “red-legged”, meaning that mentally they are as red as a Chinese flag.
Another problem is the lack of external help for Uyghurs in East Turkistan to see any light in the darkness. The Uyghurs in East Turkistan live in conditions akin to an open prison, where there is no message or news for Uyghurs outside that they can be saved miraculously by foreign forces. Any news about the US government’s support to Uyghurs for the improvement of their human rights, real or lip-serviced, would be of great moral solace to keep fighting for their survival. However, the inaction of the US towards the Uyghurs experiencing genocide, apart from recognizing it and punishing some foreign companies and perpetrators of this genocide, feels just like a Band-Aid approach to advanced cancer.
In the absence of such support, Uyghurs are confused, facing a big dilemma between keeping fighting or accepting the Chinese way of life. The enforced conversion to the Chinese seems more realistic for some than seeking independence or greater liberty.
On the other hand, it is like the Boiling Frog syndrome. With no tangible result from any resistance, congruently experiencing a more assertive China, Uyghurs would question the value, worthiness, and future of this resistance. Hence, resistance fatigue ensues. Any resistance has only created more drastic, encroaching, and harsher oppression than Uyghurs have ever seen.
Any resistance, which preciously caused limited destruction, is now seeing the whole-scale destruction of Uyghurs as a people. Previously they felt safe to attempt negotiation for a compromise, but now, out of fear, they are under a complete conversion to Chineseness. China seeks an absolute conversion, assimilation, and Sinicization or death, gradually escalating into the goal of extinction. Uyghurs must eventually be destroyed once and for all. Conversion is just a cover-up of this total annihilation. The Uyghur genocide has exposed the dreadful truth that China does not want most Uyghurs to be Sinicized, but only to perish completely.
- Resistance of the Uyghur diaspora
Uyghur resistance in exile has a history of over 70 years, settling in different countries as refugees and migrants. Uyghurs who came to Turkey as refugees after the victory of the CPP in 1949 constituted one of the key parts of the Uyghur exilic communities abroad, strengthened by the historically rich and strong Uyghur communities in the former SRSS, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
After the 1997 Ghulja massacre, more Uyghurs moved into Western countries as asylum seekers and refugees. The Uyghurs in the West have gradually established themselves as one of the more stabilized and well-settled migrant communities.
Over the past decades, Uyghur communities and organizations have tried their best to draw the world’s attention to what is happening in their homeland. However, they have never been able to represent the overall interests of Uyghurs across the global network as a united front. Instead, they have suffered from internal divisions, conflicts, and even infightings.
Recently, these organizations have introduced the Uyghur genocide to the world. However, owing to the lack of the commonalities supported by a common goal, the resistance of Uyghur organizations in exile is ill-organized, inherently fractured, and lacks public support. As with the Uyghurs in East Turkistan, there is also the fear and mistrust of any Uyghur potentially being or converting to being a Chinese spy.
The absence of a charismatic leader in a time of crisis is another challenge Uyghurs in exile are facing. Mediocrity is a norm among Uyghur community leaders with no capability to show solidarity inspired by a common goal and communicate it to the public efficiently and effectively. The efforts of some Uyghur leaders, maintaining the status quo even in time of utmost urgency for a whole nation facing extinction, are discouraging and disturbing.
The general population of Uyghurs in exile is in the grip of fear and trauma. In the former case, they are so afraid of their dear ones in the hands of Chinese torturers, whose fate remains unclear. Having no communication with them, they are deeply anxious and still live in a culture of fear—of the unknown. This creates an everlasting internal dilemma: If they do something, then the Chinese will harass them by sending them videos of torture or confessions of their loved ones either to intimidate them or ask them to stop their activities. If they do nothing, they feel ashamed of their cowardice.
One of the most brutal and successful scare tactics of the CCP is long-distance intimidation by putting Uyghurs in East Turkistan as a bargaining chip or hostage to exert enormous emotional pressure on their relatives in exile to stop their anti-China activities. Some of them, through the manipulative work of Chinese intelligence services, are forced to feel ashamed to leave their dear ones in a miserable and torturous situation. In such an absurd condition, some feel guilty.
Finally, Uyghurs are going through collective trauma, potentially developing into intergenerational trauma. In the grip of this trauma, Uyghurs feel hopeless and helpless. Despite recognition of the Uyghur genocide by many Western countries, there has been no substantial action to stop this genocide. As such, Uyghurs feel abandoned, depressed, anxious, and helpless, losing their hope for the future.
The nature of the Uyghur resistance is not merely to improve human rights but is fundamentally anti-colonial. Since 1949, Uyghurs as Muslims have experienced a life-and-death struggle under the rule of a regime, which is atheistic by creed, dictatorial in essence, and merciless to any resistance.
Uyghurs have for decades resisted the CCP occupation and rule inside and outside of East Turkistan. However, their resistance has always been met with ever harsher oppression, forcing them first into compromise, then into compliance, and eventually to conversion to Sinicization, ending up in the genocide of Uyghurs. The Chinese have never compromised on one key principle: Uyghurs must at all times prove their loyalty and gratitude for their rule.
This uncompromising position of China has guided it resolutely and disproportionately in facing and responding to the resistance of Uyghurs at its different stages. Some elements of the Uyghur resistance have also shown their uncompromising position on this matter as it has never accepted the CCP’s rule and conversion to Chinese culture. These two uncompromising factors have defined the whole gamut of anti-colonial resistance of Uyghurs against Chinese rulers and are the essence of this conflict.
In this Uyghur resistance space, some Uyghur collaborators have gradually and wholeheartedly accepted the Chinese favor for survival and prosperity, placing them at odds with Uyghurs, that refuse to be Chinese or accept their occupation. This factionalism has been created and utilized well by Chinese occupiers in East Turkistan. In the end, it is proven to be detrimental for Uyghurs to form a united front against Chinese occupation.
China has utilized all methods to manage the Uyghur resistance, including making it an ideological and political crime and via a reward-punishment system to discourage Uyghurs from becoming more forceful to stop Chinese aggression. In addition, the vast network of spies inside East Turkistan and abroad have immensely and effectively infiltrated, sabotaged, and created subversion from within, making Uyghurs unable to form an effective resistance movement.
In short, China has not only decapacitated the psychical ability of Uyghurs to resist its rule in East Turkistan, but also the will of resistance defiantly and continuously from within by increasing levels of fear of punishment. The reprisals target whole families and clans by provoking a sense of ungratefulness, shame, and guilt in their minds. All of this contributes to the entrenchment of traumatic feelings in the form of shame and guilt. Through these, the Chinese government has mentally disabled Uyghurs from posing a sustained resistance against the Chinese genocide.
During the Uyghur genocide, Uyghur organizations in exile conflicted with one another. If they are unable to form a common ground to re-iterate their common goal and work towards it, the Uyghur exilic society will be in danger of collapsing and becoming dysfunctional.
From an international perspective, the Uyghur resistance, strictly speaking, has not acquired any external support. Instead, it has only been understood within the frame of human rights violations, conveniently limiting the genuine interest of the West in the core issue at stake, which is the class of colonialism and anti-colonialism in East Turkistan.
Encouraged by the lack of Western concern and benefitted by the infinite need to expanse its lucrative investments in China, China has grown more confident after the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square Student Movement to crush any dissent and grievances without mercy. To this, the West has only paid lip service to China. The lack of effective action to stop the Uyghur genocide sadly proves it.
Moving forward, Uyghurs in exile need to come to a common ground, revisiting their common goals. The current disunity has partially been shaped by historical legacies and partially by collective trauma, must end. Uyghurs need to unite to make their struggle more effective, visible, and promising. This disunity has deeply impacted the Uyghur communities in exile, depriving them of their capacity to form a vision of hope for their future. If that is the case, the Chinese plan for the Uyghur genocide will be tragically successful abroad.