Quilliam Roundtable – The Uighurs: China’s forgotten Muslims

12th April 2010

With Dr. Enver Tohti, Chairman of the Uighur Association and UK representative of the World Uighur Congress


Dr. Enver Tohti

Background and history

– The Uighurs reside in East Turkistan. Previously it was East Turkistan and West Turkistan, but West Turkistan is now divided into five countries.  I don’t refer to the area as the Xinjiang province because we refer to it as East Turkistan. The Uighurs speak Uighur, a Turkic language.

– According to a 2007 Chinese survey the population in East Turkistan is 20 million, but we believe there are around 20 million Uighur people alone, plus another ten million Han Chinese.

– East Turkistan was a victim of the war between the British and Russian Empires over Afghanistan. To avoid it becoming a Russian colony, the British Empire offered protection to East Turkistan, but they rejected the offer. Instead, it was occupied by a Chinese army on behalf of the British in 1876.

– In 1933 and 1944 East Turkistan was set up as a republic. First it was destroyed by a Chinese Muslim army – another group of Muslims that we call Tong Gan. The second republic was destroyed by Stalin and Mao, following which East Turkistan was handed over to China.

– In 1949 the army of East Turkistan stopped fighting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. As a result, the Chinese army came and settled there. They forced the Uighur people from where they were, became farmers and took the nice land and houses. The Uighurs still live in relative poverty.

– Since that time, the Uighurs have felt that they are strangers in their own lands. They feel that the western development project in the 1960s passed them by. For example, the project imported Chinese people rather than employing local people.


What are the Uighurs’ grievances?

– One million Uighurs were killed when the Chinese came and occupied East Turkistan.

–  In 1957, one hundred Uighur scholars were executed by the Chinese government for no reason. They wanted to put fear in to the bottom of Chinese people’s hearts.

– The ex-Chinese military has the best land in East Turkistan.

– We don’t have religious freedoms. For example, we can only go to hajj on an organized tour.

– The western development project was just a good show, it passed the Uighur people by.

– Due to the one child policy, China has produced 50 million more men than women, who cannot find wives in China. Since 2004, the government has encouraged Chinese firms to employ Uighur girls to work in inner China. They have encouraged the girls to meet and marry local Chinese men. If they don’t then they get sold to prostitution or punished. The girls are subject to 5000 yen punishment if they do not go to work there – a Uighur family might earn 2500 yen per year so they cannot turn this down. That Uighur families are being forced to send their daughters away is, I think, the reason why the riots took place last year.

– We face religious discrimination. For example, a common religious insult is that Uighurs don’t eat pigs because they are our ancestors. 


The current situation

– There is no freedom of the press in China. The Chinese media force people to say things, and does not report stories fairly. In a Chinese newspaper, apart from the date, nothing is true.

– Uighur people cannot leave because we are surrounded by countries that send us back to China. The only place that doesn’t is Afghanistan, which is why many people end up there. Five Uighurs were released from Guantanamo in 2005. These were ordinary people looking for a better life.

– Uighurs therefore feel that no one country or political body stands for them.

– There are therefore numerous grievances that can be used to radicalise the youth into violence. It is a very dangerous situation.

– You might think Uighur people are standing up against Chinese oppression. In 1990 one uprising can be counted as such because they had arms. But others are peaceful demonstrations that are exaggerated by the government, and they then become a massacre. An example of this is the Urumqi riots of July last year.





The Chinese government tries to separate the different classes and religion. They have had a religious policy since the 1950s whereby they tried to root out any religions including Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The difficulty is how to improve communication between the nationalities so that they can understand the suffering of each other. It is not only a religious problem, but a nationality problem. The majority of Chinese would not like discrimination, but the challenge is how to communicate this and find the common ground.

I would like more details on terrorism – do you have any figures of how many people have died in terrorist attacks, and do you think these are exaggerated by the Chinese government?


First of all, China does not have a problem with Muslims. China has very good relationships with Arab countries. We have probably the largest remaining resources on earth, and the Chinese government doesn’t want to give these away so they need to find an excuse to maintain the occupation. The problem of terrorist activities is not true. Their 2001 figure of 200 terror attacks in Xinjiang were ordinary criminal offences not terrorist activities – for example Uighurs and Chinese fighting each other for personal reasons. Contrastingly, the 300 000 similar attacks that took place in China have instead been treated as ordinary criminal offences. We need to prove that we are not terrorists.


So far the evidence suggests that maybe Xinjiang was the testing ground for some of China’s nuclear practices. Would you be able to talk about your own experience of this?


The Chinese have conducted 46 nuclear tests in Lop Nor. As a result there were alarming numbers of cancer patients in Xinjiang, and the cancer hospital in Urumchi has became the largest hospital in China containing 2000 beds, which indicate that there are overwhelming wave of cancer patients.


I want to talk about the radicalization of young Uighur people. What are the sentiments among young Uighur men about taking up arms? Do they have the same sympathies as, say, the Kashmiri separatists have?


Before, the youth would drink beer and hang around on the streets at night. After July, many are going into the mosque and have stopped drinking. They feel like if they were treated as outsiders by the Chinese government, then they have to assert their own identity. One way to do this is to emphasize their Islamic identity. Going to the mosque is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is potential danger there if they are not guided by the right people. This is therefore very good ground for extremism to breed. We don’t have one country supporting us, so it is unlikely that the Uighur people will have an uprising as they can’t get arms. But the danger of radicalization is there.


After July, the Chinese government shut down the internet in Xinjiang. Has this returned now and what were the effects of this internet ban?


The real purpose of banning the internet was to prevent the truth coming out. On 6 July I was on the internet and I could see damning pictures and video clips. The next day, there were none. The Chinese government needed time to control the internet and search it until they felt they’d fully gained control.


I would like to know a little bit more about the surrounding countries – Kazakhstan, India, Iran and so on. How does the media of these countries, and western media, treat the subject?


They have had different reactions. But they have to maintain good relations with China in order to let their economy grow. Their media is much freer than Chinese media, but unfortunately there are not many articles, particularly not translated into English. Despite having western journalists in Beijing, they don’t have any in Xinjiang. During the riots, the Chinese government brought in people for journalists to speak to, but did not let them speak freely. It is impossible for any foreign journalists to travel around freely.


What’s next? When we leave here, what are you asking us to do?


This is my big question – where shall we go and what shall we do? This is also the big question of the Uighur World Congress. There is no way we can arm the resistance – no one will give us arms and we don’t have money to get arms. And we can’t – the Chinese have the third strongest army in the world, there would be so many deaths.


You almost need a champion, a Joanna Lumley figure, to raise awareness among ordinary people.


You can try to make a bridge between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs so that they can try to understand the people’s suffering. This is the first thing that you should do.


In terms of the problem of migrant workers – the Chinese authorities move Uighur young men and women to coastal areas because are trying to solve poverty problems in Xinjiang where they can’t find proper jobs. It is not another conspiracy theory. Do you have any further proof about the whole thing?


They promised these people that they were going to get 5000 yen a month, and in reality they only get 500. They are getting exploited because no one represents them. They live in inner China where they don’t understand the language – can’t factories be moved to Xinjiang?


The journal Central Asian Survey covers this migration issue quite well, if anyone wants to hear about it from an academic perspective.

The Chinese government has tried to find jobs for the Uighur people and have started teaching the Uighur language since 2002 in educational institutions. Until now, about 95% of Uighurs couldn’t speak Chinese. You make no mention about a common background or sharing things with Chinese people. Instead, everything is directed towards separatism.

I am shocked to hear about what is going on in that region, it is unheard here. My humble suggestion is to contact and create awareness among Muslim countries. Although they are probably not helping at the moment, including Pakistan, it is important for them to understand the situation.


We have the World Uighur Congress – a political body – to raise awareness. Pakistan’s government is happy to cooperate with the Chinese government to kill the terrorists, but not to help the Uighurs. We tried to bring this issue to many Muslim countries – particularly Turkey who we consider the closest to us because we speak the same language and are the same race, but even they banned us from going there.


Is it just Muslims in Xinjiang or are there other religions there as well?


Roughly 80% of the population there is Muslim, but we also have Christians, Buddhists and so on. There are also 13 different ethnic groups, but the majority is Uighur and Chinese.


This discourse of race, language and ethnic history being different seems at odds with the modern world where we talk of citizenship, super states and regional powers. Having seen the break-up of India and the resultant failure of Bangladesh and Pakistan I wonder why, rather than call for a separate state, you don’t ask for help from the West to ask the Chinese government to give you greater human rights within China as a whole. Don’t go down the road of separatism – is there not the opportunity to enjoy full human rights, for which we can pressure China, and remain what you are – as a people within China rather than call for total separatism.


The issue you are raising is a double-edged sword. During the early occupation, there were only 100 000 Chinese compared to four million Uighurs. We didn’t keep them out because we had a very good relationship. We don’t have a problem with Chinese people. Even the Chinese people themselves have been forced to settle in Xinjiang. It is a more political issue, rather than a personal issue. The Chinese government is very good at creating hatred between ethnic groups. The government can’t survive during the peacetime – they need the country to be in chaos. In reality, we are not pursuing an independent country. We just call for freedom and self-determination. As a land sandwiched between superpowers we know we have no way out. The only thing we want is peace – let us live peacefully in our own land.