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Uighurs & Tibetans: Cultural Genocide and a Long History of Persecution

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Uighur: A Local Scene

Xinjiang and Tibet

Xinjiang, the north-western province of China, which is the largest province as well, is home to a minority Muslim community- the Uighur Muslims. The official name of this autonomous region of China is, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Another autonomous region, Tibet, lying sandwiched between India and China, and ruled by China since 1950, is a Buddhist sanctuary. For both these people, autonomy is namesake, and persecution by Chinese authorities is a reality. Tibetans have been accusing China of cultural genocide. Uighurs are made to undergo a slow and real genocide in Chinese re-education camps, nefariously known to the outside world as Chinese concentration camps. China justifies its actions in Xinjiang in the name of the terrorism threat and in Tibet, argues that liberty would breed separatism. While the Uighur genocide is widely talked about in international media, the Tibetan struggle for cultural independence is now an almost forgotten cause to the world.

The Potala Palace in Tibet

The Ancient Culture and an Ancient City

While reading about the history of the ancient trade route, the silk road, the name Xinjiang felt too familiar in my ears. Isn’t this the same place where the newspapers report China persecuting its Muslim minorities, the Uighurs? Xinjiang is at present the place in China where the remaining stretch of the silk road begins and this road still extends up to Abbottabad in Pakistan. This highway is presently known as the Karakoram highway and is a strategic road for China with respect to its conflict with India and its friendship with Pakistan. Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang, is the starting point of this present-day trade road. Kashgar is part of a fertile oasis, formed by the sediments of wind-deposited dust and produces one of the world’s finest cotton textiles. A flourishing trading hub along the silk road, Kashgar had many age-old dwellings made of mud, which now have been almost razed to the ground. Thanks to China’s development juggernaut in quick action!

Poplars Lining Tarim River in Xinjiang

The Uighur Issue

It was about 3 years ago the Uighur issue came to international attention. Uighur people living in the western countries began to voice their concerns about the well-being of relatives living in Xinjiang, as they found themselves cut off from communicating with them. The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC has called what is happening to the Uighurs in China as collective punishment of the whole community and mass human rights violation. It is no surprise that the Chinese regional party secretary in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who took charge in 2017, was also the person instrumental in unleashing a surveillance state and widespread repression in Tibet. He had established face recognition surveillance and QR-code facilitated the monitoring of citizens at people’s homes in Tibet.

Inside an Uighur Restaurant

“Re-Education Camps”

In 2017, China established mass internment camps, officially named re-education camps, for Uighurs. Forced labor, political indoctrination, and erasure of religious/cultural identities seem to be the prime features of these camps. In one year’s time, there were about 1 million Uighur Muslims held in these camps. There are 1,13,00,000 Uighurs living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The entire Uighurs are already branded as terrorists and bad people by the Chinese authorities. However, travelers and tourists have often written that the Uighur region is the only place remaining in the world, where one could see preserved, the charm and beauty of an ancient Islamic Central Asian city. The mud houses, exquisite cuisine, endearing folk music, and a profound history complete the charm.

Evoking Tibetan Memories

I am sure Tibetan people will be tossing and turning in their beds as they hear and read about the Uighur prosecution. The same nightmare has been haunting them for almost a century. China had even exiled Tibetan languages from the schools in Tibet and the same modus operandi is followed in Uighur as well. As early as 1959, Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious supremo, had to seek refuge in India, and ever since India has been a home away from home to Tibetan exiles. China promotes Han migration and settlement to Tibet making it more and more look like any other Chinese region.

A Typical Uighur Courtyard

Housing and Re-Housing Culture

Uyghurs call their land, Eastern Turkistan. Their unique Islamic culture has Sufism as well as the traditions of indigenous populations ingrained into its religious fabric. The mud houses demolished by China in Xinjiang have a history of at least 2000 years. In 2018, China started a “Three News” housing campaign that in the name of “civilizing” Uighur homes, so far has demolished about 400000 Uighur mud houses and compelled the people to construct so-called ‘modern’ houses. In Tibet also, China had carried out mass rehousing programs that had no respect for traditional Tibetan architecture. The nomadic Tibetan tribes were coerced to settle down and live a sedentary life. Human Rights Watch reported that the relocation often resulted in the emergence of ghettos as the previous nomadic herders struggled to find income opportunities in a settled life.

A Billboard in Tibet Advertising the Rehousing Program

A Little More History

In the 1990s, the strategic position of Xinjiang with respect to Chinese trade with Russia and Pakistan, made the Chinese government renewing its interest in the region. Xi Jinping was the head of the Chinese People’s Republic at the beginning of the 21st century. His tilted vision equated the idea of a unified China with one that is uniform as well. Gradually, the state began to impose the culture of the majority Han community of China on all other minority groups. In what academics called settler colonialism, people belonging to the majority Han ethnic group from the mainland started migrating and settling in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Parallelly, all the marginal groups began to be compelled to learn the Chinese language, abandon their cultural symbols and identities, swear their loyalty to the communist ideology and even encourage inter-cultural marriages with the Han people.

A Re-Education Camp in Xinjiang

Extremism in Xinjiang

Sporadic violence has always accompanied the Uighur frustration with China’s authoritarian rule. In 1997, about 100 people got killed in a violent protest and the ensuing repressive actions by the government forces. While the Chinese government accuses the extremist elements of having an Al Qaeda connection, the separatist groups allege that China is making illegal and arbitrary arrests, detentions, and human rights violations.

Red Racism?

A Communist regime practicing this kind of blatant racism is a paradox on its own. However, if we remember well, history has been full of such paradoxes. Incidentally, Ian Law, a professor at the University of Leeds, has dedicated an entire book to probing racism in Communist countries. Ben Hillman and Grey turtle have compared Xinjiang with Tibet in the 2016 book edited by them, ‘Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang”. The book says that both in Tibet and Xinjiang, China is pumping in funds for huge infrastructure projects such as dams, highways, etc. There has also been a palpable increase in security and surveillance in these two regions. When this development and control bandwagon is done marching through the history-laden paths of Tibet and Xinjiang, what will remain of Uighur and Tibetan cultures is anyone’s guess.

Inner Mongolia

Is Inner Mongolia Next?

The latest news comes from Inner Mongolia where China is replicating the Tibetan and Xinjiang model of cultural genocide. China’s new language policy in Inner Mongolia is to teach Chinese Mandarin in its schools instead of Mongolian. Protest is brewing along with suutei tsai, the Mongolian tea, in these swanky green valleys. All this is happening in spite of the fact that the Chinese constitution clearly upholds the autonomy of ethnic minorities.

Tibetan poet, Chen Metak, in his new poem wrote,

Scroll to Continue

“One day, a tongue of flame may shoot up from the crown of Iron Hill.

The flame may hear the laments of your chained sunrays”


The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims by Sean R. Roberts. 2020.

“Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang”, by Ben Hillman and Grey turtle. 2016.

Red Racisms: Racism in communist and post-communist contexts, by Ian Law, 2012.

UNESCO Silk Road Programme Website.

“Unrest in Inner Mongolia: Why China has ramped up its efforts to assimilate ethnic minority areas?” by Rudroneel Ghosh, The Times of India.

The Xinjiang Data Project, ASPI.

“They say we should be grateful”, Human Rights Watch.

Burning the Sun’s Braids, An anthology of Tibetan poetry.

"China’s “War on Terror”: September 11 and Uighur Separatism", by Chien-peng Chung.

© 2021 Deepa


Deepa (author) from India on May 27, 2021:

Thank you, Vidya D. Sagar.

VIDYA D SAGAR on May 27, 2021:

A well researched and informative article. A very good read.Thanka for sharing Deepa.

Deepa (author) from India on May 27, 2021:

Thank you Sharlee. When I am writing about people's lives and struggles, I should be factual and precise. Happy to know that it conveys the spirit.

Sharlee on May 27, 2021:

I can see you put time and research into this article. Very informative, eye-opening.

Deepa (author) from India on May 27, 2021:

Thank you.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on May 27, 2021:

This is a nice article with a lot of information very interesting to read.

Deepa (author) from India on May 27, 2021:

Thank you.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on May 27, 2021:

Well researched. Nice.

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