Chinas Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region: Developments and U.S. Interests

CRS Report for Congress
China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region:
Developments and U.S. Interests
Kara Miriam Wortman
Research Associate
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Kerry Dumbaugh
Specialist in Asian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Since 1996, officials of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have seen an
increasing security threat in the activities of minority nationalities in its heavily Muslim
Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), in China’s far northwest. The PRC has
been the target of bombings, sabotage, and other terrorist attacks, primarily thought to
be committed by small groups of XUAR extremists (largely Uighurs). As a result,
Beijing has increased police actions in the region, which many human rights
organizations and Members of Congress allege have resulted in gross and increasing
human rights violations. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in
the United States, U.S. policymakers are faced with balancing these human rights
concerns with what now appear to be common Sino-U.S. interests in combating
fundamentalist global terrorism.
The Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous
Region is China’s northwesternmost
territory, making up one-sixth of the
country’s area. In addition to sharing its
3,350-mile border with Afghanistan, it also
borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India,
including the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), who are
Turkic Muslims, comprise the dominant
ethnic group in the region at 47% of the total
population of 16.6 million. Since the 1950s,

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the PRC has moved into the XUAR sizeable numbers of ethnic (Han) Chinese, who make
up nearly 92% of the PRC’s total population, settling many of them into communities
known as “Production and Construction Corps.” The percentage of ethnic Chinese in
Xinjiang subsequently has increased from around 6% in 1949 to 38% in 1999. The XUAR
is also home to smaller populations of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Tatars, Uzbeks, Hui,
Mongols, and other Turkic national minority groups.1
Adapted by CRS from MagellanHistorical interpretations of Xinjiang’s distant past
Geographix. Used with permission.are controversial.2 Events of recent centuries are more
MONGOLIARUSSIAwidely documented but no less contentious. China
KAZAKHSTANestablished a military presence in the region in the
eighteenth century and later named the area Xinjiang,
KYRGYZSTANXinjiangGansu“new territory.” In the nineteenth century, as China
became a battleground for competing European interests,
TAJIK.Britain supported Chinese sovereignty over Xinjiang to
Qinghaiforestall Russian efforts to dominate the region. Revolts
INDIAPAK.Xizang(Tibet)in Xinjiang against Chinese rule took place in the 1860s
and 1870s, leading to the declaration of an independent
state. Parts of Xinjiang were briefly held by Russia until
their return to Chinese control in the early 1880s.
Chinese control of Xinjiang fluctuated in the first half of the twentieth century.
Chinese warlords acknowledged the national Chinese government’s sovereignty but
maintained control over much of Xinjiang, while local non-Chinese residents established
brief independent republics in the 1930s and 1940s.3 In 1949 the People’s Liberation
Army (PLA) entered Xinjiang and annexed it to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Xinjiang was designated as an autonomous region for ethnic minorities and became
formally known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in 1955.
Current Developments
Recent Ethnic Activities. The past decade has seen an increase in ethnic
activities in the XUAR ranging from the more vigorous exercise of local cultural and
religious practices, to expressions of discontent with the government, and to limited and
at times violent efforts to establish an independent state or rebel against PRC rule. The
PRC has been the target of bombings, sabotage, and other terrorist attacks, primarily

1 Guo Weimin, ed., China’s Xinjiang, Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 1999; and Liz Sly,
The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 11, 1999. The Hui are ethnic Chinese Muslims who
constitute 4% of the population in Xinjiang. The Chinese government categorizes the Hui as a
separate ethnic group from the Han Chinese.
2 Chinese interpretations assert that Xinjiang has been a part of the Chinese empire since the
second century BCE, while Uighur versions of history downplay Xinjiang’s contact with China.
3 In 1933, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government crushed Muslim forces seeking to establish
an independent “East Turkestan Republic” in the region. A second attempt at independence in
1944 — the Ili Rebellion, supported by the Soviet Union — routed Chiang’s military forces and
forced him to negotiate a peace agreement. The Ili group declared the goals of the new republic
to be freedom and democracy for the Islamic peoples and the ousting of all Chinese from

thought to be committed by small groups of XUAR extremists. For years, there have been
periodic unconfirmed reports that some Uighur activists may, in fact, be based in
Afghanistan, receiving training from the Taliban.4 Beijing calls many of these activists
“separatists,” and charges them with trying to wrest the XUAR and other heavily Muslim
areas from Chinese rule. Beijing has responded to these perceived threats by enhancing
security measures in the XUAR. Many international organizations reporting a significant
upsurge of human rights violations in the region allege that PRC policies in the XUAR
unjustly target the majority of XUAR residents whose expressions of ethnicity and culture
do not carry separatist connotations or threaten national security.
Monitoring ethnic activities in the XUAR is complicated by conflicting descriptions
of the region. Accounts from Uighur sources and international organizations identify
human rights violations and unequal treatment as underlying causes of protest and turmoil
in the region. The group Human Rights Watch notes that Communist Party officials, who
tend to be ethnic Chinese, dominate local politics even though many top posts in the
XUAR’s local government are held by members of minority groups. Central Asian
specialist Dru Gladney suggests that Chinese immigration to the XUAR is a main cause
of discontent. According to the human rights group Amnesty International, a number of
protests, including a 1995 demonstration in Hetian (Khotan) and a 1997 demonstration
in Yining (Ghulja), have been in response to China’s restrictions on religious activities
and perceived discrimination against minority groups.5
Some ethnic movements in the XUAR are based strongly on nationalist ideas.
Nationalist movements opposing PRC rule date back to 1949, when Uighur independence
groups defeated by the PLA fled China and established an independence movement in
Turkey. Activities with nationalist overtones have become more visible within the XUAR
since the PRC began permitting greater freedom of expression in the 1980s, and in
particular since the early 1990s, when Central Asian republics with ethnic ties to the
XUAR’s indigenous population declared independence from the Soviet Union.
A number of organizations outside China support these nationalist aims. The
Turkey-based East Turkistan Information Center states that it serves as an international
association of Uighur groups located in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Germany,
Sweden, Australia, and the United States. According to XUAR dissidents in Turkey, a
Uighur group in Kazakhstan was responsible for a bomb explosion on a Beijing bus in
1997 that followed massive arrests by PRC security officials in the aftermath of
demonstrations in Yining (Ghulja). Ties may also exist between Uighur separatist groups
and Islamic fundamentalist organizations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although the
PRC government has identified internal separatist threats, the extent to which separatist
movements are led by organizations within the XUAR and the immediate threat of these
movements are unclear. According to one report in 1999 by the U.S. Central Intelligence

4 New York Times,”Taliban Enlisting Eager Recruits of Many Lands,” September 28, 2001.
5 See Human Rights Watch, “Xinjiang, China’s Restive Northwest,” 1998; The San Diego Union-
Tribune, November 11, 1999; and Amnesty International, “People’s Republic of China. Gross
Violations of Human Rights in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region,” April 1999.

Agency, CIA analysts at that point did not foresee ethnic separatism resulting in the
breakup of the PRC.6
PRC Responses. Beijing stresses that the PRC’s minority groups enjoy equal
protection under the law. The PRC Constitution states:
All ethnic groups in the People’s Republic of China are equal. The state protects the lawful
rights and interests of the ethnic minorities and upholds and develops a relationship of equality,
unity, and mutual assistance among all of China’s ethnic groups. Discrimination against and
oppression of any ethnic group are prohibited.7
Beijing has often stated that current and past separatist incidents in the XUAR are isolated
events initiated by foreign groups and abhorred by XUAR residents. The PRC
government nonetheless has responded to events in the XUAR with heavy policing of the
region, arrests and executions of alleged separatists, and, according to reports by human
rights groups and exiled dissidents, torture of Uighur and other minority prisoners. A
classified transcript of a March 19, 1996 meeting of the Standing Committee of the
Chinese Communist Party Politburo, cited by Human Rights Watch, underscores PRC
concerns with the XUAR. According to the transcript, the meeting identified “national
separatism and illegal religious activity” as the “main threats to the stability of Xinjiang,”
and noted that counterrevolutionary organizations “led by the United States of America”
are supporting separatist movements. The meeting also outlined a strategy for restricting
illegal religious activity, encouraging immigration to the XUAR, regulating cultural
exchanges with foreign countries, and tightening control of the media.8
In addition to taking strong measures domestically, PRC leaders appear particularly
sensitive to the fact that Xinjiang’s ethnic Muslim population have more in common with
the populations of bordering states than with the rest of China. On April 26, 1996,
coinciding with the beginning of China’s anti-crime campaign and massive arrests in the
XUAR, China signed a military confidence-building treaty with Russia and the Muslim
states bordering Xinjiang – Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – setting up a buffer
zone between the signatory nations. On August 25, 1999, the five countries cosigned a
declaration designed to decrease cross-border crime, separatism, and extremism. This
groups now includes Uzbekistan and is known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO). On November 10, 1999, China and Uzbekistan agreed to a joint effort to fight

6 Information on the East Turkistan Information Center Web site is available at
[]. Some Uighur organizations aim to establish an independent
Uighuristan, a homeland for the Uighur diaspora. Other groups promote the establishment of an
independent “East Turkistan,” which denotes a separate state for the myriad ethnic minority
groups that currently live in Xinjiang. Ahmed Rashid (Far Eastern Economic Review, August
5, 1999) describes possible links between Uighur groups and Osama bin Laden. P.B. Sinha Sinha
(Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, 1997) says that Islamic militancy among Uighurs has
roots in the 1980s, when Afghani and Pakistani fundamentalists trained Uighur groups to fight
against the Soviet Union. The CIA assessment was reported in Inside China Today, December

7, 1999.

7 “White Paper on National Minorities Policy and Its Practice in China,” Information Office of
the State Council of the PRC, 1999, as cited in Xinhua News Agency, September 27, 1999.
8 Human Rights Watch, “China: State Control of Religion, Update Number 1,” 1998.

terrorism and Islamic activity, and on November 23, 1999, China and Kazakhstan again
pledged mutual cooperation in fighting separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism.
Human Rights Issues. Although social and economic reforms in the late 1970s
and 1980s allowed new freedoms in the PRC, human rights organizations maintain that
these freedoms have been curtailed in the past decade. China has signed or ratified several
international human rights declarations, but Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch both report that severe human rights violations occur in the XUAR.
Restrictions on religion and dissatisfaction with the government have helped fuel
protest among XUAR residents. In 1996, the PRC initiated a “strike hard” campaign
against crime which, in the XUAR, often focused on curbing ethnic and religious9
activities that are illegal under Chinese law. In an April 1999 report on human rights
violations in the XUAR, Amnesty International described a pattern of arbitrary arrests,
unfair trials, and summary executions, as well as reports of forced sterilization and
abortions. The organization recorded 210 death sentences and 190 executions between

1997 and 1999, primarily of Uighurs charged with subversive activities.

Several human rights organizations have tracked the August 1999 arrest of a
prominent and wealthy Uighur businesswoman, Rebiya Kadeer.10 Detained by police
while on her way to meet with a friend from a visiting U.S. congressional staff delegation,
Kadeer was held on charges of “providing information to foreigners” and was charged on11
September 2, 1999, for “illegally offering state secrets across the border.” According
to the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movements in China, in
November 1999, Kadeer’s son was sentenced without trial to two years in a labor camp
on charges of aiding separatists.12 On March 9, 2000, the XUAR’s Urumqi Intermediate
Court sentenced Kadeer herself to 8 years for providing state secrets to foreigners.
Economic Issues. The XUAR has abundant resources, including cotton and oil,
but lags behind many other regions in China in economic output. Xinjiang’s half-year
GDP growth rate for 1999 (6.8%) made it the fourth lowest region for GDP growth in
China, 0.8 percentage point behind the national average and 5.1 percentage points behind
Beijing. Chinese sources note, however, that the XUAR ranks second in China for border
trade and is home to 699 enterprises funded by foreign sources. In recent years, Beijing
has launched a “Go West” campaign to concentrate economic development efforts in
central and western China.13 The government has announced a five-year development plan
for Xinjiang that will focus on improving infrastructure in the region. A cornerstone of
this effort is a plan to build a 4,212-kilometer pipeline from the XUAR to Shanghai.
Beijing also announced plans to open a branch of the China Development Bank in

9 China requires Muslim organizations to register with the central government. Unapproved
religious activities such as home prayer meetings and private Koran lessons are considered
illegal, and parties involved are subject to arrest and prosecution.
10 Chen, Kathy. “Rebiya Kader (sic) Tears Up Silk Road with Determination to Succeed,” Asian
Wall Street Journal, September 22, 1994, p. 1.
11 Amnesty International, August 7, 1999; and September 3, 1999.
12 Associated Press, December 2, 1999.
13 See CRS Report RL31104, China’s western development drive, by D.L. McNeal.

Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. According to the state-sponsored Xinjiang People’s
Broadcasting Station, Communist Party officials have encouraged local media to help
create “a public opinion fav[o]rable to the implementation of the strategy on grand
[economic] development of the western region.”14
Some, however, fear that these and other western development projects may
exacerbate ethnic tensions by bringing more ethnic Chinese into the region. According to
some human rights groups, Chinese migration and economic disparities between Chinese
and ethnic minorities in the XUAR have been a primary factor fueling discontent among
minority groups. Critics of PRC development plans assert that Chinese, and not ethnic
minorities, tend to reap the benefits of economic improvements in minority regions.
Development projects funded by foreign groups, including the World Bank, have been
controversial because of perceived advantages the projects give to Chinese. (See CRS
Report RL30786, World Bank Lending: Issues Raised by China’s Qinghai Resettlement
U.S. Policy Implications
Events in the XUAR have far-reaching implications for U.S. policymakers, who in
the past have had to juggle efforts to persuade the PRC to improve its human rights record
– efforts the PRC government has strongly criticized – with attempts to uphold and
enhance economic cooperation with China. In its September 2000 “Annual Report on
International Religious Freedom for 2000: China,” the U.S. Department of State referred
to PRC police crackdowns on Muslim religious activity after an ongoing series of violent
incidents in the XUAR beginning in 1997, including reported bombings in Xinjiang and
other parts of the PRC attributed to Uighur activists. According to the report, the PRC
continues to maintain restrictions on Muslim religious activity, particularly among the
Uighur nationality. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the
United States, the potential for Sino-U.S. cooperation against global terrorism may bring
changes in the policy calculations of U.S. officials, who may seek to downplay traditional
U.S. concerns in the interest of assuring PRC cooperation.
Despite shared Sino-U.S. interests against terrorism, it is not yet clear how much
actual support the PRC will be willing or able to give the U.S.-led effort. A key problem
for U.S. policymakers is that the PRC commonly makes no distinction between terrorists
who perform violent acts and “separatists,” even those advocates that are entirely
peaceful. Also, the PRC strongly prefers that global efforts such as the anti-terrorism
campaign be conducted through the auspices of the U.N. Security Council, where it has
a voice, and not purely through a U.S. unilateral effort or a coalition of U.S. allies. Beijing
officials also may be cautious about appearing too “pro-American,” a political problem
that working through U.N. auspices could mitigate. Also, PRC officials in the past have
attempted to exact policy concessions from the United States – such as on Taiwan or
Tibet – in exchange for their support for U.S. initiatives. The PRC may attempt to
condition its future support for the global anti-terrorism campaign through these and other
mechanisms – a linkage that would complicate U.S. policies toward Taiwan and the Dalai
Lama’s Tibetan community-in-exile.

14 South China Morning Post, Sept. 8, 1999; Xinhua News Agency, October 20, 1999; and
Xinhua News Agency, December 14, 1999.