Why is China occupying Xinjiang

China's fight against the Uyghurs

The Middle Kingdom is seething. In the run-up to the Olympic Games, not only the Tibetans but also the Uyghurs are protesting in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. Hundreds of people took to the streets in the city of Hetjan on March 23, as only now became known through reports on the US broadcaster "Radio Free Asia". The trigger was then the death of a Uyghur businessman who, according to official information, allegedly died of a heart attack while in Chinese custody.

"Stop the occupation of Tibet and East Turkestan!" urge Uyghurs in Istanbul

Eyewitnesses reported hundreds of arrests. The city government, on the other hand, spoke of a "plot" by a "small group of troublemakers" which ended immediately. At the beginning of March, according to reports from Uyghur exiles, the Chinese police again arrested 70 people. On Thursday (April 4th, 2008) a group of Muslim Uyghurs protested against religious and political oppression by Beijing at the Olympic torch relay in Istanbul.

East Turkestan became Xinjiang

It is through such actions that many Westerners first hear of the internal Chinese conflict. The Uyghur Muslim Turkic people have been suffering from systematic repression since the 1990s at the latest. Similar to Tibet, Mao annexed the previously autonomous East Turkestan in 1949. Since 1955, the province has been called Xinjiang, an area the size of Western Europe. And like Tibet, the region has an autonomous status on paper. But the reality for the eight million Uyghurs living there is different.

Political, economic, religious oppression

Uyghurs in the city of Korla: "China's ethnic groups are one big family", so the poster in the background

"There is no other ethnic group in the People's Republic of China that is so exposed to persecution," claims Ulrich Delius of the German "Society for Threatened Peoples" (STP) in Göttingen. According to figures from the human rights organization, the government has carried out over 500 death sentences in the region since 1997, the Asia officer said. Without wanting to relativize the situation: Two people were executed in Tibet during the same period.

Han Chinese are systematically settled in Xinjiang, and it is said that 1,000 of them arrive there every day. From the former 93, the Uyghurs now make up only 47 percent of the population. The Exile Association of the East Turkestan Union in Europe even reports of the forced sterilization of Uighur women. According to Amnesty International, the practice of religion is sabotaged, mosques are arbitrarily closed, religious festivals are banned, and the language of the locals is banned from schools.

The fear of secession

Gas extraction tower on the Yaha gas field in Xinjiang

Asia expert Ulrich Delius explains why the Uyghurs are so enslaved in the first place: "Xinjiang has become the most important oil and gas supplier to the People's Republic in recent years." In addition, the province is territorially and strategically relevant. As a border province, Xinjiang borders on now independent former Soviet republics such as Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan, in which Turkic peoples such as the Uyghurs also lived. "China is very afraid that the rift could jump over and the Uyghurs also demand independence in their own country."

Between suspicion of terrorism and the desire for independence

Because the Uyghurs are Muslims, China has legitimized its brutal policy towards the minority since September 11, 2001 at the latest by repelling terrorists. The country receives external support. In the year of the New York attacks, the UN put the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) on the list of terrorist organizations. However, never more than 500 people had joined the troop. It is also unclear whether it still exists. In the 1990s, some Uyghurs visited Afghan terror camps. 22 of them ended up in the US prison in Guantánamo, but some have since been released. They had apparently been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A Chinese Muslim sells the Koran, including a Chinese version

Erkin Zunun from the East Turkistan Union in Europe defends himself against the terrorism allegations. He considers the allegedly foiled terrorist attack on a plane from Urumchi to Beijing in the run-up to the Olympic Games to be a Chinese invention. "We are not radical Muslims," ​​assures the general secretary of the Munich-based organization and laughs: "After all, 80 percent of Uighur men drink alcohol." Human rights activist Ulrich Delius says the majority of Uyghurs are resisting peacefully.

Does the Olympic flame bring light to Uyghurs too?

With the riots in Tibet, Beijing increased the pressure again a few months before the start of the Olympics. "Friends have told me that the police are already driving people apart if three people meet," says Ekin Zunun. And after 10:00 p.m. there is now a curfew. He believes that the Uyghurs will wait until the Olympics before they protest again. Because at the moment this is impossible.