The Great Game was a defensive cold war between Britain and imperial Russia for control of Central Asia and its wealth and access to the British colonies in South Asia. It lasted roughly from 1830 to 1900. Rudyard Kipling use the term “Great Game” in his novel Kim. “Bukhara” Burns, the author of "Travels to Bokhara", is credited with coining the term.

Russia viewed Central Asia as territory in its own backyard vital for security and as a buffer zone between it and th British Empire and a stepping stones to coveted warm water port on the Arabian Sea. The British, who had been established in India and South Asia for some time were looking to expand the empire and sphere of influence into Central Asia and protect it from Russian advances. At the time Central Asia was largely in the hands of local khans, emirs and warlords.

The Great Game was played with diplomats, adventurers, railroads and spies and local rulers rather than direct confrontations between military forces. A great effort was made on both sides, particularly by the British, to gain access to particular areas and "favors" by currying favor with loyal local leaders.

Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, western China and Afghanistan were more important in the Great Game than Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan because they formed the buffer zone between the Russian Empire and the British-Indian Empire.

Websites and Sources: Xinjiang Wikipedia Article Wikipedia Xinjiang Photos Synaptic Synaptic ; Maps of Xinjiang: Uyghur Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Uyghur Photo site ; Uyghur News ; Uyghur Photos ; ; Uyghur Human Rights Groups ; World Uyghur Congress ; Uyghur American Association ; Uyghur Human Rights Project ; Uyghur Language Muslims in China Islam in China ; Claude Pickens Collection ; Islam Awareness ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Uyghur and Xinjiang Experts: Dru Gladney of Pomona College; Nicolas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch; and James Miflor, a professor at Georgetown University. Henryk Szadziewski is the manager of the Uyghur Human Rights Project ( He lived in the People's Republic of China for five years, including a three-year period in Uyghur-populated regions. Henryk Szadziewski studied modern Chinese and Mongolian at the University of Leeds, and completed a master's degree at the University of Wales, where he specialized in Uyghur economic, social and cultural rights. Tourist Office: Xinjiang Tourism Administration, 16 South Hetan Rd, 830002 Urumqi, Xinjiang China, tel. (0)- 991-282-7912, fax: (0)- 991-282-4449

Great Game in Xinjiang

Russian influence was arguably stronger than that of China or Britain. In 1890s there were rumors that the Russian czars were going to invade Xinjiang. In 1930 camel caravans traded Russian cigarettes, matches and sugar for Xinjiang wool. In 1935, British journalist Fleming wrote that Kashgar "in effect was run by secret police, the Russian advisers and the Soviet Consulate."

China's hold on Xinjiang was weak. There were frequent rebellions, shifting alliances and civil wars. Both Britain and the Soviet Union felt they had a chance to claim the region.

Kashgar was filled with spies and conspiracies. Fleming wrote: "You never know what to expect at a banquet in Kashgar and each of our official hosts had prudently brought his own bodyguard. Turkic and Chinese soldiers lounged everywhere; automatic rifles and executioner's swords were much in evidence, and the Mauser pistols of the waiters knocked ominously against the back of your chair as they knelt over you with the dishes."

Major Figures from the Great Game in Xinjiang


One of the most memorable figures of the Great Game was Shoqan Uaalikhanov (1835-65), a writer-explorer, statesman and spy who was the grandson of a Kazakh kahn. He graduated from a famous military school and was a friend of Dostoyevsky. He traveled extensively in Central Asia and filled notebooks with also sorts scientific and anthropological observations. Shoqan’s greatest claim to fame was his infiltration of Kashgar disguised as a Muslim merchant. It is said he was only the second European since Marco Polo to enter the city (the other fellow was beheaded after his identity was discovered).

Shoqan greatest claim to fame was his infiltration of Kashgar disguised as a Konad merchant. He was only the second European since Marco Polo to enter the city (the other fellow was beheaded after his identity was discovered).

The following is one of journal entries: "In Kashgar, and in the Six Cities in general, there is custom that all foreigners upon arrival must enter into marriage...The wedding is conducted in due form, and all that is required of the groom is that he consummate the union with his bride. So as not to depart from common procedure, and at the insistence of our new friends, we too were obliged to submit to this custom."

According to one rumor, T.E. Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia fame, came to Xinjiang to lead an effort against the Russians and formed commando groups made up of local tribesmen.

Yakub Beg and Kashgar

The British aggressively courted the warlord Yakup Beg, a Tajik of low birth who rose through the ranks in the Kokand empire was awarded large chunk of land in western China. In 1867, he grabbed Kashgar, giving him control of most of western China.

The British were one of the first to recognize Yakup Beg's claim on the land. The Russians established trade links between Kashgar and its Central Asian possessions. Spies, diplomats, adventurers and opportunism appeared in Kashgar not only from Britain and Russia, but also the United States, Turkey and other places.

Yakup Beg played Russia and Britain off one another and finally tried to strike a deal with Russia but his advances were spurned because Russia wanted to improve friendly relations with Manchu China. Russian troops entered the region, Yakup died mysteriously and the British changed tactics and bankrolled a Manchu Chinese offensive into the area.

The Chinese moved into western China in the late 19th century. It cracked down brutally on the local people and drove the Russian's out. When the dust cleared the British were left out too and the Chinese established Xinjiang Province ("New Territories") in 1882. Ultimately the British achieved their main goal: keeping the Russians from getting closer to South Asia and India via the via passes into what is now Pakistan.

Chinese Take on the Great Game Period of Xinjiang History

rightAccording to the Chinese government: “Not long after the outbreak of the Opium War, the Uyghurs and Huis in Kuqa, influenced by rebellions of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and the Nian Army uprisings by ethnic minority peasants in Yunnan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, launched an armed uprising in 1864. People in Urumqi, Shache (Yarkant), Ili, Barkol, Qitai, Hami, Mori, Jimsar and Changji responded. Uprisings against the Qing court swept Xinjiang, and several separatist regimes came into being. However, a handful of national and religious upper elements usurped the fruits of the uprisings under the cloak of "ethnic interest" and "religion," and became self-styled kings or khans. The warfare that ensued among them brought still greater catastrophes to the local people. [Source: |]

“Britain fostered Yukub Beg, the General Commander of the Kokand Khanate in 1865, who invaded Xinjiang and established the Zhedsar Khanate (Seven-City Khanate). Yukub Beg was a tool in the hands of Britain and Tsarist Russia, who wanted to split Xinjiang. He exercised cruel rule and, in the name of Allah, killed 40,000 non-Muslims in southern Xinjiang. His persecution was also extended to Islamic believers, who were tried at unfair "religious courts." The local people had to shoulder the war burdens, supplying warring factions with food grain, fuel, vehicles and draught animals, and the local economy suffered catastrophic damage. Bankrupt peasants fled, and some had to sell their children for a living. The slave trade boomed at local bazaars. |

“To preserve Russia's vested interest and maintain an equilibrium in influence with Britain in Central Asia, the Tsar, behind the back of the Qing Court, signed illegal commercial and trade treaties with Yukub Beg. Russia claimed that it could not "sit idle" while there were uprisings in the provinces in western China, and in the name of "recovery and defense upon request," it sent troops to occupy Ili in 1871 and started a 10-year period of colonial rule. The Russian troops forced people of the Uyghur, Kazak, Hui, Mongolian and Xibe tribes into designated zones in a "divide and rule" policy. Many Uyghurs had to flee their home towns, and moved to Huicheng and Dongshan. |

“It was in the interest of all ethnic groups to smash the Yukub Beg regime and recover Ili. So many local people supported the Qing troops when they overthrew Yukub Beg and recovered Xinjiang in 1877. However, not long after the Qing government had signed the "Sino-Russian Treaty of Peking" and the "Tahcheng Protocol on the Delimitation of the Sino-Russian Border," whereby China was compelled to cede 440,000 square kilometers of land to Russia, the Qing Court again concluded the "Ili Treaty" with Russia in 1881. Although China recovered Ili, it lost another 70,000 square kilometers of territory west of the Korgas River, and was charged nine million roubles compensation. On the eve of its withdrawal from Ili, Tsarist Russia coerced more than 10,000 Uyghur, Hui, Mongolian, Kazak and Kirgiz people to move to Russia. Farmland, irrigation facilities, houses and orchards were devastated and food grain and animals looted. Five of nine cities in Ili became virtually ruins, and the Uyghurs in the nine townships on the right bank of the Ili River were reduced to poverty. |

Explorers, Spies and Looters in Xinjiang

20080307-sven hedin.jpg
Sven Hedin, an early
explorer of Xinjiang
Francis Younghusband, a British explorer-spy traveled west from China into Central Asia and what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan between 1886 and 1894. While in western China, he came across a large Russia force in the Pamirs. Nikolay Przevalski's adventures in Central Asia were motivated the desire to help Russia. He traveled through Mongolia, east China, Kazakhstan and other eastern former Soviet Republics between 1870 and 1880. Swedish explorer Sven Ander Hedin spent more than 50 years (1885 to 1935) exploring and mapping the deserts of Central Asia, Tibet and western China. He traced the Silk Road and the source of several rivers.

In the 19th century Xinjiang was was explored by European adventurer-archaeologists such as Hedin and Britain's Sir Aurel Stein. Stein (1863-1943) was a Jewish Hungarian-born explorer who pioneered the study of the Silk Road and looted Buddhist art from caves in the western Chinese desert. Accompanied by his dog Dash, he carted away a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist, Chinese, Tibetan and Central Asia art and texts in a number of languages from the ancient city of Dunhhaung and gave them to the British Museum.

One of the most memorable figures from the Great Game was Eric Shipton, a professional explorer who was made the British consul general of Kashgar in 1940. He extensively explored Western China and the Karakoram range and had a great number of female admirers.. He also took a famous photograph of the Abominable Snowman footprints. Shipton was famous for traveling light and having an uncanny ability to find his way in the most difficult, unmapped terrain. He once bragged he could "organize a Himalayan expedition in half an hour on the back of an envelope."

Between 1902 and 1914, four German and four French expeditions visited Xinjiang along with expeditions from Russia and Japan — all of them carting what they found back to museums in their home countries. Their critics claim they were cultural looters while their defenders said they protected the treasures they took from marauding Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

China in Xinjiang the 19th Century

One of the leading figures in the campaign to make Xinjiang part of China was Gen. Zuo Zongtang, also knows as Gen. Tso, the inspiration for the famous American Chinese carry-out dish General Tso’s chicken. In 1878 Gen. Zuo marched west from his base in Shaanxi Province with 120,000 troops and claimed Xinjiang, whose western boundaries have more or less have remained unchanged since they were staked out by Zuo.

Chinese like to compare the campaign in Xinjiang with the American effort to tame the American West and argue that the Uighurs and other ethnic groups that stood in their way were no different than the American Indians that stood in the way of American settlers in the 18th century. Zuo’s victory in Xinjiang took place just two years after Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn as he was trying to coerce the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes to settle on their reservations. Some Chinese even describe the effort to bring civilization to the “natives” as the “yellow man’s burden” and compare their campaign in Xinjiang with the American concept of Manifest Destiny or even Israel’s Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

According to the Chinese government:“The Qing government decided to make the Western Region — formerly ruled by the general stationed in Ili — a province named Xinjiang, a step of important significance for local development and the strengthening of the north-west border defense against imperialist aggression. Ties between the area and central China became closer, and there was greater unity between the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in the common struggle against imperialism and feudalism.[Source:]

Xinjiang in the early 19th century

China in Xinjiang the 20th Century

In much of early 20th century, Xinjiang was largely ignored by China as it struggled with chaos, Japanese occupation, a growing Communist movement and civil war. A British officer traveling in Xinjiang in 1932 wrote: “Perhaps an awakening China, wondering where to settle its surplus millions of people may have the good sense to call in the science of the West and to develop Xinjiang.

Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press wrote: Xinjiang was ruled by a pair of independent Uyghur republics in the first half of the last century, but was brought firmly under Chinese control after the communist seizure of power in 1949. Large numbers of Han Chinese began moving to Xinjiang, including those in military production units that act almost as mini-states unto themselves. Officially, it is called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, not a province, although the distinction is essentially meaningless. Uyghur activists call the region East Turkistan. [Source: Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press, May 22, 2014]

According to the Chinese government:“After the Revolution of 1911 which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, Qing rule was replaced by feudal warlords. Sheng Shicai, who claimed to be progressive, usurped power in Xinjiang in the "April 12" coup of 1933. In the same year, Britain encouraged Mohamed Imin, who dreamed of a greater Turkey, to found the Hotan Islamic Republic, and Maula Shabitida, an advocate of greater Islam, to set up the East Turkistan Islamic Republic. Japanese imperialism in 1937 masterminded the plots by Mamti and Raolebas to form an "independent" Islamic state, and Mamti, in collaboration with Mahushan, rebelled. However, all these separatist efforts failed.” [Source:]

Xinjiang's Brief Independence

After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Chinese warlords battled one another for control of Xinjiang. One warlord was assassinated at a banquet. Another executed Mao younger's brother Mao Zemin. While this was going on the Uighurs were developing a political identity. Some allied themselves with Stalin. Others were embraced by the Nazis, who proclaimed that the Uighurs were an “Indo-Germanic” culture that had links with the Huns like the Germans.

Uighurs twice declared their own independent country. Uighur-led separatist movements established short-lived independent republics from 1933 to 1938, with a capital in Kashgar, and from 1944 to 1949, with the help of Soviet agents. The latter state was a democratic, multi-ethnic state founded by Uighurs and Kazakhs called the Republic of East Turkestan. Its capital was in the Yili Valley in northern Xinjiang.

The leader of East Turkestan Republic was a Kazakh named Osman. He led a rebellion of Uighurs, Kazakhs and Mongols which led to the establishment of the republic. Chiang Kai-shek convinced Osman to dismantle his republic in return for an autonomous state within China. The Nationalists never kept their promise and when the Communist came to power they appointed a Muslim leader that was under their control.

The brief, bitter experience of independence in the 1940s was brutally crushed after Stalin's agreement with Beijing that Xinjiang was best subsumed within the new People's Republic.

In 1949, the new leaders of the East Turkestan Republic were reported to have been killed in a plane crash as they were flying to a meeting with Mao Zedong in Beijing. Many Uighurs believe that their deaths had been arranged in a secret deal worked out between Stalin and Mao. After the deaths the Communists strengthened their hold on Xinjiang. Osman fought against the Communists until he was captured and executed by the Communists in 1951.

Chinese Communists Supported Xinjiang Independence

In the 1940s, the Chinese Communist Party of China supported an independent state in Xinjiang. According to Taiwan-based CBA: Thanks to support from the Soviet Union and China's communists, Xinjiang was briefly independent under the name of the East Turkestan Republic for around five years starting in 1944, when all of China was still ruled by the Republic of China (ROC) government. Late communist leader Mao Zedong at the time praised the "revolution in three parts of Xinjiang," referring to the subdivisions of Ili, Tarcheng, and Altay. [Source: CNA, Want China Times, March 5, 2014 /*/]

The revolution helped the communists "liberate" Xinjiang by containing the 100,000 ROC Nationalist troops stationed nearby, eventually contributing to the communist victory that drove the ROC government to Taiwan in 1949 and led to the establishment of the People's Republic of China on the mainland. /*/

“The rise and fall of the second East Turkestan Republic was closely tied to the complexities of regional politics — as was the fate of the first East Turkestan Republic, established by the Uyghurs in 1933 and crushed with the help of the Soviet Union just months later. /*/

Chinese Take on the Communist Revolution Period in Xinjiang in the 1930s and 40s

According to the Chinese government: “In 1933, when China was at a crucial point in history, the Chinese Communist Party began revolutionary activities in Xinjiang aimed at peace, democracy and progress. Sheng Shicai had to take some progressive steps, and declared six major policies — anti-imperialism, amity with the Soviet Union, national equality, honest government, peace and national reconstruction. In the same year, the "Anti-Imperialist Association of the People of Xinjiang" was formed, and the journal, "Anti-Imperialist Front," was published. Part of the Chinese Workers' and Peasants' Red Army went to Xinjiang in 1937. Later Sheng Shicai turned to the Kuomintang, persecuting the Communists, progressive people, patriotic youth and workers. [Source: |]

“The Kuomintang began to rule Xinjiang in 1944, forcing sharper contradictions on the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups. It exacted dozens of taxes under all kinds of pretexts. One example was the taxation on land. An average peasant had to pay well over 15 per cent of annual income for it. The amount of taxes in terms of money was eight times the sum in 1937. Local industry and commerce virtually went bankrupt, and the situation for rural Uyghurs was even worse. |

“Uprisings took place in Ili, Tacheng and Altay to oppose Kuomintang rule. They served to accelerate the liberation of the region in the national liberation war. Tao Zhiyue, the Commandant of the Kuomintang Xinjiang Garrison, and Burhan Shahidi, Chairman of the Kuomintang Xinjiang Provincial Government, accepted Chinese Communist Party's peace terms, and revolted against the Kuomintang government in Nanjing, and Xinjiang was peacefully liberated in October, 1949.” |

Communists Takeover Xinjiang

In 1949, after the Communist take over of China, Mao sent one of his most trusted generals, Wang Zhen, to tame Xinjiang. Wang became the region’s first governor. The PLA established a state farm system in Xinjiang, which dominated the economy there for decades and remains strong today. The irrigation technology the Han settlers used was designed by Israeli engineers.

“Put your weapons aside and pick up the tools of construction,” one popular slogan went. “Develop Xinjiang, defend the nation’s borders and protect social stability. Many of the first Han Chinese to arrive in Xinjiang under the Communists were forced to go there against their will. In 1949, Han Chinese made up seven percent of the population of Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region was formally established on October 1, 1955. Five autonomous prefectures and six autonomous counties were set up in the following months.

Early Han Migrants to Xinjiang After the Communists Take Over Xinjiang

Early settlers arrived here in 1951 and helped dig the first thatch-covered pits that served as shelter. People lost ears and toes to frostbite.

In 1956, students marched through the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and countless small towns propelled by patriotic cheers and thumping drums, answering Mao’s call to open up the west. After a month-long journey by train and open-air truck, thousands arrived at the Gobi Desert army outpost of Shihezi to find that the factory jobs, hot baths and telephones in every house were nothing but empty promises to lure them to a faraway land. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 6, 2009]

“We lived in holes in the ground, and all we did night and day was hard labor,” Han Zuxue, a sun-creased 72-year-old who was a teenager when he left his home in eastern Henan Province, told the New York Times. “At first we cried every day but over time we forgot our sadness.” [Ibid]

One of the first arrivals to the farm told Allen, "We came here in March, walking from Urumqi. Nine days. We shot wild pigs and wild sheep for food." A woman told him, "After giving birth to first son I still had to keep working, making shoes for the soldiers, twenty shoes everyday for the soldiers. I kept my son in the corner and had to keep working." During the Great Leap Forward, many Uighurs fled to the Soviet Union. In the Cultural Revolution mosques were destroyed.

20111031-wikicommons great leap Xinyang working night.jpg
working at night in Xinjiang

Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps

In the early 1950s, in one of the largest peacetime mobilizations in history, prisoners of war, decommissioned Red Army soldiers and “reform through labor” convicts were sent to the Gobi Desert and western China as members of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, to build roads, canals, bridges and dams and transform a wasteland into a rich agricultural area of cotton, maize and rice, complete with its own cities. In some cases the condition were so severe that participants made furniture from sod bricks and used their own hair keep arm in the frigid winters.

The Production and Construction Corps was a paramilitary organization of 3 to 4 million people under joint government, party, and PLA control. The Production and Construction Corps was used in remote and unproductive areas to build roads, reclaim land, construct defense and water works, and operate mines, state farms, and industrial plants. A secondary role was border defense, and some units were armed with light infantry weapons. All received basic military training. Unlike the militia, Production and Construction Corps personnel were full time and uniformed. The PLA took over the Production and Construction Corps during the Cultural Revolution, then civilianized it in the 1970s. In the 1980s the corps appeared to have been abolished except in Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region. There it operated under regional party and government organizations, the Xinjiang Military District, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, and Fishery. [Source: Library of Congress]

For a long time most Han Chinese in Xinjiang worked for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps that over time came to run ran factories, farms and other enterprises. Under its jurisdiction was one of the largest communes in China’state Farm No. 128 of the No. 7 Division. Located 85 miles northwest of Urumqi, it employed 17,000 people (almost all Han Chinese) and had military-style checkpoints, irrigated orchards and cotton fields as well as its own foreign affairs office, television station, oil refinery and enterprises for marketing crops and forestry products.

The northern part of Xinjiang is dominated by “bingtuan” — military-run farms and businesses that employ predominately Han Chinese settlers or migrants. Hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese — recruited by the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps — pick cotton and potatoes on the corps extensive farmland. The bingtuans of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps were very profitable. Even today about one in six Chinese that live in Xinjiang — about 1.3 million people — belong to one. Few Uighurs are given the opportunity to work on them.

Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Settlers

The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps was a combination farm, military garrison and prison. The first arrivals in 1954, including more than 100,000 demobilized soldiers. Some were coerced. The flow of Han Chinese from the east increased when the railroad was extended west, reaching Urumqi in 1962. Promises of food and clothing were used to attract residents of overcrowded cities like Shanghai.

The effort was centered in the Gobi Desert city of Shihezi. The soldiers and their communities are known as bingtuan. Shihezi and other bingtuan settlements quickly became self-sufficient, a relief to a government lacking resources, and its reclamation warriors worked without pay those first few years, steadily turning thousands of acres of inhospitable scrubland into some of the country’s most fertile terrain. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 6, 2009]

In those early years, the ranks of the bingtuan were fortified by petty criminals, former prisoners of war, prostitutes and intellectuals, all sent west for re-education. Still, for many early settlers, Xinjiang offered an escape from the deprivation that stalked many rural areas between 1959 and 1962, when Mao’s disastrous attempt to start up China’s industrialization led to famine that killed millions. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 6, 2009]

During the mid-1950s, 40,000 young women were lured to Xinjiang with promises of the good life: they arrived to discover their main purpose was to relieve the loneliness of the male pioneers and cement the region’s Han presence through their progeny. Lu Yiping, an author who spent five years interviewing women trucked into Xinjiang from Hunan Province, tells of girls lured with promises of Russian-language classes and textile-mill jobs. In an interview published online, he told the story of arriving women greeted by Wang Zhen, the famously hard-line general who helped tame the region. “Comrades, you must prepare to bury your bones in Xinjiang,” he quoted Wang as telling the women. One educated woman who arrived in 1963 told the New York Times, “I thought I was going to be a nurse, but I ended up sweeping the streets and cleaning toilets.” [Ibid]

Demographics have always been a tactical element of the campaign to pacify the region. In 1949, when the Communists declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, there were just 300,000 Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Today, the number of Han has grown to 7.5 million, just over 40 percent of the region’s population. The percentage of Uighurs has fallen to 45 percent, or about 8.3 million. [Ibid]

Bingtuan of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps

Many Chinese consider the bingtuan, meaning soldier corps, a major success. In one fell swoop Mao deployed 200,000 idle soldiers to help develop and occupy a resource-rich, politically strategic region bordering India, Mongolia and the Soviet Union, a onetime ally turned menace. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, August 6, 2009]

During peaceful times, the bingtuan are a force for development, but if anything urgent happens, they will step out and maintain social stability and combat the separatists, said Li Sheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a former bingtuan member who writes about the region’s history. [Ibid]

Ever since we arrived they’ve resented us and had no appreciation for how we’ve improved this place, said He Zhenjie, 76, who has spent his adult life leveling sand dunes, planting trees and digging irrigation ditches. But we’re here to stay. The Uighurs will never wrest Xinjiang away. [Ibid]

Later Han Migrants to Xinjiang

Another wave of Han China showed up when youths were “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these were behind when this period ended. Some of the Han settlers assimilated. They learned the local language, and tried to fit in.

But by the 1980s and 1990s, a further wave of migration meant the arrival of many new settlers far too numerous to be easily assimilated. Many appeared to have been displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project in southwest China; at the time I was in Urumqi in 1995, rumors were circulating of trains bringing in thousands of such people.

Xinjiang Under Communist Rule

When the Communists took power in 1949, they promised autonomy for Xinjiang and were welcomed by many of Muslim groups. Several of the Yili regime leaders joined the new government. The promises of autonomy were never fulfilled and there have been ethnic tensions ever since.

In the Mao era Xinjiang was the place where China's first nuclear bomb was tested. It was the place, in the worst period of the Cultural Revolution, where mosques were shut down, and, in some cases, destroyed; where imams were forced to eat pork as a sign of their fidelity to Maoism, not Islam.

The 1980s was period of relative tolerance in part to make amends for repression in the past. Mosques destroyed in the Cultural Revolution were rebuilt. Government money was used to build new mosques. The Uighur language was reintroduced in schools. This approach was abandoned after Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The various ethnic groups that lived in Urumqi got along pretty well until the late 1990s when large waves of Han Chinese began flowing in and phrases like “Han only” and “No ethnic minorities” began appearing in classified job ads. A Japanese woman who lived in Urumqi for 10 years told a Japanese newspaper, “The mind frame that allowed for peaceful existence was lost.”

The GDP of Xinjiang doubled from $28 billion in 2000 to $60 billion im 2008.

Political Violence and Terrorism, See Separatism, Terrorism and Human Rights

Tragic School Fire in Karamay

In 1994, 324 people, including 312 schoolchildren, were killed when a fire swept through a movie theater in Karamay in Xinjiang province. Most of the children, who were burned beyond recognition, were found near the theater's only exit. Makeshift shrines with pictures of the deceased children set up in Karamay was torn down by police.

“On Dec. 8, 1994, nearly 300 Chinese schoolchildren gathered in a remote western oil town to take part in a performance for school officials. But a stage light ignited a curtain, setting off a fire that engulfed the theater. Few students made it out alive. Today, their parents are still grieving and questions remain. Why were the children told to wait for the officials to escape first? Why were so many of the exits locked? When will the children be issued death certificates?” [Source: AP]

Independent filmmaker Xu Xin made a six-hour, black-and-white documentary about the event called “Karamay” that made its world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2010. The most touching interview is given by the only surviving student. Xu sensitively shows her scarred feet first, then plays her voice to a black screen before revealing her heavily disfigured face and hands. The director also obtains rare footage of the fire itself and its aftermath - one particularly gruesome scene shows a hospital room piled with bodies. Xu got the video from parents - some of whom are police officials who had access to internal footage that has likely never been aired]

Karamay is located in the Xinjiang. The 325 deaths from the 1994 fire, including students and teachers, cut across ethnic lines: the victims were Han, Uighur and Kazakh. Thirteen local officials were sentenced to jail terms of up to seven years for negligence and the parents were paid compensation, but many still think the government hasn't done enough.

So Xu had to proceed carefully. He showed up unannounced at the grave where the victims are buried on the 13th anniversary of the fire with a small digital camera and introduced himself to parents paying their respects to their children. From his initial contacts, he managed to track down more than 60 parents.

Image Sources: Uighur image website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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