The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as it is officially known to the Chinese, or as Uyghur nationalists call it “Uyghuristan” or “East Turkistan”
, is a vast region that occupies a sixth of China in the North West
. Despite its immense size, Xinjiang contains great expanses of inhospitable dessert and mountains and as a result holds little more than 1 percent of China’s population, of which over sixty percent of Xinjiang’s eighteen million citizens are Muslims
.Under the Chinese Communists, Muslims were divided among ten official nationalities, with theUyghur
comprising an ethnic majority in Xinjiang (Gladney 2005a). Despite the Uyghur majority, migration of Han Chinese started in the 1950s when the army sent troops to occupyXinjiang, and has increased at a rapid pace as China has sought to develop the region. The Han population of Xinjiang has risen from nearly zero in 1950 to more than 40% of the current population (Forney 2002). Despite coexisting, the Han and the Uyghurs share very fewdemographic similarities, as the Han speak Putonghua (Mandarin) rather than Uyghur, and enjoyhigher levels of economic development, employment and literacy rates.
Certainly, the rapidgrowth of the Han has contributed to ethnic tensions in the region, especially amid Uyghur nationalist accusations that this growth has come at their expense.From China’s perspective, the stability of Xinjiang is a high priority based on the strategic andeconomic value of the area
. Xinjiang is viewed as an important area to absorb high populationgrowth from the Central and Coastal regions, and it is additionally home to several major nuclear testing facilities, due to rich reserves of uranium and copper. Also invaluable, is Xinjiang’s linksto Central Asia,
as it has the only major road to these countries. China ‘desperately want[s] tomaintain hold of Xinjiang, fearing its loss would incite the [Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP)]collapse and possibly the secession of Taiwan and Tibet’ (Dwyer 2005: 89). Despite China’sambition of unity, Xinjiang has a history of independence movements and since the mid-nineteenth century, there have been three rebellions that resulted in independent Uyghur states
.Following the turmoil and austerity of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s was a period of liberalized cultural and political freedoms for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang
(Dwyer 2005: 4).However, by the mid-1990s, China began to credit several isolated incidents of unrest inXinjiang, as well as rising overt displays of Islam to the lax cultural and political freedoms of the1980s. This initiated a wave of political and cultural crackdowns accompanied by ‘largely covertshifts in language and cultural policy aimed at further sinicizing the region’ (Dwyer 2005: 5).
China has been wary of ‘splittism’ since the 1950s, continually suggesting that it poses thegreatest threat to national security (Dwyer 2005: 54). While the precise extent of the unrest inXinjiang is obscured by unreliable and manipulated CCP data, internal official Chinese sourcessuggest that violent acts related to Xinjiang separatist movements numbered in the thousands inthe 1990s and that ‘[i]n 1998 alone, more than seventy serious incidents occurred, causing morethan 380 deaths’ (Lai 2003: 126). In response to this unrest the Chinese governmentimplemented the ‘Strike Hard! Maximum Pressure!’ Campaign, aimed at eradicating the ‘threeevils’ of separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism, although as Dwyer (2005) has noted, thecampaign was primarily concerned with “splittists” rather than religious terrorists (54). As thename indicates, the campaign did indeed ‘Strike Hard,’ subjecting Uyghurs who expressed anygovernment dissent to rapid, secretive, and summary trials, where the imposition of the death penalty was common. Vicziany (2003) has reported that Uyghurs executed for separatism was upto six times greater than their proportion of China’s population in the late 1990s (246). Inaddition to the covert policies which stifled cultural, religious and political freedoms for the