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C U L T U R A L   P O L I C Y   I N   T H E   X I N J I A N G   U I G H U R   

A U T O N O M O U S    R E G I O N   (E A S T   T U R K E S T A N)

  by A.Altuni

                                                      “There are no natural rights; the only rights of the

                                                       individual are those which society gives him.”





The twentieth century brought enormous political, economic, and cultural changes to Central Asia. Borders were redrawn between a number of states, and new nations were created and thus new minorities. This led to the emergence of new tensions between old allies. One interesting case of a Central Asian minority are the Uighurs. These people, who since the 3rd century BC controlled the Central Asian steppes from the Orkhon river in the north to the Tarim Basin in the south, at the turn of the 20th century became the subject of political intrigue between two large empires – Russia and China. Previous to that, during the 19th century, Russia’s colonial advances destroyed the unity of the Islamic Uighur Kingdom of East Turkestan, and at the end of the 19th century most of its territory was conquered by the Quing Empire. In 1884, a Chinese province with the name Xinjiang (or “New Frontier”) was created out of this territory. Although the borders between Russia and China were drawn, the Islamic people who had been living on both sides of the south of Soviet Turkestan and the north and west of China made it difficult to keep these borders under control.

Throughout the 20th century the policy of China towards the Uighurs, who were living along the borders with the USSR, gradually shifted from the provision of a self-governing administration to the complete renunciation of any right of government in addition to the rights of officially using their language, practicing their religion, and keeping their customs. The following essay will examine why Chinese policy made this shift (especially after 1949) and what measures had been undertaken by Chinese authorities to accelerate the program of assimilation, especially after the 1980s. Also what economic and cultural reforms contributed to this control? I will argue that the most recent Chinese policy towards its minorities implements assimilation and not integration, as some scholars tend to believe. Since the central Chinese government takes a very serious stance towards cultural assimilation (especially music), this aspect will receive special treatment in this paper.      

 Before starting my discussion, some important concepts, which can be helpful in understanding ethnic problems, need to be clarified. The spectrum of interaction between minorities and dominant groups ranges from pluralism to assimilation. Pluralism allows various ethnic groups to follow their own social system and maintain their own characteristics. It implies mutual interdependence, respect, and equality.[1] Assimilation, on the other hand, “implies that members of minority groups have absorbed the characteristics of the dominant group to the exclusion of their own and become indistinguishable from members of the majority.”[2] Assimilation can be forced or unforced by the dominant group. This term also implies the lose of original ethnic characteristics as well as the lose of separate social structures. Integration lies in between pluralism and assimilation, and “implies the process whereby ethnic groups come to shift their loyalties, expectations, and political activities toward a new center.”[3] As with assimilation, the process of integration can be forced or unforced by the dominant group.


The Uighurs under the Republic of China (1912-1949)

 During the Republican period, China implemented double-faced policies toward its minorities. On the one hand, it officially accepted the existence of five nationalities (Han, Mongol, Manchu, Tibetan, and Muslim Turk (Uighur) symbolically represented in the five-colored flag.[4] On the other hand, the nine-point manifesto of the Alliance Society, which later was reorganized into the National Party (Goumindang), clearly defined its aim to preserve national unity, which in the next manifesto became an open call for “the strict implementation of racial assimilation.”[5] In some provinces of China the wearing of different clothes and the use of different scripts and spoken languages was prohibited.[6] However, for the Uighurs, in terms of culture, religion, and language, this period was not as destructive as later periods since the Chinese central authorities in fact had little power over Xinjiang. Most scholars of Chinese politics have agreed that this was due to the influence of the USSR on the political and economic life of Xinjiang. Formal diplomatic relations between the USSR and China were set up in 1924, thereupon establishing Soviet consulates in five Xinjiang cities and five Chinese consulates in Soviet Central Asian cities.[7] Since then, the educational system in Xinjiang was based on the Soviet model;[8] the curriculum included Russian as the main foreign language; Soviet specialists worked in different domains including education.[9] By 1936, 85% of foreign trade in Xinjiang was with the USSR. This reflected positively on the standard of living of its minorities. Furthermore, the ties between this region and the Soviet Union strengthened due to the Russian and then Soviet military interventions against the revolts of the Muslim minorities. In 1912, Russia sent 1,000 Cossacks under the pretext of guaranteeing security for the Russian citizens in Xinjiang. Then, with the military assistance of the Red Army, as well as with tanks and artillery, the rebellions in Kumul (10,000 solders), in 1931, in Kaxgar (7,000), in 1933-34, and in the south of Xinjiang, in 1937, were easily crushed.[10]

Soviet influence reached its peak in 1940 with the signing of an agreement that “granted the USSR with exclusive rights to the prospecting, investigation and exploitation of tin deposits and related secondary deposits of other minerals within the territory of Xinjiang.”[11] Although this fifty-year lease of Xinjiang was never completed (because of China’s break with Moscow during WWII), the influence of Soviet economy and politics remained strong until the end of the 1950s, making the Xinjiang region a de facto colony of the Soviet Union and economically almost independent from the rest of China. 

However, the relationship between China and the Soviet Union deteriorated after the signing in 1941 of the Soviet-Japanese mutual non-aggression pact.[12] The Chinese government tried to change the balance of power in Xinjiang and break its ties with the Soviet Union: in 1942 all Russians in Xinjiang were asked to leave the province within three months. Meanwhile, in June 1943 the Chinese government sent the Nationalist troops to Xinjiang.[13] In November 1944, the Chinese leaders accused the Soviet Union of provoking the Muslim separatist movements, when the Ili (Yili) rebellion established the East Turkestan Republic.[14] This accusation probably had a real foundation since from the Tsarist colonial expansion into West Turkestan, Russians had intended to extend their influence over East Turkestan. Thus, any tension (especially based on separatist overtones) between the Islamic population and the Chinese central government could have been used by the Russians as a pretext for taking complete control of Xinjiang. As Braker points out, the Russians have “exploited every opportunity for promoting such tensions, or even for creating them.”[15] Just before the Ili rebellion, in February of 1944, the Soviet Union provided weapons, ammunition, and even the Soviet Air Force to support another Muslim uprising under the Kazak leader Usman Batur. This demonstrated its great interest in the secession of Xinjiang and makes it easy to believe that the Ili rebellion may have been backed by the Soviet Union (at least secretly). On the other hand, some scholars doubt that the Ili rebellion was supported by the USSR, since Stalin was not interested in assisting Islamic secession in Xinjiang.[16] Rather, the Soviet ruler was threatened with pan-Turkic ideals, which would inflame the Soviet Central Asian Republics and cause trouble in keeping their borders safe. Furthermore, and probably for the same reason, Stalin twice rejected to support the secession of Xinjiang: in 1934 and 1944. This may be a case of the Soviet government trying to convince other countries of a situation that does not exist. Perhaps the Soviet long-term plan could not been pursued more openly because of the double game they were playing with China.

Weakened by the Sino-Japanese resistance war, on the one hand, and due to the strong influence of the Soviet Union, on the other, the Chinese government could not control fully the cultural and religious issues of minorities, including the Uighurs, but could only try to keep the integrity of the state by all possible means.

If the economical and political ties between China and Xinjiang were not strong, the cultural difference was even more drastic. In terms of religion, language, tradition, and way of life they had nothing in common. Nevertheless, during the Republican period, the Chinese authorities made a huge effort to unify the state by creating a mass culture. It started with the promotion of patriotic songs, the so-called “school songs” that later played an enormous role in unifying the nation. In only one year, 1912, about 1,400 school songs glorifying nationalism and democracy were composed. As the Chinese music historian Wang Yuhe states, these songs not only ideologically initiated and deeply influenced the young generation, but also opened a new epoch of mass art that later gave birth to the military and revolutionary genre of songs.[17] In reality these songs were a mere compilation of famous European, Russian or American songs, the lyrics of which were simply replaced with politically appropriate connotations.

Further state support of culture had stimulated national creativity and cultural unification. For instance, the beginning of the 1930s was marked with the establishment of three major bodies, which became the means of national propaganda: the League of Writers with Zhou Quiying as head – Mao’s future prime minister (in 1930), the Sino-Soviet Society of Music Studies (in 1933, in Shanghai), and the “Group of Music for the Defense of the Fatherland” (in 1935). The last organization was a strong demonstration of the state’s serious attitude towards music as a tool for national defense.[18] During the Sino-Japanese war of resistance, Mao stressed the importance of culture in state affairs by saying that it is not enough for the state to have an army with weapons in hand; another type of army, the army of culture, needed to be created. This army, that he called the “army of the plume,” was to form a new Chinese proletariat culture, which would be based on Chinese and transformed non-Chinese heritage that was ideologically opposed to the ancient culture. With the transition of power to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), the People’s Republic of China (PRC) committed itself to support and develop culture by opening ministries and departments that would be in charge of individual spheres of science and culture.  Ever since then, music was used to propagate the political agenda and was the center of attention and preoccupation of the state. 


The Uighurs under the CCP (1949-66)

When the CCP came to power in 1949, it became clear that any attempts of secession would be nipped in the bud since China was claimed a “multinational unitary state.”[19] In contrast to the USSR, which consisted of equally treated united republics (at least on paper), China claimed to being one republic with numerous nationalities. Minorities would enjoy a degree of autonomy (limited political control over their own areas), but would remain part of China. In Article 77 of the Constitution, the Chinese government guaranteed protection of national customs and special cultural features as well as linguistic freedom.[20]

However, the governing of the autonomous regions given to the local people was performed under the vigilant control of the center, which did not allow any deviation from the mainstream. The traditional leaders kept their positions as long as they did not act actively against communism. In the same way the journals and newspapers in the local languages as well as education were only used for the promotion of Mao’s ideas and to propagate communist and patriotic ideology. All textbooks in the minority languages consisted of texts not about allegiance to their minority culture, but to China as a whole.[21] Although members of minorities could study in their own language in so-called “nationality schools” until they would complete the upper level of secondary school,[22] they had almost no access to college and university education since it was available only in Chinese. As a result, the data on the level of minority education in 1982 demonstrates that only 0.2% of Uighurs completed university. About 45% of Uighurs were registered as illiterate. However, the latter number reflects the population who could not read Chinese characters and assumes the Chinese language as the national standard of education. In fact, as Naby confirmed, the elderly Uighur population can not only write the Uighur (Arab) script, but are also proficient in Farsi and Arabic, as well as in Islamic science.[23] This was not included in the data.

The shift of power to the Communist Party, in 1949, at first seemed to dispel all the disagreements between the Communist Soviet Union and Communist China. Indeed, on March 27, 1950, an agreement was signed in Moscow to establish Soviet-Chinese companies that would extract mineral oil and exploit precious and light metals. For thirty years the Soviet Union was granted half of Xinjiang’s mineral and oil output.[24]

On the other hand, at the beginning of the 1950s, China paved the way for breaking off with the USSR by arranging conditions so as to integrate Xinjiang. The threat that China’s unity may be disrupted by the USSR’s presence in Xinjiang made the Chinese government believe that the departure of the Soviets would put an end to separatist movements in this politically unstable territory. In the 1950s several measures were used to fortify Xinjiang and keep it under control.    

First, to crack down on local minorities and suppress any secessionist sentiments, the Chinese government organized a Red Terror campaign. Radio Urumchi announced that the leader of the Muslim rebellion, Usman Batur, and 25 of his leading fighters were publicly hanged in Urumchi before 90,000 people. According to the speech by the Governor General broadcast the same year on radio, 120,000 anti-revolutionary elements, “nationalist foes, and henchmen of the imperialists” were successfully liquidated.[25]   

Second, land reform, which was carried out in Xinjiang from September 1951 to the end of 1953,[26] resulted in the expropriation of land belonging to religious bodies. Third, in 1953, the program of a five-year plan with its supposed aim to develop the economy within an unnaturally fast timeframe resulted in the mass migration of Hans from the inner provinces into Xinjiang. Due to this, in the thirty-seven-year period between 1949 and 1986, the proportion of Uighurs living in Xinjiang had dropped from 75.9% to 46.5%, while that of the Hans had increased from 6.7% to 38,9%.[27] The official reasons given by Chinese authorities for this internal migration, as listed by Heberer, were the following:[28]

1.                 the development and exploitation of the rich natural resources require specialists and skilled workers that Xinjiang cannot provide.

2.                 the educational level of settlers would contribute to the education of the backward regions and help in the modernization of the local population.

3.                 the stronger Han presence would provide military security in the border regions and facilitate the integration of minorities and their regions into the Chinese mainstream.

However, considering the political situation that China tried to adjust, the real motivations were not likely to be only economic and defensive. Eberhard points out that the tactics of sending millions of young men to minority regions used by the Chinese regime, which was based on the Soviet model, had three objectives: 1) to render potentially or actually disenchanted young persons from the inner regions of China politically harmless; 2) to change the ethnic balance of the minority areas; and 3) to use these exiled persons to control minority areas.[29] Syroyezhkin adds yet another important point concerning the political security of this turbulent minority region. According to him, the main reason for mass migration was to counteract separatist tendencies.[30]

            Fourth, in 1958, the so-called “Great Leap Forward” brought further programs promoting the assimilation of minorities, including the Uighurs. One of the most destructive was the commune program in which all people were forced to surrender their private property and to work, live, and eat in a commune. The misinterpretation of the slogan “equality of the nationalities” was realized in the system of communal dining halls that in fact aimed to standardize Chinese cuisine. The food served there was exclusively Chinese and included pork; the Muslim minorities, who do not eat pork, were ignored.[31]

Fifth, to control the religious and social life of Muslim minorities, the Chinese government established two central organizations – the “Chinese Islamic Society” and the “Hai Cultural Association.” These institutions were to propagate the Party’s ideology and became an convenient den for shadowing mistrustful elements. Furthermore, in 1952, a Shanghai publishing house released a Chinese translation of the Qoran under the title Outline and Special Characteristics of the Qoran, which contained only verses “suitable for demonstrating the validity of Communist doctrine.”[32] The central authorities aimed to use this book in Muslim religious schools to provide everybody with an ideologically appropriate training. So, the relatively soft policy of the Party toward minority religion was nothing more than a diplomatic step to lull the minority’s vigilance and suspicion in order to later tighten up the policy.    

The cultural aspects of integration were also carefully worked out. It seemed that the Chinese government entered into a rivalry with the Soviet Union, systematically establishing more and more official state cultural bodies. Numerous professional associations and cultural organizations, such as the Ministry of Culture under the central government, the Federation of Literature and Art Circles of China, the professional Central Nationalities Song-and-Dance Troup in Peking, the classical ballet and the opera, were founded at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s.   

In the cultural domain it seemed that China tried to prove that it can do “more, faster, better, and thriftier” than the Soviet Union. The euphoria of planification had overwhelmed the intelligentsia and the cultural workers. China was forcing creativity using all means and making tremendous leaps in creative art productivity. The lack of professional cadres in culture did not seem to be a problem. Everybody was allowed to create. Housewives could do core-mold casting, literary art could be done without literary men, and teaching could be done without teachers.

According to the Musical Association, between 1949 and 1953, plant workers wrote no less than 10,000 songs.[33] During the span of the “Great Leap Forward,” 567 collections of folk songs and 347 collections of articles were published.[34] Some musical critics were aware, though, that quantity did not necessarily mean quality. Lu Ji, an active musical theorist, realized that the “musical army of struggle” had still not created an original national style that would embrace the music of all the nationalities of China.[35] He proposed to study and use ancient music with its feudal elements and the music of minorities with its “backwardness” because he believed that they still had some democratic spirit that can be useful for the new national culture. Thus, he suggested assimilating the old and foreign traditions in order to create the new Chinese tradition.[36] The Cultural Revolution interrupted the realization of Lu Ji’s ideas. However, soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he continued with a renewed zeal. He worked on the creation of a new national musical tradition through the assimilation of the music of minorities.

In addition to the economic, political, and cultural reforms directed to drive out the USSR’s agencies from Xinjiang, an environment hostile to the Soviets was created through the mass media bombardment. The new slogan “it is time to put an end to a blind belief in foreign experience” was obviously propaganda against the Soviet Union and other countries.[37] China attained its objective in forcing the Soviets out of Xinjiang. The final break between the old allies occurred in 1962 when the Soviet Union withdrew all professionals from China. This created a crisis resulting in the fleeing of more than 100,000 Muslims into the USSR’s Central Asian republics.[38] The Chinese government accused the Soviet Union of encouraging minorities to leave China and giving them refugee status. Indeed the Soviet radio stations located on the border with China began to broadcast programs usually prepared by commentators recently emigrated from China. Basing their reports on life experiences on both sides of the border, they emphasized the advantage of minorities living in the USSR, and encouraged their unfortunate brothers to migrate to the USSR from China. Reports from Xinjiang’s refugees flooded the pages of Soviet newspapers and journals, such as Literaturnaya Gazeta and Izvestiya, emphasizing the brutality and despotism of China’s policy toward its Turkic minorities. Ironically, the Chinese policy so blatantly criticized by Moscow was a mere replication of the Soviet model that had been already applied to the USSR’s Central Asian minorities: the language policy, change of script, restriction of religious activities, etc.[39] Furthermore, the Soviet media consistently closed their eyes on the issue that accompanied the minorities’ uprisings – religion, This was probably to emphasize that these movements were nationalistic in character and to secure The Societ position from being criticized for the use of the same methods. The aim of the articles and reports criticizing China, as Braker argues, was to “underpin its own [USSR’s] positions in the controversy with China within the Soviet Union itself, within the socialist camp, and in the non-communist world, and thus to make those positions more credible.”[40] The result of these events was the closure of the Soviet Consulate General in Urumchi and the alienation of China not only from the USSR but also from other communist countries. As the borders with the USSR were closed, the minorities’ hope to escape their bleak destiny in China was dashed. 

The diplomatic isolation created by the breaking-off with the USSR and other communist countries forced Mao to attempt to establish diplomatic relations with third world countries (Pakistan, Congo, Bolivia, etc.). In 1962, being aware of the influence of culture on the mind, Mao founded a troupe of 200 musical performers who presented the new Chinese culture abroad and would accompany him on all diplomatic trips. To minimize the chance of desertion, he insisted that all performers were members of official political institutions or had an official government position. Thus, the involvement of music in diplomatic affaires once again proved the importance of culture at the national level.       


The Cultural Revolution and its impact on minorities (1966-79)

The official attack against the “four olds” (old ideas, customs, habits, and culture) first of all left deep scars in minority cultures. Mackerras characterizes this period as “the most assimilative in the history of PRC.”[41] The policies toward the minority cultures were extremely repressive because of the obsession of the main leaders with eliminating national problems that are part of a class problem. The idea of combining the issue of class with the issue of nationality was by no means new. In 1949, Mao Zedong stated that the Chinese “Communist Party has consistently recognized the nationalities question as being a part of the liberation of the Chinese … what has been called nationality struggle is in reality a question of class struggle.”[42] However, at the beginning of the 1950s, it was difficult to put this program into practice since China needed to attract the minorities to participate in state development. So this paragraph was forgotten until the point when the Chinese government was not too preoccupied with the frontier’s defense, and thus felt confident in sweeping out the traditions of the “barbarians.” In 1968, the Shanghai students who supported the Cultural Revolution attacked the Constitution adopted by the 8th CCP Congress, which, according to them, emphasized “nationalism to the exclusion of patriotism and internationalism,” creating “national schisms.”[43] They suggested to focus on Mao’s directive to consider national struggle as class struggle. The earlier policies, which recognized the particularities and differences of national minorities, were labeled a “bourgeois reactionary line” and revised:

1.      It was denied that China was a multinational country. Thus, no special economic policy was to be pursued, and all financial aid by the central government was stopped.

2.      Natural resources were destroyed by the system of five-year planification that imposed the development of agriculture in regions where the conditions were unallowable. The minorities were forced to destroy their pastures, and become farmers, which immediately resulted in the shortage of livestock.

3.      Traditional customs, language, and scripts were considered backward. All holidays and celebrations were forbidden, and those who still resisted were arrested as “counter-revolutionists.” Factories that produced minority products were closed.

4.      The minority press, newspapers, and radio broadcasts were shut down.

5.      Almost all schools and colleges of the minorities were disbanded. The number of minority students dropped, which resulted in an increased illiteracy rate among minorities.  

6.      The “culturally inferior” minority cadres were replaced by Han cadres regardless of their training and advanced education.

7.      The traditional health practices were banned and not replaced by official medicine.

8.      The performance of traditional songs and dances, as well as wearing traditional clothes were prohibited as it was a “feudal, capitalist, revisionist, poisonous weed.” The idea of the creation of a new culture that would “please the Chinese ear and eye,” which in the 1950s circulated only among an exclusive circle of specialists, now was on everybody’s lips.

Although by 1969 revolutionary ardor cooled down and the 1975 constitution had restored all the rights that were removed by the Cultural Revolution, the subversive environmental and psychological effect left its scar for many years. For instance, the proportion of the over-sixty population in Xinjiang decreased between the years 1952 and 1982 from 6.8% to 5.8%. The official explanation given by Chinese authorities that the physical condition of minorities had deteriorated due to young marriages and early birth, was unfounded since these were traditionally old customs. Rather, as Heberer points out, “a growing susceptibility to disease and serious environmental pollution” are the real factors in this situation.[44]

The environmental problems were brought in the mass migrations into the minority regions. Since the population of Xinjiang had suddenly increased, the region began to face a serious water shortage. The solution that the Chinese government put into practice – the diversion of the main river system for the irrigation of the upstream areas of new settlers — turned into an ecological disaster in the whole territory, which resulted in the desertification of farms.[45] Unfortunately, the migration of the cadres did not bring the desired economic impact since a huge number of migrant specialists used Xinjiang as a gateway to leave China for the USSR, North America, Taiwan, and Western Europe.[46]

Although the 1975 constitution of the restored the rights of freedom of language, script and customs, its vague formulation (“actively support all national minorities in the socialist revolution and the construction of socialism”) was open to interpretation. Any demand that contradicted the “construction of socialism” could be and was rejected on the basis of this clause.


Mackerras argues that the reaction to the Cultural Revolution “made the development of national consciousness go beyond what the government had bargained for.”[47] According to him, the savage assimilation that China and the Han practiced during the Cultural Revolution “was a major factor sparking pride in one’s own culture and feelings of identity.”[48] However, there is a counterargument that, in Xinjiang, a strong expression of national identity and tense atmosphere based on national spirit existed long before the Cultural Revolution. The growing well-organized opposition to the central government was strongly represented since 1955. The reason for the agitation was the double-faced policy of the Chinese government toward its minorities. On the one hand, at the first National People’s Congress, on September 20, 1954, the Chinese government adopted Article 3 in which it accepts the freedom of language, customs and ways; during 1955-58, three autonomous regions were established (Xinjiang, in 1955 and the Guangxi Zhuang and the Ningxia Hui, in 1958). On the other hand, in 1958, it bans the Uighur language in institutions of higher education and replaces all local teachers with Chinese teachers. These measures along with land reform and the creation of communities, discussed above, mobilized the minorities, and the Uighurs in particular. In 1958, the Uighur underground liberation movement proclaimed a government of the “Uighur Republic.”[49] Therefore, Mackerras’ argument is only partially true since only after the Cultural Revolution did the Uighurs finally realize that it was naïve to believe in China’s interest in helping its minorities and started to express their discontent more plainly.


Change of strategy towards the minorities (1979-1991)

The Chinese government officially accepted its mistakes in policy towards the minorities and started rebuilding the institutions and minority agencies that were shut down during the Cultural Revolution. In 1980, the Chinese Islamic Association was reconstructed. The state constitution of 1982 revived the right to administrate the finances of the minority areas by the local government. The autonomous regions were permitted to make their own decisions concerning the development and exploitation of their resources, which were to be used to benefit the local population. However, any decision of the local administration had to be approved by the central government. In 1984, the Chinese government adopted a Law on the Autonomy of Nationality Areas, which strengthened the Constitution of 1982 and expanded to the freedom of religion.  Syroyezhkin formulates two political reasons that explain such a radical change in attitude toward religion.[50] The first reason is dictated by the internal political situation. The necessity of finding new sources of raw material, new deposits, as well as land-reclamation and strengthening of borders required the stabilization and integration of the minorities who still complained and revolted in 1979, 1981, and 1982.

 In order to gain the support for economic reforms, the Chinese government decided to promote the establishment of religious centers and mosques so that the Uighurs, instead of being politically active, were “busy” with religious activities. This policy achieved its aim in regulating the political situation and decreasing the opposition of non-Han and Han ethnicities. However, it seriously weakened the economic situation of the Muslims since the religious enthusiasm took place against the background of severe poverty, which became more apparent as the financial support of the religious establishment was carried of the people’s shoulders. The second reason was dictated by the change in Chinese foreign policy. The campaign of criticizing China for its terrible treatment of minorities that the Soviet Union carried on since the early 60s, influenced the attitude of South Asia and the Near and Middle East towards China. The establishment of China’s democratic image meant success in the expansion of the political communication with other countries that were aware of the “Islam factor.”

However, by promoting Muslim leaders,[51] China had created a highly religious population whose beliefs were at variance with Chinese policy. The Chinese official position of birth control and freely selling alcohol encountered strong opposition, which was later expressed with interethnic agitation and mass student protests in 1989 and 1990.

Giving to the minorities imaginary rights with one hand, the Chinese government took away even more with the other hand, always keeping in mind the assimilation agenda. In April 1979, the Chinese newspaper the People’s Daily published a program that outlined the assimilation of minorities through the following steps:[52]

1.      the development of a common world language

2.      the disappearance of “common geographical characteristics” of nationalities

3.      the development of common a economic system

4.      the acquisition of a common world mentality and culture[53]

The second and third points of this program were not new since from the early 1950s economic reforms and mass migration partially accomplished the economic and geographical integration of Xinjiang. The “common language” issue was sporadically raised but until the 1980s the sinicization of the minorities’ languages was not pushed consistently. So the “common language and culture” issues were put into force from the beginning of the 1980s. The realization of linguistic and cultural assimilation, however, was thoroughly veiled by the image of democracy. To demonstrate the equality of minorities and the democratic approach to their issues, the second paragraph of Article 38 of the 1984 Constitution urged the autonomous bodies “to collect, rearrange, translate, and publish the books of the nationalities, protect the scenic spots, historical sites and precious cultural objects of the nationalities and their important historical and cultural relics.”[54]

The ideas of preserving minority treasures were first articulated in musical circles. In 1979, Lu Ji offered a project of developing new national music. The three steps of the project – collection of traditional music, establishments of bodies of cooperation between the central Association of Music controlled by the government and the local working groups, and creation of the atmosphere of “rivalry of 100 schools” – pursued the objective of creating a new musical culture that would be topical and would reflect the epoch. The implication of this collection was the appropriation of the ethnic minorities’ music while rejecting of some of its elements that were considered not urgent or “backward.” In fact, the model of appropriation and assimilation of minority music and culture reflects the Chinese nationalistic ideas of assimilation.

In 1980, the Congress of Traditional Music in Nankin established the agencies that would collect and rearrange minority music. These bodies were directly connected to and conducted by the highest official channels. The so-called “Administrative Service of Compilation,” which consists of 10,000 researchers, eagerly started remaking minority traditional music by “cleaning” it from its “backwardness.”

Undoubtedly, the collection, translation, and publication of the material on the minorities, which encouraged minorities to preserve their own culture, would have been a great contribution by the central government in promoting of minority culture, were it not for the fact that the process aimed to reduce the minority mausical treasure to 0,75%.[55] The selection of songs for publication clearly demonstrated how the state interfered with the minorities’ cultural domain. There were four types of publication of collected works designed for different circles. The first type of publication was oriented for library use, so it was accessible to specialists interested in minority culture. The second type was diffused only in the libraries of the State. The third type of publication was for a very limited group of government officials since “all the bad songs that nobody should consult” were transcribed there. Finally, the fourth type of publication included songs that were, according to the state, valuable since they could be immediately used for big performances and be introduced to the working masses. This type of song that was used for mass propaganda, consisted of only 0,75% of the collected material. Thus, less than 1% of music was considered valuable enough to preserve and use in mass culture, and 99% of music was kept in secrecy; all cultural creativity of the minorities, thus, was controlled by the state.            

Furthermore, the state incorporated and assimilated the minorities’ culture by creating and supporting the institutions in which the original songs were re-written. According to the national agenda, the texts of the songs were changed to have politically appropriate connotations and reintroduced to the people as a new culture composed by the Hans for their “little backward brothers.” The professional researchers, who at the same time propagated state ideology, did the fieldwork, collected, systematized, and transcribed in a much-simplified way the music of minorities. After collectimh, the local group of researchers selected “the best” songs and sent them to Peking. “The best” songs usually implied the songs that were politically correct, that is to say, the songs that did not have any historical undertones, which could transmit the collective memory of suffering during the Chinese regime. “The best” songs were also the happy songs or the songs of love that demonstrated the happiness in which minorities lived under the Chinese regime. In Peking the selected songs were further reconsidered and “the best” of them were given to the “composers” to rewrite and “enrich” the original music with a new social context. When the transformation or “amelioration and development” was done, the songs were reintroduced to the minorities through the mass media or the state culture agencies so that they could learn and incorporate the “new” culture in the minorities’ officially controlled repertoire.

The intricate pattern of treatment of minority music demonstrates the state’s serious attitude towards culture and proves that cultural assimilation is the state’s priority. “The army of plume” urgently carries out the state’s order to create a new national art so that it could replace minority culture. Realizing that cultural difference can hamper the progress of minority assimilation, the Chinese government is responsible for creating the new national art which represents a new Chinese national identity. Against the minorities’ will, the minority’s music is absorbed and incorporated into the “new Chinese culture.” As Trebinjac puts it, “En Chine, le pouvoir s’excerce en chantant, chanter peut avoir autorité sur le pouvoir.”[56]



 The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 influenced Chinese policy towards its Muslim minorities. Several by-products of the USSR’s collapse, such as the decrease of Russian influence in Central Asia and economic and political chaos in the region, gave China an opportunity to enhance its power in the region and hope to create a “Greater China.” However, several factors prevented the realization of these plans. Among the most important: the stabilization in the strategically important Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. By isolating Xinjiang from the turbulent Muslim environment, by oppressing the Uighurs, and by seeking agreement with post-Soviet Central Asia to provide joint struggle against ethnic separatism, China hopes to establish stability.[57] Furthermore, it launched several programs to accelerate the cultural and ethnic assimilation of the region:

1)                 A campaign to stress ethnic unity and to condemn "splittism" and religious extremism began in 1997.

2)                 A new plan of “development of the West” adopted in 2000 involves new resettlements of Hans into Xinjiang[58]

3)                 The implementation of transliterated minority names into Chinese Pinyin, hence, the sinicization of the Muslim minorities’ names starting in June 2002.[59]

4)                 "To meet the growing needs of economic and social development" starting in August 2002, the universities in Xinjiang started to teach major subjects in Chinese rather than in Uighur.[60] Since September 2003, this program is implemented in secondary and primary education. 


In 1988, in spite of the official rhetoric claming economic stabilization in Xinjiang, development of agriculture, industry, and promotion of common development, roughly one third of the minority population did not have adequate food and clothing. Furthermore, the East Turkestan region is kept under a thick blanket of secrecy.  It is practically unseen to the world’s eyes since this may harm China’s reputation and negatively affect China’s international relations and economy.



 Under Chinese rule (Republican or Communistic) the Uighurs have never lived in a pluralistic system. Even when Xinjiang was given the status of Autonomy, with the adoption of laws protecting their human rights, culture, language, and religion, the strict control from the centre never gave the Uighurs a chance to maintain their own system of life and rights to independence. Throughout the twentieth century the Chinese policy toward its Muslim minorities and the Uighurs in particular, has drastically shifted from integration to assimilation. The cultural aspects of assimilation were carefully implemented from the 1980s and are gaining ground to this day.      



Benson, L. The Ili Rebellion, The Moslem Challenge to Chinese Authority in Xinjiang, 1944-48. New York, 1990.

Braker, H. “Nationality Dynamics in Sino-Soviet Relations.” In Wimbush, Enders S., ed, Soviet nationalities and Strategic Perspective. London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985. Pp. 101-57.

Dreyer, J. China’s Forty Millions, Minority Nationalities and National Integration in the People’s Republic of China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976 .

Dreyer, J. “The People’s Republic of China” In R. Wirsing ed., Protection of Ethnic Minorities. Comparative Perspectives. New York: Pergamon Press, 1981.

Eberhard Wolfram, China’s Minorities: Yesterday and Today. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing company, 1982.

Glenn, John. “The Redrawing of Boundaries: Soviet Official Nationalism.” In The Soviet Legacy in Central Asia. New York: Palgrave, 1999. Pp. 72-101

Heberer, T. “Population Policies: Ethnic Minorities and Migration into Minority Areas.” In China and Its National Minorities. Autonomy or Assimilation? New York: An East Gate Boo, 1989. Pp. 74-101.

Krivtsov, V. ed., Syd’by Kul’tury KNR (1949-1974)[The Destiny of Culture of PRC]. Moscow: Nauka, 1978.

Laitin, D. Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998.    

Mackerras, C. China’s Minorities. Integration and Modernization in the Twentieth Century. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Mackerras, C. China’s Minority Cultures: Identities and Integration Since 1912. New York: Longman, 1995.

Naby, E. “Uighur Elites in Xinjiang,” in Central Asian Survey, Vol. 5 (1986), No. 3-4: 241-54.

Pozdnyakov, E. “Natsia, Nationalism, Politica,” in Natsionalism: Teoriya I Praktika [Nationalism: Theory and Practice]. Moscow, 1994.

Rumer, B. “The Search for Stability in Central Asia.” In B. Rumer, ed. Central Asia: A Gathering Storm? Armonk: M.E.Sharpe, 2002. Pp. 3-66. 

Syroyezhkin, K., ed. Sovremennyi Sin’zyan’ I Ego Mesto v Kazakhstansko-Kitaiskikh Otnosheniyakh [Modern Xinjiang and its Place in Sino-Kazakh Relations]. Almaty: Institut Vostokovedeniya MN-AN RK, Fond Evrazii, 1997.

Syroyezhkin, K. “Central Asia Between the Gravitational Poles of Russia and China.” In B. Rumer, ed. Central Asia: A Gathering Storm? Armonk: M.E.Sharpe, 2002. Pp. 169-207.

N. Subramanian, “Ethnicity and Pluralism: An Exploration with Reference to Indian Cases.” In Canadian Journal of Political Science 32 (1999): 715-44.  

Thornberry, P. Minorities and Human Rights Law. London: Minority Rights Group, 1987.

Trebinjac, S., Le pouvoir en chantant. L’art de fabriquer une musique chinoise. Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie, 2000.

Wheeler, G. “Central Asia Under Soviet Rule.” In The Modern History of Soviet Central Asia. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964. 

[1] Patrick Thornberry, Minorities and Human Rights Law (London: Minority Rights Group, 1987), p. 4. More on practice of pluralism in India see N. Subramanian, “Ethnicity and Pluralism: An Exploration with Reference to Indian Cases,” in Canadian Journal of Political Science 32 (1999): 715-44.

[2] June Dreyer, China’s Forty Millions, Minority Nationalities and National Integration in the People’s Republic of China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 2.

[3] Dreyer, China’s Forty Millions, p. 1.

[4] This flag had been used for only two years, from 1925 to 1927, and was replaced by the Republican flag, symbolizing the Nationalist Party. See Mackerras, China’s Minorities. Integration and Modernization in the Twentieth Century (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 55. 

[5] Mackerras, China’s Minorities, 55.

[6] Mackerras, China’s Minorities, p. 60.

[7] Braker, H., “Nationality Dynamics in Sino-Soviet Relations,” in Wimbush, Enders S., ed, Soviet nationalities and Strategic Perspective (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985), p. 111.

[8] Before 1922, education was influenced by the system from the Ottoman Empire. Mackerras, C., China’s Minority Cultures: Identities and Integration Since 1912 (New York: Longman, 1995), p. 44.

[9] The governor of Xinjiang, Sheng Shicai, proclaimed anti-imperialism, kinship to the Soviet Union, and equality among the different nationalities as the first three of “six great principles.”  Mackerras, China’s Minorities, p. 91. The Russian presence in the province was so strong that some observers predicted that Xinjiang would soon be integrated into the Soviet Union. See W. Eberhard, China’s Minorities: Yesterday and Today (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing company, 1982), p. 62.

[10] The 1931Kumul rebellion, which resulted in the establishment of the Muslim Khanate in Kumul, also was systematically destroyed with the aid of other Muslim minorities (Hui). This rebellion was crushed with the massacre of civilian Uighurs, in which at least 100,000 were killed.  Mackerras, China’s Minorities, p. 64.   

[11] See the full translation of the agreement in Braker, p. 120

[12] Against the background of the Sino-Japanese war of resistance, this pact seemed like a betrayal by the Soviets to their Chinese allies.

[13] Mackerras, China’s Minorities, p. 93.

[14] Technically, China should have granted independence to this region, since the Constitution of the Chinese Soviet Republic adopted in 1931 allowed “the secession of those minorities which wanted it.” Mackerras, Chinese Minority Cultures, p. 10. However, in 1946, instead of accepting the new East Turkestan Republic, the Chinese government proposed a peace agreement, in which it gave wide promises of self-government, punishment of discrimination on the basis of religion, freedom of language, culture and art –promises that have never been properly implemented.

[15] Braker, 109.

[16] Linda Benson, The Ili Rebellion, The Moslem Challenge to Chinese Authority in Xinjiang, 1944-48 (New York, 1990), p. 178; Mackerras, China’s Minorities, p. 94.

[17] Trebinjac, S., Le pouvoir en chantant. L’art de fabriquer une musique chinoise (Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie, 2000), p. 28.

[18] Trebinjac, p. 34.

[19] Mackerras, China’s Minority Cultures, p. 10.

[20] J. Dreyer, “The People’s Republic of China,” in R. Wirsing ed., Protection of Ethnic Minorities. Comparative Perspectives (New York: Pergamon Press, 1981), p. 149.

[21] Mackerras, Chinese Minority Cultures, p. 136. Unfounded theories of Chinese history were described in detail in school textbooks. For instance, in the book of History of the Xinjiang Region, published in 1992, it is stated that Xinjiang since ancient times “has been an inseparable part of the motherland,” namely China. Ibid.

[22] The Uighurs saw the propagandist ideology in the schools as a way to alienate them from their traditions and culture since state-schools emphasized Chinese history. Thus, they reluctantly allowed their children to study there. In 1942, only 6.9% of the total Uighur population attended school. Mackerras, China’s Minority Cultures, p. 45.

[23] E. Naby, “Uighur Elites in Xinjiang,” in Central Asian Survey, Vol. 5 (1986), No. .3-4: 241-54.

[24] Braker, p. 130. Indian source accounts that China was forced to accept another secret agreement that granted the USSR control over all uranium deposits in Xinjiang.

[25] Braker, p. 153-4.

[26] Mackerras point out that this reform was gradually carried out in minority territories, rather than some Han regions. Mackerras, Chinese Minorities, p. 199.

[27] Among the other factors contributing to this dramatic decrease are: the famine of 1958-60, the emigration of minorities out of China (in 1962, in Xinjiang), mass terror (in 1951), and low life expectancy. See Mackerras, China’s Minorities, pp. 237-45. 

[28] Heberer, “Population Policies: Ethnic Minorities and Migration into Minority Areas,” in China and Its National Minorities. Autonomy or Assimilation? (New York: An East Gate Book, 1989), pp. 74-101.

[29] Eberhard, pp. 158-9.

[30] K. Syroyezhkin, Sovremennyi Sin’zyan’ I Ego Mesto v Kazakhstansko-Kitaiskikh Otnosheniyakh [] Modern Xinjiang and its Place in Sino-Kazakh Relations (Almaty: Institut Vostokovedeniya MN-AN RK, Fond Evrazii), p. 103.

[31] Dreyer, “The People’s Republic of China,” p. 153.

[32] Braker, p. 132.

[33] Trebinjac, p. 56.

[34] V. Krivtsov, ed., Syd’by Kul’tury KNR (1949-1974)[The Destiny of Culture of PRC] (Moscow: Nauka, 1978), p. 101.

[35] Trebinjac, pp. 59-60.

[36] Similar ideas circulated among literary men and painters. For instance, Lu Sin’, suggested that “for the enrichment of our flesh and blood it is not only allowable but necessary to take all the best from the creative works of foreign writers.” See Syd’by Kul’tury KNR, p. 109.    

[37] One should be aware that the criticizing was a characteristic feature of the time. Carried out by Mao’s associates the campaign of criticizing everything with the slogan “let all flowers bloom, let all scientists to compete (rival)” had its far-reaching aim. As Mao confirmed (acknowledged) later, he encouraged criticism in order to uncover (reveal) all the oppositional forces and people and later to square accounts with the opponents of the Party. See Syd’by Kul’tury KNR, p. 85-7.    

[38] See G. Wheeler, “Central Asia Under Soviet Rule,” in The Modern History of Soviet Central Asia (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964), p. 176. According to Soviet sources, the estimated number of Muslim refugees was 300,000. See Braker, p. 138. 

[39] For a more detailed account on Soviet reforms in Central Asia see John Glenn, “The Redrawing of Boundaries: Soviet Official Nationalism,” in The Soviet Legacy in Central Asia (New York: Palgrave, 1999), pp. 72-101; on the language policy in the USSR see D. Laitin, Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998).    

[40] Braker, p. 139.

[41] Mackerras, China’s Minorities, p. 152.

[42] June Dreyer, “The People’s Republic of China,” p. 149.

[43] June Dreyer, “China’s Minority Nationalities in the Cultural Revolution,” in The China Quarterly 35 (1968): 109.

[44] Heberer, p. 93.

[45] The nuclear testing that has been carried out in Lop Nor since 1964 caused further ecological disaster. As a result, the cancer rate in Xinjiang is 7-8 times higher than in the rest of the People's Republic of China.  See <http://www.taklamakan.org/u_lang.html>. The radiation spread over Xinjiang as a result of the 45 nuclear explosions at the Lop Nor testing facility and caused an estimated 210,000 deaths. See William D. Shingleton, “In Xinjiang, China's Consolidation Isn't Solid” <http://search.csmonitor.com/durable/1997/08/27/opin/opin.1.html>

[46] Syroyezhkin, Sovremennyi Sin’zyan’, p. 103.

[47] Mackerras, China’s Minorities, p. 267

[48] Ibid.

[49] Braker, p. 135.

[50] Syroyezhkin, Sovremennyi Sin’syan’, p. 168. 

[51] This practice to besot the people by assigning important positions to ordinary persons or religious leaders, the education of whom did not allow them to make independent resolutions, was widely used by the Chinese government in this period.

[52] The restriction of the minorities’ rights at the end of the 70s could have been a result of a threat that the Chinese government experienced due to the events on the international Muslim arena: Afghanistan’s April revolution in 1978, the Islamic revolution in Iran, in February 1979, and the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, in December 1979.

[53] The four points of this program mirror the Stalin’s definition of nation as a “historically evolved, stable community arising on the foundation of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up, manifested in a community of culture.” Quoted in E. Pozdnyakov, “Natsia, Nationalism, Politica,” in Natsionalism: Teoriya I Praktika [Nationalism: Theory and Practice] (Moscow, 1994), pp. 10-11.

[54] Mackerras, China’s Minority Cultures, p. 186.

[55] Trebinjac, p. 121.

[56] Trebinjac, p. 382.

[57] The Shanghai Organization of Cooperation, or Shanghai Five, which includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (joined in 2000) established in 1996, was designed to pursue this objective. See B. Rumer, “The Search for Stability in Central Asia,” in Central Asia: A Gathering Storm? (Armonk: M.E.Sharpe, 2002), pp. 3-66. 

[58] K. Syroyezhkin, “Central Asia Between the Gravitational Poles of Russia and China” in Central Asia: A Gathering Storm?  p. 197.




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