Genocide as Nation Building: China’s Historically Evolving Policy in East Turkistan

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 8, August 2019

China’s President Xi Jinping. China has enforced a massive security crackdown in Kashgar, East Turkistan (called “Xinjiang” by China), where between one and three million ethnic Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities are estimated to be held in a network of internment camps that Beijing describes as “vocational education centres”. They are aimed at erasing non-Han and non-CCP identity under the guise of steering people away from religious extremism. Source: Etan Liam via Flickr.

Rukiye Turdush
Uyhgur Research Institute

At Nankai University in 2003, Chinese professor Ai Yue Jing said, “Our great culture can assimilate any other nation or culture, we can change and absorb good one torture and kill bad one”. These words ushered in the new era of China’s “nation building” project in East Turkistan. [1]

Three million Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims in East Turkistan (“Xinjiang”) are incarcerated in Chinese concentration camps and face the prospect of being killed and deported to China’s secret inland prisons as a part of the country’s ongoing genocide.[2] According to the report Genocide in East Turkistan published by the Uyghur Research Institute this year, China’s ethnic policy in East Turkistan falls into at least four of the five acts defined as genocide by the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. [3] Eye-witness accounts, media reports, and testimonials of relatives of the victims have verified claims of the existence of torture and death in concentration camps,[4] as well as China’s policy of objectifying Uyghurs through experimentation in high–tech mass surveillance systems that make use of QR codes, biometrics, artificial intelligence, phone spyware, and big data.[5] China’s policies towards the Uyghurs have created horror and demoralization, destroying their belief in a world of right and wrong. Consequently, the deteriorated mental health of Uyghurs in East Turkistan has indirectly impacted on their relatives in the Uyghur diaspora. Many of them have already reported constant crying, appetite loss, sleep deprivation, loss of concentration, depression, and frequent nightmares.[6]

Despite article 2(b) of the United Nations Convention on Genocide clearly stating that causing serious bodily or mental harm constitutes genocide,[7] China is conducting a policy of physical and mental torture of the Uyghurs in East Turkistan, merely because the Uyghurs have a different race, ethnicity, culture, and religion to the ethnic Han Chinese.

The Genocide Convention’s article 2(d) has also been violated by China, as it has imposed measures on the Uyghur population to prevent births for many years.[8] There are many witness accounts of China’s strict birth-control policy against the Uyghurs, including the forced sterilization of Uyghur women after having three children in rural areas and two in cities. [9] Many Uyghur women have been forced to hide and escape from village to village and even flee the country to save their babies.

“I was forcibly sterilized after the Chinese government found out that I had delivered my third child,” Zumret Imran told the author of this article, a few days after her arrival in Washington. “Having more than two children is illegal for Uyghurs.”

Exactly at the same time, she said, “another five Uyghur women were sterilized in that clinic.” She had been confined and tortured in a Chinese concentration camp for two months before her Pakistani husband managed to rescue her. Questions could be raised as to whether sterilization of Uyghur women can be considered a violation of article 2(d) or not; one may argue that birth prevention against the Uyghurs was not implemented because of their race, culture, or religion, since it was also implemented on the ethnic Han Chinese as part of China’s population control policy. However, as the Uyghur population was 11.3 million, according to Chinese statistics, in 2010 compared to 1.43 billion in the ethnic Han Chinese population, [10] it shouldn’t be a cause for concern with regard to China’s population growth.

The Chinese government is also engaging in biological destruction by removing Uyghur children from their families, a move expressly outlawed in the Genocide Convention’s article 2(e).[11] Chinese government officials proclaimed their genocidal intention by saying “break their lineage, break their roots, break their origins.”[12]These intentions are implemented by placing Uyghur children in so-called orphanage camps in which they are totally separated from the outside world and cut off from their biological connections; not allowed to see their parents; and not allowed to speak their language or practice their religion or culture, all with the aim of Sinification.[13 ]

China’s violation of most of the prohibitions in article 2 of the Genocide Convention is motivated by hostility against the Uyghur race, culture, and religion. Last week, an Albanian writer and journalist, Dr.Olsi Jazexhi, visited some of China’s predesigned re-education camps[14] and revealed life there in several video interviews. All of the Uyghur Muslims in those video clips confessed that they had renounced their religion to became atheist and to be loyal to only the Chinese Communist Party. Indoctrination that entails denouncing Islam, forbidding Uyghurs to choose between halal and haram, totally banning the Uyghur language, forcing Uyghur women to marry ethnic Han Chinese men, and many other countless regulations [15] being implemented in East Turkistan could justify the claim that the intention of China’s violation of the Genocide Convention is based on hostility to the Uyghurs’ religion, culture, and race. There are, of course, other geopolitical and strategic motivations behind China’s genocidal actions, including the “New Silk Road Project” connecting the economies of Eurasia and Africa, with China at the center and all nations subordinate to China’s predominant role.[16] However, there can be no question that China has the Uyghur religion, culture, and race in its genocidal sights.

Leading Chinese scholars call this strategy the “second generation” of ethnic policy in China. Hostility towards the Uyghur people is what it calls “nation building.” What was the first generation of ethnic policy in China and did it fail? What is the nature of China’s second generation ethnic policy towards the Uyghurs or so called nation -building? Reflecting on these questions, it becomes apparent that China will likely continue the domineering, Orwellian state policy that promotes war ahead of truth, peace, and respect for the international order.

East Turkistan Is Not Part of Chinese State Territory

The cases of East Turkistan and Tibet are different to those of China since they were colonized nations, not ethnically Chinese territory or peoples. In this perspective, China’s so-called “nation building” is contradictory to the notion of a modern nation-state that has emerged around the world against colonialism. [17] However, to justify the claim that East Turkistan is an inseparable part of China, China recently published a white paper to claim that ‘East Turkistan’ never existed and that the name of this region was ‘Xinjiang’, the land having belonged to China since the dawn of Chinese history. [18] The history of East Turkistan was not merely distorted in the paper, but uprooted.

The region being invaded in 1876 by the ethnic Manchu empire, was distinct from the ethnic Han Chinese empire.  Before the Manchu invasion, Uyghurs had an independent Muslim state led by Yaqub Beg, called Kashgaria. It included a set of relatively independent cities in the Tarim Basin called “Alte Sheher” (six cities) . After many years of war and bloody battles between the Uyghurs of the area and the Manchu invaders, the Manchu finally took over and changed its name to Xinjiang. [19]  However, the people of East Turkistan defeated the Manchu empire and established the East Turkistan republic twice, in 1933 and 1944. [20] Unfortunately, China collaborated with Stalin and retook East Turkistan in 1949. China’s white paper denies the history of the independent nation-state of the East Turkistan Republic. It neither explained why the name ‘Xinjiang’ means ‘new dominated land or new territory’, nor did it explain why the population of Han Chinese in East Turkistan was a mere 6% in 1949. [21] Neither did the white paper explain why it had to establish Bingtuan (the Xinjiang production and construction corps) in East Turkistan but not in other parts of China. Bingtuan is a giant agency composed of civilian Chinese soldiers who are directly administered by the Chinese State Council. [22]

China’s Nation-Building Goal Is to Eliminate Other Nations

 The concept of “nation” as it is understood by China is different from that of plural civic nation-states, which can recognize all ethnic identities while promoting national identity and patriotism. China’s idea of “nation building” pertains only to the ethnic Han Chinese, who existed long before the establishment of the current Chinese nation-state. It could be seen in the books of the Chinese nationalist scholar Liang Qichao, who brought to China the ideology of a nation-state based on Western ideology. However, his ideology of a “nation” promoted ethnic Han Chinese nationalism by suggesting that all the other neighboring ethnicities on China’s borders should merge into the ethnic Han Chinese. In his book  “An Examination of the Chinese Nation in History” (lishi shang zhongguo minzu guancha历史上中国民族志观察)  in 1905, he clearly stated that all the so-called Chinese nations (Zhonghua minzu, 中华民族) should be ethnic Han Chinese ( Hanzu 汉族) . [23] He also mentioned that the ethnic Han Chinese are a mixed people of many races and that they should continuously build by absorbing other ethnicities. Liang Qichao’s ideology influenced the establishment of the Han Chinese ethnic state, and a gradual assimilation policy was implemented in colonized East Turkistan under the name of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—which was never guaranteed real autonomy. The policy of a gradual and systematic assimilation of the non-Han ethnic peoples and autonomous ethnic minorities was learned from the Soviet model. However, it was not copied in exact detail, but was instead reformulated in a Chinese style. “Autonomy” as it was given to the Uyghurs in East Turkistan existed only as an empty word, and a large-scale ethnic Han Chinese influx into East Turkistan segregated themselves from the Uyghur population. The Chinese identified the Uyghurs’ race, culture, and religion, which are very distinct from the ethnic Han Chinese, as an ideological enemy of the Chinese-style communist worldview. China has zero tolerance for any other ideology, especially the liberal values that promote freedom, democracy, and human rights. As a result, hate and conflict sharply intensified between Uyghurs and China, in place of the achievement of the successful nation-building that would have guaranteed minority rights and non-Han ethnic peoples’ loyalty to China. Even though the failure of its ethnic policy was a consequence of economic discrimination, political persecution, and a pejorative attitude toward the autonomy of the region, which provoked strong resistance, the Chinese government ironically proceeded aggressively to a so-called second generation of its ethnic policy in the last few years, one that implements ethnocide and genocide in the region instead of re-examining the malformation of its own policy.

In their article “The Second Generation of Ethnic Policy: Promoting National Integration and Prosperity”( Di er dai minzu zhengce: sujing minzu jiaorong yiti he fanrong yiti 第二代民族政策:促进民族交融一体和繁荣一体) in Xinhua wenzhai ( Xinhua Digest新华文摘), modern Chinese scholars Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe state that China’s ethnic policy should enter the second generation. The article recommended the following:

A national policy that promotes the integration of all ethnic groups in the country, with the aim of constantly diluting the ethnic consciousness of the citizens and concept of identity of the 56 nationalities, constantly strengthens identity of the  Chinese nation (Zhonghua minzu), and realistically promotes the integration of the Chinese nation and the prosperity of the Chinese nation. It is an exhibition and construction of the Chinese national homeland to the greatness of the Chinese nation’s great revival.  (即在政治、经济、 文化、社会等各方面促进国内各民族交融一体,不断淡化公民的族群意识,不断淡化 56 个 民族的观念,不断强化中华民族的身份意识,不断增强公民的中华民族认同,切实推进中华 民族一体化,促进中华民族协调发展、繁荣一体发展,共同构建中华民族大家园,实现中华 民族的伟大复兴.) [24]

Chinese intellectuals started to use Chinese nation ( Zhonghua Minzu 中华民族) instead of ethnic Han Chinese ( Hanzu汉族)  in 1902, based on the ideology of Liang Qichao and other leading Chinese intellectuals that called for developing from small to big, from ethnic Han Chinese to the Chinese nation, by absorbing others. [25] The dictates of Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe manifested in the aggressive stages of Chinese ethnic policy that shifted from the gradual merging of 56 ethnic nations into one—the ethnic Han Chinese—to violent elimination of any existence of these nations.

China’s Nation-Building Process Is Contradictory to Its Own Claim

To disguise China’s colonizing history of the independent state of East Turkistan, China sternly claimed that East Turkistan was an inseparable part of China. Despite that claim, the Chinese government has never treated the people of East Turkistan as part of the Chinese state, since the national identity of the Chinese state is referred to only as being ethnic Han Chinese. A nation should afford its citizens with rights and protection of the law, and guarantee freedom of mobility and access to educational and economic opportunity. Even though China claims that East Turkistan is an inseparable part of China and the people of East Turkistan belong to the Chinese nation, the people of East Turkistan have almost never been treated as equal citizens of China. They have rarely benefited from any of the fundamental rights of citizenship that the Han Chinese enjoy.

According to the research of scholars such as Karolewski and Suszycki, the psychological effect of national identity can be divided into several main categories. A few examples of these psychological effects of national identity in the case of the people of East Turkistan are cognitive effects, self-esteem effects, and legitimacy effects. [25]

Analysis of the psychological effects in the research by these scholars has reasonably referred to cognitive effect as a sense of national belonging that allows individuals to perceive themselves as a group member. Based on this identification, we can easily confirm that there are no cognitive effects that prove that the people of East Turkistan  see themselves as belonging to the Chinese nation. The fundamental reason for this rejection of “belonging” is that the people of East Turkistan were historically a component of the former independent nation-state of East Turkistan, not China. Coercively creating false integration by oppressive policies only leaves them with the enormous pain of being forced towards China, but no pride or sense of Chinese identity. This can be seen at international sports games, where Uyghurs, the majority of the people of East Turkistan, support teams against China.

However, regardless of having no proud sense of belonging to China, some of the people of East Turkistan have recently tried to be accepted as an autonomous nation within the Chinese state and respected as de jure citizens of China. For instance, the Uyghur youths taking part in the Urumchi uprising on July 5, 2009 raised a Chinese red flag, and Uyghur scholar Ilham Toxti demanded fundamental rights for Uyghurs based on his argument of respect for the Chinese constitution in order to build a harmonized society and a better China. Despite the fact that these Uyghurs are demanding only justice, equality, and human rights from the Chinese government, not independence, all of these peaceful demands faced a bloody crackdown. Uyghurs who had participated in the Urumchi incident, along with their relatives, faced arrest, torture, disappearance, and execution. Ilham Toxti himself was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The effects of national identity on self-esteem are sourced from the historical memory of the nation that is influenced by an ancestral obligation. [26] Since Uyghurs are a colonized nation, they have no collective shared memory with the ethnic Han Chinese besides war, hatred, and rejection. The active participation of ethnic Han Chinese people in the crackdown against Uyghurs in the Urumchi uprising in 2009 and the current silence of the ethnic Han Chinese against their government’s genocide in East Turkistan serves as evidence.

National identity’s effects on legitimacy indicate that the role of national identity in a political decision depends on the expectations of the national identity by the citizens and that the decision should result from that national identity. [27] Since the people of East Turkistan have never had any rights to participate in decision making, they cannot legitimize themselves as Chinese citizens on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Chinese government has never treated them as legitimate citizens.

To belong to the nation, citizens should have rights and obligations that are protected by law. Even though China claims that the people of East Turkistan, the Uyghurs, and other ethnic Muslims are an ethnic minority in China and belong to the Chinese nation-state, their existence and their rights are not protected by Chinese state law. The people of East Turkistan are rather facing destruction under the guise of China’s nation building. Chinese state policy writers such as Hu Angang and Hu Lianhe are trying to disguise their painting of these ugly pictures with words such as “nation building” and “great revival” to conceal genocide and ethnocide in East Turkistan. However, nothing can hide China’s true colors, despite how stubbornly the Chinese government pretends to fit in with the civilized international community by hiding its imperialistic colonialism in East Turkistan.

In conclusion, if the world remains willfully blind to China’s genocide in East Turkestan, the whole world will accept China’s lie and China will control the future, as George Orwell [28]famously wrote:

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

Unfortunately, growing recognition of the Uyghur plight is already agonizingly late. The world community must do better, perhaps as it realizes that, the issue of East Turkistan threatens not just the Uyghurs, but our fundamental norms of order, peace, and freedom.

Rukiye Turdush, an ethnic Uyghur, was born in East Turkistan. She studied International Relations at the University of Windsor and obtained a post-graduate degree at George Brown College. She is a political activist and main contributor at the Uyghur Research Institute.


[1] Wang xi (2018). “2013 年南开大学艾跃进:中国国防政策的历史沿革(二)” (The History of China’s National Defence Policy). Author’s translation. Available at: [Accessed 21 Aug. 2019].

[2] Stewart, P. (2019). China putting minority Muslims in ‘concentration camps,’ U.S. says. Reuters. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Aug. 2019]; Li, W. (2019). Thousands of Uyghurs Detained in a Gansu Prison. Bitter Winter. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Aug. 2019];  Li, Z. (2019). Uyghurs Secretly Moved to Hide Mass Detentions. Bitter Winter, [online] p.1. Available at: [Accessed 24 Aug. 2019].

[3] Uyghur Research Institute (2019). Genocide in East Turkistan. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Aug. 2019].

[4] ibid;

[5] Human Rights Watch. (2019). China: How Mass Surveillance Works in Xinjiang. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Aug. 2019].

[6] Ala, M. (2019). China’s Use of Psychological Warfare Against Uyghurs. [online] Foreign Policy Journal. Available at: [Accessed 23 Aug. 2019]; Hughes, R. (2019). China’s Muslim ‘crackdown’ explained. [online] BBC News. Available at: [Accessed 23 Aug. 2019].

[7] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 9 December 1948, U.N.T.S. 277 ( entered into force 12 january 1951) [Genocide Convention]

[8] ibid;

[9] Uyghur Research Institute (2019), “Genocide in East Turkistan”, pp.30-35.

[10] World Population Review (2019). China Population. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Aug. 2019].

[11] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 9 December 1948, U.N.T.S. 277 ( entered into force 12 january 1951) [Genocide Convention]

[12] Aljazeera (2018). Inside China’s internment camps: Tear gas, Tasers and textbooks. [online] Aljazeera News. Available at: [Accessed 23 Aug. 2019].

[13] Zenz, A. (2019). Break Their Roots: Evidence for China’s Parent-Child Separation Campaign in Xinjiang. [online] Journal of Political Risk. Available at: [Accessed 24 Aug. 2019].

[14]Jazaxhi, O. (2019). Studentet tregojne ‘gabimet’ qe i kane sjelle ne Qendren e Riedukimit, Xinjiang. Available at: [Accessed 23 Aug. 2019].

[15] The 28th Meeting of the Standing Committee of the 12th People’s Congress of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (2017). “新疆维吾尔自治区去极端化条例.” (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region  De-Extremification Regulation) [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Aug. 2019].

[16] Burton, C. (2019). Remaking Canada’s China strategy: A new direction that puts Canadian interests first. [online] Macdonald Laurier Institute. Available at: [Accessed 24 Aug. 2019].

[17] Geller, E. (1983). Nations and Nationalism. 1st ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publishing, p.35; See also : Kazancigil, A. and Dogan, M. 1986. The State in Global Perspective; Comparing Nations: Concepts, Strategies, Substance. Gower/UNESCO. France. P. 188;  Smith A. (1999). Myths and Memories of the Nation. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

[18] The State Counsil Information Office of the People’s Republic of China (2019).  Historical Matters Concerning Xinjiang. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press Co.Ltd, pp.1-10.

[19]       Hodong ed., (2004). Holy War in China: The Muslim Rebellion and State in Chinese Central Asia. 1st ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.74; Millward, J. (2007). Eurasian Crossroads. 5th ed. New York: Colombia University Press, pp.120-125;  K.Warikoo (1992). China and Central Asia: Review of Qing Policy in Xinjiang. In: K.Warikoo and Norbu, ed., Ethnicity and Politics in Central Asia. New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, pp.14-15; Klimeš, O. (2015). Struggle by the Pen: The Uyghur Discourse of Nation and National Interest, c. 1900–1949. Leiden: Brill, pp.28-29.

[20] Benson, L. (1990). The Ili Rebellion: Muslim Challenge to Chinese Authority in Xinjiang, 1944-49. 1st ed. M.E.Sharpe publisher, p.10.

[21] Horowitz, Shale & Yu, Peng. (2014). Holding China’s West: Explaining CCP Strategies of Rule in Tibet and Xinjiang. Journal of Chinese Political Science. 20. 10.1007/s11366-014-9323-1.

[22] Becquelin, N. (2004). Staged Development in Xinjiang. The China Quarterly, 178, pp.358-378.

[23] Liang Qichao. ( 1906) “历史上中国民族志观察” ( An Examination of the Chinese Nation in History)Author translation.  梁启超全集(Liang qi chao Collection),  Vo 6.  Beijing: Beijing chubanshe 1999.

[24] Hu, A. and Hu, L. (2011). “第二代民族政策:促进民族交融一体和繁荣一体” (The Second Generation of Ethnic Policy: Promoting National Integration and Prosperity). 新华文摘 (Xinhua Digest), [online] (24), p.6. Available at: [Accessed 24 Aug. 2019].

[25] Huang, s. (2019). “中华民族”观念萌生 与形成的历史考察——兼论辛亥革命与中华民族认同之关系” (Historical Investigation on the Origin and Formation of the “Chinese Nation” Concept). [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Aug. 2019]. [Accessed 24 Aug. 2019].

[26] Karolewslki, P. and Suszycki, A. (2011). The Nation and Nationalism in Europe: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p.42

[27] ibid; p.47

[28] ibid; p.49

[29] See Orwell, G. (2007). 1984. Milano: Mondadori.  Chapter One. Part Three.