State Sponsorship of Uyghur Separatists: the History and Current Policy Options for East Turkestan (Xinjiang, China)

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 3, March 2019

A 1922 map of China. Source: John Bartholomew, The Times Atlas, London, 1922.

Anders Corr, Ph.D.
Publisher of the Journal of Political Risk

This article is a slight revision of a talk given on March 25, 2019, in Oxford, England. The associated university is not named at the request of the host organization’s president, who was concerned about possible repercussions.

I would like to thank the Terrorism Research Society (TRS) for kindly hosting this event. 

The historical map shown here is from 1922, and shows what China looked like when the Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 in Shanghai. It shows East Turkestan and Tibet in the west as autonomous regions — much more autonomous than they are today.

East Turkestan is now occupied militarily by China and officially called the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. In Chinese, “Xinjiang” means “new frontier”. But Xinjiang has an ancient history as a culturally diverse crossroads of trading on what the Chinese call “the silk road”, but which was actually more Iranian than Chinese. It was central to the ancient Persian trading areas called the Sogdian network by historians. It has been home to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, to Mongolians, Indians, Greeks, Koreans, Buddhists, and Christians. Since at least the First East Turkestan Republic of 1933 is has been called East Turkestan by Turkic Muslim residents. The Chinese Communist Party in Beijing has indiscriminately labeled Uyghurs who support an independent East Turkestan today, as separatist and terrorist in their goals and means. The acronym of the Chinese Communist Party is the “CCP”. The CCP seeks to colonize and extinguish all linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity in Xinjiang today, in order to assimilate the territory under its own preferred Han Chinese race, and their own atheist communist ideology.

In the face of such extreme repression, some Uyghurs have indeed advocated separatism and utilized terrorism and violence, including street riots, as a means.

But most of Beijing’s rhetoric about violent Uyghur separatism is hypocritical and overblown. While most Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims want independence, and understandably so given extreme CCP human rights abuse in the region, the means utilized to seek independence are overwhelmingly nonviolent, including Uyghur protests, advocacy for international sanctions, and public information campaigns. Given China’s human rights abuse in Xinjiang and China’s broader threat to democracy and human rights globally, the US and UK governments and allies should support nonviolent groups that support an independent East Turkestan.

There are plenty of reasons to justify an independent East Turkestan, most clearly the CCP’s increasingly intense ethnocide of Turkic Muslims in the region. The CCP has now detained between 1 and 3 million Turkic Muslims in “reeducation camps” according to the U.S. Government, and contrary to China’s constitution, has forbidden use of their language and religion. The CCP has forced Muslims to eat pork and drink alcohol in a misguided and ill-fated attempt at assimilation. China’s tactics in Xinjiang can only be classed among the most repressive cases of colonialism and imperialism in world history. These human rights violations are reason enough to support an independent East Turkestan. These were the topics of my recent series for UCANEWS, which I asked TRS to distribute to the audience and which you may read at your leisure.

But here I want to push our thoughts further, to talk about potential US and UK government support to nonviolent Uyghur separatists who seek an independent East Turkestan. Beyond the compelling human rights justification of an independent east Turkestan, there is another broader reason that should appeal to US and UK voters and policymakers, namely, the global context of an increasingly powerful and threatening CCP.

This global context is critical to understanding why it is in US and UK national interests to support Uyghur separatism, and so I must establish those facts here, before returning to the subject at hand.

East Turkestan in Global Context

The CCP’s power has grown exponentially since it was founded on July 1, 1921, in Shanghai. It has grown in geographic extent within China, from the Russian-supported Jiangxi Soviet of 1931 in the hills of the southeast, to the retreat (also known as the Long March) to Shaanxi from 1934-5. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45, the CCP watched from the sidelines as Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists weakened but ultimately defeated the Japanese, with U.S. and allied assistance.

Between 1945 and 1949, the Soviet-supported CCP came back and forced the US-allied nationalists to flee to Taiwan. The Soviets then betrayed the Uyghurs in preference for the Chinese communists. The rest of the war-weary world rapidly recognized the CCP as the new government of mainland China in 1950, in order to protect and expand hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investments and of trade flows in China.

The CCP then used its growing power from trade and international recognition to export its communist influence to Malaya, Vietnam, and the Philippines, causing independence in Malaya in 1957, a unified communist Vietnam in 1975, and most recently with the election of Duterte, a pro-Beijing Manila in 2016. This is a partial list of China’s continued growing influence in Asia.

Meanwhile, the CCP’s control of citizens within it borders has grown, including through technological innovations like the social credit score, which relies on big data and artificial intelligence to track and rank its citizens’ loyalty to the communist party. Citizens with low social credit scores are deprived of access to loans and travel, even within China. Their children are deprived of quality education in a form of collective familial punishment.

China now threatens to extend its social control and influence beyond Southeast Asia and into Africa, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand through its One Belt One Road development program, known by various acronyms such as OBOR, BRI, and B&R. Two days ago on March 23, Italy, a G-7 country and EU member, officially signed onto China’s OBOR, which offers trillions of dollars in development funding linked to bribery, corruption, debt traps and checkbook diplomacy. China is seeking to influence not just Italy, but the entire EU through Italy’s inclusion. Italy has a veto at the EU on policies of interest to China, and countries like Greece and Hungary that are close to China, have already used their EU vetos against condemnation of China’s human rights abuse and territorial aggression.

China is using its rapidly growing wealth to  influence the world’s elite universities, including at Oxford University, at my alma mater Yale, and where I got my Ph.D., at Harvard. A CCP linked foundation donated $350 million to Harvard in 2014, which it got from what appears to be shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and Monaco. At the same time, a Chinese military-linked company donated $10 million to Harvard for officer fellowships. The CCP’s growing footprint in academia and geographically, its increasing control of its own people, and now its influence abroad, threatens human rights and democracy globally.

Weakening the CCP

The CCP is therefore a threat and an enemy to free thought and democracy, that we must weaken it if we want to protect freedom and human rights globally. There are many strategies to weaken the CCP, including military, economic, and diplomatic strategies. China can and should be deprived of technology, markets, and diplomatic access at places like the UN and International Criminal Court. The US, Japan, and India are militarily confronting China’s attempts to change the territorial status quo in the South and East China Seas and in the Himalayan mountains.

But we might also seek to weaken the CCP internally. The CCP might for example be deprived of access to what it considers to be Chinese territory, including Xinjiang and Tibet. The focus of this talk is on Xinjiang, which we might make independent as a new East Turkestan, thereby weakening the CCP and improving the prospects for democracy and human rights not only in Xinjiang, but around the world.

The U.S. and U.K. governments, along with most of their NATO and Asian allies, are increasingly seeing China as an enemy, though in public they call China an “adversary” or “competitor”. These allies might at some point decide to endorse such a strategy of an independent East Turkestan, which can be achieved by economically and diplomatically supporting nonviolent Uyghur separatists.

There are many other countries, upon which China has forced land, maritime and water disputes, that might also be expected to have an interest in weakening the CCP by supporting an independent East Turkestan. China seeks to take territory, including of the maritime variety, from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Bhutan. China seeks to divert water from Tibet to Xinjiang, which will hurt downstream countries that currently benefit by water flows off the Tibetan plateau. These include Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh, all of which should have an interest in restoring Tibet and East Turkestan’s independence. Turkey, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan are ethnically close to the repressed Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. These countries too have reason to want to weaken China’s power, and secure the religious and linguistic rights of their ethnic brethren within China’s current borders. Even countries currently close to China, such as Russia, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Laos, have reason to fear China’s hegemonic ambitions.

Risks to Supporting an Independent East Turkestan

There are substantial and possibly conclusive risks associated with this potential strategy of government support to nonviolent Uyghur separatists. Most likely, the CCP could and likely would fight locally against such separatists, causing massive human costs in terms of lives and refugee flows from the region. China’s current ethnocide in Xinjiang could rise to the level of genocide. The CCP could also see outside support to nonviolent separatists as an act of war, thus risking a larger military conflict that could escalate into a general US-China war, including use of nuclear weapons. China’s version of deterrence historically has not respected the international legal principle of proportionality.

Were China to win against nonviolent Uyghur separatists, it could actually strengthen the CCP, both materially and in its resolve to protect itself from future such threats, including through domination of international relations globally. So what we are discussing today is a policy option that is infrequently discussed publicly, in part because it is such a dangerous option. Were China to believe that it were a serious option, China might seek to protect itself through increasing repression of Turkic Muslims to an even greater extent than it already is doing today. So there are costs to even discussing this publicly.

But allowing the CCP to continue its repression of the Uyghurs, and unfettered growth of its power within China’s current borders, is also a dangerous policy. Thus, the US and UK governments and their allies are in a bind.

Support to nonviolent Uyghur separatists who limit their nonviolent protests to locations outside of Xinjiang would be one way out of this bind. It would limit blowback against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, while simultaneously increasing global public education about the plight of Uyghurs and support for economic and individual sanctions on China, Xi Jinping, and other top Chinese officials, that might lead to improved treatment of Turkic Muslims in China, or an independent East Turkestan. Either outcome would go a long way towards decreasing military tensions between China and several other nations, including the US, Japan, Taiwan, and India.

Terrorists, Insurgents, and Nonviolent Separatists

It is critical at the outset of any discussion on Uyghur separatism to analytically define and differentiate between separatism, insurgency, and terrorism. I define them as the following.

Separatism is the advocacy or practice of separation of a certain group of people from a larger body.

Terrorism is the non-state use of violence against civilians in the pursuit of political aims.

Insurgency is an active revolt or uprising.

Nonviolence is the strict use of solely peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change.

China will seek to equate separatism with terrorism and violent insurgency, but this is not always the case. It is possible to have a purely nonviolent separatism, and this nonviolent separatism is the kind that we here can support.

What we are discussing today is therefore not US, UK, and allied government support to terrorism, which targets civilians with violence, but the policy option of US, UK, and allied government support to nonviolent separatists.

One goal of such a US, UK, and allied government policy would be to decrease existing Uyghur use of terrorism, and redirect such violent energies towards nonviolent approaches. There are currently violent Uyghur groups that could potentially be turned towards nonviolence. In July 2016, the UK government proscribed the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) as a terrorist group. It operates in Pakistan, Syria, and China. TIP is banned by the UN and sanctioned by the US under the Terrorist exclusion list. TIP is also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIP), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani (HAAT). These groups could and should be turned towards nonviolent means, and after proving to have given up violence through publicly stated commitments to nonviolence and proven sustained use of nonviolent means, applications could be submitted on their behalf to the UN, US, and UK to remove these groups from the banned lists.

A similar process is being supported to turn the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, from an insurgent group into a nonviolent electoral party. This attempt to turn insurgents into regular nonviolent citizens was already institutionalized in NATO’s reintegration campaign when I worked for NATO in Afghanistan from 2011-13.

History of State Sponsorship of Foreign Separatists and Rebels

The proposal to turn Uyghur terrorists into nonviolent activist groups is much more pacific in means than what we have seen in historical cases of major enemy powers that seek to use internal elements to destabilize each other through state sponsorship of violent insurgency or terrorism.

State sponsorship of foreign domestic interest groups, separatists, insurgents, and terrorists has a long history. These non-state actors are frequently called “freedom fighters” and encouraged to carry out violent acts and used as weapons against rival powers and hegemons. The result is typically humanitarian disaster for the internal populations used for such purposes, and internal instability or even disintegration of the enemy state. This can be seen as a successful war-fighting strategy, but the costs in terms of civilian casualties can be massive.

The tactic extends back in history to ancient Greece. In the 430s BCE, the powerful cities of Corinth and Corcyra were competitors. The weak city of Epidamnus lay between the two, and was the object of a battle in which both sides utilized domestic factions against the other. The Corinthians supported democratic rebels against exiled aristocrats. The Corcyraeans, in turn, allied with the aristocrats. The Corcyraeans won the naval battle that followed and restored the aristocrats to power. They slew all their local captives other than the Corinthians, who they held as hostages. That illustrates the danger to locals when larger powers fight through proxies. Corinth was an ally to powerful Sparta, so Corcyra joined democratic but imperialist Athens as an ally. This incident begins the history of the Peloponnesian War, which autocratic Sparta and her independent allies won in 404 BCE.

This theme of using domestic interests against an enemy recurs in American and British history. The French supported the American Revolutionary War of 1775-83 against Great Britain. It resulted in an independent United States of America. There were about 24,000 British casualties, including wounded, and about 23,800 American deaths, not including wounded.

The Cold War between the U.S., Russian and Chinese communists has a long history of these states supporting rebels and dissidents in each others’ territories and among each others’ allies.

In 1951, the CCP invaded Tibet. By 1956, Tibetan rebels were killing CCP officials and Han Chinese, and in 1959, the CIA was training Tibetan rebels in Colorado. That effort ended in 1972 with President Nixon’s thaw of relations with the CCP. Tibetan government in exile sources claim that from 1951 to 1984, over 1.2 million Tibetans died of unnatural causes: 432,705 killed in uprisings, 342,970 starved to death, 173,221 died in prison, 156,758 executed, 92,731 tortured to death, and 9,002 committed suicide. This should be considered a form of genocide, and well illustrates the risks of encouraging violent separatism in Xinjiang today.

From 1979 to 1989, the U.S. supported the Mujahideen insurgents in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation. Pakistan and China helped. One million Afghan civilians died, along with 90,000 Mujahideen, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers. After Soviet withdrawal, a civil war raged, and the Taliban took over in 1996. They supported international terrorism, including Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden, and in 2001, the current war in Afghanistan started. This too could happen if we support violent insurgency in Xinjiang today.

From 1981 to 1986, the Reagan administration supported the Nicaraguan Contras with money, arms and equipment. These Contras operated against the Communist Sandinista government, which itself supported communist rebels in El Salvador. According to human rights groups, the contras used terrorist tactics to try and force the Nicaraguan population to withdraw support from the Sandinista government. The tactic failed. A ceasefire in 1988 led to internationally-monitored elections in 1990 that the Sandinistas won, after approximately 30,000 Nicaraguans died, and many more were wounded. Support to violent insurgents abroad typically does not end well for the repressed domestic populations it is meant to “liberate”. 

History of State Sponsorship of Uyghur Separatists

There are also historical cases of foreign support to Uyghur separatists in China, much of it successful from the perspective of competitor states, but not in terms of the human costs incurred. As early as 1871, Russia sought to occupy and influence parts of East Turkestan. At this time, Russia and Britain supported the Muslim separatist Yakub Beg with arms and commercial agreements.

Stalin followed the same path, supporting not only Muslim separatists in the northwest, but Mao’s communist forces in southeast China, all of whom weakened Chinese nationalists. Stalin is even credited with constructing the “Uyghur” identity from historical traces of local ethnicities, and by cobbling together many diverse Turkic Muslim identities that were not Uyghur, under that unifying ethnic moniker. The Soviet Union supported the first East Turkestan Republic of 1933-4, and the second East Turkestan Republic of 1944-50. Stalin decreased pressure on the Chinese nationalists when he needed them to help fight the Japanese from 1937-45, but that ended abruptly when the Japanese were defeated. Stalin no longer needed Chiang Kai Shek’s Chinese nationalists or the Uyghurs, so betrayed them both in preference for Mao and the Chinese communists. The latter group were better suited to Stalin’s totalitarian communism, and betrayed him in turn.

Today’s Nonviolent Option

The First and Second East Turkestan republics required military force within territory now controlled by the CCP. Attempting a similar military approach to an independent East Turkestan today, would play to China’s strengths on China’s preferred battlefield. There is no easy way to militarily defeat China’s massive conventional army in Xinjiang today, using Uyghur separatists. At best, it would result in stalemate, as happened with US and allied forces in Afghanistan and Vietnam. In the process, it would likely cause the deaths of at least a million Turkic Muslims.

There are smarter ways to beat the CCP and achieve an independent East Turkestan today. The US, UK, and allied governments can support these smarter, nonviolent methods, including:

  1. Public education about the CCP’s atrocities in Xinjiang
  2. Human rights advocacy in international fora like the UN and ICC
  3. Provision of international asylum to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims
  4. Economic sanctions against Chinese companies, Xi Jinping and other top CCP officials complicit in the ethnocide, and
  5. Support to nonviolent organizing, protests and activism by Uyghurs abroad, including the increasing number of asylum seekers and refugees.

These nonviolent tactics are critical to diverting Uyghurs from violence, and forestalling the radicalization of Uyghurs abroad, who are highly vulnerable to terrorist recruiting.

Costs and Benefits of State Support to Nonviolent Uyghur Separatists

Separatism is seen by the Chinese authorities as tantamount to treason, insurgency, and even terrorism. The categories are fused and interrelated from Beijing’s viewpoint, and so drastic repressive measures are justified in their minds even against nonviolent advocacy of an independent East Turkestan. This is quite different from the approach of Western democracies to separatism. In the UK, Canada and Spain, nonviolent advocacy of an independent Scotland, Quebec or Catalonia is accepted as a legitimate part of public discourse. These states even allow votes on independence for these regions.

The repressive nature of the CCP makes the demand and appeal of independence stronger than in Western democracies, but it also makes the likely repression against even the nonviolent demand for such independence more devastating. The human costs of a possible genocide in Xinjiang, in which millions could die, cannot be discounted. Many Uyghurs suspect that such a genocide has already begun. That an ethnocide has begun is beyond doubt.

A nonviolent independence movement in East Turkestan, if institutionalized through state support from the US, UK, and allies, could increase the likelihood of such a genocide, followed by consolidation of CCP state power in Xinjiang. This could make China domestically stronger, though more internationally isolated, than it is now.

The bottom line is that violent separatism within Xinjiang would very likely lead to a bloodbath or even genocide of Turkic Muslims. Nonviolent separatism, promoted from outside China’s borders, and using the powerful tactics of economic sanctions, boycotts, and nonviolent direct action, are arguably more effective and safer for Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. These latter nonviolent tactics aim to utilize world public opinion and the good services of democracies and allied nations worldwide, to economically and publicly isolate and pressure China to improve the plight of Turkic Muslims, and eventually provide them with cultural, religious, ethnic, and linguistic rights, and an independent East Turkestan.

With that, I thank you for your patience, and would like to invite questions from the audience.

Anders Corr is the publisher of the Journal of Political Risk and the editor of Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea (US Naval Institute Press, 2018). He holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University, and a B.A./M.A. from Yale. He worked for five years in U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia. JPR status: speech. This speech was slightly revised on 29 April 2019.