A Short History of Uighur Resistance

In a by now familiar pattern, Grayzone has taken up the cause of a powerful and oppressive state against a weaker enemy using a geopolitical litmus test. Since the USA has invaded and occupied dozens of Third World countries for over two hundred years, there’s no point in taking the side of any oppressed nationality or ethnic group since willy-nilly they are acting on behalf of Wall Street, the CIA, NATO, George Soros, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Why bother looking at the deeper historical roots of a conflict when all you need to do is dredge up some evidence that the State Department has paid off some dissidents. Long before Max Blumenthal and his cohorts launched Grayzone, Michel Chossudovsky had perfected this methodology at Global Research. When young people filled Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand the overthrow of Mubarak, Tony Cartalucci took Mubarak’s side in a Global Research article because the National Endowment for Democracy had funneled some cash to his opponents. I am surprised that Chossudovsky did not sue Grayzone for the theft of intellectual property.

For this scenario to work, you have to find some cause célèbre. Until Victoria Nuland made that phone call to the US Ambassador to Ukraine in 2014, President Yanukovych was the people’s choice. Corruption? Police brutality? Russian meddling in Ukraine’s political affairs? What did that matter when liberals in the USA were cheering on Euromaidan?

As it turns out, not everybody opposed to Russian domination was a liberal. In a 1914 speech made in Zurich, Lenin declared:

What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return. Thus the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its state independence, since only this will permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs. Unfortunately some of our comrades have become imperial Russian patriots. We Muscovites, are enslaved not only because we allow ourselves to be oppressed, but because out passivity allows others to be oppressed, which is not in our interests.

Why bother studying how Stalin became one of those imperial Russian patriots whose forced collectivization cost the lives of millions of Ukrainians? Let bygones be bygones when so much was at stake in Ukraine in 2014, especially Yanukovych’s mansion that included a yacht pier, an equestrian club, a shooting range, a tennis court, a golf course, an ostrich farm, a helicopter pad, and a small church.

Now, Grayzone’s attention is riveted on the Uighurs. In five different articles published since August 23, 2018, its reporters have warned about an unarmed and largely quiescent population, which is .0084 of the dominant Han nationality, becoming a mortal threat to China. All of these intrepid anti-imperialists at Grayzone have probably never thought much about how Muslims speaking a Turkic language ever ended up as part of China. Anybody with the slightest familiarity with American history would instinctively understand that when Texas became part of the USA, it was the result of an expansionist foreign policy, especially since the indigenous population did not speak English and showed little sympathy for the invading army. So what’s the difference between that and China’s colonization of Xinjiang?

The USA annexed Mexico in 1845. Showing the same kind of alpha male drive, the Qing dynasty annexed East Turkistan in 1759, henceforth to be called Xinjiang, or new territory. Like other “stans” along the Czarist empire’s south, the population was Muslim and formerly ruled by the Mongols for hundreds of years. While Russia was able to annex Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan in the second half of the 19th century, East Turkistan was just out of reach. Due to geographical happenstance, the Uighurs became Chinese subjects.

The Qing dynasty drove the Zunghar rulers, a branch of the Mongol empire, from East Turkistan but retained its methods for controlling Muslims. Additionally, the Chinese saw the newly absorbed region as an outpost rather than as a bridge to commercial ties as it does today with the New Silk Road. They relied on the Mongols and the Manchus (the people from Manchuria) to keep the Uighurs under their thumb. However, the term Uighur was not how the Muslims called themselves at the time. The name was a reference to an erstwhile Uighur empire from the 7th century that had vanished just like the Jewish Khazar empire from around the same time.

Not long after the Qing dynasty’s takeover, it lost control of Xinjiang as a result of Muslim warlords being able to subdue the relatively weak Mongol and Manchu militias paid to police the native population on its behalf. Eventually, the Qing reconquered Xinjiang around 1880 with the intention of tightening the screws.

Following the lead of Catherine the Great in Ukraine, the Qing hoped to forcibly assimilate the native population. The Mandarin language would become official just as Russian became official in Ukraine. Anticipating the way that Xinjiang is ruled today, Zuo Zongtang, the architect of the region’s reconquest, stated “if we wish to change their peculiar customs and assimilate them to our Chinese ways (huafeng), we must found free schools (yishu) and make the Muslim children read (Chinese) books, recognize characters, and understand spoken language.” In keeping with this new education system, Confucianism would become the de facto ideology.

However, since the Han population remained small in this border region, this was more of a wish list than facts on the ground. Muslims continued to enjoy relative freedom and were able to stay in touch with others living in the “stans”.

Rotten at the core, just like Czarism, the Qing dynasty was toppled in 1911 by Republican armies hoping to unify and modernize the country. Unlike the ferment in Russia, socialism was not on the agenda. Indeed, the new government hoped to keep the empire intact. This did not sit well with the Muslims in Xinjiang who had hopes for national independence in keeping with Lenin’s writings on the national question. For Uighurs, the fall of the Qing did have its upside. Yang Zengxin, the new administrator of Xinjiang reporting to the Republican rulers, had little interest in forcibly assimilating the Muslim population. His main concern was warding off Bolshevik influence over the region that was ineluctably drawn to Lenin’s support for self-determination. The worries were real. The roots of the modern Uighur nationalist movement, including the use of the name Uighur to represent the people’s aspirations, was explicitly Leninist.

Yang Zengxin was replaced by Jin Suren in 1928. Unlike Yang, he was hostile to Muslim interests, both economically and culturally. He levied huge taxes on farm production and banned pilgrimages to Mecca. This led to massive resistance and civil war. China relied on a military detachment led by Sheng Shicai, who both suppressed the uprising and toppled Yang. In an effort to pacify the region even further, Sheng divided Xinjiang into two separate states, with the south under Muslim control and the north ruled by Sheng himself on behalf of the colonizers.

In a startling about-face, Sheng—a ruthless authoritarian—looked to the USSR as a patron of his political ambitions and even joined the Communist Party. There must have been some sympathy for revolutionary change on his part since he adopted policies consistent with Lenin’s views on the national question, just was the case in Ukraine in the early 1920s. The Soviets invited 30,000 Uighurs to study at Soviet universities where they trained in Marxism. The net result was a Soviet-style multi-ethnic state that broke with China’s colonizing past. By 1935, Xinjiang was known as the homeland of the Uighurs and a close ally of the USSR.

Unfortunately, Sheng’s identification with Soviet leaders included a willingness to imitate Stalin’s ruthless police state controls. Just as Stalin was suppressing Ukrainian nationalism, his protégé Sheng began to purge Uighur officials who were seen as far too willing to speak their mind. Repression once again led to turmoil in Xinjiang as Muslim resistance grew into a new uprising. Sheng put the uprising down with military assistance from the USSR, which by this point had become utterly hostile to any forms of resistance to Stalinist rule. Just as was the case with the Moscow Trials, Uighur resistance was characterized as a Trotskyite conspiracy.

Showing his characteristic capriciousness, Sheng broke with Stalin in 1942 and had a hundred leading Communist Party members arrested. Sheng’s power eventually waned and he became a minor official in the Kuomintang machinery. Showing his opportunist nature, Stalin sought to build up Uighur power as leverage against the anti-Communist rulers in China. Despite his bureaucratic methods, his intervention led to the biggest breakthroughs for Uighur self-determination. In October 1944, the Soviets helped the Uighurs mount a revolt across Xinjiang that led to a major step forward. Armed with Soviet weapons, they were able to secure a victory that led to the formation of the East Turkistan Republic (ETR).

Through the rest of the 1940s, the ETR adopted all of the features of a modern state with Soviet aid. It published literature in the Uighur language, had its own uniformed army, school system, national flag and even a national anthem. Stalin was even able to persuade the Kuomintang to adjust to new realities. It accommodated itself to Uighur power and even mandated that the Uighur language have the same official status as Mandarin in government departments.

One might think that the Maoist revolution might even deepen Uighur power since its ideology paid lip-service to the Comintern. Unfortunately, the forced assimilation of Uighurs under Mao made previous forms of colonial rule in the region’s past look minor by comparison. No matter the lip-service, Maoism was based on the idea of flattening the difference in Chinese society, which led to disastrous consequences in the late 1950s and continues to this day.

Despite gaining autonomy in 1955, Xinjiang faced increasing pressure to accept Han domination. No longer were Uighur language books imported from the USSR. Furthermore, assimilation accelerated in the aftermath of the “Hundred Flowers Campaign”. Frightened by the masses taking its recommendations seriously, the Maoist state sought to stifle the independent movements through an “anti-Rightist” campaign that led to 1,612 Uighur political leaders being labeled “local nationalists” and sent to work camps just as is the case today.

To get a firm grip on the region, Mao sent in more Han who would eventually become equal in numbers to the Uighur population. Under provisions of the Great Leap Forward, there were the first attempts to throttle the Muslim religion which China cynically described as helping to “blend the nationalities”. Chinese domination deepened further during the Great Cultural Revolution as Red Guards took it upon themselves to view Islam and Uighur culture as reactionary. Most of the secular elite in the country were sent to labor camps for “re-education”.

With the transformation of the Chinese economy to capitalism, Xinjiang was no longer seen as a colonial outpost. Instead, as China turned outward, it became a region for rapid economic development and a gateway to the West through the New Silk Road. Forced assimilation was no longer a matter of blending the nationalities. Instead, it was a means of marginalizing the Uighurs so that factories, mines, farms and infrastructure could be built up without interference. In this sense, it was no longer a matter of 19th century colonialism but up-to-date imperialist predation, all of which Grayzone defends as “anti-imperialist” in Orwellian fashion.

In closing, I’d like to familiarize my readers with Abdulla Rozibaqiev who symbolized the radicalism behind Uighur nationalism. While obscure to many on the left, even those who are opposed to Chinese domination, this Taranchi-born Communist should have earned the respect of revolutionaries everywhere. That Stalin and Mao found such men and women disposable only supports the conclusion that the 20th century revolution was aborted in its infancy.

The Taranchi were primarily an agricultural people who settled around the oases in Xinjiang and became the most militant fighters against Chinese domination. Born in 1897, Rozibaqiev was a founding member of the Muslim Workers Council in May 1917. A year later, he joined the Bolshevik Party, one of the first Muslims to do so. In March 1918, he joined other Taranchis in an armed uprising that established Soviet rule in East Turkistan. In 1920, the Taranchis assembled a cavalry unit to assist the Red Army against the counter-revolution, with Rozibaqiev holding the position of Political Commissar.

In 1921, you have the first clear sign that the Uighurs were determined to achieve self-determination in a struggle led by revolutionary socialists. In Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, The Revolutionary Union of Altishahri-Jungharian Workers held a conference that Uighur scholars regard as the birth of a nation. The conference was initiated by the Turkestan bureau of the Comintern and timed with the release of “The Voice of the Poor”, the very first revolutionary socialist Uighur newspaper. The front page featured an article by Rozibaqiev announcing the conference.

Keeping in mind that the Uighur nationality was still in an embryonic form, Rozibaqiev became the leading advocate of unity among peoples who still retained tribal identities in many ways. In an article for the “The Voice of the Poor”, Rozibaqiev wrote:

Some brothers have put forward the view that considering Kashgaris and Taranchis as one, and joining an ‘Uyghur’ section is wrong. The mistakenness of this view is clear, because the Taranchis are Uyghur sons who came from Altishahr not long ago … Besides this, the culture, history and lifestyle of the Kashgaris are one and the same, and each is tied up with the other.

When some Uighurs disdained the usefulness of developing class unity with the Chinese, Rozibaqiev rebuked them by saying that “this is not nationalism, but narrow tribalism, even lower than nationalism”. He further stressed the internationalist view that “the strengthening of the Soviet government is tied up with the victory and assistance of the Chinese workers.”

For most Uighurs today, the name Abdulla Rozibaqiev will draw a blank. Given the repression in Xinjiang, any aspect of Uighur culture will be suppressed, including the articles written by a Marxist revolutionary who theoretically should be promoted in Xinjiang by the Chinese Communists—if only they were Communists rather than the 21st century’s emerging number one imperialist power cheered on by the neo-Stalinists at Grayzone.

First published in Counterpunch, 9 March 2021