The Xinjiang Province of China has been populated for hundreds of years by a Muslim, Turkic people known as the Uighurs. Of the 10 million Uighurs alive today, all but 300,000 live in Xinjiang; however, China has had control of the governance of the region for most of the past 300 years, often using the province for military bases guarding against China’s Northwestern neighbors. Bordering six Muslim countries, the Uyghur people are culturally very similar to their Central Asian neighbors – but economic development and government-encouraged migration has brought scores of Han Chinese newcomers to the area, who bring their own language, culture, and ideas.
Today, the region is over 40% Han Chinese, and the Chinese government has large numbers of troops stationed there. Ethnic Chinese are widely seen, with much reason, as being given the best jobs and economic opportunity, and the Chinese government has repeatedly shut down protests and silenced Uighur dissidents. In contrast, many of Xinjian’s neighboring peoples had gained independence following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and set up their own governments with ethnically local, Muslim leadership, while the Chinese government continued to heavily regulate mosques, religious schools, and even banned Muslim civil servants from fasting during Ramadan. As a result of these historical developments, a growing number of the native Uighurs began fighting for independence from China, and the East Turkestan Independence Movement emerged.
One of the branches of this group, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), has received support from the leaders of al-Qaeda, and have begun perpetrating terrorist attacks in China, most notably on August 30, 2016, when the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was attacked in a suicide bombing by a member of the TIP. These guerilla tactics are being employed with the goal of establishing an independent, ethnically representative government in Xinjiang, and have been done exclusively against the Chinese government, unlike groups like the Islamic State whose goal is to establish a worldwide caliphate.
This desired state of “East Turkestan,” however, is nothing more than an idea; the people of the region have not governed themselves since their brief Soviet-backed period of independence in the 1940’s. There is no vacuum of power to fill, and the Chinese perform all expected government functions. Wherever their loyalties lie, the people of Xinjiang by and large recognize the Chinese government and have no dependence on any Turkestani group.
While many Muslims in Xinjiang, which is literally translated as “new territory” in Chinese, believe that China’s borders should not extend beyond the Great Wall of China into what they refer to in private as “Turkestan” or “Sharqi Turkestan,” the powerful Chinese government has so far prevented this resentment from growing into a larger political movement that could unite ethnic Uighurs in the region. A small group of Uyghur asylees in the United States led by Anwar Yusuf Turani has set up what they call the “East Turkistan Government in Exile;” however they are not currently recognized by any government, and their only action of “governing” is the production of extremely long English-language Youtube videos with little more than 100 views each. Thus, these Muslim, separatist guerilla groups of Xinjiang appear fated to remain small and disorganized, as China puts more and more energy into securing its borders.