Chinese Counter-Terrorist Strike in Xinjiang

Andrew McGregor

Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, John Hopkins University

March 7, 2007

In the midst of the lead up to next year’s Beijing Olympics and a power struggle in the Chinese Communist Party, a January raid on an alleged terrorist training camp in Xinjiang killed 18 terrorist suspects and one policeman. Seventeen more suspects were reported captured. Twenty-two homemade ‘hand grenades’ were seized, along with material for another 1,500. The raid was also said to have provided new evidence of ties between the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and ‘international terrorist forces.’ The raid marks the latest clash between Muslim Uyghur separatists and Chinese security services suppressing opposition to regional Sinification.

xinjiang 1Former ETIM leader Hasan Mahsum


The Uyghur separatist movement is badly divided, with dozens of groups with different agendas claiming to represent the interests of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people. Some groups renounce violence as a political tactic while others embrace it. Until recently the Uyghurs were the majority in the Central Asian region they call East Turkistan (known to the Chinese as Xinjiang, or ‘New Territory’), but a massive and continuing migration of Han Chinese into the region has left the Uyghurs with only 45% of the population of 18 million.

The ‘counter-terrorist’ raid occurred in the remote Akto County on the Pamir Plateau, close to the Chinese-Kyrgyz border. After the raid, Chinese security forces tightened their control of the borders with both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. China’s official press suggested that al-Qaeda had helped the ETIM ‘infiltrate’ the region, though it did not say why the Uyghurs needed such aid in their own territory. In 1990, Akto County was the site of a bloody uprising led by Uyghur militant Zahideen Yusuf, killed in the fighting along with fifty others.

Most Uyghurs are members of Islamic Sufi orders and lack the interest in Salafist Islam that is a prerequisite for involvement with al-Qaeda. There are few examples of Sufis cooperating with al-Qaeda; indeed, their form of worship is attacked by Bin Laden and his associates as a type of heresy that must be exterminated. Though some Uyghurs sought military training from the Taliban in the 1990s it appears that they did so in order to mount separatist operations in Xinjiang rather than join Bin Laden’s anti-American jihad. Some Uyghurs may even have received training from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The ETIM is one of the most obscure of the Uyghur militant groups, barely known even to other Uyghur activists. According to a Chinese government report released in 2002, ETIM members received training in camps run by al-Qaeda or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) throughout Afghanistan prior to the 9/11 attacks. The report almost certainly exaggerated the size of the ETIM, claiming it commanded a formation known as the ‘Turkistan Army’ that included a “China Battalion of 320 terrorists from Xinjiang. This was just one of a number of large-scale Uyghur ‘terrorist’ formations China claimed were active in Afghanistan, including some whose existence is dubious, such as the 1,000 strong ‘Central Asian Uyghur Hezbollah’. The same report alleged that Hasan Mahsum met with Osama bin Laden in 1999 and obtained al-Qaeda financing for the ETIM, though its leader, Hasan Mahsum, denied any such connections. There has been little ETIM activity since the death of Mahsum at the hands of the Pakistani army in October 2003.
xinjiang 2While some Uyghurs fought alongside the Taliban or the late Juma Namangani’s Afghanistan-based IMU, others joined the Chechen mujahidin during the early years of the second Russian/Chechen war that began in 1999. The total number of Uyghurs active in various foreign-based jihadist groups in 2001 was probably not more than several hundred, with a significant decline in numbers since. It is important to note that the jihadist/Islamist component of the Uyghur separatist movement comprises only a fraction of a political trend that has widely varied aims and methods.

In August 2002, the United States designated the ETIM as a terrorist organization after pressure from China. The announcement followed a pledge by China to restrict missile technology transfers to countries like Iran, and preceded a visit by the Chinese President to the United States. The United Nations also put the ETIM on its terrorist list a month later. China lists four Uyghur organizations as ‘terrorist groups’, though the ETIM is the only one to have this designation internationally.

Two months before the raid in Akto County, a 32-minute video was released through the al-Fajr Information Centre inciting the people of ‘East Turkistan’ to take up jihad against the ‘infidel’ Chinese communists. The video portrays Uyghur ‘mujahidin’ training with firearms, possibly in Afghanistan.


Beijing has raised the specter of Uyghur terrorist attacks on the 2008 Olympics, though overplaying this hand as a means of stifling separatist opposition in Xinjiang could have the effect of scaring away tourists. Police in Beijing are preparing to work with foreign intelligence services to prevent terrorist attacks at the games. The maturation of the transnational Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has made it extremely difficult for Uyghur militants to operate from neighboring Central Asian countries. The SCO (consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) has introduced new intelligence-sharing and cooperative counter-terrorism measures. China’s economic expansion has largely defused the threat of separatist militancy by integrating its Central Asian neighbors into its economic and security planning, thus eliminating the cross-border bases essential to most successful resistance movements.

Pan-Turkism enjoyed a brief popularity in Turkic states and regions in the early 1990s, but has since recoiled in the face of twenty-first century political realities. Pan-Islamic sentiment survives in Xinjiang, but is not the dominant force behind Uyghur separatism. Unemployment, religious repression, assimilation pressures and the activities of the Communist Party of China are more potent recruiting forces for Islamic militants in Xinjiang than any call for a Central Asian caliphate. Compared to the regional government (which includes nominally Muslim Uyghurs), the Communist Party in Xinjiang is politically stronger, exclusively atheist and dominated by Han Chinese.

Hu Jintao, China’s President and Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, has been promoting Party leaders from northwest China (including Tibet and Xinjiang) to important positions in the Beijing government over the last year, much to the displeasure of the traditional East-coast power base of the party. This has caused a rift in the party, and the attack by the Xinjiang police services will cast doubt on Hu’s boasts that he has pacified the region at a time when he is under pressure to give up his post as President to Chinese VP Zeng Qinghong.

Many Uyghurs seek U.S. support and attempt to present Xinjiang as a kind of Muslim Tibet. This effort has been hurt in the past by incidents like that of May 2002, when two ETIM members in Kyrgyzstan were arrested for plotting an attack on the U.S. embassy in Bishkek and deported to China. In April 2004, FBI director Robert Mueller suggested that there were militants in China who advocated terrorism, “whether you would call it Al-Qaeda or a group loosely affiliated with Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda’s leadership.

CONCLUSIONS: The timing of the police strike is puzzling, as it emphasizes an al-Qaeda/Uyghur terrorist threat at a time when violence and separatist sentiment in Xinjiang is in decline. China has repeatedly demonstrated its ruthlessness in repressing local militants, a lesson understood by many young Uyghurs who see integration into the dominant Chinese culture as the only path to success. Beijing is counting on economic development and Han migration to eventually take care of Xinjiang’s separatist troubles.

Was a raid on an illegal mining operation transformed into an anti-terrorist operation for political reasons? Chinese security forces have not offered a description of the assault itself. Illegal mining operations are common in China and explosives are commonly used in mining activities. The high death total of the raid nevertheless functions as a reminder to Xinjiang’s Uyghurs that separatist activities of any type will not be tolerated as the Beijing Olympics approach. As the world turns its focus onto China in an unprecedented way, the Communist Party is determined to manage its public image down to the finest detail.

The Chinese Siege of the French Fortress at Tuyen Quang, Tonkin, Vietnam, 1885

Andrew McGregor

Military History Quarterly 17(1), Autumn 2004, pp. 52-61.

Trading the sands of North Africa for the jungles of Tonkin, French Foreign Legionnaires and Vietnamese riflemen fought off waves of Chinese attackers for thirty-six days in 1885 at remote Tuyen Quang.

Siège de Tuyên Quang (1884-1885), by Hippolyte Charlemagne

Tired and bloodied, a long relief column of French troops snaked its way through the thick Tonkinese jungle late on the afternoon of March 3, 1885. As the soldiers emerged into a large clearing surrounding a battered fortress, their senses were overcome by a gruesome spectacle. One officer recalled, “All the approaches – churned, blasted, lamentable – were covered with corpses and the carrion rotted in the air.” The column had reached its destination: Tuyen Quang, where a small garrison mainly composed of Foreign Legionnaires had been battling as many as twenty-four thousand Chinese attackers since January 26.

Commerce and religion had drawn France to Vietnam in the first half of the nineteenth century. The persecution of Christian missionaries there resulted in French military intervention in the form of several clashes on land and sea in the 1840s. France was also envious of recent British success in gaining access to lucrative Chinese markets, and hoped to open up Southeast Asia to French trade and gain access to China via northern Vietnam. The Vietnamese emperor, who ruled from Hué, was well aware of France’s colonial intentions. According to an 1848 imperial commission report:

These barbarians are very firm and patient; the works they have not been able to complete they hand on to their posterity to bring forth to completion. They relinquish no undertaking and are disturbed at no difficulties… These barbarians enter every land with neither fear nor weariness; they conquer all peoples, regardless of expense… They pretend to seek commercial freedom, but actually this is the means to spread their dark and monstrous errors. They are interested but little in commerce, but under its guise seek to render futile the laws of the empire… These men, akin to sheep and dogs by their manners, cannot be persuaded by the language of reason; reason to them is the voice of the cannon. In the art of making the cannon speak, they are extremely clever!

Continued persecution of Christians led to more clashes in the 1850s that culminated with the French capture (with Spanish assistance) of Tourane (present-day Da Nang) in 1858 and the occupation of Saigon in southern Vietnam the following year. Over the next few years the French expanded their hold over southern Vietnam. They referred to that region as Cochin China, to central Vietnam as Annam, and to the north as Tonkin. In 1862 the imperial court reluctantly ceded several provinces of Cochin China to France, which also gained a protectorate over Cambodia the next year, and during the next several years extended its control to include all of southern Vietnam.

China, however, had regarded Vietnam as part of the Celestial Empire for more than a thousand years. Initially the French were encouraged by the lack of Chinese protests to their advances in Cochin China and to an 1874 treaty between France and Vietnam that declared the remainder of the country “independent of all foreign powers” while giving France concessions in Tonkin’s Haiphong and Hanoi. It seems that the Chinese leadership failed to grasp that the French regarded the treaty as ending Vietnam’s tributary relationship with its northern neighbor. The French interpretation was apparently also misunderstood by the imperial court in Hué, which continued its former relationship with China.

Black Flag leader Liu Yung-fu

During this period, Tonkin was wracked by fighting that at one time or another pitted Chinese, Vietnamese and Montagnards (the indigenous people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands) against each other. An army of Chinese brigands known as the Black Flags emerged as the most ruthless and successful of the combatants. The fighters were led by Liu Yung-fu, who, although illiterate, was widely regarded as a formidable strategist. He had turned bandit in southeastern China’s Guangxi Province during the chaotic days of the Taiping rebellion in the 1850s, and before long Liu had thousands of followers who swore allegiance to him before a black flag.

After crossing the Vietnamese border with his followers, Liu ingratiated himself with the local authorities by defeating the defiant Montagnard tribesmen of north Tonkin. The Black Flags, with the blessing of Chinese and Vietnamese officials, then began a long campaign against a rival brigand band, the Yellow Flags. In 1875, after more than five years of fighting, the Black Flags emerged victorious. Liu’s forces were now the foremost military power in Tonkin.

Over the next several years, France became increasingly concerned about the security of its concessions in Hanoi and Haiphong and frustrated by its inability to make further inroads in opening Tonkin’s Red River to trade. Then in 1882 French naval Captain Henri Laurent Rivière arrived in Hanoi at the head of several hundred troops sent as reinforcements for the concession there. Disobeying his explicit orders, he stormed and captured the city’s citadel on April 25.

Rivière, having seized northern Vietnam’s seat of government, soon found himself unable to expand his hold in Tonkin and was virtually cut off in Hanoi. Vietnamese authorities turned to the Black Flags, and a steady stream of their troops, as well as other Chinese fighters, poured into the countryside around Hanoi. Liu expressed his opinion of the French occupiers in an invective-filled ultimatum:

You French brigands live by violence in Europe and glare out on all the world like tigers, seeking for a place to exercise your craft and cruelty. Where there is land you lick your chops for lust of it; where there are riches you would fain lay hands on them. You send out teachers of religion to undermine and ruin the people. You say you wish for international commerce, but you merely wish to swallow up the country. There are no bounds to your cruelty, and there is no name for your wickedness. You trust in your strength, and you debauch our women and our youth. Surely this excites the indignation of gods and men, and is past the endurance of heaven and earth… If you own that you are no match for us; if you acknowledge that you carrion Jews are only fit to grease the edge of our blades; if you would still remain alive, then behead your leaders, bring their heads to my official abode, leave our city, and return to your foul lairs.

Rivière’s forces had been besieged in Hanoi for about eleven months when the ambitious captain was killed in May 1883 during an operation to loosen the Chinese grip around the city. France promptly used his death to step up its efforts to subdue all of Vietnam. In August, French warships bombarded Hué and landed troops nearby. The emperor immediately called for a cease-fire and reluctantly signed a treaty allowing France to establish protectorates over Tonkin and Annam. The Chinese, however, explicitly rejected the treaty’s terms.

Algerian “Turcos” and fusiliers-marins (armed sailors) at Bắc Ninh, 1884.

As part of France’s redoubled efforts, the Foreign Legion’s 1st Battalion arrived at Haiphong Harbor in November 1883 intent on suppressing the Black Flags and expelling the Chinese from Tonkin. The unit did not have to wait long to see action, successfully storming the well-defended Black Flag stronghold at Son Tay on December 16, 1883. After being reinforced by the 2nd Battalion in February 1884, the legionnaires occupied the former Chinese fort at Bac Ninh in March. Two months later, China agreed to withdraw its forces from northern Vietnam and it appeared that the French conquest of Tonkin was complete.

That impression, however, was shattered when a French column en route to occupy Lang Son (in northern Tonkin) attacked but was repulsed by a Chinese garrison that had remained behind. To punish China, France embarked on an ambitious two-front war. One French force was to invade the Chinese island of Formosa, while a second was to reinforce troops already in Tonkin that would then pacify the Red River Delta and extend French control farther inland.

Like many colonial conflicts of the time, the ensuing war was presented to the French public as a series of flag-plantings, bugle calls and triumphant bayonet charges. The reality, of course, was much harsher. In fact, France never officially declared war against China; according to international law, doing so would have prevented French ships from refueling at the neutral ports of Ceylon, Singapore, and Hong Kong and thus would have completely disrupted supply lines. The Chinese likewise did not declare war, as they were awaiting military supplies ordered in Europe, and a declaration of war would have resulted in the contracts’ suspension.

The conflict in Tonkin was an especially brutal one from the beginning and was played out in unforgiving jungle and heavily wooded limestone mountains. It was a war without quarter. Chinese and Vietnamese prisoners were regularly executed, and French prisoners could expect to be decapitated, with their heads pickled in brine before being exhibited as trophies. The French were also known to display the severed heads of enemy combatants in an effort to weaken Chinese resistance. The two sides plundered and raped the helpless population, both in victory and in defeat.

Black Flag fighters

The Tonkin war also fired up the prejudices of the participants as well as observers. The Chinese and native Vietnamese were particularly shocked by their introduction to French colonial troops, especially those from North Africa. According to the Black Flags’ Liu Yung-fu, “You [the French] set black devils to plunder and ravage a defenseless population, more cruelly than the vilest of bandits.” A British reporter alluded to the alleged rapacity of the North Africans: “The bestiality of the Turcos [Algerians] is not to be laid, perhaps, at the French door, except that if the French introduce such animals into a country they ought to muzzle them.” Answering charges of French brutality, French writer Pierre Loti noted: “After all, in the Far East, to destroy is the first law of war. And then, when one comes with but a handful of men to subjugate an immense country, the enterprise is so adventurous that one must spread much terror, under penalty of perishing one’s self.”

Initially France relied on Foreign Legionnaires and troops of the Ministère de la Marine (Naval Ministry) for the combat component of its expeditionary force in Vietnam. The Foreign Legion of the 1880s was largely composed of men from the former French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. Also, Germans were well represented, as were Belgians, though many of the latter were actually Frenchmen evading the prohibition on the enlistment of native French in the legion by pretending to be French-speaking Belgian Walloons. The geographic contrast was stark between the legion’s normal sunny and wind-swept posts of North Africa and the humid bush of Tonkin, where one could often not see through the thick jungle more than a few feet ahead. The soldiers of the Legion, however, proved remarkably adaptable – more so, in fact, than their officers, who persisted in sacrificing their men (and themselves) in European battlefield tactics.

Tirailleurs Tonkinois

Tropical uniforms were slow in arriving, and the typical French soldier on the march carried an absurd amount of equipment. By 1883 France had begun recruiting militia in Cochin China and Christian convert auxiliaries in Tonkin. Legionnaire Charles Martyn complained of the native north Vietnamese light infantry serving with the French, the Tirailleurs Tonkinois: “It is beneath the dignity of these warriors to carry anything beyond their arms and ammunition, so our column presented the strange spectacle of natives of the country loafing along at their ease while we Europeans were loaded up like pedlars’ asses.”

“Loaded up like pedlars’ asses”: A Legionnaire on the march in Indo-China.

Ironically, by 1883 the Black Flags were armed with modern repeating rifles of European and American make, including Remingtons, Spencers, Winchesters and Martini-Henrys, while France’s troops made do with outdated single-shot Model 1874 Gras rifles. Fortunately for the French, many of the Chinese and brigands seemed to entirely misunderstand the principle of their weapons, firing at an upward angle in order to “drop” bullets onto their enemy. There was a widespread opinion in the French camp that Chinese troops had a special distaste for the Gras’ fearsome twenty-one inch bayonet blade. The bayonet charge thus became a staple of Foreign Legion warfare in Indochina. Overconfidence in this tactic (often ordered without artillery support) would cost many legionnaires their lives during the following years.

The Chinese, despite their weaponry, must have presented an unmilitary appearance to the Europeans. According to a French officer: “Some had a black garment decorated in blue, others a black garment with red borders, others a garment in iron-gray, a certain number wore an all-red costume, others a sky-blue costume; finally a group wore a sort of dark-blue smock. These last are without doubt some Black Flags.” The Black Flags had also readopted the Manchu pigtails (abandoned in China during the Taiping rebellion) and typically wore the broad conical straw hat of southern China and Vietnam.

In May 1884 French forces, extending control toward Tonkin’s highlands, occupied a Chinese-built square fort at Tuyen Quang, on the west bank of the Clear River, a tributary of the Red River. The area’s generally low-lying ground was accented by many rounded, steep-sided hillocks that the French called mamelons (nipples). One of these distinctive hills, seventy meters in height, was enclosed within the four three-hundred meter long by three-meter high walls of the fortress and provided an excellent observation point. The areas was also full of multi-storied pagodas, several of which lay within the brick walls of the citadel. A group of small pagodas surmounted the fort’s mamelon and served as quarters for the French officers. A small village of about one hundred Vietnamese peasants was located four hundred meters downstream from the citadel.

Disease soon started taking a toll on the small garrison, and in October French patrols began clashing with bands of Black Flags. Before long, thousands of the brigands were deploying in the jungles surrounding Tuyen Quang. The next month, the garrison was reinforced by the arrival of the 1st and 2nd companies of the Legion’s 1st Foreign Regiment, along with a company of freshly raised Tirailleurs Tonkinois, gunners of the Artillerie de la Marine to man a section of four small cannons, a detachment of eight sappers from the 4th Engineers, and the dozen sailors from the small gunboat Mitrailleuse, which was anchored off the citadel. Altogether, the garrison then numbered 619 men, 390 of whom were Foreign Legionnaires. Ammunition supplies were meager, but six month’s-worth of foodstuffs were on hand.

The legionnaires initially viewed the Tirailleurs with skepticism, and the latter were settled in a small pagoda-centered camp abutting the south corner of the fort. One member of the garrison recalled: “They had no drill to speak of, and they were dressed in a most hideous streaky blue uniform, with a singular ugly red, white and blue-tipped bamboo, soup-tureen like hat. The number of their company, sewed in red tape on a white oval on the left chest, dealt the final blow at any hopes they might have had of presenting a soldier-like appearance.” Moreover, several companies of the Tirailleurs had deserted earlier in 1884, taking their weapons and ammunition with them. Though the French troops initially deprecated them, referring to the north Vietnamese soldiers as bashi-bazouks – a reference to the Turkish army’s undisciplined irregular troops – the Tirailleurs soon displayed the endurance, marching ability, aggressiveness and steadiness under fire that would later bedevil French and US armies in the twentieth century.

Marc-Edmond Dominé (1848–1920), the commander of the Tuyen Quang garrison.

The garrison’s commander, thirty-seven year old Major Marc-Edmond Dominé, was a veteran officer of the hard-fighting Bataillions d’Afrique (known as the Bats d’Af), North African penal units in which conscripted and heavily tattooed ex-convicts could redeem themselves by performing the most hazardous battlefield tasks. Dominé quickly set his men to work building additional fortifications. A former journalist, twenty-five year old Sergeant Jule Bobillot of the 4th Engineers oversaw the construction of a bamboo palisade that surrounded the fort, as well as trenches, dugouts and earthworks in the strongpoint. A large mamelon three hundred meters west of the fort was judged a threat to the security of the citadel if occupied by the Black Flags, so Dominé ordered the talented Bobillot and his sappers to construct a fortified blockhouse on its summit. With the help of seventy legionnaires, the engineers completed the blockhouse in only six days.

For a time the garrison was able to stockpile supplies brought in on river junks escorted by French colonial troops. The last convoy arrived on December 20 and carried the all-important wine that French armies lived on at the time.

In January 1885 a twelve-thousand-man army of Chinese regulars from the southeastern province of Yunnan reinforced the thousands of Black Flag troops outside Tuyen Quang. The Yunnanese soldiers were expert in the construction of earthworks and field fortifications and in mine warfare, all learned by the province’s miners who had fought on both sides of the Muslim rebellion in their home province during the 1860s. These troops quickly set to work digging an intricate system of trenches that crept ever closer to the citadel, as well as building earthworks to defend against any force attempting to relieve Tuyen Quang.

A fanciful depiction of the Siege of Tuyen Quang – The pristine Legionnaires wear North African dress uniforms rather than tropical kit. The Black Flags are similarly outfitted like wealthy mandarins. Loose-fitting black clothes comprised the most common Black Flag “uniform” and bayonets were not a normal part of their weaponry.

On January 26, Liu launched the first concerted attacks on the French positions. After torching the Vietnamese village, troops assaulted the blockhouse and the bamboo palisades erected outside the walls of the citadel. In a typical Blag Flag onslaught, the attackers rushed forward screaming, banging gongs and cymbals, blowing trumpets and waving numerous banners. Three columns of three hundred men each advanced on the blockhouse, which was defended by only eighteen soldiers under the command of Sergeant Libert of the Foreign Legion. Two of the columns were quickly driven off by shell fire from the Mitrailleuse and rifle fire from the blockhouse and the citadel, but the third group of attackers was more tenacious and only fell back after the French opened up with their small cannons.

The fierce fight and the hundreds of enemy campfires visible at night on the hills surrounding Tuyen Quang alerted the garrison to its desperate predicament. No mercy could be expected from the Chinese, so surrender was out of the question. Virtually cut off from the outside world, the garrison resorted to tossing messages stuffed in bottles or bamboo tubes into the Clear River in the hope that they might make it to their comrades downstream.

A more realistic view of the battle, from a contemporary French postcard.

By the end of January, Dominé found it necessary to abandon the blockhouse after discovering the Chinese had tunnelled under it, where they were likely preparing to ignite a mine. A small French victory was earned when its garrison crossed the three hundred meters of no man’s land to the fort with the loss of only one soldier. Surrendering the mamelon was a severe blow as it allowed the Chinese to extend their entrenchments around the west corner of the citadel without having to worry about fire from their rear. The Black Flags were also able to deploy some outdated Krupp cannons on the mamelon which they had hauled through the jungle on the backs of elephants. The garrison was soon taking daily losses from a constant artillery bombardment.

While the Legionnaires and tirailleurs were battling for their lives at Tuyen Quang, French reinforcements had arrived in eastern Tonkin. The fresh troops allowed General Louis-Alexandre Brière de l’Isle, commander of France’s forces in the province, to launch a campaign to clear the northern route through Lang Son to the “Gates of China,” a narrow defile along the mountainous border. His column of about nine thousand soldiers set out on February 3.

Meanwhile, outside Tuyen Quang, the Yunnanese sappers devoted their labors to the citadel’s southwest wall, once protected by flanking fire from the blockhouse. Mines were run up right against the wall, but Bobillot’s small group of engineers dug counter-mines. At one point a group of French sappers unintentionally broke through into a Chinese tunnel, sparking a short firefight in the dark between the two surprised parties. By February 5, Chinese troops had crossed the river and from the east bank began a steady fire that made life uncomfortable in the tirailleurs’ camp and aboard the Mitrailleuse.

On the morning of February 5, the garrison beheld a peculiar sight when a Chinese soldier wearing a mask covered in charms and amulets came close to the citadel walls and planted a flag. The act was certainly a type of ritual designed to weaken the garrison; despite his strategic skills, Liu was prey to almost every form of superstition. A lieutenant and several of his men along the wall used a rope noose attached to a bamboo pole too snag the banner and were pulling it into the citadel when two Chinese soldiers attempted to save the flag, only to be shot dead.

At 5:45 AM on February 12, a thunderous explosion shook the early dawn as a one-hundred-kilogram mine placed by the Yunnanese against the base of the fortress exploded. Thousands of Black Flags poured out of their trenches and rushed toward the breach, but sheets of deadly rifle fire forced the attackers to withdraw. A simultaneous assault on the tirailleurs camp was also driven off.

Another mine explosion followed the next night, this time toppling a section of wall near the west corner of the citadel. Again thousands of Chinese rushed for the opening, and one even managed to plant his flag at the summit of the breach. The legionnaires and tirailleurs poured heavy rifle fire into the opening and dead and wounded attackers began falling into the mine’s crater, making it difficult for those behind to pass through the breach in the wall. The Foreign Legion counter-attacked, and for a time bitter hand-to-hand fighting raged for control of the gap before the Black Flags broke off their assaults. The garrison had repulsed another attack, but there was no time to rest, as new bamboo palisades needed to be built to fill the gaps in the citadel’s defenses.

On the night of February 15, the Chinese again assaulted the fort’s weakened west corner. Sergeant Beulin gathered twenty-five volunteers and drove off the Chinese with a furious bayonet charge in which four legionnaires were killed. Although the garrison managed to beat off successive attacks, the citadel was being demolished bit by bit. To bolster the crumbling fortifications, Dominé assigned forty Legion volunteers to form permanent, rotating work parties under the command of Sergeant Bobillot. On the eighteenth, however, the garrison suffered a critical loss when Bobillot was mortally wounded. In his journal entry for the day, Dominé also noted the loss of three large barrels of wine to shrapnel.

A statue of Sergeant Bobillot was erected in Paris but was melted down by German occupation forces in 1942.

Liu soon resumed his tactic of blowing a breach in the fort’s walls and then launching waves of attackers in an attempt to storm through the opening. On the twenty-second, Captain Cattelin saved his men from destruction by moving them away from the wall they were defending when he heard the screams, gongs and trumpets that preceded a Chinese attack. The subsequent mine explosion breached the wall but resulted in few casualties.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Moulinay, commander of the 1st Company, then moved his legionnaires into the opening to repel the expected attack, but the Chinese had cunningly planted a second mine which detonated and killed Moulinay and a dozen of his men and wounded thirty others. The Chinese then launched their clamorous assault. Tuyen Quang’s defenders were nevertheless able to rally, and with rifle fire and the points of their bayonets turned back the attackers.

The legionnaires and tirailleurs earned only a brief respite. During an assault two days later, a group of Chinese battled their way into the fort and fought off two French counterattacks before Capatin Cattelin arrived with his reserves, driving off the enemy a la baïonnette. By month’s end, the French had only 180 working rifles, and Chinese mines and artillery had reduced more than 10 percent of the citadel’s walls to rubble. The last day of February saw some of the gravest fighting of the siege, with more mine explosions and massed Chinese attacks against the gaping breaches in the French position. But again and again the exhausted garrison was somehow able to muster the energy and firepower to repel the assaults.

During the siege Major Dominé had been trying to summon help for the beleaguered garrison. Vietnamese laborers carrying messages about the command’s desperate plight had been quietly slipping out of the fort and through the enemy’s lines. Against all odds, one of the messengers had returned to the fort on February 25 with news that a three-thousand man column led by General Brière de l’Isle was advancing to the garrison’s relief.

French Marines (colonial infantry) and Algerian tirailleurs (riflemen) take Lang Son. In reality, the decisive battle for Lang Son was fought at nearby Bac Vie in a heavy fog.

The French commander’s northern expedition had routed a Chinese army that had crossed into northern Vietnam from Guangxi province on February 13, and after entering Lang Son unopposed his troops pushed on to the Gates of China, where they blew up the stone entrance to the fortified defile. Brière de l’Isle then received word of the Tuyen Quang garrison’s plight. Leaving General François-Marie-Casimir de Négrier in charge of the bulk of his troops, de l’Isle hurried south at the head of the relief force.

A more realistic depiction of the battle at Bac Vie. The Algerians took heavy losses in the victory.

The Black Flags made his march as difficult as possible. Chinese resistance was especially stiff seven miles south of Tuyen Quang, at Hoa-Moc, where the Black Flags had thrown up earthworks. Arriving there on May 2, the relief column drove out the defenders with concentrated artillery fire and a bayonet charge, though at great cost. In fact, more French troops died in the battle than fell during the entire siege of Tuyen Quang. In total, the relief column suffered some five hundred casualties en route to the fort.

With the Black Flags’ defeat at Hoa-Moc, Liu reluctantly concluded that he must end his siege of Tuyen Quang. Thant night his forces silently retreated northward. The next morning, the cratered corpse-covered fields surrounding the fort and the outlying jungle were eerily silent. A patrol of legionnaires led by Captain de Borelli went out to investigate and discovered that the six miles of Chinese trenches that laced around the fort were apparently deserted. At least one group of Yunnanese regulars, however, had remained behind. When the patrol drew near, one of the Chinese soldiers rose up and fired a shot at de Borelli, whose life was saved by one of his legionnaires who threw himself in front of his captain and was fatally wounded.

De Borelli was so moved by the soldier’s selfless act, as well as by the sacrifice of all his legionnaires who fell at Tuyen Quang, that he later wrote an emotional poem dedicated “To my men who are dead, in particular to the memory of Thiebald Streibler who gave his life for mine, the 3rd of March, 1885, Siege of Tuyen Quang.”

Late that day, the relief column finally arrived at the battered fortress. Although appalled at the sight and stench of hundreds of rotting corpses covering the battlefield, the recently arrived soldiers must have been filled with admiration as the heroic garrison stood at attention and saluted them. Of the original 619 defenders, about fifty were dead and two hundred wounded. Sergeant Bobillot would die of his wounds in a Hanoi hospital on March 18.

General de Négrier, meanwhile, had become aware that the Chinese were building up forces on the other side of the Gates of China, and he launched an offensive across the border that the enemy repulsed. The French fell back on Lang Son, which was soon attacked. When de Négrier was seriously wounded, command fell to Colonel Paul Herbinger, who immediately ordered a retreat to the Red River Delta. In the army’s flight, Herbinger ordered all artillery, equipment and even the regimental funds to be discarded. While the French campaign in Formosa had drained manpower and resources and reached a dead end, the debacle at Lang Son was so poorly received in Paris that Prime Minister Jules Ferry was forced to resign.

With the Chinese again on the offensive, French diplomats hastened to fashion an armistice, which was signed on April 4, 1885. By terms of the agreement (and the following treaty of June 11), the Black Flags and the Chinese army were ordered to return to China in exchange for the French abandoning their designs on the Pescadores Islands and Formosa. Somehow France had turned a string of military defeats into Chinese acknowledgement of French sovereignty over Tonkin. The Vietnamese, who had not been consulted, did not accept the new state of affairs, and their subsequent revolt took the French fifteen years to repress, despite using measures of the utmost brutality.

In the aftermath of the siege of Tuyen Quang the courage of the brave legionnaires who defended the citadel was widely extolled in France (with little mention of the Tirailleurs Tonkinois who had fought with them). But while the defenders’ courage was toasted in the cafés of Paris, the Chinese were also celebrating what they regarded as their victory over the French. Although they failed to take Tuyen Quang, the Chinese had inflicted severe losses on French forces in the spring of 1885. Their efforts were taken as evidence of the ability of Chinese fighters to defeat Europeans in the field.

As historian Douglas Porch has pointed out, however, the strategic significance of Tuyen Quang is unclear. The commitment of large numbers of Black Flags and Chinese regulars to the eventually fruitless siege prevented their more useful deployment elsewhere, such as the Red River Delta, while Brière de l’Isle was occupied in the north. The French debacle at Lang Son undermined any support in Paris for a general war with China and probably helped prevent the enormous loss of life that might have resulted from such a conflict.

Liu Yung-fu and his Black Flags later went on to fight bravely but vainly against superior Japanese forces on Formosa. He finished his career chasing bandits in Kwangtu Province and died in 1917 as a hero of Chinese resistance to colonialism.

Captain de Borelli’s poem extolling the virtues of the self-sacrificing foreign soldiers of the Legion who had died for France was poorly received by the upper echelons of the military, and he received no further promotions in a long and active service career. The captain left behind two additional legacies of his service in Tonkin: a pair of black banners seized during the siege of Tuyen Quang, which he donated to the Foreign Legion’s shrine at Sidi Bel Abbès, Algeria, with the condition that they be destroyed if the legion ever left Africa. In accordance with his wishes, the flags were burned in a ceremony in 1962 before the French pulled out of the country, their last major colonial stronghold.

Mummies and Mullahs: Islamic Separatism in China’s ‘New Frontier’

Andrew McGregor

Canadian Institute for International Affairs, Summer 1999

Confronted by separatist movements on several frontiers, the Chinese government watched with alarm NATO’s unsanctioned intervention in Yugoslavia. They needn’t have worried. There is little expectation of foreign support in Xinjiang, but the deeply divided Uyghur nationalists are determined to continue their struggle for autonomy.

The NATO air assault on Yugoslavia in support of the minority Kosovars has distressed the Chinese government which is trying to deal quietly with several minority movements of its own. Somewhere between the high-profile Tibetan independence movement and the virtually unknown separatists of Inner Mongolia is the Uyghur independence movement. The non-Chinese Turkic Uyghur people want independence for their traditional homeland of Xinjiang (or “Eastern Turkestan”), a mineral and petroleum-rich province in the northwest that covers one-sixth of China’s territory. Ever since Turkic Muslims displaced central Asia’s Indo-Buddhist civilization in the 11th and 12th centuries AD, Xinjiang has remained culturally Islamic.


Lying at the heart of central Asia, Xinjiang acts as a bridge for the extension of Chinese trade and economic influence, while it also serves as a security buffer between the Chinese and their Turkic and Persian Muslim neighbors. Some of the world’s most formidable mountain ranges surround the northern Zungharia region of northern Xinjiang, while the southern Tarim Basin contains the forbidding Taklamakan desert. Most Uyghur settlement is in the oases on the fringe of the desert, but there are also two small but economically depressed areas, the Ili Valley and the Turfan depression. The harsh terrain means that many regions exist in relative isolation and often possess different histories.

The modern use of “Uyghur” to designate the main group of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang began only in 1924, when Soviet ethnologists used it to describe Turkic Muslim residents of the Soviet Union whose roots were in China. The term came into wide use after 1949, but many nationalists now prefer the old name of “Eastern Turkestan.” Whatever the designation, it should not be used to disguise the very real differences among the oases of the Tarim Basin or to imply a cultural and social unity that does not exist. Poor communications among Xinjiang’s population centers has meant that most oases historically look beyond the province for trade and cultural interaction. After the communist takeover in 1949, however, the city of Urumqi became a transportation hub for the rail exports of goods to eastern China. The province was also opened up to settlement by the majority Han Chinese.


Since 1949, Xinjiang has suffered almost continuously from ethnic division and a low-level insurrection that seems to be waiting for an opportune moment to blow wide open. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been vigilant in suppressing religious and political dissent, but the almost endless rounds of protests, mass arrests and executions have served only to keep the political pressure at boiling point. Since the early 1990s numerous small opposition groups have adopted violence in pursuit of independence. Assassinations, bombings and train derailments now accompany the more common street riots, demonstrations and attacks on ethnic Han Chinese.

In 1999, violence has become increasingly frequent, particularly in the separatist stronghold of the Ili Valley. In February, two leading Muslim separatists were executed in Yining City, while 1,000 crack troops were rushed in to dissuade retaliation. Because foreign correspondents and human rights organizations are generally barred from Xinjiang, the potentially explosive situation has an unusually low profile internationally. The absence of a high-profile spokesman (such as Tibet’s Dalai Lama) or a government in exile does not help, nor does the presence of a divided Uyghur opposition often consumed by personal feuds or such petty differences as what to call an independent Xinjiang. Some promote a “Greater Uyghurstan,” incorporating Xinjiang with parts of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Such dreams are not only unrealistic, they tend to ensure an unreceptive attitude among the central Asian states. The Islamic and pan-Turkic nature of the Uyghur separatist movement makes it generally unappealing to the Western social activists who have turned Tibet and even East Timor into international causes.

From Silk Road to Cultural Revolution

Xinjiang’s early history is revealed in the ruined cities of the famous Silk Road that ran through it, the great trading route that connected the Far East to the Middle East and beyond to Europe. There is ample evidence of Manichean, Buddhist and Nestorian Christian beliefs before the arrival of Islam. The province became part of the Chinese empire when Emperor Chen Lung defeated the ruling Zungarian Mongols in 1759. An independent Muslim khanate followed several minor revolts, and real Chinese authority came only with an invasion by the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1876. Resistance to Chinese rule continued under the republican government, with a short-lived Turkish-Islamic Republic of East Turkestan established around Kashgar. Massacres of Chinese, Hindus and Christian missionaries followed, until the nation was destroyed by the Soviet Union in 1934 at China’s invitation. During the republican period, ethnic-Chinese Muslims (Hui) enjoyed great power in Xinjiang as soldiers and administrators. Rebellions began to take on an anti-Hui character, especially after the republican leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, argued that all minorities were branches of the Han family.

Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims took advantage of the turmoil of the Second World War to found the East Turkestan Republic (ETR), which lasted from 1944 to 1949. Having grown out of the Uyghur and Kazakh “Ili Rebellion,” the ETR government was multi-ethnic. At the time, Mao Zedong was promoting autonomous rule for Chinese minorities to win support for the CCP. After most of the ETR leadership died in a mysterious plane crash en route to negotiations with the CCP in Beijing, Xinjiang was reoccupied and brought under communist control as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. [1] Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was a devastating period for the Turkic population as mosques were closed, books were burned, hard labor camps created and religious leaders arrested. More than 100,000 Uyghurs and Kazakhs escaped to the Soviet Union; others fled to Turkey, Germany, Taiwan, India, Afghanistan and Australia. A more lenient religious and cultural policy in the 1980s only encouraged the growth of nationalism.

The Mummies of the Tarim Basin

As in other ancient but disputed territories, archaeology has found itself at the center of territorial claims. In 1979, Chinese archaeologists began uncovering large numbers of well-preserved Caucasian “mummies” in Xinjiang Province, all of which appear to have belonged to an advanced Indo-European culture. A number of Uyghur nationalists, led by Turghan Almas, an officially banned historian, identify the mummies with the ancient culture of the Tarim Basin, as preserved in Uyghur folklore. The carbon-dated remains have been used to substantiate Uyghur nationalist claims that, not only were their ancestors the ancient inhabitants of Xinjiang, but their civilization was substantially older than that of the Han Chinese. The ancient Uyghur culture, language and script have always held the highest reverence in the Turkic nations across Asia as the earliest manifestations of Turkic civilization.

China’s Other Muslims

China has at least 20 million Muslims organized into at least ten ethnic groups. [2] Of these, only the Uyghur and the Hui are significant in terms of numbers. (The Chinese always distinguish between the Hui or “common Muslims” and the Turkic or “turbaned Muslims”). The approximately 9 million Hui – Han Chinese converts to Islam – are found throughout China, but particularly in Gansu and Ningxia provinces. Historically, many Hui in Xinjiang have been soldiers, administrators and even warlords, but they command little respect from the Uyghurs. Though the Hui and the Uyghurs are unlikely to make common cause, the Hui have also proven turbulent subjects at times; serious disturbances erupted in 1992-93 in Ningxia province when local government officials attempted to interfere with the Khufiya Sufi order.

The vast majority of Muslims in China are orthodox Sunnis (the mainstream of Islamic thought). Because Sunni Sufi orders pursue a mystical path of worship, they are seen as potential breeding-grounds for Islamic extremism. They flourish nonetheless in Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai, as well as in Xinjiang. Similar orders helped keep Islam alive during the communist occupation of the Muslim states of the Caucasus and central Asia.

Hui Muslim Girls

The Islamic Opposition

CCP efforts to restrain Islamic practice by closing mosques and Islamic schools create an opening for more extreme forms of Islam to penetrate the rather moderate Sunni-style Islam of the Uyghurs. Chinese attempts to control Muslim clerics are unpopular; in March 1996 a pro-government religious leader was assassinated in Xinjiang.

The Uyghur nationalist opposition is deeply divided. At least 20 distinct groups (mostly exiles from the Uyghur diaspora [3]) range from “letterhead” organizations to guerrilla groups running terrorist/low-level insurgency operations. The most prominent and credible of the exiled leaders is Erkin Alptekin, son of the former secretary-general of the ETR. He is the current chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), formed in 1989. [4] His father, the late Isa Yusuf Alptekin, joined with Tibet’s Dalai Lama in 1985 to found the Allied Committee of the Peoples of East Turkestan Tibet and Inner Mongolia, a group which organizes demonstrations and conferences to publicize alleged Chinese human rights violations. The movement, which favors dialogue over violence, is frustrated by Chinese refusals to talk with any “splittist” organization.

Attempts to build a cohesive nationalist consensus among Xinjiang Uyghurs have also been frustrated by what Justin Rudelson, a central Asian scholar, has called “oasis chauvinism.” Uyghur identity tends to be closely tied to the oasis of origin, be it Kashgar, Yarkand, Karghalik or Turpan. Each nationalist “attempts to create a nationalist ideology which places his own oasis at the forefront of Uyghur history in order to facilitate the acceptance of a national identity at the oasis level.” [5]

New States, New Policies

The collapse of the Soviet Union introduced five new central Asian states to the world community – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. All were Turkic-Muslim in character, save Tajikistan, where the majority language and culture has Persian roots. Though the Uyghurs are the last significant Muslim group under communist rule, they have received little encouragement from their central Asian cousins. Aside from Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, the current central Asian leaders are all former members of the Soviet communist elite and are unlikely to support any activity that could threaten their positions. Pan-Turkic nationalism and Islamic sentiment played no role in the independence of these states, which were virtually cast off by a re-organizing Russia. Continued Russian influence, particularly in security matters, is another factor in discouraging activities which might threaten Russian-Chinese relations in what both nations would concede is a historically sensitive area. The damage to Islamic life and tradition over 70 years of communist rule in the ex-Soviet central Asian states makes a home-grown Islamic movement of any strength in the area (other than Tajikistan) unlikely in the near future.

Uzbekistan, the largest central Asian state, is the most fervently anti-Islamist. According to President Islam Karimov: “Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I’ll shoot them myself.” [6] In 1996, China used its economic power to pressure Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan into signing the Shanghai Accords, essentially an agreement to repress Uyghur separatists and other Islamic movements in any of the signatory countries. Karimov claims that recent bombings in which 16 people were killed in Tashkent were the work of Uzbek Islamists trained in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan has long-standing border ties with Kyrgyz communities in Xinjiang and with Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan. In 1990, the Chinese subdued what they described as a “counter-revolutionary rebellion” led by Kyrgyz preparing for a jihad against Han Chinese, [7] and in 1998 a number of Uyghurs were arrested in Kyrgyzstan for “Wahhabist” activities. Because Kyrgyzstan is worried about the state of its relations with China, Uyghur exiles have been warned not to use it as a base for separatist activities. Like the other new states of central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is concerned about maintaining relations with China now that it can no longer count on Moscow’s might in support of decisions affecting cross-border ethnic ties.

With a population of 300,000 Uyghurs, Kazakhstan is most sensitive to potential difficulties with Beijing. Many of the urban “Russified” Kazakhs look to their Uyghur relatives in Xinjiang for authentic Turkic culture. After Kazakhstan signed a border agreement with China in 1994, the offices of several Uyghur nationalist groups in the capital of Almaty were closed. In 1998, Kazakhstan extradited two Uyghur mullah-s (Islamic teachers) and their families who had fled from Xinjiang. Chinese-Kazakh trade totals more than that of Turkey with all of central Asia, and the Kazakhs are currently engaged in joint ventures with the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) to develop Kazakhstan’s extensive energy reserves. Nonetheless, Kazakhstan has been a source of concern to China since it hosted military manoeuvres involving American troops as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. Because the Kazakh government also fears Islamist movements, it formed an alliance with Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan against “Wahhabist extremism.”

Although China would find it difficult to project its military power westwards into central Asia to suppress any cross-border support for a Uyghur insurrection, it may count for the moment on central Asia’s leaders to do the work for it.

Islamic Extremism?

The post-communist governments of central Asia are alarmed by any sign of “Wahhabist” activities, a reference to Islamist activists who take their inspiration from Wahhabism, a highly conservative religious revival movement founded in Arabia in the mid-18th century by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. The puritan movement became closely tied to the al-Sa’ud family, who eventually conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula. The Wahhabists (who prefer to be called Muwahhidun or Unitarians) reject any Islamic trend that interfered with the direct contemplation and worship of God. Wahhabist control of the holy cities of Saudi Arabia allows the movement to spread its influence amongst Islamic pilgrims, including those from Xinjian and central Asia. The use of jihad to establish an Islamic state is central to Wahhabist doctrine. The degree of Wahhabist influence in central Asia is difficult to gauge, as the term is often used by various governments to describe any militant Islamist group so as to justify extreme measures against them. China rarely uses the term in official declarations, probably in deference to Saudi Arabia, with whom China needs to maintain good relations because of its energy needs.

Terrorism, often described as the weapon of the powerless, has erupted in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China – allegedly the work of Uyghur nationalists. In 1997, there were bus bombings in Urumqi and Beijing. The latter was especially embarrassing to the Chinese government because it coincided with the funeral of Deng Xiaoping. The Organization for Turkestan Freedom, which has its headquarters in Istanbul, claimed responsibility for the bombings, which came only a day after punishments for terrorism were increased and new charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “taking advantage of religious problems to instigate the splitting of the state” were added to the criminal code.

Many Uyghurs were arrested and executed, but a statement from the UNPO questioned Uyghur participation: “We now believe that the Chinese authorities or some elements within the government may have set off the devices… to discredit the Turkic peoples of East Turkestan, and to create a pretext for even more severe repression in our region.” [8] The accusation is unlikely; the bombings brought world media attention to Xinjiang’s problems, and what the CCP fears more than anything is internationalizing the issue.

Language and Demographic Issues

At the core of Beijing’s attempts to pacify Xinjiang is a campaign to create a major demographic change in the ethnic proportions of the province’s population. When the CCP took control of Eastern Turkestan in 1949, Han Chinese [9] made up only five per cent of the population. With 300,000 arriving every year, the Han Chinese are now as numerous as the Uyghur, and there are plans to being many more settlers. A more liberal reproductive policy which allows two children per couple rather than one as in the rest of China encourages Han resettlement in Xinjiang. There are also plans to accommodate many of the up to two million people who will be displaced if the Three Gorges dam project proceeds.

Language is a major barrier between Muslims and Han Chinese, who live highly segregated lives in Xinjiang. While some Uyghurs may learn Chinese to facilitate trade, it is almost unheard of for Chinese to learn Uyghur or any other Turkic language. Most education in the province is in Chinese. The few Uyghurs who attain higher education can expect little in the way of employment opportunities; most of the preferred jobs are reserved for ethnic Chinese. Those works on Uyghur history and culture that are written in Chinese are all dedicated to proving the historical unity of the Uyghur and Chinese races. CCP intervention in Uyghur language issues has proved disastrous. The traditional Arabo/Persian script used for Uyghur was for twenty years replaced by the Pinyin Latin script before a reversal of CCP policy rendered a generation of Uyghurs illiterate in their own language.

Administrative Mechanisms

In the 1950s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began an experiment with a “Production and Construction Corps,” a paramilitary force responsible for border defence and internal security, along with normal duties in agriculture and construction. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) is the only one still active. Run independently of the regional government, the XPCC has considerable autonomy and legal jurisdiction through its own police, courts and prisons and is a constant irritation to the Uyghurs. It diverts most of the available water for its irrigation schemes and pollutes the remainder with industrial waste. Land annexation is common and Uyghur farmers are often forced into agricultural “regiments” of the XPCC. As part of its internal security responsibilities, the XPCC rather than the PLA increasingly responds to riots and other disturbances. XPCC units were a major part of the 1996 “strike hard” campaign against “ethnic splittists” (the CCP term for minority separatists), carrying out mass arrests after meeting armed Uyghur resistance.

Communist Demolition of Mosques in Xinjiang (VOA)

China maintains an extensive network of prison camps in Xinjiang which receive thousands of criminals each year from all over China. After completing their sentences, the convicts are forbidden to leave the province, but are welcome to send for their families. Many Uyghurs blame rising crime rates on the presence of the hard-labor camps. In 1996, a leading Chinese dissident, Harry Wu, and Erkin Alptekin testified before a US senate subcommittee that the XPCC was using World Bank funds to build penal colonies.

Nuclear Testing and Petroleum Extraction

Another volatile issue is the ongoing programme of nuclear testing in the Taklamakan Desert. Protests against testing began in Xinjiang in 1985, and Uyghur émigré associations claim over 200,000 people have died from nuclear fallout. Illnesses and birth defects like those experienced by the victims of Soviet nuclear tests in neighboring Kazakhstan have been reported. While the Kazakhs are now receiving direct UN aid, the Uyghurs are still awaiting an investigation.

Chinese Oil Operations in the Tarim Basin (Upstream Online)

China’s determination to open up the oil resources of Xinjiang comes at a time when the nation has become a net importer of oil, but the reserves in the Tarim Basin are extremely difficult to tap. Though the experience of Western-based oil consortiums is essential, poor concessions and exorbitant fees have discouraged several companies. Worst of all is the lack of discoveries to support China’s estimates of 80 to 180 billion barrels of oil in the Tarim Basin. As estimates fall sharply, the attention of world oil companies has moved on.

International Implications

With its sovereignty challenged in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Taiwan, China is clearly alarmed by NATO’s unsanctioned military support of an internal rebellion in a sovereign nation, Yugoslavia. American strategic and economic interest in Kosovo is negligible; Taiwan, however, is another matter, and China fears a resumption of the pre-détente US/Taiwan military relationship. Chinese premier Zhu Rongji has even warned of the possibility of world war if the principle of non-intervention is not carefully observed in international law and conflict. [10]

The problem of Tibetan independence was raised repeatedly during Zhu’s visit to Canada in April 1999, but the lower profile problem of Uyghur separatism was not. Despite the continuing violence in Xinjiang, and to a lesser extent in Tibet, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien supported Zhu’s assertion that China’s minority difficulties were an internal affair: “There are no murders. We don’t have the rapes that we’re seeing right now in Kosovo. Those are two completely different positions. One is political, the other one is extremely violent.” [11]

With Chinese-American relations already strained over several issues, there is little political interest in Washington in inflaming relations by supporting Islamic minority rights in China. Closer to home, China maintains close ties with Pakistan and Iran, largely designed to counter the spread of radical Islamic movements from those countries. Pakistan has often been cited by the Chinese as the source of weapons for Xinjiang’s most militant nationalists, and they did not hesitate to ask Pakistan to crack down on a Muslim group suspected of smuggling arms to the Uyghurs. The Arab nations of the Middle East also want to maintain good relations with China, a major regional arms supplier.


With no expectation of substantial assistance or recognition from foreign sources, the Uyghur separatists have limited options; an extended terrorism campaign (which may get some international press but is unlikely to gain international support), a negotiated settlement (unlikely, as China refuses to talk to “splittists”), or an all-out revolt, as in Chechnya. Unlike the Chechens, the Uyghurs have little military experience to draw upon, while the PLA would have almost unlimited resources and manpower at its disposal from a strongly centralized state facing no major opposition.

China would be most reluctant to relinquish control of Xinjiang, which it needs for its energy resources, as a base for China’s still active nuclear weapons programme, as a security buffer to central Asia, and as a destination for China’s ongoing population resettlement. Most importantly, Xinjiang’s separatist movement does not exist in a political vacuum. Any sign of weakness on Beijing’s part could be interpreted as a sign for Tibet and Inner Mongolia to set up their own independence campaigns and cause serious problems for China’s effort to reunite Taiwan into the mainland fold. As in many post-communist states in Europe and Asia, nationalism and economic reforms have been used to keep multiethnic states together. The Uyghurs themselves have suggested that Beijing has deliberately exaggerated the militancy of the Uyghur nationalist movement in order to create an “internal enemy” around which the CCP can build strong nationalist sentiments amongst the Han Chinese at a time when economic and external pressures threaten the solidarity of the Chinese union. An emphasis on the threat of Islamic “fundamentalism” also serves to keep most Western governments at bay.

Some Uyghurs believe that only the collapse of the People’s Republic would create an opportunity for East Turkestan to secede, but others have become desperate in their belief that every new trainload of settlers makes independence a little more remote. Knowing that time is against them, it is clear that any serious drive for independence must be made sooner rather than later. Addressing their lack of international support, Ahmedjan Qari, a leading Uyghur nationalist exile, has warned that “The world doesn’t think we will die like in Afghanistan, like in Yugoslavia. We can. We will die in droves.” [12]


  1. There are five “autonomous regions” in China – Tibet, Mongolia, Ningxia, Guangxi and Xinjiang – which in practise often enjoy less autonomy than their non-autonomous neighbors.
  2. There are five Turkic Muslim groups in Xinjiang: Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tatars. There are also the Persian-speaking Tajiks and, in the region bordering Gansu and Qinghai provinces, the Salars (who speak a Uyghur dialect) and the Bao’an and Dongxiang, who both speak an archaic Mongolian language. The Hui, ethnic Chinese with a long Muslim tradition, are the tenth group. The language used by the Hui is Chinese, peppered with Arabic and Persian loan-words.
  3. There are Uyghur communities and exile organizations in Istanbul, Ankara, Almaty, Amsterdam, Munich, Melbourne and Washington DC.
  4. “Participation in UNPO is open to all nations and peoples who are inadequately represented as such at the United Nations.” At present, 52 “nations or peoples” have declared adherence to UNPO’s five principles.
  5. Justin Jon Rudelson: “The Xinjiang mummies and foreign angels: Art, archaeology and Uyghur Muslim nationalism in Chinese Central Asia,” in M. Gervers and W. Schlepp (eds.), Cultural Contact, History and Ethnicity in Inner Asia, Joint Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies, Toronto, 1996, p. 173.
  6. See: “Republic of Uzbekistan: Crackdown in the Farghana Valley: Arbitrary arrests and religious discrimination,” Human Rights Watch 10(4D), May 1998.
  7. Lillian Craig Harris: “Xinjiang, central Asia, and the implications for China’s policy in the Islamic world,” China Quarterly no. 133, March 1993, pp. 117-18. Jihad is a complex concept that involves a militancy on behalf of Islam that can take many forms based on interpretations of the Koran and the hadith-s (sayings of the Prophet). In general, the “greater jihad” is the struggle against the evil within oneself, while the “lesser jihad” is the effort to bring Dar al-Harb (areas outside of Islam) within Dar al-Islam (the “House of Islam”).
  8. UNPO, “Bombings will be used as pretext for severe repression in East Turkestan,” May 27, 1999.
  9. While there are no less than 70 million belonging to ethnic minorities in China, the Han Chinese still comprise about 94% of the population. “Han” is a cultural rather than a racial designation in that its use disguises the significant linguistic and physical differences that exist across China. The CCP has encouraged the use of the term to foster national unity.
  10. Miro Cernetig: “Chinese leader warns of global war,” Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 3, 1999.
  11. Heather Scoffield: “PM and China’s Zhu take heat on rights,” Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 17, 1999.
  12. Quoted in Tony Walker and Charles Clover: “Bombs rock China’s far west: Islamic militants put Uighur nationalism on the map with terrorist blasts,” Financial Times, London, February 27, 1999.

This article first appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Behind the Headlines: Canada’s International Affairs Magazine, Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Toronto.