East Turkestan independence movement
Uyghur name
Uyghurشەرقىي تۈركىستان مۇستەقىللىق ھەرىكىتى
Chinese name
Simplified Chinese东突厥斯坦独立运动
Traditional Chinese東突厥斯坦獨立運動
The Kökbayraq is a symbol of the East Turkestan independence movement.
This emblem, featuring the basmalah-stylized tughra (calligraphic monogram), is sometimes used alongside the flag above.

The East Turkestan independence movement is a political movement that seeks the independence of East Turkestan, a large and sparsely-populated region in northwest China, as a nation state for the Uyghur people. The region is currently administered by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Within the movement, there is widespread support for the region to be renamed, since "Xinjiang" (meaning "new territory" in Chinese) is seen by independence activists as a colonial name. "East Turkestan" is the best-known proposed name as it is the historical geographic name of the region and the name of the two independent states that briefly existed in the region in the first half of the 20th century.

Large parts of Xinjiang were under intermittent influence of the Chinese, since roughly 2,000 years ago during the Han dynasty. In 101 BC, during the Han dynasty the far eastern parts of the region was settled by the Chinese military garrisons, and outposts such as canton points were established, where each point became the initial distribution area for the Han military garrisons after entering the region.[citation needed] After the establishment of the Protectorate of the Western Regions in 60 BCE, Han settlers entered the Tarim Basin.[1][2] The Tang dynasty also influenced the Western Regions until Chinese influence was lost in the 8th century, and direct control of the region would not resume until the Qing dynasty a thousand years later.

In the 18th century, Uyghurs rebelled against the ruling Dzungar Khanate. The Manchu Qing dynasty took control of the region in 1756 during the Dzungar–Qing Wars and established Xinjiang as an administrative region in 1759. Xinjiang was subsequently inherited by the Republic of China (ROC), which succeeded the Qing dynasty after the 1911 Revolution, and then by the PRC, which mostly succeeded the ROC after the Chinese Communist Revolution (1949), although Taiwan has remained under ROC rule until the present day. Throughout Qing and ROC rule, there were several periods of brief de facto independence for either the entire region of Xinjiang or parts of it, as well as foreign occupation and warlord governance. The PRC incorporation of Xinjiang occurred soon after the PRC was established in 1949, and since then, Xinjiang has remained part of China. Historically, the region had various independent states, mostly nomadic hordes, prior to the 1750s. Xinjiang has been a hotbed of ethnic and religious conflict throughout much of the period that it has been governed by successive Chinese regimes.

The Chinese government considers all support for the East Turkestan independence movement to fall under the definitions of "terrorism, extremism, and separatism" (a.k.a. the "Three Evils").[3][4] The East Turkestan independence movement is supported by both militant Islamic extremist groups which have been designated terrorist organizations by several countries and the United Nations, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party,[5][6][7][8][9] as well as certain advocacy groups, such as the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement and the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile, which is based in Washington, D.C., and denounced militant and jihadist groups.[10]

Proposed name

Main article: East Turkestan

The most common name for Xinjiang used by independence advocates is "East Turkestan" (or "Uyghurstan"). There is no consensus among secessionists about whether to use "East Turkestan" or "Uyghurstan";[11] "East Turkestan" has the advantage of also being the name of two historical political entities in the region, while Uyghurstan appeals to modern ideas of ethnic self-determination. Uyghurstan is also a difference in emphasis in that it excludes more peoples in Xinjiang than just the Han,[12] but the "East Turkestan" movement[13] is still a Uyghur phenomenon. The name "East Turkestan" is not currently used in an official sense by most sovereign states and intergovernmental organizations. Another proposed alternative is "Yarkand" or "Yarkent," which harkens back to the Yarkent Khanate, a powerful Uyghur state in the 16th and 17th centuries.[citation needed]


See also: Migration to Xinjiang, Turkic settlement of the Tarim Basin, Xinjiang under Qing rule, and Islam during the Qing dynasty

Yaqub Beg establishment of Kashgaria

See also: Dungan Revolt (1862–1877)

The Kokandi Yaqub Beg invaded Kashgar during the Dungan revolt to establish an independent state after taking advantage of local rebellions.

Also, during the Dungan revolt, the Taranchi Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang initially cooperated with the Dungans (Chinese Muslims) when they rose in revolt, but turned on them, because the Dungans, mindful of their Chinese heritage, attempted to subject the entire region to their rule. The Taranchi massacred the Dungans at Kuldja and drove the rest through the Talk pass into the Ili valley.[14]

Within the Republic of China (1912–1949)

The Second East Turkestan Republic was a short-lived Soviet-backed unrecognized republic in northern Xinjiang.

After the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the region became largely free of the control of the government of Republic of China (ROC). An early attempt at East Turkestan independence was the establishment of the short-lived "First East Turkestan Republic" (aka "Turkish Islamic Republic of East Turkestan"), which lasted between 1933 and 1934. This republic was formed following a rebellion in Kashgar against the ROC, which had been in the process of asserting control over Kashgar after two decades of Warlordism in the ROC. The Chinese Hui Muslim 36th Division (National Revolutionary Army) suppressed the First East Turkestan Republic following Chinese (ROC) victories at the Battle of Kashgar (1933) and Battle of Kashgar (1934).

During the later years of China under the ROC, which was engaged against the Chinese Communists in the context of the Chinese Civil War, the Soviet Union under leader Joseph Stalin invaded Xinjiang and assisted a local rebellion at Ili (Yining City). The rebellion led to the establishment of the Second East Turkistan Republic (1944–1949), which existed in three northern districts (Ili, Tarbaghatai, Altai) of Xinjiang with secret aid from the Soviet Union. After emerging victorious at the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the People's Liberation Army annexed Xinjiang from the ROC and the Second East Turkestan Republic.

Within the People's Republic of China (1949–present)

Since the Chinese economic reform from the late 1970s exacerbated uneven regional development, while Uyghurs have migrated to urbanizing Xinjiang cities, some Hans have also migrated to Xinjiang for independent economic advancement. Increased ethnic contact and labor competition coincided with Uyghur separatist terrorism from the 1990s, such as the 1997 Ürümqi bus bombings.[15]

A police roundup of suspected separatists during Ramadan resulted in large demonstrations that turned violent in February 1997 in an episode known as the Ghulja Incident that led to at least 9 deaths.[16] The Ürümqi bus bombings of 25 February 1997, perhaps a response to the crackdown that followed the Ghulja Incident, killed 9 and injured 68. Speaking on separatist violence, Erkin Alptekin, a former East Turkestan National Congress chairman and prominent Uyghur activist, said: "We must emphasize dialog and warn our youth against the use of violence because it delegitimizes our movement".[17]

Recent events

See also: Xinjiang conflict and Xinjiang internment camps

Despite much talk of separatism and terrorism in Xinjiang, especially after the 9-11 attacks in the United States and the US invasion of Afghanistan, the situation in Xinjiang was quiet from around 1998 to mid-2006. In 2005, Uyghur author Nurmemet Yasin was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment for inciting separatism following his publication of an allegorical short story, "The Blue Pigeon".[18] Rebiya Kadeer claimed that Turkey is hampered from interfering with the Uyghurs because it recognizes that the Kurdish-Turkish conflict may receive interference from China in retaliation.[19]

Views on independence

Arguments in favor of independence

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Several proponents of independence state that the Uyghurs have had a defined history in Xinjiang for "over 4000 years".[20] There are historical arguments for the independence of Xinjiang, such as the argument that the People's Republic of China is a colonial occupier of Xinjiang, rather than it naturally being an integral part of the sovereign state which traditionally includes Xinjiang. Evidence for this argument usually consists of claims that the PRC is not the legitimate successor state to either the ROC (now based in Taiwan) or the previous imperial dynasty of China, which is the Qing dynasty, or that previous regimes were also illegitimate.[21]

Arguments against independence

The Government of China is strongly opposed to the idea of Xinjiang (East Turkestan) independence and its supporters are subject to harsh criminal penalties. China officially claims that Xinjiang has been part of China since the Han dynasty of China (220 BC – AD 206) established a Protectorate of the Western Regions in 60 BC.[22] Historically, various Chinese governments have described invasions of Xinjiang as a sort of "reconquest" of previously lost territories ever since the Han and Tang dynasties.

Some Uyghur nationalist historians such as Turghun Almas claim that Uyghurs were distinct and independent from Chinese for 6000 years, and that all other ethnic groups are later immigrants to Xinjiang.[23] Records show that military colonies (tuntian) and commanderies (duhufu) were set up by the Han dynasty to control Xinjiang, while the Tang dynasty (618–907) also controlled much of Xinjiang until the An Lushan rebellion.[24] Chinese historians refute Uyghur nationalist claims by pointing out the 2000-year history of Han settlement in Xinjiang, documenting the history of Mongol, Kazakh, Uzbek, Manchu, Hui, Xibo indigenes in Xinjiang, and by emphasizing the relatively late "westward migration" of the Huigu (equated with "Uyghur" by the PRC government) people from Mongolia the 9th century.[23] The name "Uyghur" was associated with a Buddhist people in the Tarim Basin in the 9th century, but completely disappeared by the 15th century, until it was revived by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.[25]

Chinese government view

Further information: Five Poisons

The government of the People's Republic of China considers all support for the East Turkestan independence movement to fall under the definitions of "terrorism, extremism, and separatism".[3][4]

In a 2014 speech, CCP general secretary Xi Jinping argued that the dissolution of the Soviet Union demonstrated that economic development alone would not prevent separatism in Xinjiang. He elaborated “In recent years, Xinjiang has grown very quickly and the standard of living has consistently risen, but even so, ethnic separatism and terrorist violence have still been on the rise. This goes to show that economic development does not automatically bring lasting order and security.”[26]

In 2020, the Chinese government published a White Paper on Employment and Labor Rights in Xinjiang, which had been circulated via Xinhua, the Global Times and other public news channels. In this paper, the Chinese Communist Party and government maintain the view that its policies in Xinjiang are directed to realize the (constitutional) mandate to provide employment and the facilitation of employment as the most fundamental project for ensuring and improving people's wellbeing.[27]

Right to self-determination

While the earliest ROC constitutional documents during the Beiyang era already claim Xinjiang as part of China, Chinese political leaders also acknowledged the principle of self-determination. For example, at a party conference in 1924, Kuomintang leader Sun Yat-sen issued a statement calling for the right of self-determination of all Chinese ethnic groups: "The Kuomintang can state with solemnity that it recognizes the right of self-determination of all national minorities in China and it will organize a free and united Chinese republic."[28]

In 1931, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had issued a constitution for the short-lived Chinese Soviet Republic in Jiangxi which states that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, "may either join the Union of Chinese Soviets or secede from it."[29][30]

In 2022 a number of Taiwanese NGOs came out in support of Uyghur self determination.[31]


In the 1980s and 1990s, numerous Uyghur organisations representing the Uyghur movement in exile formed around the world but were disorganised and disunited.[32][33] Some Uyghur organizations use more moderate methods of human rights advocacy to influence the Chinese government within the international community.[32] Other Uyghur organizations advocate for more radical radical forms of ideological and armed struggle in their push for independence.[32][34]


ETGIE members at Capitol Hill on 14 September 2004

Civil organizations

Militant organizations

Most militant organizations have been labeled terrorist organizations by the PRC, and some other governments as well.

Historical support

Historically, organizations which have supported the East Turkestan independence movement include:

Opposition includes Iran, Palestinian Authority, among others.

Soviet Union

Main articles: Ili Rebellion, Second East Turkestan Republic, and Xinjiang conflict

The Soviet Union supported the Uyghur Second East Turkestan Republic in the Ili Rebellion against the Republic of China. According to her autobiography, Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace with China, Rebiya Kadeer's father served with pro-Soviet Uyghur rebels under the Second East Turkestan Republic in the Ili Rebellion (Three Province Rebellion) in 1944–1946, using Soviet assistance and aid to fight the Republic of China government under Chiang Kai-shek.[41] Kadeer and her family were close friends with White Russian exiles living in Xinjiang and Kadeer recalled that many Uyghurs thought Russian culture was "more advanced" than that of the Uyghurs and they "respected" the Russians a lot.[42]

Many of the Turkic peoples of the Ili region of Xinjiang had close cultural, political, and economic ties with Russia and then the Soviet Union. Many of them were educated in the Soviet Union and a community of Russian settlers lived in the region. As a result, many of the Turkic rebels fled to the Soviet Union and obtained Soviet assistance in creating the Sinkiang Turkic People's Liberation Committee (STPNLC) in 1943 to revolt against Kuomintang rule during the Ili Rebellion.[43] The pro-Soviet Uyghur who later became leader of the revolt and the Second East Turkestan Republic, Ehmetjan Qasim, was Soviet educated and described as "Stalin's man".[44]

The Soviet Union incited separatist activities in Xinjiang through propaganda, encouraging Kazakhs to flee to the Soviet Union and attacking China. China responded by reinforcing the Xinjiang-Soviet border area specifically with Han Bingtuan militia and farmers.[45] The Soviet Union supported Uyghur nationalist propaganda and Uyghur separatist movements against China. The Soviet historians claimed that the Uyghur native land was Xinjiang and Uyghur nationalism was promoted by Soviet versions of history on turcology.[46] The East Turkestan People's Party received support from the Soviet Union.[47][48][49] During the 1970s, the Soviets supported the URFET to fight the Chinese.[50]

See also



  1. ^ Zhao, Huasheng (2016). "Central Asia in Chinese Strategic Thinking". The new great game : China and South and Central Asia in the era of reform. Thomas Fingar. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. p. 171. ISBN 978-0-8047-9764-1. OCLC 939553543.
  2. ^ Millward, James A. (1998). Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759–1864 (illustrated ed.). Stanford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-8047-2933-8. Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  3. ^ a b O'Rourke, Breffni (7 April 2006). "Turkmenistan: President Ends China Visit After Forming Front Against Uyghurs". Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Retrieved 17 May 2024. In a declaration, Turkmen leader Niyazov and Chinese President Hu Jintao pledged their countries will work together to root out what they called the "three evils" -- terrorism, separatism, and extremism. [...] But the primary target of this pledge is clear, in that the only grouping specifically named in the declaration is the "East Turkestan" separatist movement, which seeks independence for China's 19 million Muslim Uyghurs in the western Xinjiang Province.
  4. ^ a b Hasan, Mehdi (15 September 2018). "Has China detained a million Uighur Muslims?". Al Jazeera (This is an interview published by the news channel Al Jazeera on the video-sharing website YouTube. The interview was conducted between the presenter of the show (named Mehdi Hasan), the chairman of the Uyghur Human Rights Project at the time (named Nury Turkel), and the vice president of the Center for China and Globalization at the time (named Victor Gao)). Archived from the original on 28 February 2020. Retrieved 18 June 2019. I know [what] the importance of law is in China. I really hope everyone respects the law. However, in Xinjiang, the major threat we face is terrorism and extremism and separatism, and I think the authorities have the right to ensure that innocent people are not harmed and that extreme versions of religions of all kinds are not penetrating through the population, and then people cannot misuse religion as an excuse to stir up trouble, to destabilize, and to bring the society to a halt. And I think the people are justified to that.
  5. ^ a b "Governance Asia-Pacific Watch". United Nations. April 2007. Archived from the original on 17 July 2007. Retrieved 23 August 2007.
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  11. ^ Bellér-Hann, Ildikó (2008). "Place and People". Community Matters in Xinjiang, 1880–1949: Towards a Historical Anthropology of the Uyghur. Brill. pp. 35–38, 44–45.
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  •  This article incorporates text from Accounts and papers of the House of Commons, a publication from 1871, now in the public domain in the United States.

Further reading

  • Burhan Shahidi, Xinjiang wushi nian [Fifty Years in Xinjiang], (Beijing, Wenshi ziliao, 1984).
  • Clubb, O. E., China and Russia: The 'Great Game'. (NY, Columbia, 1971).
  • Forbes, A. D. W. Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: A Political History of Republic Sinkiang, 1911–1949 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  • Gladney, Dru C. (2013). "Secessionism and Separatism in Europe and Asia: To have a state of one's own". Separatism in China: The case of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Routledge. pp. 220–236.
  • Hasiotis, A. C. Jr. Soviet Political, Economic and Military Involvement in Sinkiang from 1928 to 1949 (NY, Garland, 1987).
  • Hierman, Brent (2007). "The Pacification of Xinjiang: Uighur Protest and the Chinese State, 1988–2002". Problems of Post-Communism 54 (3): 48–62.
  • Khakimbaev A. A., 'Nekotorye Osobennosti Natsional'no-Osvoboditel'nogo Dvizheniya Narodov Sin'tszyana v 30-kh i 40-kh godakh XX veka' [Some Characters of the National-Liberation Movement of the Xinjiang Peoples in 1930s and 1940s], in Materially Mezhdunarodnoi Konferentsii po Problemam Istorii Kitaya v Noveishchee Vremya, Aprel' 1977, Problemy Kitaya (Moscow, 1978) pp. 113–118.
  • Lattimore, O., Pivot of Asia: Sinkiang and the Inner Asian Frontiers of China (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1950).
  • Rakhimov, T. R. 'Mesto Bostochno-Turkestanskoi Respubliki (VTR) v Natsional'no-Osvoboditel'noi Bor'be Narodov Kitaya' [Role of the Eastern Turkestan Republic (ETR) in the National Liberation Struggle of the Peoples in China], A paper presented at 2-ya Nauchnaya Konferentsiya po Problemam Istorii Kitaya v Noveishchee Vremya, (Moscow, 1977), pp. 68–70.
  • Shichor, Yitzhak. (2005). Blow Up: Internal and External Challenges of Uyghur Separatism and Islamic Radicalism to Chinese Rule in Xinjiang. Asian Affairs: An American Review. 32(2), 119–136.
  • Taipov, Z. T., V Bor'be za Svobodu [In the Struggle for Freedom], (Moscow, Glavnaya Redaktsiya Vostochnoi Literaturi Izdatel'stvo Nauka, 1974).
  • Wang, D., 'The Xinjiang Question of the 1940s: the Story behind the Sino-Soviet Treaty of August 1945', Asian Studies Review, vol. 21, no.1 (1997) pp. 83–105.
  • Wang, D., 'The USSR and the Establishment of the Eastern Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang', Journal of Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, vol.25 (1996) pp. 337–378.
  • Yakovlev, A. G., 'K Voprosy o Natsional'no-Osvoboditel'nom Dvizhenii Norodov Sin'tzyana v 1944–1949', [Question on the National Liberation Movement of the Peoples in Xinjiang in 1944–1945], in Uchenie Zapiski Instituta Voctokovedeniia Kitaiskii Spornik vol.xi, (1955) pp. 155–188.
  • Wang, D., Clouds over Tianshan: essays on social disturbance in Xinjiang in the 1940s, Copenhagen, NIAS, 1999
  • Wang, D., Under the Soviet shadow: the Yining Incident: ethnic conflicts and international rivalry in Xinjiang, 1944–1949, Hong Kong, The Chinese University Press, 1999.