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Assessment for Turkmen in China

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Turkmen in China, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 2 February 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
China Facts
Area:    9,596,560 sq. km.
Capital:    Beijing
Total Population:    1,237,000,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Several indicators point to the possibility of continuation of the Uyghur protest and rebellion, including: 1) a territorial concentration 2) several political and militant organizations 3) continuing government repression. Factors that might contain the rebellion include 1) governmental efforts at economic improvement of the region, 2) transnational support for the Chinese government, and 3) the lack of serious armed conflicts in neighboring countries.

Analytic Summary

Among the Turkmen (Turkic minorities including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Tajiks) the Uyghurs are the largest group. Most of them reside in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region (GROUPCON = 3). The Uyghurs (and other Turkmen) are Muslims and speak a distinct language from Madarin Chinese. They first appeared in the Chinese history in the mid-eighth century as part of the East Turkic steppe confederation (TRADITN = 1). Around 744 CE the Uyghurs established a political power known as Karabalgasun, which thrived from the mid-tenth to twelfth century. The Uygurs came under foreign domination by the Tangut state of Xixia, the Karakitai, and the Mongols (the Yuan dynasty), between 1028 and 1036, in 1128 – 1129, and from 1209, respectively. From the 13th century to the mid-18th century the region experienced alternation of political power until the Qing dynasty took control. Xinjiang became a Chinese province in 1881 but maintained relative independence as late as 1912. Rebellions occurred in 1936, 1937 and 1944.

In September 1949, the Communists took over Xinjiang. China maintained a large military presence in the region, in part because of its strategic location on the Soviet border. In 1954, there was an uprising in Hotan. In 1955, Xinjiang became an autonomous province due to its ethnic composition (more than 70% Uyghur). During the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist government encouraged a massive influx of Han Chinese involved in development projects in the region, altering the demographic balance to the point that at present, Uyghurs constitute a bare majority (52%) as compared to Han Chinese (48%).

Turkmen in China have been historically disadvantaged economically (ECDIFXX = 4), with lower average incomes and underrepresentation in commercial activities, professions and official positions. Although the Chinese government has invested heavily in developing regions in which Turkmen reside (ECDIS01-03 = 1), they still lag economically, as admitted in a white paper published by the state news agency. They also have traditionally been underrepresented politically – although Turkmen do hold official positions in the autonomous provinces, they are still tightly controlled by the central government, dominated by Han Chinese. Furthermore, under the pretense of fighting terrorism, the central government has further curtailed political participation by Turkmen (POLDIS01-03 = 4). Since 1996, when ethnic violence broke out in Xinjiang, the government has undertaken a massive campaign of repression. Xinjiang now has the dubious distinction of having the highest average number of executions per month – nearly 2 – in the country. Most of the executions are political in nature. The group also has some restrictions placed on cultural life. While mosques do operate in the country, they are under state control. Some Sufi sects have also faced particular persecution by the government. The state does fund some Uyghur and Arabic (used for religious purposes) language education.

Primary grievances of Turkmen in China are political in nature. Most desire widespread autonomy with a smaller number preferring autonomy. Some of these desire union with kindred groups in Central Asia. They also desire greater participation in the central government, although this grievance seems related to the need to guarantee any autonomy agreement. Economic grievances include greater control of natural resource wealth and greater economic opportunities in general. Finally, Turkmen desire greater cultural, in particular religious, freedoms.

There are numerous Uyghur exile groups in neighboring countries, including Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. China has cooperated with Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in a group called the "Shanghai Five" to monitor Uyghur political activity (under the euphemism "Muslim fundamentalism") in the region. As part of this cooperation, politically active Uyghurs have been deported to China from several Central Asian states.

Turkmen – and in particular Uyghurs – have a history of rebellion against central authority. Rebellions against the central government occurred in 1936, 1937, 1944, and 1954. More recently, violence broke out in the late 1990s (REB96-00 = 2). No incidents have been reported in past few years (REB01-03 = 0), probably due to repression. Protest has been constrained to verbal opposition (PROT01-03 = 1).


Amnesty International. Various reports. 2001-2003.

Information Office of the State Council. White paper on the "History and Development of Xinjiang." 2003.

Keesings Contemporary Archives, 1990-93.

Lexis-Nexis news reports, 1990-2003.

Minorities at Risk, Phase II Chronology and codings by Amy Wong.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: China. 2001-2003.

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