The Unknown Uighur Minority

By Liv Phillips

Catlin Gabel School, Catlin Speak

Uighur activist Ilham Tohti was recently sentenced to life in jail for separatism in the Chinese state of Xinjiang.The Muslim Uighur Chinese minority located in the western province of Xinjiang have faced mounting persecution by the Chinese state, which has lead to one of the leading Uighur activists to be jailed.

Ilham Tohti is widely considered as the leading activist for the Uighur minority. His high-profile case has allowed for more coverage of the Uighur minority in China and across the world.

Amnesty International called Tohti’s sentence deplorable. Tohti had worked on bridging the gaps between the Han Chinese and the Uighur population while also advocating for more rights for the Uighur minority.

The ethnic Uighur minority resides in the Xingjian province of China. The province borders Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and is much different ethnically and culturally from eastern and western China. The Uighurs speak a Turkic language, which is distinctly different than Chinese.  The Uighurs are predominantly Muslim and share more cultural connections with the Middle East. The region of Xinjiang consists of over ten million Muslims.

The Uighur minority has become the scapegoat of the Chinese state. China has recently ramped up anti-terrorism tactics and banned many expressions of religious freedom. Recently in the province of Xinjiang, China banned headscarves and beards on public buses. Uighur officials serving in Xinjiang were also banned from fasting during the religious holiday of Ramadan.

On Sept. 26, a terrorist attack riveted the province of Xingjian. According to the New York Post, 50 people were killed, which included 40 of the assailants.

The authorities in Xinjiang are slowly beginning to mimic the KGB, as, according to the prestigious journal, Foreign Policy, authorities will have a coffer of 50 million dollars in rewards for people who provide information regarding terrorists.

According to the Guardian, authorities in Xinjiang also announced a yearlong campaign to combat Uighur extremists. In the first month of this policy, according to the Guardian, 380 people were arrested and 13 people were executed.

Tohti worked on advocating for Uighur minorities’ rights. According to Amnesty International, Tohti was a critic of Chinese policy in Xinjiang. He also wrote many periodicals about the subject and started the website Uighur Online. He was a peaceful activist wanting more autonomy for an oppressed minority. Tohti wanted peace instead of violence.

According to the Uyghur American Society, the province of Xinjiang should not be part of China and should instead be the country East Turkistan. Just like Tibet, the Uighurs want more autonomy and independence, but their coverage in the news has been minor.

Information coming out of Xinjiang is very minimal and heavily biased towards the state. In an article written in Dissent Magazine, Nick Holdstodt writes how the Uighurs are portrayed in Western media as a “conflict between a beleaguered minority and an ethnic-majority state, and the association between Islam and “terrorism” that has been especially prevalent since 9/11.”

East Turkistan was invaded by the Chinese in 1876 and was formally annexed in 1884, according to the Uyghur American Society. Recently the Uighurs have been fighting for more autonomy, leading to retaliatory violence and oppression by the Chinese state.

According to Peter Hessler, in his book “Oracle Bones,” the Chinese government in 2001 urged the United Nations to label the Uighurs as a terrorist group. China has also been trying to paint the Uighurs as a part of the Taliban.

Tensions continue to brew in the province of Xinjiang. The Uighurs will continue to face persecution.

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

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