The Untold Story of East Turkistan: A Lost State's Tale

Lost in History: The Legacy of East Turkistan

In 1949, a significant event unfolded that would reshape the course of history for the region of East Turkistan. China, under the leadership of the Communist Party, expanded its influence and took control of this culturally rich and strategically important area. The Chinese government's incorporation policies aimed to overpower the unique cultural practices, language, and religious beliefs of the local population, leading to tensions and resistance. 

It is noted that On May 4, 2020, the Wilson Center shared translated Soviet documents from 1944-1949. These documents showed that the Soviet Union first supported the East Turkistan Republic in 1944, but later aided China in taking it over in 1949. This article explores the geopolitical consequences of China's control over East Turkistan and the ongoing struggle for sovereignty and ethnic safeguarding.

Chinese Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is a vast region in the western part of China with a rich and complex history. Its history is characterized by a diverse range of cultures, peoples, and influences, and it has been a crossroads for various civilizations and trade routes for centuries. Here's a brief overview of the history of Chinese Turkestan:

The Untold Story of East Turkistan: A Lost State's Tale
Image Source: Uighur Protest Anti-China protest outside White House

Ancient History: Xinjiang has a long history dating back to ancient times. It was part of the ancient Silk Road, which helped trade and social exchange between China, Central Asia, and the West. It was home to various nomadic and settled civilizations. Xinjiang came under Chinese rule during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), and when the Han rulers became weaker in the 3rd century CE, the local Uyghur leaders took control of the region.

Rise of Uyghur Khaganate:

In the middle of the 5th century, the Uyghurs were part of a group called the Tiele, and they were connected to the Turkic Khaganate. In 657, the Tang dynasty defeated the Western Turkic Khaganate, and the Uyghurs decided to join the Tang. Before this, the Uyghurs had already shown interest in working with the Tang when they fought alongside them against the Tibetan Empire and Turks in 627. In 742, the Uyghurs, along with the Karluks and Basmyls, rebelled against the Second Turkic Khaganate. It is notable that the Basmyls, Karluks, and Uyghurs are indeed historically associated with Turkic-speaking nomadic peoples in Central Asia.

In 744, the Basmyls took control of the Turk capital Ötüken and killed their leader, Özmiş Khagan. Later that year, a Uyghur-Karluk alliance formed to fight against the Basmyls, and they defeated them. The Basmyls no longer existed as a people. The conflict between the Uyghurs and Karluks forced the Karluks to move west into Zhetysu (Southeastern part of modern Kazakhstan), where they fought and conquered the Türgesh (a Turkic tribal confederation) people in 766.

The Uyghur leader, Qullığ Boyla, called himself Kutlug Bilge Kol Khagan (Glorious, wise, mighty khagan) and ruled many tribes. His capital was Ordu-Baliq. According to Chinese sources, the Uyghur Empire covered a big area, from the east with the Shiwei (Present Day Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China) to the west with the Altai Mountains and the south with the Gobi Desert. In 745, the Uyghurs defeated the last leader of the Göktürks, Báiméikèhán Gǔlǒngfú, and sent his head to the Tang dynasty. Clashes among Turkic tribes like the Basmyls, Karluks, and Uyghurs led to the fall of Turkic Khaganates in Central Asia.

Islamic Influence: 

Islam began to spread into Xinjiang from the 10th century onwards, and it became a significant religion in the region. Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic groups converted to Islam, leading to the development of a distinctive Uyghur culture. Before embracing Islam, the Uyghur people followed various indigenous beliefs, including shamanism and Buddhism. Buddhism had a substantial influence on the Uyghur people during the period when they were part of the Uyghur Khaganate.

After their conversion to Islam, particularly the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, their culture and way of life were profoundly influenced, with mosques, Islamic customs, and scholarship becoming integral to their daily existence. Islam not only shaped their religious practices but also left a lasting impact on Uyghur art, architecture, literature, and overall cultural identity.

Qing Dynasty & Republican and Communist China: 

During the Qing Dynasty (17th to 20th centuries), Xinjiang was formally incorporated into the Chinese empire. The Qing administration was characterized by a degree of cultural assimilation and control, but local rulers and religious leaders retained considerable autonomy in the region.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Xinjiang briefly declared independence as the East Turkestan Republic in 1933 and again in 1944. However, both attempts were short-lived, and the region was eventually incorporated into the People's Republic of China after the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Since then, it has been officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Untold Story of East Turkistan: A Lost State's Tale
Image Souce: Free East Turkistan

Han Migration to Xinjiang and a Sociopolitical Strategy and Ethnics Tensions:

Han migration to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China has been a significant demographic change in the region's history. Starting in the mid-20th century, the Chinese government initiated policies to encourage Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang. As a result, there has been a notable increase in the Han population in Xinjiang.

According to data from the 2020 Chinese Census, Han Chinese make up a significant proportion of the population in Xinjiang, accounting for approximately 39% of the total population, while the Uyghur population represents around 46%. This shift in demographics has been a source of tension and conflict, as it has raised concerns among the Uyghur population about their cultural and political autonomy in the region. The Chinese government's policies, which include economic incentives to attract Han settlers, have contributed to this demographic change, while also fueling ethnic and cultural tensions in the region.

Xinjiang has been a source of ethnic and cultural tensions, particularly between the Uighur Muslim population and the Han Chinese. These tensions have periodically flared into violence and unrest, most notably in the late 20th century and more recently in the 21st century, leading to increased Chinese government control and surveillance in the region.

The Untold Story of East Turkistan: A Lost State's Tale
Image Source: Google: Stand for Uyghurs Australia

Modern Challenges & Cultural Suppression and Resistance:

In recent years, Xinjiang has gained international attention due to allegations of human rights abuses against the Uighur population, including mass detentions and forced assimilation efforts by the Chinese government. Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained over a million people and imposed strict surveillance, religious constraints, forced labor, and forced sterilizations on those who were not imprisoned. However, the emergence of the People's Republic of China and its expansionist agenda marked the beginning of a new era for the region. With its strategic location and abundant natural resources, East Turkistan became a target for Chinese control.

Under Chinese rule, the unique traditions and practices of the Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks were gradually suppressed. The Chinese government implemented policies aimed at assimilating the region into the greater Chinese identity, resulting in the erosion of local cultures, languages, and religious beliefs. Protests and demonstrations demanding autonomy and the preservation of cultural identity became increasingly common, met with forceful suppression by Chinese authorities. In 2017, a Chinese religious affairs official named Maisumujiang Maimuer expressed the idea of severing ties with "two-faced people" and fighting against them relentlessly. That statement (Break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins) reflected a strong stance against people who may have conflicting loyalties or hidden affiliations.

Geopolitical Implications:

China's control over East Turkistan holds significant geopolitical implications. The region's strategic location provides China with access to important trade routes, as well as valuable natural resources such as oil, gas, and minerals. Additionally, China's control over East Turkistan enables it to expand its influence in Central Asia and strengthen its regional power.

In simple terms, the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile (ETGE) is a group of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other East Turkistan (Xinjiang) people who have set up a government outside their homeland. They say they represent East Turkistan internationally. The ETGE was founded in Washington, D.C., but the United States doesn't officially recognize it. China strongly opposes the ETGE, which started in September 2004.

The dilemma of the people of East Turkistan has drawn international attention, with advocates raising awareness about human rights violations and the suppression of cultural identity. Governments and organizations around the world have been urged to take a stand against China's policies, calling for the protection of the rights and autonomy of the region's inhabitants.

On July 6, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Uyghur camp survivors and pledged to collaborate with partner nations to halt China's alleged genocide and crimes against humanity. Blinken expressed solidarity with those who suffered in Xinjiang and vowed to seek justice for them and their families.

The Untold Story of East Turkistan: A Lost State's Tale
Image Source: Google: Founding of the First East Turkestan Republic


Despite the challenges they face, the people of East Turkistan remain resilient, holding onto their traditions, language, and history as symbols of their resistance. The struggle for freedom, recognition, and cultural preservation continues, with hopes that the international community will acknowledge their grievances and support their quest for autonomy.

The Untold Story of East Turkistan: A Lost State's Tale
Image Source: Google: Flag of East Turkistan

China's control over East Turkistan has had far-reaching geopolitical effects. The dominance of ethnic identity, protests for autonomy and international advocacy have all contributed to the ongoing struggle in the region. As the people of East Turkistan strive to protect their heritage and reclaim their autonomy, their resilience serves as a reminder of the enduring spirit of a people who refuse to be silenced. The future of East Turkistan remains uncertain, but the hope for recognition and a restoration of cultural vibrancy remains strong.