Stretching across an area four times the size of California, Xinjiang is China's largest province. Officially called the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by the Chinese government, this northwestern province accounts for one-sixth of China's total territory.
Xinjiang has a diverse landscape that includes some of the world's largest desert basins and highest mountain ranges. The province is landlocked. Urumqi, the capital city, is farther from an ocean than any other city in the world.
Sandwiched between eight nations, including Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Xinjiang has been a crossroads for several civilizations. In ancient times, the region was a key stop along the Silk Road, facilitating the exchange of everything from spices to religions. And because of its strategic location, it has long been a coveted territory for competing empires. At different times, the region has been ruled by Uighurs, Uzbeks, Tibetans, Mongols, Russians and Chinese.
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According to the Chinese government, Xinjiang has been an "inseparable" part of China for more than 2,000 years. Many Uighurs dispute that view of history, however, characterizing Xinjiang as an independent region that, much like Tibet, has a distinctive cultural and political history. Uighur separatists even reject the name Xinjiang, instead referring to the area as East Turkestan or Uighuristan.
The historical record tells a complicated story of conquest and power struggles in the region. Chinese rulers first invaded what is now Xinjiang in the first century B.C. when Emperor Wu Ti sent an army to push out the Huns and occupy the area. In the (A.D.) second century, China lost Xinjiang to Uzbek invaders, but retook the crucial northwestern region in the middle of the seventh century. The Gok Turk khans drove out the Chinese by the end of that century, but their rule was short-lived. In the mid-700s, the Uighurs seized power from the Gok Turks, establishing an independent kingdom that endured for about a century. Although the region subsequently passed under Mongol rule, there was little central authority in the area until the mid-18th century, when China's Manchu rulers invaded.
It was the Manchu invaders who gave the area the name Xinjiang, which literally means "new territory." The Qing rulers maintained a shaky hold over the region from the 18th century until the dynasty unraveled in 1911. China's nationalist government continued to reign over Xinjiang; however, before the Communists came to power in 1949, the Uighurs made two attempts at succession. From 1931 to 1934 and from 1944 to 1949, Uighur nationalists established an independent nation. Both times, this independent nation was called the Eastern Turkestan Republic.
In 1949, however, the Communist revolution swept away the Uighurs' hopes for independence. The Communists occupied the region in late 1949, and in 1955, Chairman Mao Tse-Tung formally annexed the region, declaring it to be an "autonomous province."
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In 1949, when the communists first took power, more than 90 percent of Xinjiang's population was Uighur and about 5 percent was Han, from China's largest ethnic group. However, government-sponsored migration has dramatically changed the demographics of the region. Today, 47 percent of Xinjiang is Uighur and 41 percent is Han. Smaller groups of other Turkic Muslims, including Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Tajiks and Uzbeks, make up the remainder of the population.
The Uighurs (alternately spelled Uyghur, Uyguir, Uiguir and Weiwuer) have lived in this region for centuries. Uighurs use a Turkic dialect and write in an Arabic-based script. Mostly Sunni Muslims, the Uighurs comprise more than a third of China's estimated 18 million Muslims.
Uighurs are one of 55 nationally designated minorities in China. China's constitution officially recognizes the Uighurs' right to practice their own religion and to speak and learn in their own language. In practice, however, the government maintains tight control over Uighur culture. All mosques are required to register with the government. In 2001, authorities called in 8,000 imams for special training on the Communist Party's ethnic and religious policies. In 2002, Xinjiang's top university eliminated all instruction in the Uighur language.
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Over the past few years, the government has invested billions of dollars in Xinjiang as part of its westward development campaign, which has transformed this once sparsely developed region into an economic engine. Last year, economic growth in Xinjiang topped 10 percent, better than the national average.
Xinjiang has something that much of China lacks -- natural sources of energy. A third of China's crude oil reserves and natural gas, along with 40 percent of the country's coal, are in Xinjiang. Since 2000, China has been scrambling to build pipelines and other infrastructure in the region in order to extract those resources. Much of this development is being accomplished with the help of foreign investment, including U.S. investors, who have contributed more than $16 billion to build a 2,600-mile-long pipeline that stretches from Xinjiang to Shanghai.
The rapid pace of economic development has boosted living standards in Xinjiang. The average income increased more than 20-fold over the past 25 years. However, the Uighurs have not been the beneficiaries of this development -- the vast majority of Uighurs continue to live in poverty, and they reside in rural areas, far from the urban centers of prosperity.
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Uighur separatists have clamored for independence from Beijing since the beginning of Communist rule. But in the 1990s, separatist violence peaked when militant pro-independence groups staged a number of bombings that targeted department stores, markets, hotels and buses. During that decade, the Chinese government claims that separatist bombings and political assassinations killed 162 people.
The 9/11 attacks heightened international awareness of the Uighur separatist movement and initiated a shift in the way Beijing views the separatists in Xinjiang.
As the United States began its war in Afghanistan, China began changing its rhetoric, describing the Uighurs as "terrorists" instead of "splitists." Beijing accuses some Uighur groups of having direct ties to al Qaeda and likens its fight against the Uighurs to the Bush administration's "war on terror."
Human rights groups accuse the Chinese government of using the rhetoric of terrorism as an excuse to increase its crackdown on pro-independence activists in Xinjiang. Amnesty International estimates that since 2002, the government has charged thousands of people with alleged "separatist" or "terrorist" offenses. Chinese and foreign media have reported that several Uighurs have been executed for these offenses.
The government maintains tight control over any reporting on the region. Reports on Xinjiang by Chinese journalists are filtered through state-run media. Foreign journalists are also subject to strict oversight. They must be credentialed by the government, and they must have permission to travel to the region.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), China imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world. Currently, the CPJ estimates that 42 journalists are behind bars in China.
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