Khotan to the khotanese!

Xinjiang is the western-most province of China, a so called “autonomous region,” which borders on Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. Its population is 43 percent Uighur, who speak a Turkic language and practice Islam, but Han Chinese are almost as many, 41 percent, and the remainder are Kazakhs and other ethnic groups. Less than 5 percent of Xinjiang is suitable for human habitation, the rest consists of deserts and mountain ranges. Although various Chinese dynasties, including the Han, conducted military campaigns here, it was conquered only in 1759, during Emperor Qianlong, and it is only since 1884 that Xinjiang has constituted a Chinese province.

Two thousand years ago, a Buddhist kingdom, Khotan, was established here. The caravan trade made Khotan prosperous and thanks to rivers running from the Himalayas straight into the desert it was possible to grow fruit and cereal. The people of Khotan cultivated silk and carved jade; they were devout Buddhists, loved literature, and, according to visitors, spent a lot of their time singing and dancing. Some spoke Chinese, others Tibetan and Indian languages. Then in 1006 CE, the kingdom fell to Muslim invaders.

Reacting to what they see as attempts to make the region increasingly Chinese, Uyghur nationalists have recently raised demands for independence, and some have fought for their cause by violent means. In July 2009, thousands of Uyghurs clashed with Han Chinese and some 200 people died, although Uyghur nationalists argue that the real death toll was considerably higher. Rioting has since repeatedly taken place and Xinjiang nationalists have been blamed for terrorist attacks throughout China, including an attack in a train station in Kunming in March 2014 in which some 31 people died. In 2018 the Chinese admitted to imprisoning “Muslim radicals” in interment camps, which they referred to as “reeducation centers.”

Rebiya Kadeer, the leader of the independence movement, the World Uyghur Congress, is a businesswoman and mother of 11 who now lives in the United States. She insists that the movement only relies on peaceful methods and that she has no connections with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which the US government has classified as a terrorist organization. There have been reports that fighters from Xinjiang have joined Al Qaeda, and in 2006, the US army captured 22 Uyghurs in Afghanistan and sent them to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

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