The crisis in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have locked up an estimated one million or more Uighurs in “reeducation camps” in an attempt, they claim, to eliminate terrorism, is an object lesson in William Faulkner’s aphorism “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Neither the Uighur population nor the Chinese authorities have forgotten the short-lived Islamic Republic of East Turkestan of 1933 to 1934 or the longer and more institutionalized East Turkestan Republic of 1944 to 1946. Both grew out of the Uighur enlightenment movement, whose leading thinkers believed that Han rulers had treated the Uighurs unfairly ever since their region was incorporated into China in the late nineteenth century. Wang uses original documents in many languages to bring the current crisis into historical focus. The two Uighur independence movements were led by pro-Soviet Uighur intellectuals who had received modern educations. Although they were ethnic nationalists, they used elements of Islam to forge a fragile common identity with other classes and ethnic groups, including the more numerous, nomadic Kazakhs. The two short-lived episodes of self-rule showed what the government of an independent East Turkestan might look like and that such a country would not survive without Russian support, which in both historical cases proved neither strong nor lasting.
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