Four Generations of Uyghurs: The Shift towards Ethno-political Ideologies among Xinjiang’s Youth

Smith, J. (2000). Four generations of Uyghurs: The shift towards ethno-political ideologies among Xinjiang’s youth. Inner Asia, 2(2), 195-224. [Link] [PDF]

So this is a pretty interesting paper on Uyghur youth from the 80’s and 90’s – it was published in 2000 so it cannot speak for the youth of today, of course, but it is interesting to see where the author predicted we would be “ten years in the future” which for us is now almost 10 years in the past. I won’t offer my views on it but will let you decide what to think. The abstract generalises a lot but the article itself is a little more nuanced. At least, we get to hear direct quotes from youth of that time so I suppose it can be seen as a nice summary of individual views. These youths would be my parents’ age now and I know my parents have different views to some of the examples provided from their hometowns, so it is interesting to see different perspectives.


Although most Uyghurs in Xinjiang maintain strong Uyghur national identities, not every social group subscribes to the separatist ideologies of the late eighties and nineties. The elderly generation of Uyghurs grew up during the chaotic, unstable years of the Warlord Period. Most are grateful for recent improvements in standards of living and do not want to ‘rock the boat’. Middle-aged Uyghurs suffered persecution during the Cultural Revolution and fear a return of Maoist ideology. Furthermore, they have homes and families to protect. The younger generation, however, has grown up amid the relative freedom of post-1980 conciliatory minority policy. It has known the 1989 pro-democracy movement in China, the collapse of Eastern Europe and the USSR, the subsequent formation of the CIS, and the burgeoning of Islamic fundamentalist movements world-wide. These significant events have provided inspiration for a Uyghur youth that is ever more militant in its aspirations to independence. Unlike their elders, they have both less to fear and less to lose. This paper presents a number of portraits of Uyghur youth, based on fieldwork conducted in Xinjiang during 1995 and 1996. ·öhrat represents the young urban male intellectual, whose aim is to achieve goals for Uyghurs by encouraging the youth to penetrate the Han education system. Ghayrät represents the young petty entrepreneur who hopes to take advantage of domestic turmoil or international conflict to seize the chance to secede from China. Azatgül represents the politicised teenager who listens to radio broadcasts emanating from émigré Uyghur sources in Qazaqstan and claims that Xinjiang separatists are being funded by Muslim countries in a bid for independence. Then there is the next generation: as the grievances of Uyghur parents against Han immigrants in turn rub off on their children, the latter are growing up with an ingrained dislike of the Han Chinese. Are Uyghurs in a transition period? Once the cautious older generation passes away and the young grow up to raise their own children, will Uyghurs finally unite in nationalist spirit?


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