Recent government efforts to link northwest China’s majority Uyghur Xinjiang region to territorial claims associated with an ancient Chinese imperial dynasty “lack scientific standing” and are part of a bid by Beijing to legitimize repressive policies in the area, according to scholars.
Beijing has made repeated claims it says are based on ancient literature that China established the “Protectorate of the Western Regions” in 60 B.C., during the 202 B.C.-A.D. 8 period of the Western Han Dynasty, which exercised military and administrative jurisdiction over what is now Xinjiang.
But in a report last week, the official Xinhua news agency announced that on Dec. 8, Chinese historians, archaeologists, ethnologists, and research scholars took part in a conference in Bugur (in Chinese, Luntai) county, in Xinjiang’s Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture, to study “a significant breakthrough in locating the site” of the Protectorate.
During the conference, specialists and researchers delivered speeches on topics including “The Rule of the Uyghur Region Under the Protectorate of the Western Region,” “Chinese Culture to Become The Leading Culture in Xinjiang,” and the location of the Protectorate.
The article did not mention the site of the archaeological dig in Bugur or any of the evidence to support the claim.
A day later, Xinhua reported that “after four years of archaeological study,” researchers had “basically confirmed” that the so-called “Yuqikate” ancient city, near Aksu (Akesu) prefecture’s Toksu (Xinhe) county, was the location of the Protectorate during the A.D. 25-220 period of the Eastern Han Dynasty.
“Based on the city size, unearthed relics and literature, archaeologists from institutions in Xinjiang and Beijing have confirmed that the city was the Protectorate of the Western Regions during the Eastern Han Dynasty,” the report said.
While the Chinese historian Ban Gu (A.D. 32-92) mentions the Protectorate of the Western Regions in his “Book of Han,” which was completed after his death in A.D. 111 and covers the period of the Western Han Dynasty, he fails to provide an exact location or evidence of his claim of its existence.
The recent claims about the Protectorate follow a speech in August this year by chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Yu Zhengsheng, who called for the “correcting of the wrong understanding of Xinjiang’s history, ethnicity, religion, and culture,” and an earlier statement by Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo urging archaeologists to remember that Xinjiang “has always been Chinese territory.”
Overseas historians have challenged the Chinese government’s claims about the Protectorate, while Uyghur groups in exile say the assertions are part of a bid by Beijing to further exert control over Xinjiang, where members of the mostly Muslim ethnic group complain of religious and cultural repression and harassment under Chinese rule.
Zhu Shuyuan, a Chinese historian living in the U.S., told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the Protectorate of the Western Regions “only exists on paper” and called the claim “laughable.”
“It is possible that the army of the Han Dynasty travelled to the southern areas of [Xinjiang capital] Urumqi in the western region, but the number of soldiers were few,” he said.
“In reality, they have never ruled the region, neither did they collect taxes from the people. The number one factor in governing a region is that the residents must pay taxes, which are collected by the army.”
Representatives of a state cannot claim a distant land simply because they have travelled there, Zhu said.
“If that was the case … Marco Polo visited China—can we say that China belongs to Marco Polo and the Italians?” he asked.
“Such claims bear no scientific value. It is laughable to think that the Chinese claim the territory simply because their people visited the region.”
U.S.-based Uyghur Kahar Barat, an independent researcher specializing in Uyghur and Chinese history and the culture of the Silk Road, told RFA that Beijing’s claims “have no scientific standing.”
“The Chinese government’s intention is to establish historical evidence in order to support their territorial expansion and repressive policy in the Uyghur region,” he said.
“At that time, [the dynasty was based] in Chang’an [in modern day Shanxi province’s Xi’an city] or Luoyang [in Henan province], but they established the ‘Protectorate of the Western Region.’ If that is so, then even Iran and the Arab territories could have become part of China. This is not something you can sit and declare, it requires authentic and historical evidence.”
Barat noted that the claims of a Protectorate were first written during the Han Dynasty from a “one-sided perspective” in a book that “provides no historic or archaeological evidence.”
“That is the basis upon which the Chinese government has put so much effort into furthering this claim,” he said.
Ilshat Hassan, the president of Washington-based exile group Uyghur American Association (UAA), said claims by Beijing that “Xinjiang is an inseparable part of China” have “no historic basis.
He noted that the name Xinjiang translates to “New Territory” in the Chinese language, suggesting it had not always been occupied by China.
The People’s Republic of China, which was formed by Mao Zedong in 1949, was not the successor to the Han Dynasty, which ended in A.D. 220, Hassan said, and therefore cannot legally claim the territories allegedly occupied by the Han at that time.
He said such claims are as ridiculous as if the Mongolian government claimed that China has been an inseparable part of Mongolia since ancient times because the Mongols occupied it for nearly two centuries during the reign of Genghis Khan, or if the Italian government claimed all of the territories formerly occupied by the Roman Empire.
“This claim only proves the Chinese Communist Party’s imperialistic mindset and expansionist intentions,” he said.
Reported by Jilil Kashgari for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.