(RFE/RL) -- The Uyghurs of western China are an ethnic Turkic people who are by tradition Muslim, and who feel more kinship with the peoples of Central Asia than with the Han Chinese -- the communist state's dominant population.
The Uyghurs are an ancient race who have made their mark on Eastern and Central Asian history. For more than a hundred years, in the eighth and ninth centuries, they ruled an empire that stretched from Manchuria to the Caspian Sea.
Today, they are concentrated in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. But they also are sizeable minority populations in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Pockets of Uyghur communities also are scattered widely elsewhere in Asia.
Originally a group of hill tribes from the Altai Mountains, the Uyghurs have their own distinctive culture and a Turkic language. Scientists say that genetically, Uyghurs are an admixture of Caucasian and East Asian blood. They say this is the reason many retain light-colored skin and hair. In terms of religion, they are primarily Sunni Muslims.
After a period of independence in the 1940s as East Turkestan, the Uyghur republic’s leadership agreed to form a confederation with the new Chinese communist state. But it was not long before Beijing maneuvered the republic into becoming the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region within China.
Rozimukhamet Abdulbakiev, the former head of a Uyghur nongovernmental organization in Kyrgyzstan called Ittipaq (Unity), tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the name of the province is a misnomer.
"Even though China gave Xinjiang the status of an autonomous Uyghur region, there is no sign of autonomy there. There are no rights for Uyghurs there. Nothing," Abdulbakiev says.
"This is a political and social [matter]. The Chinese totalitarian regime has oppressed all freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of personality, freedom of conscience -- that is why, of course, people have risen against it."
Swamped By Immigration
The rioting that took place on July 5 in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, started after reports arrived from southern China that at least two Uyghurs had been killed by ethnic Han Chinese workers in a dispute at a toy factory.
But that was only the tip of the iceberg. The fierceness of the rioting, in which by official count more than 150 people died, points to deeper wellsprings of discontent.
"Why they are so upset at the situation is because, every day, the government brings in hundreds, thousands, of [Han] Chinese into our motherland, East Turkestan -- the Xinjiang autonomous region -- but at the same time our people are sitting without jobs, suffering," says Nizam Sametov of the Uyghur U.K. Association in London.
Sametov asserts that Chinese policy is to offer jobs to Uyghurs elsewhere in China, outside the Xinjiang region, thus reducing the concentration of this ethnic group. On the other hand, in the last five decades, there has been heavy Han immigration, so that today, Uyghurs barely outnumber the immigrants.
But Sametov rejects the vision of Uyghurs becoming a minority in their own homeland.
"Because our land is very rich in minerals, oil, gas, they just keep coming, every day bringing people from inside China to our own land. They hope soon that we will be a small minority, but we won't," Sametov says. "It is our own land."
There have been intermittent acts of violence by underground groups fighting for independence, but they seem to lack popular support.
However, the Chinese authorities have now blamed the separatists for the violence.
"You all know that this incident was caused by people who want to incite conflict, and its roots are deeply political," Chinese Minister for Public Security Meng Jianzhu said in an address to troops and riot police in Urumqi.
"This conflict is between separatists and antiseparatist forces, and is an ongoing political struggle."
Abdulbakiev blames Chinese inflexibility for provoking unrest.
"When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek states became independent, the Uyghurs became especially eager [to struggle] for their independence with a new strength. This is what we have seen today," Abdulbakiev says.
"If the Chinese government was democratic and if it carried out political reforms, then this kind of harsh resistance would disappear”.
Uyghur activist groups in exile have denied fomenting any trouble within Xinjiang.
RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report