Those patchwork elements of Uygur life underscore something crucial about the Uygurs as a whole: Centuries of living at a great Eurasian way station have made them a complicated people who defy careless classification. But in time the world forgot this, with disastrous results.
As the Silk Road began to fray and trade took to the seas, both East and West lost interest in the Uygurs and their mountain fastness. For generations China saw little promise in this remote land—Xinjiang means "new frontier"—because the Chinese prized agriculture, and the wild west offered only dust and stones. People there ate mutton, not pork. In 1932 a British officer traveling in Xinjiang wrote with dark foresight, "Perhaps an awakening China, wondering where to settle its surplus millions of people, may have the good sense to call in the science of the West and to develop [Xinjiang]." But through the early 20th century, the Chinese government did not extend its influence to the distant region, and the Uygurs twice declared their own independent country. The second attempt at self-determination, in 1944, lasted five years, until the rise of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, which sent in military forces and later established a nuclear testing ground, Lop Nur, in Xinjiang to eliminate any confusion.
Realizing that, if nothing else, its big, empty territory provided a buffer against foreign influence, Mao's China instituted a program called the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps—combining farm, military garrison, and prison—in which settlers from other Chinese provinces would work the soil and watch the borders. The first arrivals, in 1954, included more than 100,000 demobilized soldiers. Some were coerced, but the flow gathered momentum as the government extended a railroad west to Urumqi in 1962 and used promises of food and clothing to entice residents from overcrowded cities like Shanghai.
Meanwhile the Chinese were discovering that Xinjiang offered far more than just a border cushion: It held something vital to their very survival as a nation. Xinjiang contains about 40 percent of China's coal reserves and more than a fifth of its natural gas. Most important, it has nearly a fifth of the nation's proven oil reserves, although Beijing claims it holds as much as a third. Never mind the massive deposits of gold, salt, and other minerals. Xinjiang isn't empty. It's strategic. And with that realization, other things came sharply into focus for China's leadership: Xinjiang is the largest, most far-flung region. It borders more countries than any other. And it's home to an ethnic group that has tried twice in living memory to make a break for freedom.
In 1947, during the second incarnation of Uygur independence, about 220,000 Han Chinese made up 5 percent of Xinjiang's population. Uygurs numbered about three million, or 75 percent, the remainder being a mix of Central Asian ethnicities. By 2007 the Uygur population had increased to 9.6 million. But the Han population had swelled to 8.2 million.