Ethnic Uyghur members of the Communist Party of China carry a flag as they take part in an organized tour on June 30, 2017 in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

China's paranoia and oppression in Xinjiang has a long history

Updated 0746 GMT (1546 HKT) October 13, 2018

Hong Kong (CNN)China finally admitted this week what had been widely reported: that it is interning thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people in "re-education camps" in the far-western region of Xinjiang.

Human rights groups previously estimated that as many as one million people have been held in the camps, which satellite photos show have sprung up across the region in recent months.
Along with restrictions on halal food, Islamic dress, and general religiosity, the ongoing crackdown has primarily affected the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who historically were the majority in the region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang defended recent measures at a press briefing Thursday, saying "taking measures to prevent and crack down on terrorism and extremism have helped preserve stability, as well as the life and livelihood of people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang."
While the strategies Beijing is taking are new -- and include a state-of-the-art surveillance regime -- they echo a longtime paranoia about Xinjiang and a deep suspicion of its non-Han population among China's rulers which have historically resulted in oppression and rebellion.

New territory

Xinjiang is vast. Stretching 1.6 million square kilometers (640,000 sq miles) from the Tibetan plateau in the southeast to Kazakhstan on its north-western border, it is by far China's largest administrative region, but one of its least densely populated. Around 22 million people reside in the region, most of whom live around the major cities of Urumqi, Kashgar and Yining.
While Chinese armies rampaged through what is now Xinjiang and controlled parts of it for centuries, the modern administrative unit only dates to the mid-nineteenth century, a fact hinted at by its name, which translates as "new frontier" in Chinese.
Despite the Communist Party's claims that "Xinjiang has since ancient times been an inseparable part of the motherland," the relatively recent imperial conquest of Xinjiang has always been accompanied by an ever present paranoia that it could break away from Chinese rule, becoming another "Outer Mongolia."
During the Sino-Soviet split, there was a deep fear in Beijing that Moscow would seek to annex Xinjiang, which bordered the then Soviet Union, or encourage ethnic minority groups to rebel.
This was a very real possibility: during the 1930s and 40s, as the short-lived Nationalist government fought a civil war with the Communists and faced a growing threat of Japanese invasion, two br