SEPARATISM IN CHINA’S XINJIANG-UIGHUR AUTONOMOUS REGION: DYNAMICS AND POTENTIAL IMPACT ON CENTRAL ASIA
Klara Khafizova, D.Sc. (Hist.), Director, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Kainar University (Almaty, Kazakhstan)
Recently, political scientists have been writing a lot about separatism in China’s ethnic fringes and about its Tibetan, Mongol, and Uighur specific features. There is an opinion in continental China that the problem is closely connected with national separatism of Taiwan that became especially glaring when Hong Kong and Macao (Aomyn) had been returned to the People’s Republic of China. Separatists carried out several terrorist acts in Xinjiang and Beijing, as well as other actions that waked the world public to the problem of this autonomous region. The U.S. antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan and an increased attention of the world media to Islamic radicalism added topicality to the problem.
I have undertaken here to discuss the problem of separatism in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), its dynamics and its impact on the situation in Central Asia using scarce official materials, contradictory opinions, and vague forecasts.
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The so-called Uighur variant of separatism directly affects the Central Asian republics, which is explained by geographical, ethnic, and confessional proximity as well as by similarity of historical processes that have been taking place in Xinjiang and Central Asia for many centuries. The Autonomous Region borders on three out of five Central Asian republics, as well as on the Islamic “hot spots” (Kashmir and Afghanistan). The longest border stretch (over 1,700 km) separates XUAR from Kazakhstan. There are Uighur diasporas in all Central Asian countries, the largest of them (over 220 thou) lives in Kazakhstan. By its numerical strength it comes third in Kazakhstan and second in the world, the first being the Uighur diaspora living in China.
Under Soviet power Uighurs in Uzbekistan preferred to register themselves as Uzbeks, therefore the official figures about the diaspora’s numerical strength there are unreliable. Uighurs and Uzbeks share anthropological features, cultural traditions, customs and the way of life that helped the Uighurs assimilate in Uzbekistan. Uighurs live in Turkey and Afghanistan though their number there is negligible.
The Uighurs in Central Asia and Xinjiang preserve close ties with their relatives and cooperate in trade. News about important events in their lives travel across the border collecting minor details and inventions on the way.
The XUAR territory is the largest among the five autonomous regions of China (1,600 thou sq km, that comprises one-sixth of the total territory). According to the 1994 figures, there were 16,327 thou people living there (the Uighur majority still being 7,697.3 thou strong). (The word “still” will be explained below.) The Uighurs themselves believe that their number is underestimated: the local authorities have to conceal the fact that in remote places that are hard to reach people do not observe the law that limits the number of children in the family. There is an opinion that the Chinese authorities deliberately underestimate the number of Uighurs to downplay their economic and political importance.
Chinese (Hans) are the second largest ethnic group in XUAR followed by Kazakhs (6,184.8 and 1,217 thou, respectively). The figures of the 2000 population census have not been published though there is an opinion that the ratio remained practically the same yet the number of the Chinese is increasing.
Geographically the region is easier to reach from Central Asia than from the Central Plain of China. This, and the fact that the title autonomous areas of XUAR are adjacent to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan may draw both republics in the vortex of events in Xinjiang.
During Soviet power many prominent Uighurs (mainly political, military, and cultural figures) who lived in Central Asia were actively promoting separation of the autonomous region from China. At that time, the question of granting an autonomous status to the Uighur District of the Taldy-Kurgan Region of Kazakhstan together with certain adjacent areas, and to the Alma Ata Region was regularly revived. For instance, in the early 1980s Uighur nationalists revived the issue. They wanted to transfer the Uighur District to Moscow’s direct rule, by-passing Alma Ata. In other words, if realized this would have been the first step toward separation from the Kazakh S.S.R. This was mainly caused by the Soviet-Chinese confrontation and aimed at reviving separatist trends in XUAR. (Today there are people who would like to set up a new state, Uighuristan, in XUAR and the adjacent areas of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.) This and other provocative ideas are hatched by the nationalistically minded part of the Uighur communities.
This says that direct or indirect involvement of Uighurs living in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan as well as Tajiks and Dungans in separatist movements in China is possible. What is more, it is inevitable. This uncontrolled involvement will inevitably negatively affect the domestic situation in these countries and their relationships with China. One cannot ignore a possibility of the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz living in China being drawn into the process. Repressions against them and deportation of Uighur nationalists who fled China leave no impassionate observers. Uighur nationalism threatens the Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in the first place.
History of Statehood and Separatism
Separatism feeds itself on Uighur history and culture. Its ideology and slogans, as well as public opinion about it in Central Asia, bear an imprint of this fact. Uighur academics and political scientists in Central Asia, as well as their colleagues in the West, Russia, China, and Japan offer varying opinions about the struggle that clerical and political circles have been waging for many centuries to set up an independent state in Eastern Turkestan. In the past and today Chinese academics, irrespective of their political convictions, consistently describe the struggle as a separatist movement of the Uighur top crust designed to split China and violate its territorial integrity. This is why the problem of Uighur historical statehood, especially between the latter half of the 19th century and 1949 when the PRC was formed (described by official Chinese historiography as “peaceful liberation of Xinjiang”) has retained its topicality.
At all times Uighurs have been very much concerned with the problem of their statehood. Scholarly publications contribute to their deeper awareness of ethnic identity and strengthen their pride in their past and culture. They are also feeding separatism. When looking into the past of the Central Asian states Uighur historians always stress that even the proto-Uighur tribes possessed their own statehood. Such historians are inclined to count as Uighur many of the Turkic-Mongolian and Turkic tribes. Some of them count the Huns and their legendary leader Atilla as Uighurs. This is typical of scholarly writings that appear in the region’s other countries: sovereignty inspired their authors to revise the past so that to assert their homelands.
Moderate Uighur academics look at the Uighur Kaganate (that existed between 745 and 840 partly in Siberia and Mongolia) as the beginning of statehood. The Uighurs are convinced that the state of Qarakhanids (10th-11th centuries) ruled by Qarluqs was the best period in their history. It was an important stage in their ethnogenesis. Its capital was found first in Beshbalyk (Xinjiang), then in Kashgar. The state included part of the territories of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Xinjiang.
Later other states occupied the territory of Xinjiang. In the 18th century, the Qing Empire routed the Yarkend Khanate, in the 19th century it subjugated the state set up by Yakub Beg from Central Asia (1867-1878) out of the Kuchin, Kashgar, and Hotan sultanates. In 1933, the Kuomintang wiped away the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Republic with the center in Hami. In 1949, the Eastern Turkestan Republic that had existed for about five years, between 1944 and 1949, liquidated itself. Xinjiang was restored as part of China.
When the People’s Republic of China had been proclaimed the Chinese authorities, in an effort to emulate the Soviet Union with its 16 republics, tried to create a Uighur autonomous republic. They failed: the word “Uighur,” derived from the name of the people that was in the majority at that time, came after the word “Xinjiang,” that smacked of colonialism.
Today, the nationalists describe the anti-Chinese movement that unfolded at that time as the struggle for historical justice and statehood. They refuse to accept a definition of the Uighur movement as a separatist one and are convinced that this was a national-liberation movement that aimed at restoring the Uighurs’ historical statehood with the center in Xinjiang. It was expected that Kashgaria would have become the core of the new state covering the XUAR territory. The most radical politicians claim all the lands of the state of Qarakhanids that included the Semirechie (Seven Rivers) area and the Ferghana Valley.
The culture of Uighurs is an original one; their name is part of the autonomy’s official name, their intelligentsia is the largest in the autonomous region, their educational system is the best among others. Today, the Uighurs feel inferior; the process of ethnogenesis is not yet over. In fact, in the present political and historical context one cannot agree that the Uighurs are an ethnos. In the past they were a people scattered among various city-poleis who did not identify itself as an ethnos. This means that those who lived in the city-poleis and oases of Eastern Turkestan did not recognize their ethnic proximity. The same can be said about their treatment of those who lived in the Ferghana Valley. For example, Kashgar and Yarkend of Xinjiang differed more than Kashgar and Kokand or Tashkent of Uzbekistan. It was for this reason, rather than for religious considerations that in the 19th century the Kokand Khanate managed to detach Kashgar from the Qing Empire. Kokand supported religious Uighur warlords, the hodjas, in their marches on Xinjiang where they established their rule from time to time. The hodjas of the “Chernogortsy” sect in Hotan were prepared to cooperate with the Chinese authorities rather than with their religious opponents.
It should be said here that the name “Uighur” was artificially restored in 1935 on a suggestion of the prominent Soviet Turkologist Sergei Malov. Before that this ethnic group had no common name and was known by the locality where its groups lived: people from Urumqi and Kuldja called themselves Taranchis, others referred to themselves as people from Kashgarlyk, Turfan, Hotan, Yarkend, etc. I have written above that this was caused by the rather developed city-polis network: each one had its own culture, religious and regional features. The local names survived till the mid-20th century: in official documents people registered themselves as Taranchis or dwellers of Kashgarlyk, etc. Those of the Uighurs who were resettled to northern Tien Shan were called the Taranchis in all official documents. This can be easily verified in Russian archives. The name “Uighur” was nearly unknown and was rarely used in everyday life. As an ethnic name it was used by historians in the 8th and 9th centuries yet was accepted as such as late as 1935. The Uighur Kaganate was the only medieval state that used the ethnic name. It was found in Siberia and Mongolia, the territories that even the most radical of the Uighur nationalists do not claim. Thus, for 1,500 years, until the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region appeared in China the ethnonym had been unknown both in the everyday and official contexts. The states that occupied its territory and at best survived for 10 years (the state of Yakub Beg) or at least for several months (the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Republic in Hami in 1933) were never known as Uighur. The term Eastern Turkestan belongs to Western geographers as a purely geographic term. It acquired political dimension some 50 years ago. Many of the Uighur opposition leaders reject the term—they want to set up Uighuristan, a state cut by the pattern of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian republics.
What is more, in 1973 speaking at a sitting of the Learned Council of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences the diplomat and Oriental scholar T. Rakhimov coined a new term Yettishar (the Land of Seven Cities in Uighur) to replace the commonly accepted name “the state of Yakub Beg” that appeared in the 1870s in Xinjiang. Before that some of the scholars used from time to time another name, Altyshar (the Land of Six Cities).
Neither the Chinese authorities nor political opponents inside the Chinese academic community recognized the above states. This explains why the struggle for the Uighur state is profoundly anti-Chinese. The very fact that these states existed, even for a short time, strengthens Uighurs’ national awareness and nationalism.
What Moves the Uighurs
The geopolitical changes in Central Asia caused by the Soviet Union’s disintegration and the appearance of sovereign states of Turkic and other Muslim nations urged the Uighurs to fight for restoration of their statehood. They are also inspired by the stubborn fight little Chechnia is carrying against big Russia. To justify their fight the Uighur nationalists insist that the Chinese authorities are pursuing discriminatory ethnic, demographic, and economic policies and that the region’s ecology is deteriorating. They refuse to register the impressive changes that have already occurred in Xinjiang during the years of reforms and the “open door” policy; they refuse to recognize that all peoples of China, the Hans including, have, or had, to face objective difficulties. The Cultural Revolution spelt tragedy for all 50 ethnic groups of China and their cultures (the Hans and their culture were no exception). The separatists argue that ideological errors are most painfully felt in the ethnic fringes.
The efforts to limit the birthrate that the central government has been pursuing for 30 years now are quite understandable in relation to the Hans. When applied to ethnic minorities they doom them to extinction. The Uighur nationalists are convinced that when pursued in Xinjiang and Tibet the policy will wipe away the local ethnoses. The number of Hans (the world’s most numerous nation) will increase while the number of local people will decrease. There is an obvious trend toward a growth of the number of Hans in the fringes caused by the Chinese leaders’ deliberate efforts and objective factors created by the current plans of the fringes’ economic development. As agriculture, industry, mining, processing, railways, etc. are improving the number of Hans is increasing. Meanwhile, geographically the oases of Eastern Turkestan can serve a limited number of people and their economic activities. The separatists are convinced that the central government is deliberately developing the raw material branches so that to deplete the land and to promote the economy of China proper at the expense of the autonomous region. Obviously, those who favor separation are distorting the Beijing’s plans aimed at developing the ethnic fringes and closing the gap between them and the east of China. They claim that the plans cannot be realized and go to all lengths to fan anti-Chinese sentiments in the area and plant their separatist ideas.
One cannot exclude a possibility that the forces that have already destroyed the Soviet Union want to see the last communist power destroyed.
The Economic Factors
There is no doubt that separatist ideas are popular because the ethnic fringes are used as raw material sources and because the local people are much poorer than the people in China proper. It should be said that the fringes have less to do with the state’s foreign trade.
The central government is aware of this yet so far the central areas receive its priority attention. Since the time when the policy of openness and reforms was proclaimed these areas and the west of the country have got half of public investments (more than half of them were channeled to the Shaanxi Province, one of the five autonomous regions). The rest went to seven central and twelve western provinces, Xinjiang being one of them. Naturally, its share was not large though it is increasing with each five-year period.
The opposition believes that their homeland is lagging behind the rest of the country because it is less open. In fact, this is a result of its geographic location and the long distance that separates it from the sea. On the other hand, its neighbors are economically backward and oriented toward mining of raw materials. Xinjiang is open to its neighbors: in the last ten years it received well-equipped customs points; there are highways, railways, post and airlines reaching the frontiers. Any attempt of central power to step up its activity in Xinjiang revives fears of Chinese economic and demographic expansion in Central Asia. China is broadening the region’s contacts with the outside world: it has repeatedly offered to set up open economic zones in the Central Asian states and at their borders with the autonomous region. So far, this is interpreted as Beijing’s desire to consolidate its influence in Central Asia.
China has completed the first stage of industrialization when it mainly developed light and textile industries. In the 1990s, the country plunged into developing heavy and chemical industries that need a vast raw material base. At this stage Xinjiang will have an important role to play. For example, the strategy of “stabilizing the eastern areas and developing the west” in oil industry means that the shift will move from the east to the west. This will accelerate the rates of development of mineral resources not only in Xinjiang but also in Central Asia. The oil fields of Karamai the development of which began in 1993 have already yielded 7.6m tonnes of oil (the 4th place in China). The Turfan-Hami oil fields in the northern Tien Shan foothills are increasing extraction. China has started developing the extremely rich oil fields of the Tarim basin (in the south of the Tien Shan foothills) the supposed reserves of which are 8 billion tonnes. Xinjiang will also have its share of energy transfer from the west to the east. According to preliminary calculations, the coastal areas will get 50 percent of energy they need and 60 percent of raw materials from the west.
One has to admit that intensified oil extraction and mining of coal and ores will create ecological and social problems in Xinjiang. By the same token the region will be closer related to the country’s center and east. Economic interdependence will increase. China will never voluntarily abandon this economically important area. Let us imagine that Xinjiang managed to detach itself from China. I am convinced that it will never manage to cut economic threads that tie it to the Center. In addition, if the area starts selling its raw materials to its neighbors instead the Center the life of common people in Xinjiang will not change. There are Uighurs prepared to line their pockets at the expense of their homeland’s natural riches—such people can be found in any nation. They will use populist slogans and will promote an idea of separation from China.
Industry and infrastructure in Xinjiang are developing at a pace under which the number of Hans will inevitably grow. They will come to take part in the construction of a transcontinental railway from Khorgos on the border with Kazakhstan to the port of Lianyungang in the Jiangsu Province, of the second track of the strategically important railway between Lanzhou and Urumqi, and of a railway branch from Kurlia to Kashgar and from Kashgar to Andizhan in Uzbekistan. This Han inflow will give the government a firmer grip on the region. The railways will open wider the door to the outside world; they will also play an important military and strategic role and will help preserve the unity of the Chinese state. Those who want to detach Xinjiang from China turn a blind eye to the recently scored huge achievements. The government wants to narrow down the gap between the east and the west of its country. It should be added that probably no country in the world can boast of evenly developed regions that have no specifics and no problems.
In these conditions the demographic situation in the ethnic fringes will remain tense. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, has repeatedly pointed out that the autochthonous population of the fringes is melting away. The Uighur separatists attach special importance to this factor to enlist more supporters and to fan anti-Chinese sentiments in the Central Asian republics. All of them (Kazakhstan in the first place), in their time, had already experienced this. According to official figures, in 1949 there were 292 thou Hans in Xinjiang, in 1965 there were 2,758 thou of them, in 1979, 5,220 thou, their number being nearly equal to that of Uighurs (5,642 thou). This was a period of Soviet-Chinese confrontation when China under the pretext of Soviet threat moved Hans from inner regions to strengthen the border areas. Just like Kazakhstan under the czars, Xinjiang was the place where Hans were exiled or where they were kept in prisons. One should not ignore the results of the area’s economic development by militarized colonists of the Xinjiang Industrial and Construction Corps staffed with Hans. At that time, the difference between the Uighurs and Hans in Xinjiang was not more than 400 thou. Today, it has reached nearly 1.5m mainly because of the natural growth of the number of Uighurs and despite the “mechanical” growth of the number of Hans. Xinjiang is a multinational area. Between 1949 and 1994 the numerical strength of all of its major 13 ethnic groups increased (with the exception of Russians and Tartars). One cannot deny the fact, however, that the autochthonous population increased and that the growth was first registered in 1987. It should be added that contemporary Chinese have lost much of the creative urge of their ancestors to develop new lands. The government has to stimulate it with economic incentives rather than through forced mobilization that was practiced in the past. During the period of reforms the numerical strength of autochthonous people is increasing together with the number of Hans living in autonomous regions. The country’s leaders are well aware of the dangers of a disrupted demographic balance. They can control the process to preserve political stability in the ethnic fringes.
China is pursuing reasonable cultural and educational policies in the autonomous regions. The best works of Uighur and Turkic literature are regularly issued in XUAR, religious buildings are restored while traditions are respected and revived. The Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Dungans have preserved their languages and their cultures. There are places in Xinjiang where religious schools outnumber secular schools. The state, however, still strictly controls certain problems of ethnic minorities created by history that have preserved their ideological topicality. At certain stages historical science of any country finds it hard, if not impossible, to avoid tendentious treatment of the past. We all know that today in China the controversial historical problems are not swept under the rug but are openly discussed.
Specific Features of District Autonomy and Separatism
Xinjiang’s ethnic variety created an administrative patchwork: the autonomous region is divided into ethnic autonomous districts and uezds. For example, the Ili Kazakh autonomous okrug includes the Chapchal-Sibo autonomous uezd, the Hami autonomous okrug borders on the Barkul-Kazakh autonomous uezd. There is the Aksu-Kazakh autonomous uezd in the neighboring province of Gansu. They flank the main pass from XUAR to inner China. The Mongols have two autonomous uezds: the Borotala-Mongol and the Baingolen-Mongol. The Dungans also have autonomous uezds (the Changzi-Hoi and Yanci-Hoi at Urumqi). The Kyrgyz have their autonomous unit. There are Tartars in XUAR. In the last 50 years their number declined considerably yet they still comprise a great share of local intelligentsia.
The Turkic peoples of China have recaptured the feeling of ethnic dignity; they have become more confident of their children’s future. The Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek youth is more optimistic, they can study, on easy terms, in the higher educational establishments of corresponding republics and do research work there. In the last 10 years the number of Kazakhs from China who defended their candidate and doctoral theses in Kazakhstan was much greater than the number of Chinese Kazakhs who defended theses during the entire history of the People’s Republic of China. Social behavior of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in XUAR has also changed. This is obvious to the Uighur young people and affects their frame of mind. The Uighurs are convinced that their culture is much superior to that of other Turkic peoples of Xinjiang, especially of those that used to be nomads.
The autonomous districts of the Dungans and Mongols enjoy the same constitutional rights as XUAR. The majority of non-Uighurs have been living in the northern Tien Shan foothills (called Dzungaria) for at least 300 years.
In the past Uighur states mainly appeared in the southern Tien Shan foothills (Kashgaria) and in the northern Tien Shan foothills (in Hami and Turfan). The Hami and Turfan districts and Urumqi, the administrative center of XUAR, are separated from Uighuristan proper (Kashgaria) by two Dungan okrugs, and in the south by the vast Baingolen-Mongol autonomous okrug. This means that Kashgaria where Uighurs live is surrounded with other autonomous administrative units. This obviously somewhat contains separatist trends.
Kashgaria is a compact area where Uighurs have been living for a long time. Uighur separatists claim entire Xinjiang, the most radical of them want to spread to the Seven Rivers area, that is, part of the Kazakh and Kyrgyz territory. This explains why Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan object to the name Uighuristan that the Uighur patriots want to create as well as to their claims to part of Kazakh and Kyrgyz space. Other nations whose home is Xinjiang also disagree with these claims—they have historical rights to their homelands. In this respect, the interests of other nations of XUAR coincide with the interests of the Chinese governments and the Central Asian countries.
The Central Asian governments are convinced that the so far unsettled territorial disputes with China will be resolved in the nearest future. In fact, if created the state of Uighuristan will not remove Kazakhstan’s territorial problem. It will make it worse and unpredictable. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan will feel this too. What is more, a Soviet-Chinese conflict may develop into local and hard to control conflicts between Uighurs and Kazakhstan, Uighurs and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. A narrower problem will retain its complexity and will become hard or impossible to resolve. Contradictions will not be removed by either ethnic or religious proximity.
In 1949, before Xinjiang was “peacefully” joined to China there had been an Eastern Turkestan Republic (ETR). To cut short all separatist ideas the Chinese leaders created autonomous regions. Ethnic okrugs and uezds had appeared in Xinjiang even before a decree on creating XUAR was signed. It was created on 1 October, 1955, on the sixth anniversary of the PRC. This means that the Communist Party of China took time to resolve the problem. No wonder all five autonomous okrugs and six autonomous uezds of XUAR were set up two years before.
Let’s look at the problem of separatism from the religious point of view. In Xinjiang there are about 9,880 thou Muslims. During the Yakub Beg state and the short-lived ETR it was the Dungans (who were also Muslims) who were prepared to take up arms to oppose the very idea of Uighur states. Yakub Beg who was born in Kokand was an alien in Xinjiang and could not subjugate the Urumqi Sultanate of Dungans. In the 1930s and 1940s a Uighur army fought both Chinese and Muslim armies of Dungans. During the stormy 1940s, separate Uighur, Dungan, and Kazakh armed units could be created in Xinjiang. If the PRC starts falling apart the Dungans will fight for their interests and will logically arrive at the idea of a state of their own based on the Shaanxi-Hoi autonomous district as well as their okrugs and uezds in Xinjiang. The same applies to the Mongols, Sibo, Tibetans, and other ethnic groups. The idea of Uighur separatism will trigger a civil war, enmity, and hatred among the peoples now living in Xinjiang.
May they develop a less negative attitude to the idea of an Eastern Turkestan Republic? We do not know this for sure—there has been no sociological poll about this. Today, there are two million more Turks living in XUAR than other peoples. The Kazakhs and Kyrgyz can hardly be called diasporas—their ancestors have been living among Uighurs for a long time. With the autonomous units of their own in XUAR they may demand a plebiscite about their unification with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively. Autonomous okrugs and uezds in XUAR encircle the places populated by Uighurs. The checks and balances mechanism is reliably fit in China’s autonomous structure where ethnic units border China proper and where autonomous regions, especially XUAR, include smaller ethnic administrative units.
The Hami and Turfan districts are too far removed from Kashgaria and isolated from it. This may urge the potential state of Eastern Turkestan (or Uighuristan) to start a conflict of the Azerbaijan-Armenia-Nagorny Karabakh type that will cause conflicts and bloodshed. This says that the separation idea is ill timed and dangerous for Central Asia. To contain the process and to fight Uighur separatism the states of the region intend to coordinate their efforts.
The Legislative and Legal Aspects
A superficial observer may imagine that the fringes can detach themselves from the Chinese state. This is not true. The Constitution of the PRC says: “The national autonomous regions are an inalienable part of the PRC.” Obviously, the struggle for ETR will inevitably cause loss of life and bloodshed among the peoples of Xinjiang and in Central Asia.
Sovietologists abroad predicted that the Soviet Union would fall apart because of its nationalities policy but they never suspected that the process would start in the Center. The Soviet Slavic nations decided to set up states of their own while the Central Asian republics took some time to accommodate themselves to the death of the great power. In China the Center still has control over the ethnic fringes and the entire state. Its successes at home and abroad are impressive. We should also bear in mind that China has a centuries-long experience of fighting separatism and suppressing revolts in Xinjiang. Such revolts have been described, and are described today, as movements of the feudal theocratic top crust aimed against the unity of the homeland and at the disruption of its territorial integrity—in short, in the same terms as the efforts of separatists and national-separatists (in Taiwan and Hong Kong). If called to suppress an uprising the People’s Army of China will have no doubts: with 98 percent of Hans it is ethnically homogenous.
Territorial integrity and national unity are two natural priorities of the state that by the end of the 20th century managed to restore its rights over Hong Kong and Macao through lengthy and torturous talks. It is more than fifty years now that the People’s Republic of China has been consistently defending its right to Taiwan that it regards as part of its own territory.
The returned Hong Kong and Macao that acquired the status of a special administrative region of China opened a door to further political and administrative changes. Having succeeded to build Chinese socialism the country emerged from a deep crisis and embarked on a wide road of further development. The logic of economic reforms will lead to political changes to fit the new coil of the country’s history. Hong Kong, Macao and, possibly Taiwan, will serve as a foundation of a specific federative structure of China. If based on a constitution and long-term political and economic interests the structure will prove stable. The practice of democratic changes the world over, China included, says that various political parties, including those based on the ethnic principle, will play a more active role. There are several parties in China that exist side by side with the Communist Party (some of them have survived from the time when there was no PRC). All of them, however, are dominated by the Communist Party and share with it “glory and disgrace.” They should be shaken into action, given more independence, and offered a wider field of activity. If this happens the issue of the ethnic fringes will be resolved within the constitution.
Separatism is bridled by the social-economic changes and improved standards of living in the backward western regions. Economic growth should encourage democratic developments and preserve the country’s unity and territorial integrity. Unity can be further promoted by cultural advance of the country and its autonomous regions, respect for the great Chinese civilization and the feeling of creative affinity with it.
The country is enjoying much greater respect in the world. International situation is pushing it toward social progress.
A glance at the past will tell us that the issue of the Uighur statehood depended on the international context rather than on the will of Uighurs. Influential international forces treated the problem with indifference. The Islamic and Turkic factors were exploited to divide the spheres of influence in Central Asia.
The relatively recent Uighur states were never completely recognized by the outside world. In the 19th century the Russian Empire, in particular, that bordered on Xinjiang did not recognize the state of Yakub Beg. It even acted in the interests of China when it occupied for 10 years 50 thou sq km of its territory under a pretext of limiting Yakub Beg’s influence in the northern Tien Shan foothills. The czarist government was prepared to stay away if Yakub Beg was prepared in his turn to limit his activity to the lands to the south of Tien Shan (Kashgaria), that is, if he did not claim the northern foothills area. In its attitude to Xinjiang Britain was guided by its interests in South Asia that made its policies inconsistent and even contradictory. The Russian and British empires were containing one another in an effort to stuck root in the newly acquired colonies: Russia in Central Asia and Britain in India. Their sharp contradictions did not rule compromises between them or even secret agreements. This allowed China to exploit the contradictions of the two colonial powers to recapture Uighur Kashgaria in the 19th century.
The United State, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain continued their contradictory policies in the first half of the 20th century. As soon as people’s power asserted itself in China the U.S.S.R. agreed to liquidate the ETR. It was not by accident that the republic’s leaders boarded a Soviet plane that crashed over the Soviet territory. The Eastern Turkestan Republic had to disappear not only because new China was seeking power over the territory of the Qing Empire. The international balance of forces was also favorable.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the problem of an independent state in Xinjiang touched upon the interests of the great powers and other states. It was the area where intelligence services of many countries were most active. In the 1930s and 1940s, Japan and Turkey, two German allies, initiated buffer states between the Soviet Union and China. The result was not only the ETR but also two other structures: Manchukuo and the Republic of Mongolia. Both were short lived. Their existence came to an end when the anti-Hitler coalition triumphed and the People’s Republic of China was formed. The problem of the ETR’s sovereignty was pushed back—it did not suit the Soviet Union’s global plans. Indeed, the idea of independent Xinjiang was aimed not only at weakening Beijing but also at erecting a barrier between China and the Central Asian republics. It was revived during the years of Soviet-Chinese confrontation to protect the Soviet Union. As soon as the relations between the two countries improved Moscow dropped the idea: in an absence of confrontation the Soviet Union had no reasons to spend money on it and extend moral support to its proponents. Today, it is out of place either.
In the past Washington extended indirect support to Uighur nationalists and took a lenient view of what their organizations were doing in the United States. Today, it is prepared to list some of them as terrorist structures. This inconsistency has been obviously created by the Afghan and Iraqi problems and the White House’s desire to somewhat soften the Chinese displeasure with the American military bases in Central Asia, in direct proximity to Xinjiang. Together with the Taiwan the Xinjiang problem is developing into an instrument of pressure on China thus offering Americans some space for political maneuvering. At the same time, Washington will hardly regard the problem of “independent” Uighuristan as a priority.
The logic of national security has urged the Central Asian republics to clarify their attitude to the separatist movement in their agreements with China and their joint declarations. On an initiative of China and under its insistent pressure the Russian and Central Asian governments adopted the majority of points dealing with separatism. Not content with the bilateral agreements that clearly and unambiguously defined the sides’ positions in relation to “united China” the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization deepened and extended the sphere of their anti-separatist and anti-terrorist efforts. This proves that the states are apprehensive of organizations of separatists, terrorists, and religious extremists rather than of Beijing. From this it follows that they have admitted that the struggle for an independent Uighur state in Xinjiang is illegal and that it threatens not only China’s territorial integrity but also their own security. They have fully realized that the movement for the ETR or Uighuristan is negatively affecting stability in Central Asia and the entire post-Soviet expanse.
Uighur organizations are very active in many countries. They want to pool their efforts. With this aim in view they use the latest communication means such as the Internet. Regrettably, a large part of youth in Central Asia draws information about the separatists and their struggle for the ETR out of their web sites. These organizations are doing their best to interfere with the contacts between the Central Asian republics and China. They interpret any case of cooperation as an act of discrimination of Uighurs, one of the best examples being their efforts to discredit the Shanghai communiqué signed by four Central Asian countries, the Russian Federation, and China. One should not underestimate Uighur nationalism—it appeals to Islamic fundamentalism and pan-Turkism. China has established good relations with large Muslim states (Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq). It earned respect in the Islamic world when it actively promoted the idea of withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
One can expect that the international oil cartels, drug mafia, illegal arms traders, extremist religious organizations will turn their gaze to Xinjiang to cash in on it in the same way as they have earned and continue earning money in Afghanistan.
Distrust and dislike of the Chinese among the Uighurs is rising. Beijing looks at them in the same way as Russians in Moscow look at “people of Caucasian origin.” There is a pronounced “Uighur syndrome” in China, which is probably less strong than the Chechen syndrome in Russia.
The Uighur organizations working abroad are stepping up their activities and convene cultural, political, nationalist, and other conferences (kurultais). They do not shun terrorism, either. The official Chinese press describes them as criminal groups. There were cases when political fighters were judged as criminals while criminals tried to pass themselves for political figures fighting for national independence.
I would like to repeat what has been said above: the same forces that destroyed the Soviet Union are probably now working toward a destruction of the last communist empire. In this case, the revived idea of the Eastern Turkestan Republic is part of a global plan. To realize it these forces are exploiting objective difficulties China is experiencing. It will be much harder to destroy the PRC because it has changed its foreign and domestic priorities. The Soviet scenario is not applicable there for many reasons. First, despite difficulties the economic reform is going ahead, the living standards are steadily rising. The republic abandoned ideological diktat and is moving toward liberal authoritarianism; the traditional cultural values are acquiring more and more importance. In addition, Chinese émigrés feel no hatred toward their homeland and the present regime (as distinct from the Russian emigrants of three generations). They are less active politically. Few of them are involved in separatist activities. The Chinese leaders are successfully attracting compatriots to economic activity in China by offering privileges to their businesses. Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans, is undoubtedly the most influential figure among the emigrants. Uighurs have no such person.
The young Uighurs who emigrated after the events on the Tiananmen Square in June 1989 or never came back when their training abroad was over are drawn into the separatist movement for various reasons, one of them being patriotism. There are those who joined the movement in the hope of gaining political weight though they are too weak and ill prepared to fill the role of leaders. Such people can be found in Central Asia, too: the old Uighur leaders have disgraced themselves, they have bogged down in bitter strife in which terror is one of the weapons. Since Islam has moved to the forefront of international politics one of the descendants of the Uighur hodjas, who were the most rabid supporters of independence, may come to head the movement today. For several other reasons the Soviet variant cannot be used in China. Beijing’s foreign policy is aimed at closer political, economic, and cultural ties with the neighbors, it does not threaten their sovereignty and safety. The PRC is accumulating unique experience of the “One state—two political systems” type that in future can be extended, in a modified form, to autonomous regions.
At all times stability in Xinjiang and stability in Central Asia have been and remain interdependent.
The joint agreements and declarations issued by the governments of Central Asia and China that contain clauses about not granting support to separatist movements on their territories and preventing third states from using these territories to infringe on state sovereignty and national security meet the key interests of the states and contribute to their stability.
The Central Asian states will continue extending and strengthening their cooperation with China within the SCO in their fight against international terrorism, drug trafficking, and illegal trade.
The nations of the region should look after their state interests and should avoid the emotional traps of the idea of Turkic or Muslim affinity.
The idea of a buffer belt between China and the Central Asian republics that will allegedly protect them against “Chinese expansion” does not hold water because the problem of the Uighur statehood involves parts of territories of some of the Central Asian countries. The guarantees that Beijing can supply today are much more reliable. It is commonly recognized that China is playing an important role in ensuring regional and global stability that shows no signs of diminishing (it may even become larger).
The fight for the ETR may acquire unmanageable scopes and cause bloodshed if we take into account China’s human and material resources. The same applies to political, religious, and military confrontation among the Uighur oases and Uighur rivalry with other ethnoses in Xinjiang.
The Central Asian republics and China should stick to their balanced nationalities policy and should not infringe on the rights of the non-title nations. Han nationalism in China as well as Kazakh, Uzbek and other nationalisms in Central Asia may trigger ethnic conflicts that will echo in Xinjiang.