“THE XINJIANG FACTOR” AND CENTRAL ASIAN SECURITY
Farkhad Khamraev, Represents the Central Asia and the Caucasus journal in Uzbekistan, assistant professor, Uzbek State University of World Languages (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)
Today, people around the world ask themselves more and more frequently which of the countries will become another “hot spot” (after Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq) and a target of air strikes of the United States and its allies. The list includes Iran, North Korea, Liberia, and Syria. Certain experts list the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China (XUAR) among other troublesome areas—an obvious overstatement not without certain reasons behind it.
The XUAR (or Eastern Turkestan) is described as a Central Asian destabilizing factor while the expert community has already warned that the main world centers of power may exploit the “Uighur question” as a trump card when dealing with their strategic tasks. Indeed, in the last few years the social and political situation there has aggravated: Western experts described the 1997 and 1998 disturbances as the largest in the last decade of the 20th century. In fact, their echo can be still heard in the area. Though of much smaller scale they may cause grave consequences. Having enlisted support of the XUAR neighbors (Russia and Kazakhstan, in the first place) Beijing methodically suppresses even the slightest manifestations of unrest; it redeployed regular troops from inner China part of which were permanently stationed in the area.
The Fifth Session of the All-Chinese Meeting of People’s Representatives that took place in March 1997 paid particular attention to ethnic relations; its decision said, in part: “We should be firm and consistent when it comes to protecting our Motherland’s integrity and the unity of our peoples; we should resolutely rebuff all deliberations and actions designed to split our Motherland and undermine the unity of its peoples.” The same session adopted a law on national defenses that instructed the army to suppress all armed rebellions designed to split the country.
The XUAR is the largest administrative area of the People’s Republic of China; it covers 1,700 thou sq. km, a third of the country’s total area. In 1946, an Eastern Turkestan Republic was set up there; in 1949, when the communists came to power in China the republic’s leaders were forced to enter into negotiations with the central government. On Mao’s invitation they all boarded a plane heading to Beijing and never reached it. The plane crashed killing the leaders and leaving the republic without leadership and sovereignty. The Chinese army made a job of putting down the local unrest. Eastern Turkestan became one of the provinces of China.
The Uighurs, however, did not abandon their attempts at restoring the Republic of Eastern Turkestan. Certain sources report that in the nearly 60 large-scale uprisings that took place between 1958 and 1972 about 360 thou perished, while about half a million local people were sentenced to forced labor. Today, there are about 20 million living in the autonomy, the population is swelling with Hans coming from the central provinces.
Being part of China Xinjiang had to re-adjust its cultural and other contacts. In 1962, when the relations between Moscow and Beijing dropped to the lowest level the state borders were sealed off thus cutting short communication with the closest neighbors. Until the late 1980s the autonomy had no contacts with the outside world while Beijing’s efforts to assimilate the local people (today the Chinese comprise 40 percent of the local population against meager 4 percent in 1949) added to the tension in the area.
At all times vital interests of many countries met on the territory of northwestern China: in antiquity it was a scene of numerous wars provoked by external forces and internal contradictions. The Great Silk Road crossed Xinjiang: it brought prosperity to the local people and connected China and Central Asia with Europe. The area rich in mineral resources and strategic raw materials attracted the West and the East; it was in Xinjiang that China bordered (in geographic terms) on the Islamic world. This never contributed to a peaceful coexistence of varied ethnic groups and confessions. In the middle of the 20th century China finally established its complete and legitimate control over Eastern Turkestan yet part of the local population disagrees with this for several reasons. First, the area was doomed to ethnic conflicts by the fact that the Chinese state was developing as a unitary and a highly centralized one. Second, the events of the 1940s (independence of Eastern Turkestan) were still fresh in the living memory. Third, the local people were tempted and irritated by the newly acquired independence of their Central Asian neighbors.
Being aware of these circumstances the world centers of power are using them in their strategic struggle against China, which, in its turn, is doing its best to stem destabilization. This explains why Beijing wants economic development in the region that will bring political stability on both sides of the border and strengthen China’s influence in Central Asia.
Through the reforms and liberalization the Uighurs have got a chance to contribute to these developments yet not all of them have so far succeeded to participate in the process to an equal degree. In fact, modernization in the XUAR is proceeding much slower than the central authorities would have wished. In large cities economic progress and higher living standards are obvious while in the rural localities reforms are stalling. Progressive developments have not yet reached Kashgaria and the Turfan oasis. On top of this, part of the local population rejects, or fails to accept the economic reforms in a conviction that economic growth will turn the area into an inalienable part of China and that the local mentality and ethnic specifics will be lost forever. Ethnic variety creates many more problems for the central authorities.
The Uighur intellectuals mainly concentrated in Urumqi and other large cities prefer the secular mode of life; they are opposed to Islam, support pan-Turkism, are fully aware of Chinese politics and know that armed struggle will bring no positive results. The rural areas are populated by faithful Muslims who want more mosques and deeper Islamic roots in their native land. They are opposed to the Chinese and painfully react to all attacks against their inner world and way of life. They should be treated with patience and tact—the Chinese leaders are gradually learning this. The Uighur merchants and rich peasants are happy to be citizens of the People’s Republic of China; they do not meddle with politics, do not take part in the efforts to undermine their country’s sovereignty. They are cosmopolitans of sorts engrossed in economic activities.
Because of social patchiness Uighur nationalism (in the positive meaning of the word) finds it hard to create a blanket ideology, the circumstance the authorities skillfully exploit to tighten their control over mosque building in Kashgaria and establish closer relations with the Turfan oasis.
Until recently, Beijing tried to bring in stability and economic prosperity by controlling cultural and religious renaissance and weakening, by the same token, the nationalist movement and antigovernment sentiments. The strategy of selective tolerance and cautious liberalization provokes demands for greater freedom and wider autonomy up to complete independence.
Here I would like to discuss another aspect: the Chinese expert community is convinced that explosions and general unrest in Xinjiang are paid for by all sorts of Islamic movements. Until recently it was believed that the money came from Afghanistan and Pakistan while Beijing insisted that this was a proven fact and that Islamic unrest in the area was stirred up mainly from other countries. Official channels and the media informed that Taliban members had been spotted in Xinjiang during disturbances. Beijing exploited this information to discuss the problem. One can say that several dozens of Uighurs did fight together with the Taliban in Afghanistan. To my mind, these are chance occurrences that cannot be interpreted as a consistent pattern. Probably, there were ties between the XUAR separatists and the Taliban yet the contacts had never been active. People from the Taliban probably came to Xinjiang yet they hardly could affect the course of events: the local population is too patchy while considerable Islamic bias is limited to Kashgaria. It should be said that China was one of the first regional countries to establish relations with the Taliban.1 Despite the “relationships of strategic partnership and cooperation” between Beijing and Moscow China is out to strengthen its regional role and in view of its good relations with Pakistan does not want Russia’s stronger presence there. In full conformity with its strategy China will never hasten to support Russian diplomatic moves designed to strengthen the Kremlin’s positions in the sub-region. China’s position on the Afghan developments has confirmed the above.
At the same time, the pragmatic and consistent policies of China that is rapidly gaining economic and military weight allows us to expect that it will try to play the key role in Central Asia and around it. Beijing wants this and it will increase its influence in the future. From this it follows that Beijing will hardly permit any considerable disturbances in Xinjiang that may destabilize the country. This brings to mind the phrase ascribed to the Great Helmsman: “China will rather surrender Peking than Xinjiang.” This shows that China will work hard to bolster its geopolitical positions so that to control, with the help of economic instruments, the strategically important area rich in mineral resources.
Neither the United States, nor Russia nor other close neighbors are prepared to accept China’s greater role in Central Asia.
The antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan made the American and NATO presence in the region a fact. Experts believe that the United States has come to stay if no unexpected developments drive it out. The world superpower is resolved to address its many tasks in the region; it will try to interfere in the unfolding “Big Game” so that to prevent other players from gaining control over the key region.
One cannot exclude a possibility that continued NATO presence is explained by the American plans in relation to Iran. Experts believe that it was the Afghan and/or Iranian factor that urged the United States to deploy its forces in Central Asia. In the middle-term prospect the Xinjiang factor may come to the fore.
If China strengthens it positions in the world and in the region one cannot exclude a possibility that the Central Asian countries and the Muslim regions of China will be involved in an active confrontation between Washington and Beijing. Some of the readers might doubt this in the same way as several years ago nobody believed that America would deploy its troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to certain sources, during the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan, several hours before American air strikes began, all ethnic Uighurs (there were few of them) who fought together with the Taliban had been evacuated to an unknown place. This gives food for thought.
Russia is another country that is involved in the region and that may use the Xinjiang factor.
At the first stage of the antiterrorist operation the tasks of Moscow and Washington were similar. The Kremlin today is not bothered with the American military presence though the U.S. confrontation with Iraq and, more so, with Iran has changed Russia’s approaches to a great extent. The situation with China is different. Beijing, like Tehran, is an important strategic partner of Moscow’s; Russia and China have agreed to actively oppose religious extremism and separatism; they act together with Central Asian countries within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This is especially important because Russia has a “Xinjiang of its own,” viz., the Republic of Ichkeria. Yet, things do change, in politics changes proceed even faster than in other spheres. Second, nobody knows whether five or seven years later Moscow and Beijing will still have common strategic interests; they might cross somewhere, Central Asia being one of the most probable places. Throughout several decades Moscow has been using the Xinjiang factor as a trump card in its relations with China by supporting (openly or secretly) the national-liberation movement there. This might happen again in the middle-term perspective; Russia and the United States may become allies sharing the same aim: weakening China at all costs up to and including its disintegration. This is hardly realizable; third countries (including the Central Asian republics) will hardly approve of it because it might trigger uncontrolled migration and create an explosive situation. One should not be too pessimistic yet one should bear in mind that the external forces (America, Russia, and possibly, Japan) might exploit the centrifugal trends in China. Time alone will show how the events will develop yet one should be prepared to everything.
The Central Asian Position
Naturally enough the Central Asian governments do not want destabilization; for this reason, they prefer to keep away from the Xinjiang problem and publicly condemn the separatist movement as part of international terrorism.
The top political figures use every chance to convince official Beijing of their support of China’s position on XUAR. This is easier said than done: Xinjiang is home to kindred Muslim peoples wishing independence; the Central Asian republics that have acquired independent statehoods, and their population in the first place, sympathize with these sentiments. There is an opinion that the Central Asian countries may find that another independent country in the east of the region will serve their interests as a buffer between them and China. Indeed, stable China may emanate a much greater threat to the Central Asian countries’ national security than an unstable XUAR though the truth of this is debatable. To my mind the local countries that have experienced the civil war in Tajikistan and are living side by side with the smoldering conflict in Afghanistan will hardly agree to live next to another explosive country. They will probably prefer another smoldering conflict, this time in XUAR.
What Should the Uighurs Do?
Xinjiang is a multi-ethnic area in which the Uighurs comprise the greater part (about 50 percent) of the non-Han population, therefore not infrequently the Xinjiang factor is called the Uighur factor, the name not quite justified. On the other hand, it is the Uighurs who are accused of ethnic separatism and an active independence struggle.
The Uighurs living in Central Asia considerably differ from those living in XUAR because of different political systems. Still, they belong to the same people divided by state borders, this circumstance adding urgency to their cultural and ideological unity.
Today, nearly all Uighurs are politically active while their deliberations about national resurrection and independence attract the attention of the Central Asian and even the world media. It should be added that the media are mainly stirred up by reports about sociopolitical events coming from XUAR. Articles alone, not matter how profound, cannot resolve the problem. It should be said in all justice that the world public should be familiarized with various aspects of the life of Uighurs; in the past no similar information reached the world while the Uighur Question was China’s domestic issue. The situation is slowly changing and becoming more hopeful.
The Uighur people have to identify the spiritual and material potential that will keep them moving toward unification. They should prevent disagreements from becoming personal as this happens sometimes; they should stop looking for an enemy.
They should keep in mind their past, peer into the future, take account of social development patterns and the current political situation. The last twenty years of the 20th century were full of local wars and regional conflicts that involved Muslims to various extents. These chaotic splashes of violence demonstrated that the Muslims were disunited. If the situation in Xinjiang becomes chaotic then the peoples of Eastern Turkestan, the Uighurs in the first place (or rather their smaller part) will have to face the well-equipped army of China. The latest events in Iraq buried the myth of Muslim unity and of the Muslims resolved to defend their values till the end.
Those who call the people to arms should bear this in mind: they are responsible for their people’s negative image in the world that now takes the Uighurs for terrorists. On the whole, however, the Uighurs are aware of the real situation and are convinced that the old dream of an independent Uighur state will hardly come true in the nearest future. An active discussion of the so-called Uighur Question in the media, more active involvement of all sorts of organizations in setting up an independent Uighur state are either spontaneous efforts or provocations of the special services of the interested states. I agree with the Secretary General of the East Turkestan (Uighur) National Congress Asgar Djan who said: “We should explain to our people why the slogans calling to violence are dangerous so that to rescue our people and show them the right way.”2
Today there is only one geopolitical factor that may bring changes to XUAR—this is American presence in the region. Beijing is fully aware of this and it spares no efforts to raise the standards of living in the area by investing huge sums in its economy. This gradually changes the sentiments of the local people and their opinion about life. The threat emanating from the area is gradually reducing. It is hard to say whether other centers of power will reconcile themselves to this.
1 See: F. Khamraev, “K voprosu o kitaisko-afghanskikh otnosheniakh,” Problemy Dal’nego Vostoka, No. 3, 2001.
2 Kontinent, No. 101, 2003, p. 20.