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China’s Xinjiang Problem

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • July 09, 2009

    It all started on 26 June in the toy factory owned by the Hong Kong-listed Lacewood International in China’s Shaoguan city of Guangdong province. An official news agency wrote "Six Xinjiang boys raped two innocent girls at the Xuri Toy Factory." It was found to be a hoax, but the rumour spread quickly through the Internet sparking a deadly clash between the Uighur workers and Han Chinese who fought each other with knives and metal pipes in which two Uighur labourers were reportedly killed and 118 injured. Authorities have found no evidence against the Uighurs for raping two Chinese girls but it has exposed China’s long-simmering ethnic discord between majority Han Chinese and the mostly Muslim Uighur ethnic group. Reports suggested later that thousands of Uighurs have fled Guangdong province to Xinjiang.

    Ten days later an intense ethnic clash occurred in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi which left about 160 dead and more than 800 injured. Independent sources suggested that over 600 people were killed. By all standards, it was a replica of Tibetan protests in Lhasa last March. It seems that the police had fired indiscriminately on a peaceful protest started by a few hundred people. The crowd later grew to ten thousand. Much like the Lhasa monks the Uighurs carrying knives, bricks and batons, torched vehicles and smashed shops, and fought against the armed police. The government has blamed Uighurs based abroad for orchestrating the attacks, especially the US based World Uighur Congress leader and a businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer for instigating the riot.

    For decades, the situation in Xinjiang has been worse than Tibet. The eight million Uighurs have showed deep resentment against Chinese rule since 1949. There have been serious violent movements against Chinese rule but they were all ruthlessly quelled by force. The Uighurs, like the Tibetans, have gone through a very tragic political history even in modern times. The Chinese have severely suppressed any form of political expressions and instead systematically diluted Uighur cultural identity, discriminated against them on religious grounds, and economically exploited them.

    China had for long tried to conceal the Uighur problem and downplayed the issue internationally. Uighur issues were handled discreetly through talks with Pakistan and the Taliban. For the past decade, Beijing quietly lobbied with the ISI and the Taliban leadership to exercise some control on Xinjiang's Islamic activists. In August 2001, Osama bin Laden called for “good relations” between Afghanistan and China, citing that this would reduce US influence in Asia. Notwithstanding the UN embargo, China provided clandestine aid to the Taliban regime through Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Regional Government. According to Xinjiang Year Book 2000 the Xinjiang Regional Government extended 40 million Yuan of economic aid to the Taliban in 1999.

    Chinese agencies had supported the Taliban in training Uzbek groups with the aim of destabilizing states in the region and compelling Central Asian states to make compromises with China which included ceding territories and accepting Chinese military aid since 2000.

    The Chinese authorities until September 2, 2001, had openly declared that Xinjiang faced no terrorism. But, suddenly, in the wake of 9/11 terror attacks, the Chinese State Council in January 2002 issued a report East Turkestan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity, which detailed the extent of terrorist activities since 1990. The report listed more than 200 incidents that resulted in 162 deaths and 440 injuries, and included bombings, assassinations, armed assaults on government organizations, poison and arson, establishing training bases, and plotting riots. Beijing blamed the ETIM for carrying out separatist attacks inside China.

    In 2002, the US had tactically singled out only ETIM as a terrorist outfit and left other outfits outside the list. The distinction helped the US widened the space for future maneuvering. Interestingly, the paradoxical impact of 9/11 was that while the Chinese got a rationale to depict the Uighurs and Tibetans in the prism of the “war on terror” - a form of rhetoric Beijing has used in all its political discourses since then. The Uighur issue has also gained more prominence through US actions against terrorism. The US listing of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization sharpened the focus on Xinjiang. ETIM was linked to Al-Qaida.

    However, the more the Chinese slandered and vilified the Uighurs in the name of counter-terrorism, the more intense has become their urge for self-identity, enhancing their national pride and confidence to resist Chinese domination. Beijing’s attempt to prove the ethnic Uighurs as guilty seems to have become counter-productive.

    In fact, several Watch Groups have claimed that China’s use of “war on terror” as a tool for suppressing the ethnic groups has grossly undermined the essence of the global war on terrorism. A series of “strike hard” campaigns were launched in Xinjiang in which thousands were detained and sentenced for their non-violent crimes of political opposition. The story of Rebiya Kadeer is a case in point. Far worse, the terror campaign also invoked a renewed sense of Chinese nationalism and xenophobia against minorities like the Uighurs and Tibetans. So far, the US had no discernible influence on the Uighur movements. However, since 2001 it had opened military bases in Kyrgyzstan on the doorsteps of Xinjiang.

    The war on terrorism may have sufficiently enticed the US to factor in Xinjiang into its policies. Even prior to 9/11 the Uighur issue has been gaining significant support within the US. The US began to shelter many Uighur activists and even allowed them to open an exile Uighur government in the US. In June 1999, President of Eastern Turkestan National Freedom Centre, Anwar Yusuf met with President Clinton. The Uighur lobby in the US pressured the Bush administration supposedly with varying degrees of success. In May 2002, Erkin Alptekin met with Andrew Wimbush, former Head of Radio “Svobodo” (Freedom) and later with an official at the State Department. Past records suggest that the CIA in order to nurse Uighur nationalism, carefully invested on nationalists who escaped Xinjiang in the early 1950s.

    There are sufficient reasons to believe that the US may have softened the Uighur activists to de-link themselves from the Al-Qaida, the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. It is also believed that Turkish military forces designated to head the ISAF in Afghanistan had such a task to perform. The Obama administration has refused to hand over 17 Guantanamo Uighurs to China.

    The plight of the 17 Guantanamo Uighurs and their helplessness broke the hearts of ethnic Uighurs. No free country except the tiny Pacific Island of Palau agreed to take them in. China’s aggressive bid for their deportation to China without delay evoked a sharp nationalist response in Xinjiang. Guantanamo Uighurs very much depicted and magnified the status of Uighurs as a whole – the state of living in fear, under persecution and assimilation.

    Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, the Chinese have implemented a series of tough policies including the forced transfer of teenage Uighur women to China’s Eastern cities like Tianjin, Jiangsu, Qingdao, Shandong, Zhejiang and others in the guise of providing employment opportunities. In 2006 alone there had been 240,000 of cases Uighur girls being forced to shift from the Kashgar Region. The plight of these girls is reportedly miserable and they are also not allowed to return freely to their hometowns. This policy, aggressively pursued to bridge the economic gap by the authorities has raised pent-up anxieties among the Uighurs as these girls are often used as slave labor and sex workers in Chinese cities. Cultural assimilation was another motive apart from the sinister design to obliterate the size of the Uighur population.

    Similarly, the government implemented a policy to effectively remove Uighur as a language of instruction. Similar restrictions were imposed on religious practices such as limiting people in the Hajj pilgrimage, prohibiting minors from entering mosques, etc.

    More recently the Chinese sought to destroy the ancient Silk Route town of Kashgar. The houses and architectural sites were removed to raise a new Chinese-type city. This has also fuelled Uighur resentment.

    In fact long before last year’s Olympics Xinjiang witnessed a series of attacks. A 19-year-old Uighur was caught in March 2008 for attempting a "terror plot" on board a China Southern Airlines plane (flight CZ6901). Two Uighurs were executed for an attack that killed 19 policemen in Kashgar in the run-up to the Olympics.

    India has limited contact with the Uighurs even though India borders Xinjiang. Ever since India was forced to close its Consulate in Kashgar in the 1950s, there have been virtually no interactions between India and Xinjiang. The visit to India in 2005 by the governor of Xinjiang, Ismail Tiliwaldi was an isolated case only meant to deepen Sino-Indian relations. New Delhi treated Tiliwaldi’s visit as a low key affair with no political significance. Some of the economic issues raised during his visit were not followed up later pointing to China’s sensitivities about India’s economic engagement with Xinjiang which was historically described by the Indians as Ratna-Bhumi.

    It is evident that the regional balance of interests on the Central Asia-China frontier is undergoing rapid transformation. Major Powers are in pursuit of their interests in the region which was historically of geopolitical interest to India. It is time New Delhi makes a clear distinction between Uighur nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, and builds close ties with the people of Xinjiang in order to gain leverage for future contingencies.