Nov 22, 2007

East Turkestan: More Visible as Under More Pressure?

As the race for the 2008 Beijing Olympics is speeding up, Uyghurs minority are facing both increased international visibility and rising pressure from Chinese authorities.

As the race for the 2008 Beijing Olympics is speeding up, Uyghurs minority are facing both increased international visibility and rising pressure from Chinese authorities.

Below is an excerpt published by International Security Network:

While the outside world may be slowly coming to an awareness of the concerns of China's little known Uighur minority, according to human rights activists, Beijing's policies in the last few years have put the minority under increasing pressure.

Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on 1 August 1949, its communist government has persistently pursued the policy of Communist Party supremacy in a single-party multi-ethnic state, which reunites all the areas of traditional Chinese influence.

Among China's minorities, the Tibetans have persistently enjoyed the highest visibility, largely due to its charismatic leader, the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, much to Beijing's fury.

A much less known second minority, the China's eight million Muslim Turkic Uighurs, is seeking similar visibility for its ethnic concerns from the global community.

In fact, in June [2007], US President George W Bush received at the White House one of the Uighur's leading advocates, Rebiya Kadeer, thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and head of the Uighur-American Association.

China's policy toward the province of Xinjiang and the Uighurs has been heavily impacted by three major events: the collapse of Communism in the USSR, 9/11 and the growing importance of the region as a source of raw materials and a transit route for Central Asian energy supplies.

A potential future flashpoint is China's hosting of the 2008 Olympics, which will bring an unprecedented flood of journalists into the country - a situation that has Beijing worried that "separatist" groups will use the event as a publicity platform.

On 16 November [2007] Beijing's Olympic Security Command Center Deputy Director Liu Shaowu told journalists that "protesters" violating China's "sovereignty" would not be tolerated.

The Uighurs' most recent international visibility occurred on 10 November [2007], when the Intermediate People's Court in Kashgar sentenced three Muslim Uighur defendants to death, two to death with a two-year suspension and one to life in prison, after convicting them of terrorist activity.

"If anyone dares to conduct sabotage activities or tries to split the country, we will without a doubt clamp down," Xinjiang party chief Wang Lequan recently warned, according to local media reports.

Whether Uighur nationalism with its slowly emerging international image succeeds in overcoming the cumulative effect of these pressures remains to be seen. Given the territory's sheer size and resources, the stakes are immense.

The province of Xinjiang comprises one-sixth of China's territory, and its security is a major concern for the Chinese leadership, as its borders abut the Central Asian nations of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Tajikistan, along with Russia and southern Asian powers Pakistan and India.

A major way station on the fabled Silk Road, the Uighurs converted to Sunni Islam in the 10th century. Their oasis and tribal-based culture precluded the development of a strong centralized state, which was instead defined on cultural and linguistic affinities, with a strong overlay of Islamic Sufism. During the 19th century, as the easternmost subset of the "Great Game" between the Russian and British empires vying for control of Central Asia, the Sufi brotherhoods strongly resisted Chinese and Russian encroachment into Xinjiang.

In the early 20th century, Uighur nationalism was heavily influenced by the Turkish jadist movement along with post-World War I concepts of Pan-Turkism, as opposed to the ideas of the Turkish republic founded by Kemal Ataturk.

It was only in 1933 and 1944 that the Uighurs succeeded in establishing an independent political state, the Islamic Eastern Turkestan Republic. Uighur political evolution was quashed by Red Army forces aiding Chinese Nationalist forces and the province was later subsumed by Communist Peoples Liberation Army troops.

Xinjiang is rich in minerals. To give but one example, the province has coal reserves of 2.19 trillion tons, or 40 percent of China's total. Geological surveys have discovered 138 different minerals. Perhaps most importantly, Xinjiang also contains an estimated 25 percent of China's oil and natural gas reserves, with current proven natural gas reserves at 840 billion cubic meters. 

The economy of Xinjiang is being interwoven ever more tightly into China's economy, with one of the leading reasons being both the region's energy resources and the growing skein of pipelines from Central Asia increasingly crisscrossing the province.

The desire for economic exploitation of the region combined with a need for political control has resulted in a gradual decades-long migration of ethnic Han Chinese into the province. 

During the early 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Beijing nervous about virulently anti-communist Islamic radicalism emanating from Kabul increased its military presence in Xinjiang's urban centers and intensified Maoist indoctrination there, which in turn produced a steady rise in Uighur nationalism.

Even prior to 9/11, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji epitomized Beijing's attitude toward Xinjiang in his 13 September 2000 statement by saying that an "iron fist" was necessary there to combat threats to China's unity and stability. 

Since then, Uighurs have shared with their Chinese compatriots many of Beijing's repressive policies, enforcing single child birth control as it encouraged massive Han migration into the Xinjiang, either through economic incentives or force.

Ethnic Han make up 94 percent of China's population, but the majority of the world's Uighur population lives in Xinjiang. China's 2000 census showed the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang was growing twice as quickly as the indigenous Uighur population. 

Statistics say it all; more than 1.2 million Chinese immigrants have arrived in Xinjiang since 1970. In 1949, Xinjiang's capital Urumqi was 80 per cent Uighur in its makeup. In 2007, it is 80 percent Han Chinese. The Uighurs feel that they are slowly being drowned in a rising tide of Chinese immigration, with the Han Chinese allocated the best jobs and housing as well.

Chinese President Hu Jintao said in a 28 May 2005 speech, "We will firmly take control of the initiative in the struggle and resolutely oppose hostile forces inside and outside China who use ethnic issues to infiltrate and sabotage." 

Human rights groups assert that hundreds of Uighurs have been imprisoned and dozens executed in the ensuing crackdown, with little visibility in the western media. Of the 18 Uighurs arrested in Afghanistan by the US and subsequently incarcerated in Guantanamo, all have been formally declared "no longer an enemy combatant" and slated for release.

Like the Tibetans, a Uighur diaspora exists in the Muslim nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan, along with communities in Canada, Germany and the US. The internet has allowed diaspora members to keep their cause alive, none more so than the Washington-based Uighur-American Association, headed by Kadeer.