Jun 23, 2004

East Turkestan: The unsettled west of China

Three new books detail Xinjiang's long history of oppression. As they show, Beijing's rule there has always been harsh -- but never so bad as in the last few years

Joshua Kurlantzick
From Foreign Affairs, July/August 2004

Summary: Three new books detail Xinjiang's long history of oppression. As they show, Beijing's rule there has always been harsh -- but never so bad as in the last few years.
Joshua Kurlantzick is Foreign Editor of The New Republic.

Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland. Edited by S. Frederick Starr. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2004, 528 pp. $89.95

"Xinjiang -- China's Muslim Far Northwest." Michael Dillon. London: Routledge Curzon, 2003, 201 pp. $95.00.

"Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang." Christian Tyler. London: John Murray, 2003, 320 pp. £20.00 (paper, £8.99).

After 1949, Beijing's brutal pacification of Xinjiang -- a vast province in western China -- was almost completely ignored in the West for the next 40 years. Unlike other groups persecuted by China (such as the Tibetans), Xinjiang's Muslim inhabitants, the Uighurs, have had no charismatic, English-speaking spokesperson or unified exile organization; the Uighurs' few prominent exiles lived in Turkey, and they spent most of their time squabbling among themselves. Xinjiang thus rarely made it onto the agenda of foreign governments, and with the region largely closed to foreigners, few academics or human rights groups could study it.

Within the past decade, however, news from Xinjiang has started to seep out. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was suddenly confronted with newly independent neighbors in Central Asia -- states with close ethnic ties to the Turkic Uighurs. Uighurs began traveling to these Central Asian states, Pakistan, the Middle East, and even the United States, often returning to Xinjiang more determined than ever to fight for independence. Worried about growing Uighur separatism, Beijing tightened its control of Xinjiang, turning the region into the death-penalty capital of the world.

But unlike during past repressions, this time foreign governments and human rights organizations began to take notice -- partly because of China's greater openness, and partly because Central Asia had suddenly become an important energy producer. Massive oil deposits were found in the region -- Xinjiang itself is now known to have China's biggest petroleum reserves -- and foreign oil companies, with the backing of their respective

nations, arrived in Central Asia en masse. Germany, Iran, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and other new players began to increase their involvement in the region. Beijing, worried about losing its influence there, ramped up its own plans to develop western China as a bridge to Central Asia; these plans included increasing the movement of ethnic Han migrants into Xinjiang.

Then came September 11, 2001. Following the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., the United States entered Central Asia in force, establishing military bases throughout the region to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda -- bases that have put U.S. troops within several hundred miles of the Chinese border. Xinjiang suddenly found itself at the center of a battle between China, Russia, and the United States for control of Central Asia.

Into this tumultuous mix now come three important new books on Xinjiang. The most accessible, Wild West China, is a general history of the region by Christian Tyler, a former correspondent for the Financial Times. The other two, Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland, edited by S. Frederick Starr, head of Johns Hopkins University's Central Asia studies program, and Xinjiang -- China's Muslim Far Northwest, by Michael Dillon of the University of Durham, are more academic attempts to draw a three-dimensional portrait of modern Xinjiang's people, economy, religion, culture, and dangerously tense politics. Because western China was largely closed to foreign writers until the early 1990s, and Beijing has once more restricted journalists' access to the region since September 11, all three books are valuable additions to the little that is known about Xinjiang in the West.

Dillon and Starr do a good job of putting China's current involvement in Xinjiang into historical context. Foreign rulers have always viewed the region as a wild place needing to be tamed and have frequently treated the Uighurs as second-class citizens. Only the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), however, has gone so far as to try to destroy the Uighurs altogether, in a process of de facto demographic genocide.

Unfortunately, as Central Asia has recently grown more important, Washington and key actors in the region have essentially sacrificed the Uighurs to geopolitics. The United States has largely accepted China's attempt to link Uighur separatists to international Islamic terror networks, glossing over the Uighurs' legitimate concerns in the process. Washington has even abetted this linkage and Beijing's crackdown on various Uighur groups.

The United States, however, need not choose between Xinjiang and China. It could simultaneously defend the Uighurs' rights and fight the war on terror. Unfortunately, none of these three books offers much help in this regard, since they present only facile, familiar suggestions for how the West can minimize Beijing's repression and keep the Uighurs from becoming radicalized. They fail to mention what would be a far better approach: foreigners should use China's own weaknesses -- its dependence on foreign oil and its need to keep opening its economy -- as leverage to force Beijing to temper its repressive Xinjiang policies.


The idea of Xinjiang as a contiguous entity is relatively new. As Tyler's book colorfully captures, from the premodern era until the mid-eighteenth century, Xinjiang was either ruled from afar by Central Asian empires or not ruled at all. Its vast, barren deserts made it difficult to conquer: in the early twentieth century, the well-traveled British archaeologist Aural Stein visited Xinjiang and was overwhelmed by its inhospitality, marveling at its "desolate wilderness, bearing everywhere the impress of death." When Chinese rulers did manage to conquer Xinjiang, they found maintaining large armies there nearly impossible. In 104 BC, Emperor Wudi sent 60,000 men to conquer the West; only 10,000 came back alive.

Tyler brings the region's premodern history to life, skillfully employing individual anecdotes to illustrate its wild past, including the introduction of Sufi Islam in the tenth century and the later development of the Silk Road trade route, which passed through Xinjiang. The other two books, which are drier but fact-filled, fill in Tyler's overly broad narrative with rich detail and more nuanced assessment.

Although the reader has to dig through the sprawl of details in these books to find central themes, the implications of history for modern Xinjiang are clear. Tyler has titled his book Wild West China because the Uighurs' relationship with Beijing resembles that of the Native Americans with Washington: as China began to develop into a state with a distinct national identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Chinese, with their own version of manifest destiny, began to see Xinjiang as a place inhabited by barbarians ready for civilizing. As a result of what Tyler calls "Chinese orientalism," Beijing even convinced itself that untamed Xinjiang would welcome China's intervention -- conveniently ignoring the region's historical and cultural links to the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Chinese thus underestimated the resistance Xinjiang would mount to Han culture.

By the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, as the Qing dynasty consolidated its power, it began to expand its borders, nearly doubling China's size in an effort to, among other things, protect it from the Great Game machinations of Russia and the United Kingdom. This time, when China conquered Xinjiang it came to stay, securing its annexation of the region with brutal tactics. Tyler describes the slaughter of more than a million people during this period, and James Millward and Peter Perdue, two contributors to the Starr book, detail the Qing dynasty's creation of small, self-sustaining military colonies in Xinjiang -- the precursors of China's massive modern-day military structure there.

Over the next 200 years, interactions between Beijing and the Uighurs set the stage for the worse confrontations to come. Here again, all three books are better at relating details than broader themes, but a few constants still manage to emerge. The Chinese government, unable to see Uighurs as equal to the Han, never offered them autonomy. Instead, Beijing forced the natives to do unpaid labor and barred them from local political positions. Misrule stoked local anger, and a series of uprisings resulted. In one blood-drenched revolt in 1825, tribespeople massacred 8,000 Chinese soldiers, prompting a harsh response from the central government.

As the twentieth century dawned, China's pacification of Xinjiang remained incomplete. With its central government weakened by rebellions, the overthrow of the monarchy, and general chaos, China could not completely consolidate its rule over the west. Wily local warlords took advantage of Beijing's distraction, and three times before 1949, Uighur leaders founded short-lived independent states, which remain important symbols for Uighurs today; as Dillon writes, the bank notes of the last free Xinjiang republic, crushed in 1949, are still revered by many Uighurs as symbols "of a once and future state." The last Xinjiang republic even included a relatively democratic constitution that promised freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.


Although the Qing and Nationalist governments managed to conquer Xinjiang, they never attempted to colonize the vast region. After the communists took over, however, everything changed. Although some scholars see the last few hundred years of Chinese repression in Xinjiang as a continuum, the authors of these books are correct to point out that CCP rule has been drastically different from its predecessors' and has succeeded in radicalizing some Uighurs as never before.

Although it initially promised Xinjiang significant autonomy, once the CCP consolidated its hold over the country in the 1950s, it began to adopt much stricter policies toward the Uighurs. For the first time ever, Beijing had a radical ideology to spread and secure borders within which to spread it. But communist ideology, when combined with the traditional Chinese view of the Uighurs as barbarians (Mao Zedong's wife famously hated ethnic minorities) and a fear of concentrated ethnic groups, wreaked locust-like devastation in Xinjiang. Across China, the CCP targeted the wealthy, the educated, and the devout, but in Xinjiang the terror was worse. As Millward writes in the Starr book, "only in Xinjiang did the party face a majority, non-Chinese-speaking Islamic population with a well-established clerical organization." Thousands of mosques were shuttered, imams were jailed, Uighurs who wore headscarves or other Muslim clothing were arrested, and during the Cultural Revolution, the CCP purposely defiled mosques with pigs. Many Muslim leaders were simply shot. The Uighur language was purged from school curricula, and thousands of Uighur writers were arrested for "advocating separatism" -- which often meant nothing more than writing in Uighur. Meanwhile, Beijing forced Xinjiang's nomadic farmers into collectives, which, thanks to the region's limited arable land, were even less productive than those in other parts of the country. The scars left by such misguided policies remain today, and many of Xinjiang's greener parts are turning into desert.

During the postwar period, the CCP also began a campaign to change the demographics of Xinjiang while also exploiting its natural resources to feed eastern China's growing cities. Beijing forced birth control on the Uighurs and simultaneously encouraged massive Han migration into the region, using economic incentives or simply forcing Chinese to move west. The results of these policies were devastating: whereas in 1941 Uighurs made up more than 80 percent of Xinjiang's population, by 1998, they made up less than 50 percent. Urumqi, Xinjiang's largest city, is now a Han metropolis, with the few Uighurs confined to small ghetto-like areas where they pose for pictures and desperately hawk cheap carpets to visitors.

Starr and Dillon argue that such policies have had two contradictory effects on Xinjiang. Some Uighurs have simply given up. Nearly 500,000 crossed into the Soviet Union in the early 1960s or turned to drugs; Xinjiang now has a serious heroin problem, and hence a major HIV problem as well. Others, however, have rebelled. Starr argues that by targeting Uighurs for their ethnicity and religion, Mao was the first Chinese leader to "nourish one of the most serious centripetal movements in Xinjiang's long history: the rise of pan-Uighur identity." Indeed, thanks to Beijing's policies, instead of fighting among themselves, as the Uighurs had done for centuries, after 1949 many began to settle their intra-ethnic differences and build a sense of Uighur solidarity. By 1954, Uighur uprisings began breaking out in the city of Khotan, and in the 1960s, Xinjiang resisted the Cultural Revolution more forcefully than most other parts of China.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uighurs saw their cousins in Central Asia found sovereign states, and resistance to Chinese rule exploded. Throughout the 1990s, large numbers of Uighurs rallied in the streets of Xinjiang's cities. Dillon writes that, like underground fires, these protests were difficult to predict: "smoldering, impossible to extinguish, and flaring up from time to time in unexpected places." Sometimes they turned violent: in one particularly bloody clash in the town of Baran in 1990, nearly 3,000 Uighurs were killed in a battle with Chinese police. Many new separatist organizations -- most, but not all, of which advocated nonviolence -- sprang up. One such group, the East Turkestan National Congress, has advocated creating a secular, democratic government in Xinjiang. But other groups have targeted Chinese installations in Xinjiang, and occasionally in Beijing, with bombing campaigns.

Meanwhile, interest in Islam surged, thanks to state intolerance and the Uighurs' greater exposure to other Muslim societies. Although Xinjiang has no real tradition of strict orthodoxy or Islamist radicalism, Islam began to seem one of the best means to resist Beijing's control. Young Uighur men began holding clandestine maxrap meetings to discuss current religious and political issues, and attendance at mosques has soared.

Beijing has responded to this latest surge in Uighur nationalism with a campaign titled, with typical Chinese understatement, "Strike Hard, Severe Repression." Thousands of Uighurs were arrested in the 1990s and many were executed at public rallies. After September 11, the number of arrests increased sharply, and Beijing embarked on a massive propaganda campaign to tie the Uighurs to al Qaeda. The Chinese government, with little apparent evidence, claimed that more than 1,000 Uighurs had traveled to Afghanistan to train with al Qaeda and other Islamist groups, and charged that Osama bin Laden himself had offered large sums of money to Uighurs to create an Islamist terrorist campaign in Xinjiang. Although the East Turkestan National Congress has explicitly condemned al Qaeda and there are few signs that the Uighurs have links with international Islamist terror groups, Beijing announced early this year that the "Strike Hard" campaign would be extended indefinitely.


Unfortunately, outside countries, including the United States, have facilitated China's harsh repression of the Uighurs. Tyler's and Starr's volumes too often ignore this complicity. For one thing, countries in Central Asia and the West have been far too credulous in accepting that the battle in Xinjiang is part of the larger war on terror. This result can be explained, in part, by China's growing economic clout, which has allowed it, for example, to convince the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (composed of China, Russia, and several Central Asian states) to focus on counterterrorism. Beijing has also convinced Central Asian countries to deport Uighur "terrorists" -- often simply members of nonviolent Uighur separatist groups -- to China for prosecution, and to ban exile Uighur groups from operating on their soil.

Even Washington has played along. By refusing to define the opponents in its war on terror, the Bush administration has allowed China to lump its separatists into the same group as al Qaeda. The United States has even directly aided Beijing's crackdown at times -- by placing one obscure Uighur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, on the State Department's list of global terrorist organizations, for example. As Graham Fuller and Jonathan Lippman, two contributors to the Starr book, argue, this "U.S. declaration [was] catastrophic" for the Uighurs. The United States, previously the main defender of Uighur rights (Radio Free Asia is a primary source of information in the Uighur language), had now given Beijing "carte blanche to designate all Uighur nationalist ... movements as 'terrorist.'"

Unfortunately, all three books shy away from predicting how the Uighurs will respond to this latest crackdown. Starr correctly recognizes that the Uighurs -- thanks to rising HIV rates, the environmental and social destruction caused by mass migration, a new influx of Han Chinese, the most sophisticated anti-Uighur propaganda yet from Beijing, and the perceived loss of their greatest ally, the United States -- are now more desperate than they have been since 1949. Although none of the authors spells it out, this pressure could lead the Uighurs to become even more radicalized and to turn to the very Islamist groups with which Beijing has accused them of cooperating.

Moreover, as transportation improves within China, increasing numbers of Uighurs will make common cause with other disgruntled groups in the People's Republic. Already, some Uighur leaders have made contact with Tibetan exiles and Chinese labor leaders, and Uighur exile groups have begun to emulate the Tibetan model, using the Internet to court international human rights groups.

None of the books, however, offers realistic prescriptions for how the international community can help prevent Xinjiang from radicalizing. The authors devote a few brief pages to calling on foreign actors to push Beijing to restore freedoms in Xinjiang but do not discuss the best way to do so. Certainly, Washington should not abet Beijing's crackdown by placing Uighur groups on global terror lists, and President George W. Bush could take a page from the playbook of Ronald Reagan, who maintained relations with a communist adversary (in that case, the Soviet Union) while simultaneously giving major speeches about the need to protect human rights.

But simply suggesting that China should stop its repression, without laying out how or why it might, is not very useful. Washington is not powerless.

It could, for example, convince the few nations that actually have leverage over China -- namely, the oil producers in the Persian Gulf -- to help protect the Uighurs from further marginalization. Over the next two decades, as China's economy expands, it will become the largest oil importer in the world. Already, eastern China has suffered from significant energy shortages, and the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that China's petroleum imports will rise by nearly 1,000 percent over the next 20 years. China has accordingly begun to court Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf oil producers. In the past, when gulf states have expressed concern about the plight of fellow Muslims in Xinjiang, Beijing has responded favorably; these gulf nations might now push China to allow the Uighurs more autonomy, as even some in the CCP have considered.

More important, the United States could push China to open up Xinjiang's economy, as it has opened the economy of coastal China. Xinjiang is one of the few places left in China where the state still dominates economic activity. The military, state petroleum companies, and state-run construction companies together represent more than 80 percent of the province's industrial assets and favor ethnic Han workers and investors. If Beijing were to reduce state control, making it easier for private entrepreneurs in Xinjiang to flourish, the Uighurs likely would benefit, since they have the best links to traders in Central Asia. Indeed, in the few parts of Xinjiang where the state has a lesser role in the economy -- the bazaars of Kashgar and other southern cities -- Uighur traders already dominate these sectors of the economy. Relaxing economic restrictions would thus be the best way to limit Xinjiang's crisis. A Uighur middle class, with some economic freedom and limited autonomy, would be less prone to radicalism. That is an outcome in everyone's interest, including Beijing's -- whether it recognizes it or not.

Source: Foreign Affairs