05 March 2017

The Explainer: China's Xinjiang Problem

The chilling warning of the Islamic State issued to the Chinese government of launching terror attacks has turned spotlight on the ethnic cauldron that’s engulfing the Xinjiang province in western China. The dangerous conflict between the native Turkic Uighur and Beijing is symptomatic of the many dangers that China faces because of its demographic and political policies.
While Beijing blames the extremist Uighur Muslims for the terrorist violence, the latter have accused the former of repression and use of excessive force against them. They also blame the Chinese Government of resorting to demographic means of subverting the Uighurs by destroying their ethnic identity in their own ancient land. Also, they have charged the Chinese Government with economic discrimination. For several years now, the Uighurs have called for secession from China.

China launches ‘Go West’ policy  
Taking a 
serious view of the Islamists’ call for secession of Xinjiang from China, Beijing has used, and continues to use, demography as a controlling tool. To this end, they launched the ‘Go West’ policy to encourage the migration of Han Chinese, which is the biggest ethnic group in China, to Xinjiang.
The policy of increasing the presence of the Han Chinese in a traditionally Turkic Uighur-dominated province has paid rich dividends for Beijing. Such has been the impact of this policy that the Han Chinese, who constituted a mere 6 per cent of the total Xinjiang population in 1955, now make up about 40 per cent of the total population in Xiajiang!

Economic impact of the ‘Go West’ policy
The sharp rise in the population of the migrant Han Chinese has led to a massive loss of economic opportunities for the native Turkic Uighurs. Today, most of the provincial administrative jobs go to the educated Han Chinese; also, the Han Chinese own major business and economic resources while the Turkic Uighurs languish on the margins of the society.

Cultural impact of the ‘Go West’ policy
The Uighurs are ethnically closer to the Islamic traditions of Central Asia than to the cultural traditions of the ethnic Chinese groups. However, most Uighurs practice a moderate form of Islam, unlike the ultra-orthodox Wahabbi type (brought in from Saudi Arabia by religious extremists), which is followed by the more radical elements in Central Asia.

In Xinjiang, Beijing keeps a hawk’s eye on the mosques that dot the landscape of the massive province. The secret services, Beijing’s eyes and ears, are always on the prowl looking for secessionist and terror elements. Often, such is the control that Beijing extends over the mosques that whenever there is violence, they are asked to close down for an indefinite period. 
Muslims are barred from observing fast in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan; in some extreme cases, people are forced to shave off their beards and ordered not to wear any garment that makes for public display of their faith (like burqa/yashmak/hijab).

China and War on Terror
The September 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. and the subsequent launch of the War on Terror came in as a shot in the arm for Beijing. Soon after, in a master-stroke, Beijing labeled the radical Islamists, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) members, in Xinjiang as part of Al-Qaeda network. As a result, the U.S. and major European nations banned the ETIM. By aligning its local fight with the international effort against the Islamists, Beijing won the sanction of the international community in its fight against the extremist members among the Uighurs.
In fact, Beijing cited the capture of 22 Uighurs, reportedly linked to Al-Qaeda, by the U.S. as evidence of the growing radicalisation of the Uighurs. However, Beijing suffered a major embarrassment when the U.S. released these 22 Uighurs, after a long detention period at the Guantanamo Bay prison, when it found that they were not terrorists!

Cutting the ethnic umbilical cord
Over the years, Beijing has strengthened diplomatic ties , especially economic ties, with Central Asian nations, which are linguistically and ethnically linked with the Uighurs.
To this end, it took initiative to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), whose members include Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan (all former Soviet provinces with majority Muslim populations). Over the years, its diplomacy has paid off as these countries have cut off potential sources of support for the Uighurs from radical sources in their territories.

The Pakistan Connect
In the recent past, China also said, for the first time ever, that the Uighur separatists underwent training in Pakistan’s numerous terrorist training camps. Given that Pakistan considers China as an all-weather friend, the accusations shocked the Pakistani establishment. However, this accusation is unlikely to change the relationship equation between the two countries, though it is widely believed that Pakistani leaders have been told by their Chinese counterparts in no uncertain terms that such terror camps which export extremists to fight the Chinese State should be shut down immediately.

My Take
China is increasingly worried over the developments in Xinjiang. It believes that if the Xinjiang problem is not tackled in the ‘right’ way, it has the potential to ignite similar fires around its vast peripheral areas.
It is a fact that political rights need economic contentment, because together they give a sense of belonging and empowerment to all involved. Appropriate management of the needs and aspirations of varied groups is critical to the State’s ability to ensure good governance and provision of security. In the light of this, the major challenge that China today faces is to absorb and resolve the clashes that may arise between contending interests between the Turkic Uighurs and ethnic Chinese groups.

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