Skip to comments.Yearning for Freedom: Xinjiang's China Problem
Posted on 11/05/2001 6:31:49 PM PST by Gangchen_gonpo
The Asian Wall Street Journal
When leaders of the East Turkestan National Congress met last month in the European Parliament building in Brussels, China's Foreign Ministry accused the parliament of hosting "a terrorist organization." Yet in the West, the ETNC, a Munich-based group that claims to represent 16 Uighur diaspora communities around the world, isn't considered terrorist. Although it campaigns for Xinjiang's right to self-determination, it is pro-democratic, committed to nonviolence and has expressly condemned the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the U.S. Western intelligence experts say there is no evidence tying it to violent separatist groups in China.
China's false indignation shows how it is exploiting world-wide revulsion at the attacks on America to justify a nearly 10-year crackdown on ethnic nationalism and religion in Xinjiang, whose Muslim Turkic Uighurs comprise half of the region's 18 million people. For backing, or at least not opposing, the U.S.-led campaign against Osama bin Laden, President Jiang Zemin hopes to milk greater sympathy from Western governments critical of China's human rights record.
The Bush administration must reject China's attempt to equate the attack on America with its separatist problem. It should not give support, tacit or otherwise, to China's abuses of Muslims in Xinjiang as part of any means to prosecute the war against Arab terrorism. To do so would not only undermine the larger political struggle for Muslim support against radical Islam, but also alienate the Uighurs, the vast majority of whom practice a moderate form of Islam and are pro-American.
Xinjiang is the last Muslim region in the world under the yoke of a communist state. And keeping it that way has been a top priority for Jiang Zemin since he became Communist Party general secretary in 1989. When Mr. Jiang retires in 2002, he leaves the minorities portfolio in experienced hands. Vice President Hu Jintao earned his bona fides cracking heads in Tibet, where as the much-feared governor from 1989-92 he imposed martial law, brutally suppressed the monasteries and filled the prison camps with Buddhist monks and nuns.
Like Tibet, Xinjiang has been dissolving inexorably into the advancing Chinese state for hundreds of years. But resistance has at times been fierce. The Uighurs have rebelled against Chinese rule three times since 1860, each time establishing independent states. The last, the pro-Soviet Republic of East Turkestan, existed from 1944 until the Chinese communists seized power in 1949.
Since then, the central government in Beijing has done everything in its power to consolidate its hold on Xinjiang, which it considers a strategic buffer zone. Government relocation programs, the discovery of oil and the commercial production of cotton have underpinned successive waves of the great Han Chinese migration west. In 1949, the region was 93% Uighur; today Chinese comprise 40% of the population.
Ethnic "swamping," Han chauvinism and a relentless assault on basic religious freedom have been the chief Uighur resentments. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards closed Xinjiang's mosques and ritually burned the Qu'ran. They also forced religious leaders to eat pork, publicly tortured them and imprisoned them in labor camps along with thousands of others. In a bid to cut the Uighurs off from other Turkic peoples in Central Asia, the Chinese decreed that Uighur be written in Roman rather than traditional Arabic script. The persecution and violence in the 1960s was so severe that thousands of Uighurs and Kazaks fled to the Soviet Union.
Deng Xiaoping sought stability and ethnic harmony by implementing preferential policies in employment, education, culture and religion while pursuing deeper ties with the Islamic Middle East. But rather than fulfill aspirations for self worth, identity, higher living standards and political inclusion, his policies instead generated a renewed affinity with Islam among many Uighurs and helped create an intellectual climate conducive to demands for greater autonomy and self-determination. In 1985 and `86, Uighurs staged a series of large but peaceful demonstrations in the regional capital Urumqi demanding greater freedoms.
Which brings us to the parlous climate Uighurs have lived in for more than a decade. It began with the nationwide crackdown on dissent following the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in China, during which Deng imposed draconian new proscriptions on education and religious activities in Xinjiang. Many mosques and religious schools were closed, clergy were forced to make loyalty oaths or be defrocked, and youths under the age of 18 were prohibited from displaying any outward sign of religious belief. Prominent Uighur intellectuals, academics and artists were accused of fomenting nationalism and jailed.
Two events fed the cycle of tit-for-tat violence that erupted in 1992 between Chinese security forces and separatist groups. The first was a major uprising, triggered by a mosque closure in the village of Baren in 1990, which after spreading to eight major towns and cities was ruthlessly crushed. The second was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of the independent Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik states, in which some Uighurs saw the promise of a new Uighur homeland.
In their wake, a few separatist groups attacked mainly army troops and infrastructure. A small number of extremists resorted to terrorist tactics, including the attempted assassinations of pro-communist imams and Uighur officials, and bombings of government buildings and public facilities.
This was the situation throughout the most of the turbulent 1990s, though Mr. Jiang used a mailed fist and cast an ever wider net to reverse it. Since 1996, when China helped create the Shanghai Five with Russia and three former Soviet republics in Central Asia to combat Islamic extremism, Mr. Jiang has sought to justify his harsh policies by emphasizing the increased threat to Xinjiang from violent Muslim fundamentalists.
This is almost certainly an exaggeration. Anywhere from several hundred to several thousand Uighurs are now believed to be fighting alongside the Taliban. But even the most conservative Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang aren't naming their new-borns Osama.
Uighurs are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, and their intellectuals, inspired by the Ataturk Jadidists, have traditionally valued the rule of law, scholarship and social activism. Unlike fundamentalists, they hope to safeguard indigenous Islamic culture by adapting it to the modern state. In the impoverished desert oasis towns of southern Xinjiang, a mix of pre-Islamic shamanism, Buddhism and Sufism have made the people tolerant of different forms of religious statement.
Yet for many Uighurs, Islam became an important new focus of ethnic identity and anti-Chinese unity. It was this rising unity informed by religious belief that Mr. Jiang decided to crush in 1996 by ordering the largest military crackdown on Chinese citizens since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. As the security forces (by some accounts more than 300,000 troops were mobilized) began their sweeps, the Uighurs were subjected to one mind-numbing, Cultural Revolution-style propaganda campaign after another: an "ethnic unity" campaign, a "patriotic education" campaign, a "college rectification" campaign, and a campaign to "promote atheism." In May 1997, a "denunciation" campaign was launched resulting in 1,000 arrests.
The army and police virtually wiped out the few, poorly equipped bands of separatists. Still, there was resistance, primarily in reaction to the thousands of arbitrary arrests, the banning of religious activities and summary executions. Anti-Chinese riots broke out in 1997 in the city of Yining, leaving nine dead and more than 200 injured. Terrorists bombed buses in Urumqi and Beijing that same year.
The crackdown continues. In April, the police and military launched yet another sweep in Xinjiang, in which the authorities acknowledged the arrests of people for having "illegal religious materials."
The separatist goal of an independent East Turkestan is little more than an imagined community, dreamt by Uighurs who long ago fled to Turkey, Europe and elsewhere in Central Asia, and who offer only moral support to their compatriots in Xinjiang. Very few Uighurs have been willing to take up the gun, and fewer yet the bomb, in the name of Allah. And yet the violence in Xinjiang is likely to continue as long as Uighurs desire institutionalized means for identity and autonomy and China continues to deny them.
The Uighurs therefore face a bleak future of suppression and containment. Whatever China's contribution to the fight against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, the U.S. must not abet Beijing's abuses against the Uighurs, a people who know all too well why America is waging war on terrorism.
Mr. Beal is the deputy editorial page editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal.
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