Unrest grows between ethnic groups in Xinjiang
Xinjiang is strategically located next to Tibet and Central Asia and is now a centre of a major struggle between Uighur Muslims, Han migrants and the Chinese Communist Party leadership.
Uighurs are of Turkish descent and make 50 per cent of the population. The Han people are the dominant majority in China and settlers brought in by Beijing are resented by the local Uighurs.
In riots in Urumchi in July 2009 about 200 people died, and in July 2011 riots also led to deaths.
Beijing is pushing the economic development of Xinjiang and wants to make it a trading and a manufacturing hub that connects with Central Asia and South Asia. The government believes that economic prosperity will dampen the demand for political change and democracy as in the case of eastern China.
But Xinjiang is different. The Uighurs believe that economic development favours the Han people who are politically and culturally different.
In riots, Chinese security personnel have been killed along with Uighurs and Han people, and Beijing is under pressure from its Han population to be stern with the “rioters,” “separatists” and “terrorists” who are seen to get material and moral support from outside — from the World Uighur Congress which is based in Munich, Germany, and has the support of western governments, and from Islamists based in Pakistan.
Some Uighurs demand independence from China, and there are many who believe only in Allah as God. Hence, Beijing’s theory that economic development will dampen the demand for political change clashes with the pressure of Uighur nationalism.
Beijing has a dilemma. It has not forgotten that despite the buildup of rail, road and air communications in Tibet and injection of dollaps of yuan, anti-Han and anti-Chinese rioting sent ripples through the Himalayan region and the world in 2008.
Beijing faces two Uighur movements. The first seeks human rights and democracy in Xinjiang. It is supported by the World Uighur Congress based in Munich. It seeks peaceful change as does the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
The second is led by the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan. It shares al-Qaida’s ideology and it is based in Pakistan. It has a Central Asia-Pan Islamist orientation and it seeks violent change in Xinjiang and in the region. The first movement has an Uighur ethnic orientation; the second one has an ideological orientation.
Both trouble Beijing. The Islamic Movement of East Turkestan is a small movement, high in motivation but with low military capacity. It lacks explosive capabilities like the bombers of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Instead the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan operatives rely on stabbing the Han people in Xinjiang, poisoning them with needles which spread panic among the Han people as in 2009 riots and it puts pressure on Beijing to protect the dominant Han base of China and to eliminate the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan.
The movement is 10 years old. It is capable of surprise attacks on Chinese targets. China’s Ministry of Public Security is responsible for internal security but its intelligence capacity is weak in Xinjiang. Uighurs do not co-operate with the Chinese personnel, the Han population has little or no contact with the Uighurs to provide the intelligence to the police. Moreover, the Uighurs rely on word to mouth contacts and they do not rely on the internet. So China lacks effective means to gather intelligence of Uighur intentions and actions.
The Islamic Movement of East Turkestan is based in Pakistan, and this has strained China-Pakistan relations. To help China, Pakistan would have to act against al-Qaida interests in North Waziristan where the movement of is based. U.S. pressure on the Pakistan army to act against al-Qaida has failed thus far as the killing of Osama bin Laden showed because Pakistani authorities lack confidence in U.S. policy and find it useful to collaborate with the al-Qaida/Taliban groups.
In response to China’s pressure, Pakistan is willing to act against the Uighurs in Pakistan except in North Waziristan. This has strained relations with China because the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan has killed Chinese nationals in Pakistan’s northern areas and in Balochistan since 2007, and some Chinese women were kidnapped in Islamabad, although later released. As a sign of co-operation, Pakistan extradited a few Uighurs to China but Amnesty International has objected that international law requires protection of people who may face torture and/or execution.
This year is the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, and the 60th anniversary of China’s military takeover of Tibet but the situation in the two strategic outposts of China continues to unsettle Beijing’s leaders precisely when China’s mainstream official media claims that international military competition in Asia-Pacific is becoming “fierce” for China.
Ashok Kapur is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo.