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Review Essay: The Unsettled West

August 31, 2009

Joshua Kurlantzick
Foreign Affairs
July/August 2004

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.

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.
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