China’s growing security measures in Xinjiang reflect its historical territorial vulnerability and concerns about internal stability. Reconciling this with its international ambitions and external relations will not be easy.

By John P. Ruehl

For more than a decade, growing international attention has focused on China’s treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. While Beijing is wary of all forms of separatism – Hong Kong and Tibet being its other major concerns in this regard – maintaining an iron grip on Xinjiang is of utmost importance. The natural resource deposits of the Xinjiang region, the strategic location of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which involves the creation of economic and trade corridors, and the links with the physical defense of the China are the most obvious reasons why China wants to maintain a stronghold. In the region. But the appeal of Islamic and Turkish nationalism in Xinjiang has also highlighted the difficulty China faces in managing internal stability without upsetting the wider Islamic and Turkish worlds.

Xinjiang’s largely flat terrain has made it an essential part of the historic Silk Road route. The region’s geography and proximity to many Eurasian cultures and civilizations has also made it a contested land for centuries, with competing narratives about its history and cultural traits. The name Xinjiang, for example, translates to “New Frontier” or “New Dominion” in Chinese, while Uyghur nationalists refer to the region as East Turkestan. Chinese scholars posit that Uyghurs descended from the nomadic Uyghurs of modern-day Mongolia and settled in Xinjiang in the 9th century (joining other groups, including the Han Chinese). Uyghur historians, on the other hand, tend to emphasize their Central Asian Turkic origins, with East Turkestan being their historical homeland.

Regardless of the historical debate over Uyghur lineage, a distinct Muslim and Turkish identity had emerged among parts of Xinjiang’s population in the 18th century when China’s Qing dynasty reconquered the region. According to historical records, the Chinese campaign separated the Uyghur population from other Central Asian Turkic groups, which later came under the control of the Russian Empire. Hostility towards Chinese rule in Xinjiang among Muslims from diverse cultural backgrounds culminated in the Dungan Revolt of 1862–1877, with the rebels receiving support from the Ottoman and British empires. Despite the success of Chinese repression and subsequent pacification of Xinjiang, nationalist sentiment grew among the Muslim-Turkish population, and the term Uyghur began to be used to describe much of the population. local Muslim-Turkish people around the Tarim Basin in the early 20th century.

The fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 gave way to the era of Chinese warlords and the ensuing civil war. Chinese nationalists, communists, Uyghur groups and Russian-Soviet expeditions all clashed for control of Xinjiang. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) emerged victorious in 1949, the Kuomintang Islamic insurgency (1950-1958) across Xinjiang and other neighboring regions underscored the threat of political Islam to the fragile new leadership. from China. Additionally, the Soviet Union encouraged Uyghurs to revolt (as well as Kazakhs living in Xinjiang) to destabilize China after the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s.

In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uyghur resistance to Chinese rule in Xinjiang changed in nature. The Soviet collapse allowed independent Turkish states to emerge in Central Asia, inspiring similar nationalist sentiment among Uyghurs. The rise of international terrorism has also led Islamic and Turkish militant groups in Xinjiang and across the region to coordinate their activities. These developments caused considerable concern in Beijing, and following public protests by Uyghurs against Chinese rule in the city of Yining in 1995 – after “Chinese authorities [had already] have tightened their control over Islam in Xinjiang” – the CCP issued a document called Document No. 7 of the Communist Party of China Central Committee in 1996, which stated that “national separatism and illegal religious activities” should be classified as “main threats to the stability” of the country in response to the situation in Xinjiang. Subsequently, a “Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorism Campaign” was adopted in the Xinjiang region in 2014, and further public protests were violently suppressed while many Uyghur politicians were imprisoned or killed.

However, violent resistance against CCP policies in Xinjiang has continued to grow in the first two decades of the 21st century. Knife attacks and bombings increased, while riots in Urumqi in 2009 left nearly 200 people dead. To quell Uyghur protests, Chinese authorities responded with force and arrests, and in 2017 introduced new and oppressive measures, including “[detaining] several hundred thousand Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in internment camps,” according to the New York Times. These camps have been labeled as re-education camps by the state. Mass surveillance, checkpoints and an increased security presence in Uyghur areas have put greater pressure on the Uyghur population. The suppression of Uighur cultural norms and the creation of detention centers where more than a million Uighurs have been held “against their will in recent years” have drawn the greatest international scrutiny regarding China’s policies in the Xinjiang region, which have been defined as “crimes against humanity and possible genocide” by several countries, including the United States and human rights groups. China continues to restrict international access to the region ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, leading some countries to announce diplomatic boycotts of the Olympics.

For several reasons, Beijing is ready to maintain its pressure on Xinjiang in the face of international outcry from the West and some elements from the Islamic and Turkish worlds. Xinjiang contains 40% of China’s coal, about 20% of its oil reserves and the largest reserves of natural gas, as well as large deposits of building materials such as marble and granite. As the Chinese economy continues to increase its energy needs, maintaining access to Xinjiang’s coal, oil and gas reserves is vital to China’s current and future energy security. Additionally, the region’s location makes it an essential part of China’s BRI project route to connect European and Asian economic markets.

The success of greater regional autonomy (or outright secession) in Xinjiang would also bode ill for Chinese attempts to deter similar attempts across the country. Hong Kong, Tibet and even less notable secessionist movements would be prompted to step up their own efforts if the Xinjiang secessionists were successful. The loss of Xinjiang would also make China more vulnerable to hypothetical future invasions. A more likely and immediate scenario would be challenges to Chinese authority across its border regions, including its fiercely disputed territory with India, Aksai Chin, which is part of Xinjiang and Tibet, and which India says , is part of its Leh district in the union of Ladakh. territory.

While China’s motives for its tight control over Xinjiang are clear, the consequences of its policies are also becoming more pronounced. Anti-China sentiment in Central Asia has grown in recent years, despite attempts by Central Asian governments to curb it and ensure continued Chinese economic investment. While many Turkish countries and communities continue to fight each other, they are often united by their disdain for China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. For China to realize its BRI project, a positive perception of it among the Turkish populations of the Central Asian states will be crucial.

China’s opening up to Central Asian states has been further complicated by Turkey. Due to its own Turkish heritage, the country has been a leading proponent of pan-Turkism, hosting the first Summit of Turkic Heads of State in 1992. Turkey has taken a particularly hard line with China on the issue. of the Uyghurs, which has led to several diplomatic disputes over the past decade. Organizing a greater international objection to China’s treatment of Uyghurs could galvanize pan-Turkism into a viable ideology, with Turkey seeking to play a leadership role in the movement.

So far, China has managed to avoid widespread condemnation from the Muslim world. Beijing has been careful to point out its more favorable treatment of the Hui Muslim population who also inhabit Xinjiang and other Chinese regions. China’s positive relations with major Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia show that it has had some success in its efforts to avoid any backlash from of these Muslim countries for his treatment of the Uyghurs. But these countries themselves must be careful not to downplay the issue, lest they incite extremist Islamic forces. Radical Salafism has become increasingly popular among Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslim populations in Xinjiang, exemplified by popular support for the Turkestan Islamic Party (formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement). If Uyghurs feel they have no international Muslim allies, the appeal of extremism will increase further.

While China’s internal security situation is of paramount importance to the CCP, it remains sensitive to international perceptions of its policies in Xinjiang. Moreover, its repressive policies may help inculcate a stronger and more resilient identity within the local Uyghur population. The CCP’s economic development of Xinjiang will not be enough to significantly erode age-old beliefs and cultural loyalties. Historical precedent has shown that foreign states will take advantage of unrest in the region to further their own interests.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.


John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, DC He is the editor of Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.

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