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Young and Minority Leaders

Xinjiang Plays World Human Rights Stepchild to Rock Star Tibet

Peter Navarro asked:

While Tibet has played the role of China’s “rock star” to human rights activists around the world, China’s Xinjiang Province has been treated more like an unwanted stepchild.  One reason is that Tibet has a true rock star in the exiled Dalai Lama.  Another reason is that the strife in Xinjiang involves Muslim ethnic minorities with alleged ties to the most hated man in the Western world — Osama Bin Laden.  All of this, however, is simply unfair because what is happening in Xinjiang in terms of human rights violations may be even worse than the Tibetan repression.

Xinjiang is China’s largest province geographically but, with its extremes of heat and cold and desert climate, it is also one of its most sparsely populated. This province was formally annexed to the Manchu Qing Empire as early as 1759 but, for all practical purposes, it remained under the control of provincial warlords until the ascendancy of the Communist Party in 1949. That was when one of the most interesting, and possibly most ruthless historical events was ever perpetrated — one that allowed China to bring Xinjiang under its iron-fist control.

During the immediate post-World War II period, Xinjiang was controlled by Stalin and the Soviet-backed East Turkistan Republic. Reluctant to support a nationalist Muslim regime on the border of the then-Soviet Central Asian republics, Stalin brokered what appeared to be a peaceful accommodation between the Muslim leaders of East Turkistan and Mao’s government. However, the plane carrying the East Turkistan leadership to Beijing to negotiate the peace agreement mysteriously — and all too conveniently — crashed and killed all aboard. In the ensuing leadership vacuum, Mao’s forces stepped in and assumed control of Xinjiang, an “autonomous province” in name only.

From an agricultural point of view, much of Xinjiang is a virtual dustbowl in no small part because of overgrazing, deforestation, overplowing, and the failed efforts of the central government to turn grasslands into farmland. However, beneath Xinjiang’s dusty soil and mountainous steppes lies buried 40% of China’s coal reserves. Equally abundant and far more precious to the central government are oil and natural gas deposits that total the equivalent of about 30 billion tons of oil and represent one fourth to one third of China’s total petroleum reserves.

Xinjiang is not just one of China’s best bets for energy resources. Bordering eight countries in Central Asia and the Russian Federation, Xinjiang also has important strategic value. Central Asia can serve as a transshipment area for Middle East oil should war ever break out over Taiwan or China’s various imperialist claims for oil reserves in the South China Seas. Central Asia republics such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstanalso have large petroleum reserves of their own that can help lessen China’s Middle East oil dependence. For these reasons, China is building a vast network of modern infrastructure that includes railways, roads, and pipelines linking Xinjiang eastward to China’s petroleum-thirsty industrial heartland and west and north to Central Asia and Russia.

In Xinjiang, the majority of the population consists of a Muslim Turkic people called the Uighurs.  These Uighurs face some of the harshest and most repressive measures in the world under the jackboots of Chinese Communism — arguably even more oppressive than what the Tibetans face.  Any independent religious activity can be equated to a “breach of state security,” activists are regularly arrested and tortured, and despite its sparse population, Xinjiang’s ethnic groups suffer more executions for state security crimes than any other province.

Tragically, repression in Xinjiang has only intensified in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Chinese government seized upon this attack on American soil as a golden opportunity to cut a very clever deal with the United States. China would support the U.S.war on terrorism if the United States would agree that the separatist activities of the Uighurs represented not simply an indigenous rebellion against autocratic rule but rather a legitimate terrorist threat with ties to Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. As part of its deal with America, China now defines a terrorist in Xinjiang as anyone who thinks “separatist thoughts,” and Xinjiang’s jails are crowded with such pseudo-terrorists.

Although China’s iron-fisted repression in Xinjiang borders on the unbearable, what sticks most in the Uighur craw is the ongoing “Hanification” of Xinjiang. As a matter of policy, for decades the Chinese government has sought to pacify Xinjiang by importing large portions of its Han population from other, primarily poor areas — and even by despicably exporting young Uighur women of child-bearing age out of the region.  Consider this chilling passage from Reuters:

China’s government is forcibly moving young women of the ethnic Uighur minority from their homes in Xinjiang to factories in easternChina, a Uighur activist told the U.S. Congress on Wednesday.  Rebiya Kadeer, jailed for more than five years for championing the rights of the Muslim Uighurs before being sent into exile in the United States, called for U.S. help in stopping a program she said had already removed more than 240,000 people, mostly women, from Xinjiang.  The women face harsh treatment with 12-hour work days and often see wages withheld for months. . . . Many suspect that the Chinese government policy is to get them to marry majority Han Chinese in China’s cities while resettling Han in traditional Uighur lands. . . .

Today, as a result of these policies, the Han population is rising at a rate twice as fast as that of the Uighur population.  Rather than being pacified or tamed by the growing Han population, the Uighurs are simply becoming more and more radicalized. There is a very bitter and dangerous irony in this ethnic strife reported in the Economist: Whereas the Uighurs historically have been “among the world’s most liberal and pro-Western Muslims, fundamentalist Islam is gaining sway among young Uighur men.” Today, “Uighurs report that small-scale clashes break out nearly every day between Chinese and Uighurs in Xinjiang’s western cities.”

It is unlikely that a full-blown guerrilla movement will emerge in Xinjiang to engage Chinese forces in an Algerian- or Vietnamese-style revolt. The populace is simply too small, and Chinese security forces are too big and powerful. However, in an age of “suitcase” nuclear bombs and biological terrorist weapons, China is increasingly exposed to attacks from Uighur separatists at soft target points such as the Three Gorges Dam or any one of its teeming cities. Indeed, as we have seen in a series of recent attacks, Uighur separatists are showing an increasing ability to strike at Chinese targets.

The question ultimately for this conflict — and the fate of the Uighur people — is how this conflict will be judged by world opinion.  Will the Uighurs be seen for what they are — a ruthlessly oppressed people being gradually exterminated through the policy of Hanification?  Or will the taint of a Bin Laden connection prevent the same kind of world outrage that we now witness over Tibet?  It is an open question — and one that the Chinese government itself could deftly sidestep if it simply began to treat its autonomous regions as truly autonomous.

©2008 Peter Navarro

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