China’s far western borderlands have long been a thorn in Beijing’s side. This is China’s ‘wild west’, known officially as the ‘Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region’, a nod to the dominant ethnic group here: the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs are a Turkic people, overwhelmingly Muslim and fiercely independent, having lived in this part of Asia for centuries. Xinjiang is the largest administrative region/province in the country and sits at the crossroads of central Asia, bordered by eight countries: Mongolia, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Xinjiang is a sprawling land of high deserts, massive snow-covered mountains, camels, horses and yurts. How this part of central Asia came to belong to China is a long, somewhat contentious story. The Uyghurs have maintained for some time that Xinjiang is part of a once independent Islamic republic that was annexed by China after the 1949 communist revolution. Since that time, the Uyghurs have bristled under Chinese rule.
The Chinese, for their part, maintain that Han Chinese have lived in this region for centuries and have ruled on and off during those times. In more recent times, Beijing has implemented a kind of quiet pacification in the region through increased Han Chinese settlement. Some of these Han migrants have started businesses and established themselves in the region while many are government functionaries of some kind— soldiers, police, party hacks and assorted bureaucrats.
This is seen as ‘back door colonialism’ by the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang and they cite it as further proof of Beijing’s intent to dominate their lives. The Uyghurs (along with the Kyrghyz, Kazakhs, Tajiks, and other minorities…) have little in common with the Han Chinese either culturally or politically. They view Xinjiang as their traditional homeland and, like the Tibetans, want an independent nation.
Protests of the growing Chinese footprint in Xinjiang have grown more strident over the last few years. Violence has risen along with an ‘underground’ resistance that’s carried out bombings and other attacks on Chinese government property and interests. In turn, the Chinese have ramped up the police and military presence, actions certain to further inflame resentment. A recentarticlein TheGuardian reported on the severity of the Chinese government’s crackdowns.
When I first visited this region in the 1990s this conflict was seen as ethnic in nature, one group imposing its will on another. Today, the conflict is increasingly characterized by the Chinese as another flavor of global Islamic terrorism. That leap in characterization, to my mind, is more about lending legitimacy to the increasingly repressive Chinese military actions in Xinjiang. The Chinese might be calculating that international opinion would be less critical of their violent crackdowns in Xinjiang if framed as a response to Islamic terrorism rather than repression of an ethnic minority.
On first glance, it seems a savvy calculation. The problem, however, is that it may serve to further galvanize those who believe Islam is under attack worldwide. In turn, it could be a siren call to sympathetic jihadists from around the world to the Uyghurs’ cause. There’s also the question of how this would be seen by Muslims of all ethnic stripes already living in China.
Lastly, from a personal perspective, I found the Uyghurs, Kyrgyhz, Tajiks and other Muslim peoples in Xinjiang to be quite decent. Their version of Islam is a moderate and tolerant one. Traditions are tied to culture and the land, refreshingly unfettered by dogma. And perhaps this is the point. For these people, independence is in their DNA. They are a product of the Big Wide Open that is Xinjiang. So far, neither religion nor government has been able to slice that out of them.