China’s Great Game: New frontier, old foes

Tom Mitche
October 13, 2015 7:16 pm

As one of the world’s most remote and landlocked regions, Xinjiang is not high on the itinerary for foreign dignitaries visiting China. So when George Osborne, the UK’s chancellor, made a special request to visit the territory last month, it was unexpected and controversial — but also welcomed by the Chinese government.

Xinjiang is a linchpin in President Xi Jinping’s “new Silk Road” project, which aims to revive the ancient trade routes that connected imperial China to Europe and Africa. Mr Osborne described his detour to the capital, Urumqi, as proof of his government’s determination to be “bold abroad”. It was indeed a bold choice, and not just because of the region’s remoteness.

A vast region about three times the size of France, Xinjiang — literally “new frontier” — is home to a violent insurgency that is a frequent source of frustration and embarrassment for Beijing. The unrest burst on to the global stage in 2009 when thousands of Muslim Uighurs — the region’s biggest ethnic group — went on a rampage in Urumqi. The riot left 197 people dead, most of them Han Chinese.

Map Xinjiang

A steady pattern of low-level violence has followed. As if on cue, while Mr Osborne visited a property investment company and football academy in Urumqi, a manhunt was under way for the perpetrators of a massacre at a coal mine in southern Xinjiang that left more than 50 people dead.

For the architects of Mr Xi’s Silk Road project, the slaughter at the Sogan coal mine — which neither the Chinese government nor state media have acknowledged — was a reminder of the challenges that lie ahead as Beijing begins playing a “Great Game” of its own in central Asia and beyond.

To realise this dream of an infrastructure-led revival of commerce and prosperity across the Eurasian land mass, the Chinese government will first have to tame its own Wild West. At the moment, however, it is refusing to budge from policies that seem only to be fanning the flames of ethnic unrest.

Over the past 60 years, the Han, China’s dominant ethnic group, have increased their proportion of Xinjiang’s population from 6 per cent to more than 40 per cent, fuelling widespread resentment among Uighurs who see the influx as part of a deliberate attempt by Beijing to dilute their community’s religious and cultural identity.

“Xi Jinping sees Xinjiang as absolutely critical for his agenda. It’s not just about security and solving the Uighur issue, it’s also about building this new Silk Road economic belt,” says James Leibold, a China scholar at La Trobe University in Melbourne. “The party needs to convince a weary Han public and foreign governments that the anti-terror campaign has succeeded, and shift the narrative to Xinjiang as the gateway to the new Silk Road and the countless opportunities [that] await those willing to invest in the region.”

Gateway to resources

It is easy to see why Beijing is fixated on Xinjiang. The region holds China’s largest natural gas reserves, 40 per cent of its coal and 22 per cent of its oil. More importantly, it is the gateway to even larger energy deposits in central Asia. Huge investments have been made in infrastructure needed to tap those resources, including an oil pipeline running from Kazakhstan and a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan.

The oil and gas pipelines, which came online before Mr Xi came to power, represented the first part of a three-stage transaction that sends natural resources to China in return for payments that central Asian nations then use to buy everything from Chinese consumer goods to capital equipment.

Beijing very much wants these trade patterns to expand, especially as it seeks to secure energy sources that — unlike Middle Eastern oil — do not need to pass through the vulnerable Strait of Malacca and volatile South China Sea. But Mr Xi’s vision has an added emphasis on cross-border high-speed railways and motorways, such as the Karakoram highway connecting southern Xinjiang and Pakistan, which should foster a broader range of commerce.

Beijing has been pouring cash into Xinjiang, which recorded expenditures of Rmb1.3tn ($157bn) last year against revenues of just Rmb454bn. State financial transfers to the region rose to Rmb1.1tn in the 2009-14 period, almost double what had been remitted over the previous 54 years, while richer provinces have invested another Rmb54bn in 4,900 aid projects.

Mr Xi is effectively “doubling down” on his predecessors’ bet that big investments in economic development — and regional security forces — will quell the unrest in Xinjiang, Mr Leibold says.

While Beijing maintains it is combating what it calls “the three forces” of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and terrorism in the region, others argue that the violence stems from a government strategy that has alienated Xinjiang’s Uighur community. Of the just 23m people living in the arid but energy-rich region, Uighurs account for about 43 per cent of the population — down from as much as 90 per cent before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Chart China investment in Xinjiang

Many of Xinjiang’s cities are plastered with crude, billboard-sized cartoons depicting the hell that awaits those who succumb to Islamic fundamentalism — and the heaven for those who embrace a “unified and multi-ethnic” China. At a food market in Aksu, a hub for a larger agricultural and mining area, a Uighur trader waves a dismissive hand at the warnings. “That propaganda is all rubbish,” he says in heavily accented Chinese. “There is no freedom in Xinjiang.”

The inability of so many Uighurs to attain even basic proficiency in Chinese — most speak Uighur, a language related to Turkish — is one of the reasons they are passed over for the best jobs, and why Han migrants are often better placed to seize opportunities. In a visit to the region last year, Mr Xi acknowledged that “resource exploitation has enriched large enterprises and entrepreneurs rather than the local area and its people”.

The Chinese government, however, says there is no connection between the violence and its own policies in Xinjiang. Instead, it blames terrorists and religious extremists, some of them allegedly funded or inspired by foreign groups whose aim is to “split up” China.

“These violent and bloody crimes show clearly that the perpetrators are anything but representatives of ‘national’ or ‘religious’ interests,” the State Council said last month in a white paper marking the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Xinjiang as a special autonomous region. “They are a great and real threat to ethnic unity and social stability in Xinjiang.”

A militarised region

An alternative explanation is that Beijing is now confronted with an entirely homegrown problem rooted in flawed policies that the government refuses to acknowledge, let alone correct. As a result, some critics believe the region risks a downward spiral in which violence begets an ever more militarised response that begets additional violence — all at a time when Xinjiang is more central than ever to the ruling Communist party’s larger geopolitical objectives.

Xinjiang now resembles a militarised state, with a blatant police and military presence. While most experts say its insurgency does not qualify as a “low-intensity conflict”, evidence of the potential for violence is everywhere.

An Urumqi street where five alleged Uighur separatists killed 31 people last year is a bar area by night, with private armed guards protecting each establishment. People entering Urumqi’s People’s Park, a popular recreation area in the city centre, are searched by soldiers in stab-resistant vests and helmets while armed police patrol the park grounds in groups of five or more.

Feng Guoping, a Han Chinese resident of Urumqi, says “everything has changed since July 5”, referring to the date of the city’s deadly 2009 riots. “Now we are on guard against the Uighurs and they are on guard against us,” adds Mr Feng, whose parents moved to Urumqi from Jiangsu province when he was 11 because they thought their son would have a better chance at getting into university in Xinjiang.

In Aksu almost every symbol of the state — from police stations to telecommunications offices — is protected by barbed wire and barricades. Hotels and shopping centres force visitors to pass through metal detectors before entering. A meat and vegetable market — its stalls run almost entirely by Han Chinese migrants — is protected by security guards armed with nail-spiked bars.

Critics of Chinese government policy in the region say the steady pattern of violence can be traced to the issue of Document No 7 in the mid-1990s. Essentially a strategy blueprint for how to combat a surge in violence, the document blamed the deteriorating situation on “the infiltration and sabotaging activities of foreign religious powers”. It also called for a security-led response and tighter religious controls.

The document’s adoption ended a 1980s policy that emphasised autonomy and tolerance in Xinjiang and Tibet after the decimation of both regions’ distinct cultural and religious traditions during the cultural revolution.

Jiang Zhaoyong, a Beijing-based ethnic affairs analyst, agrees with the analysis underpinning Document No 7, arguing that “the violence has something to do with the fact that many people spend all their time praying and chanting scripts and the spread of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang”.

Human Rights Watch counters that China’s war on terror at home has been used to justify “pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression and increasing cultural suppression” in Xinjiang. Analysts also doubt the government’s claim that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and other shadowy groups are behind many of the attacks. ETIM, they suspect, is more bark than bite and a convenient scapegoat.

“When we try to understand who these people are [there is] a complete absence of information,” says David O’Brien, a regional expert at the University of Nottingham Ningbo. “What are portrayed as co-ordinated attacks might be more localised issues.”

Wang Lixiong, a prominent government critic, says the adoption of Document No 7 signified a return to “hardline” ethnic policies. “A new tone was set and that same policy is still enforced today — political repression combined with significant economic support. It’s one hand hard and one hand soft.”

Extending grace

It is in fact an approach that dates back to at least the mid-18th century, when the Qing dynasty extended China’s borders and offered conquered peoples “grace” if they submitted to the emperor’s might.

Under Communist party rule, grace includes local government investment in refurbishing Uighur villages, transforming them into quaint tourist destinations. Ajiahan Wuxur, 68, was the beneficiary of one such project in Turpan, an oasis town near Urumqi. “Previously we could only make money selling grapes,” says Ms Wuxur, who now runs a tourist restaurant from her home. “There were fixed quotas for production and we had no other income.”

At the other end of the policy spectrum, boys and girls under the age of 18 are barred from places of worship, while bans on “unusual or strange” beards and headscarves are common. Xinjiang’s more than 800,000 civil servants, about half of whom are ethnic minorities, are prohibited from participating in religious activities. One religious leader, who asked not to be identified, says he often performed private home ceremonies for government officials. “It still happens but it must be kept secret with very few guests,” he says.

Reza Hasmath at Oxford university argues that the government’s “one hand hard, one hand soft” policy has failed to address two of the Uighur community’s longstanding grievances — poorer job opportunities despite having a higher average educational level than Han Chinese in the region, and a lack of meaningful political representation.

“These soft and hard policies don’t get to the underlying root causes of conflict in Xinjiang,” he says. “Younger generation [Uighurs] want to have their expectations met in the labour market. When those expectations are not met they turn to their ethnicity and religion. ”

According to Mr Wang, another consequence of the government’s policies in Xinjiang has been an eradication of moderate Uighur voices who advocate an approach that emphasises religious toleration and political autonomy.

Uighurs advocating this message are increasingly treated as “violent ethnic separatists” in disguise, as evidenced by last year’s prosecution of Ilham Tohti. Mr Tohti, an ethnic Uighur professor at Minzu University in Beijing and a bridge between his community and the government, was handed a life sentence for allegedly advocating independence.

“Ilham Tohti was in fact very moderate,” says Mr Wang, who himself has been banned from publishing in China and is subject to routine police harassment for his criticism of Beijing’s ethnic policies. “But the government wants you to be either an enemy or a flunky. It’s hard for them to deal with someone who stands in the middle.”

Additional reporting by Wan Li and Christian Shepherd

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