China’s Xinjiang Crackdown Jeopardizes Ties With Turkey, Muslim World

UHRP logo

March 2, 2012

By Megan Fluker

A string of self-immolations and a dramatic crackdown in China’s Sichuan Province has kept Tibet in the public eye in recent months. Yet the deaths of 20 people in violent clashes Tuesday in China’s other restive border region, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, brought Beijing’s other major domestic crackdown back into the international spotlight.

Xinjiang is home to a large population of ethnically Turkic Uighurs, who refer to their homeland as East Turkestan and have long resented Chinese rule. In recent years, restrictions on the use of the Uighur language in schools, an influx of Han Chinese migrants and curbs on the religious freedoms of the Muslim Uighurs have exacerbated ethnic tensions.

According to the Dui Hua Foundation, in 2011 Xinjiang saw a 10 percent increase in trials for crimes associated with political repression, such as endangering state security and separatism, as compared with figures for 2010. In January, the regional government announced plans to hire 8,000 new police officers to be deployed to rural areas of Xinjiang. And during a recent campaign against “illegal religious activities,” authorities arrested 129 Uighurs, fined nearly 3,000 more and closed roughly 200 mosques in the city of Hotan alone.

It is unclear if the authorities’ recent actions amount to a short-term crackdown, or if they represent a lasting escalation of the harsh policies adopted after the July 2009 unrest in Urumqi, the regional capital. At that time, police violence against Uighur protesters led to riots that over the next several days left nearly 200 dead, mostly Han Chinese. In the weeks and months that followed, hundreds of Uighurs were formally arrested amid reports of ill-treatment in detention and disappearances. Given the ongoing turmoil on the Tibetan Plateau, and Beijing’s desire to maintain stability during the leadership transition that will begin this fall, it is possible that the recent uptick in arrests will prove temporary, and that restrictions on Uighurs’ freedoms will ease in 2013.

On the other hand, even if the transition to a new set of leaders in Beijing goes smoothly, there is little reason for the Chinese government to change course now. Most of the country’s Han Chinese majority have little sympathy for Xinjiang’s Uighurs. Moreover, the region’s large oil and gas reserves provide strong economic incentives for keeping Xinjiang firmly under control.

Amy Reger, principal researcher at the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington notes that the current party secretary in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, has continued the harsh policies adopted by his predecessor following the 2009 unrest. Moreover, she says many of the development policies that have most angered Uighurs, including the destruction of the historic Old City in Kashgar, have accelerated under Zhang.

In theory, increased investment in the region should be good for Uighurs. However, many of the newly created jobs go to the ever-growing population of Han Chinese migrants. According to Reger, “It appears that Chinese officials are really pushing to make the region more ‘Chinese’ in order to attract increasing numbers of Chinese investors and workers.”

The current crackdown, says Reger, fits into a pattern that has been ongoing for years, in which Uighurs increasingly feel squeezed out of their historical homeland, leading to occasional eruptions of either peaceful protests or acts of violence that provoke the Chinese leadership to crack down further. The region is essentially locked into a cycle of repression, reaction and further repression.

Though Beijing’s heavy-handed approach to the unrest in Xinjiang is driven by domestic political considerations, the treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority may have long-term implications for China’s relations with the Muslim world.

China’s veto last week of the U.N.’s draft resolution on Syria has led to criticism, not only from the Syrian opposition and the West, but also indirectly from the Saudi government. China’s apparent lack of concern for the people of the Middle East, coupled with a sustained campaign of oppression against Muslims within China, could lead to strained relations should the Arab Spring succeed in democratizing the Middle East, or at the very least in installing governments that are more deferential to public opinion.

The Uighur issue is already complicating China’s relationship with one increasingly influential Muslim democracy: Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sharply criticized the Chinese government’s handling of the unrest in 2009, likening the ethnic violence in Urumqi to genocide. In a meeting with Erdogan on Feb. 22, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping urged Turkey to “oppose and prevent anti-China separatist activities by ‘East Turkestan’ forces in its territory.”

So far, the crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang has done little to dampen the economic relationship between Turkey and China. Indeed, Turkey seems eager to strengthen economic ties. During Xi’s visit, the governments agreed to a three-year currency swap deal worth $1.6 billion. Meanwhile, the speaker of Turkey’s Parliament emphasized Turkey’s support for the territorial unity of China — implying Ankara’s desire to stay out of the fray in Xinjiang.

Still, if Beijing continues to suppress Uighur grievances in Xinjiang while meeting outbreaks of unrest with force, it could make further boosting of economic ties with China politically difficult for Turkey, whose people share not only religious ties with the Uighurs, but cultural and linguistic ties as well. More generally, whatever short-term benefits Beijing sees in its harsh policies toward Muslims at home and indifference to repression in the Middle East, it will have a price to pay in the long term.

Megan Fluker is the former deputy director of the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, D.C. She received a B.A. in international relations from Tufts University and studied Mandarin Chinese at the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu, China. She is currently working in Taiwan.