East Turkestan’s Uyghurs: The Wrong Minority, With The Wrong Faith, In The Wrong Place, At The Wrong Time
By Tim Robertson
10 March, 2015
China’s rate of economic growth is unlike anything the world has ever seen and, with the United States in decline, there will likely come a time in the not too distant future when China is – as America’s been since the Second World War – the world’s singularly dominant power. Thus, a question that inevitably looms large is: Will China become an expansionist and neo-colonial power and what form may this take?
There are those who argue that to assume China will take the same path as the European Empires and the United States is to project Western values onto a nation that has only embraced these ideals in the most superficial sense: China is, undeniably, still very much a product of her unique history.
Martin Jacques, for example, in his brilliant book When China Rules the World argues that China’s conception of herself is different to that of other nation-states. China, he claims, is better described and thought about as a civilisation-state, which makes her less prone to expansionism and more focused on preserving the elements of Chinese civilisation that can be traced through her history and remain present and visible in modern China.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to feel optimistic about a country that has no regard for the rule of law, practices widespread and systematic human rights abuses, has little regard for the will of her people and has embraced a kind of authoritarian uber-capitalism. To believe that this kind of regime will be a benign force in the world – especially when less restrained that she is currently – is to be imbued with a kind of optimism that escapes me.
Far from the east coast metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, in the western region of Xinjiang (referred to as East Turkestan by Uyghurs), the Muslim Uyghur minority has long been struggling under the repressive rule of the Communist Party (CCP). The Uyghurs – who speak a Turkic language and have much more culturally in common with their Central Asian neighbours – want independence from China. For the CCP, who see itself as the guardian of the civilisation-state, this kind of ‘separatism’ is unacceptable: It poses an existential threat to China because its borders pre-date the modern nation-state system and any challenge to that could precipitate other territorial disputes that could make her like any other country – that’s to say, arbitrary lines on a map.
But in a sense, that East Turkestan now resides within China’s borders, belies the fact that China too is an arbitrary construct and certainly not the homogenised place many in the West believe her to be (and the CCP’s seems, at times, to wish her to be). In the early period of the Manchu-controlled Qing dynasty (from 1644 until the late eighteenth century), the slaughter and bloodshed that characterised the conquest of what’s now Xinjiang was so excessive that an entire population that once occupied the land, the Zunghars, were extirpated.
So, in a time when what a future China will look like and how she’ll act remain unclear, why isn’t the West reaching out to the people who’ve experienced her repression firsthand and, presumably, know best?
Firstly, the relative isolation of many cities in Xinjiang allows the CCP to act with impunity, safe in the knowledge that outside observers can be easily monitored and kept away. The provincial capital, Urumqi, was once a major hub on the Silk Road, but now holds the unenviable title of the world’s most remote city from any sea in the world.
The CCP has been known to deliberately crash telephone and internet communications, the military patrol the streets and security officials watch foreigners closely, often intervening to question them about what they’re doing so far west. These measures would never be possible in the cities further east that the CCP uses to lure foreign investment and tourism dollars.
Moreover, the CCP also claim that the western border poses a significant security risk – a point at which terrorists, usually Pakistan and Afghanistan are the countries cited, could enter the country to carry out attacks. Whether they really believe this is unclear, but they certainly use it to incite fear among Han Chinese and as an excuse to persecute Uyghurs.
Secondly, at a time when Western animosity towards Muslims is at an unprecedented high, in the minds of Western governments, the Uyghurs are simply to wrong religion. Support for a Muslim minority in China, while fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is simply too complex a narrative for Western governments to sell their constituents.
Rightwing megaphones, like US Senator Lindsey Graham, are fixated on having the battles against the Islamic State classified as a Religious War, presumably so they can continue to channel Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilisations theory, while stopping just short of invoking the Crusades.
In Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott quoted Egyptian coup-leader-turned-president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, about the need for a ‘religious revolution’ within Islam. Never mind the crimes al-Sisi has committed, the message is clear: There is a fundamental problem with Islam and, by connotation, Muslims in general.
Thirdly, China is becoming increasingly dominant. In 2013, she overtook the United States as the world’s largest trading nation, passing $4 trillion for the first time. That means other nations are increasingly reliant on China to ensure their own economic security. With Beijing known to be sensitive to accusations of human rights abuse – a domestic matter is the Party line – other nations a weary of supporting the Uyghurs out of fear there could be economic backlash.
In an age where Western governments need to sell all their policies through the lens of self-interest – how will this affect us? Will this make us better of? Is our national security threatened – the Uyghurs struggle for recognition and assistance is an up-hill one. But their plight – because of a coincidence of geography and time – is rarely even acknowledged in the West, which seems odd seen as it may well provide the best insight into what a more powerful unchecked China may one day look like.
Tim Robertson is an Australian independent journalist. He was based in Beijing and travelled to Urumqi, Xinjiang. You can follow him on twitter @timrobertson12 and visit his website tim-robertson.com. Or you can reach him via email on firstname.lastname@example.org
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