KONGChina has branded the Uighur nationalists of its western Xinjiang
Province with the marks of Taliban and Qaida. This playing up of China's own
alleged "Muslim threat" could rebound against it. Beijing has drawn attention to
a cause which had largely escaped outside attention. It has underlined its
inability to solve the Xinjiang problem other than by brutal suppression of the
political aspirations of the non-Chinese peoples of Central Asia who at present
fall within the boundaries of the People's Republic. China's historical claims
to the region have been based on periodic occupations, not on the consent of the
The Uighurs are the largest of the
Turkic-speaking groups of Xinjiang. Like the other non-Han people of the
province, they are Muslims.
Until Mao Zedong ordered mass migration
of Han Chinese, the Turkic groups constituted more than 80 percent of the
population. Now the Hans are around half of the population, are largely urban
and richer and, most importantly, constitute the power structure. The social
divide between Han and non-Han is vast and obvious. Control from the center is
In recent years there have been
occasional acts of violence by Uighur nationalists against the instruments of
the state. President Jiang Zemin has now used these to assert that
Taliban-linked terrorism and Muslim extremism are the problem in Xinjiang.
This claim has been swallowed by many
eager to find evidence of Qaida's global reach or willing to turn a blind eye so
long as China expresses support for the "war on terrorism."
In fact, the only evidence of links is a
few Uighurs found to have been serving in the lowest ranks of the Taliban
forces. It is not even clear whether or not these were Uighurs from adjacent
states with Uighur minorities. The part of Afghanistan bordering China was never
in Taliban hands. Militant Islam may be a problem in parts of Central Asia but
it has never been a significant factor in Uighur nationalism, a phenomenon which
long predates the establishment of the People's Republic and is based on
language, land and history, of which religion is only a part.
China's actual concern is with separatist
tendencies in a strategically important region with huge mineral resources,
The extent of recent oppression of
nationalists has gone beyond that in Tibet. There have been dozens of executions
of nationalists, regardless of any evidence of terrorist involvement. Seven
executions have occurred since Sept. 11, according to Chinese statements, which
may well understate the real number.
Oppression of religion has also been
stepped up. Young people are kept away from mosques, and fasting during Ramadan
has been banned.
Unlike Tibet, which has the Dalai Lama to
speak for it, the Uighurs have no significant exiled figure, or even Hollywood
star, to bring their plight to outside attention. The fact that they are
Muslims, however moderate, makes them suspect in the eyes of much of the
But the Uighurs are not finished yet, any
more than their neighbors the Kazakhs were forever swallowed up into the
Russian/Soviet empire. China may be colonizing Xianjiang's resources and piping
them back east, but it has a hard time persuading Hans to stay in this remote
region with its harsh climate and poor economy.
Meanwhile, the largely rural Uighurs are
breeding fast - indeed, at a pace which is outrunning the water and agricultural
resources of the region.
For now, their Central Asian neighbors
are anxious to avoid Chinese wrath, and too preoccupied with their complex
relationships with Russia to offer sanctuary to Uighur nationalists (or to the
million strong Kazakh minority in Xinjiang). But that could change.
So, too, could the Uighur view of Islam.
Beijing's current oppression both of nationalism and of religious observance in
Xinjiang could drive the Uighur nationalists into the arms of the one group that
would definitely give them succor, the Muslim fundamentalists.