The New York Times

July 15, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

The Echoes of Xinjiang


HONG KONG — The problems in Xinjiang could prove a bigger international headache for China than Tibet was. The latter attracted much Western attention, thanks in part to the appeal of the exiled Dalai Lama. But Tibet does not have the foreign linkages that Xinjiang’s Turkic and Islamic identity do.

Many Asian countries may find it difficult to ignore popular sentiment in favor of Uighur aspirations.

The comment by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Chinese policy in Xinjiang was “like a genocide” and that China should “abandon its policy of assimilation,” will ring in Beijing ears for a long time. However excessive his choice of words, Mr. Erdogan was in effect speaking for all Turkic people from the Mediterranean to central China.

China’s immediate Turkic neighbor, Kazakhstan, may be more discreet as it seeks to balance its relations with Russia and China.

But China’s President Hu Jintao should need no reminding of where the sentiments of Kazakhs likely lie, given two centuries of Russian attempts to integrate them into the Russian empire through Russian settlement.

The expansion of Han Chinese rule over that same period — to Manchuria, Mongolia and Taiwan — was largely achieved through migration. So it was only natural for Beijing to assume that the same could be achieved in Xinjiang, despite the late, postwar start.

But the process had already stalled before these riots as many Hans saw better opportunities elsewhere in China. China’s demographics no longer support Han expansion through migration.

It may not be too late for China to address Uighur grievances, but the Chinese Communist Party’s centralist tendencies and cultural chauvinism make it unlikely. The Chinese media’s presentation of the disturbances suggests that few lessons are being learned. Underlying issues go unaddressed, the Hans are presented as the main victims and Uighurs as ungrateful for the material progress that China has bestowed on what was once known as East Turkestan.

Then there is the Islamic issue. Central Asian Islam is mostly of a relaxed and unfanatical sort, but Muslim identity in Xinjiang has been strengthened both by restrictions on religious activities and by the rise in Muslim consciousness globally.

China has tried to pin the Al Qaeda label on Xinjiang separatists and will doubtless do so again — helped by Al Qaeda proclaiming that it will retaliate for the Urumqi killings.

But mainstream Muslims are also sounding aggrieved. In Indonesia, there have been demonstrations in support of the Uighurs.

Indonesia of course has its own ethnic separatist problem in Papua and lingering issues over the position of ethnic Chinese, so no Erdogan-style statements are likely from Jakarta. The same applies in Malaysia, where formal discrimination against non-Malays would make any protests seem hypocritical, and would spur Beijing into overt support for the Malaysian Chinese.

Yet in much of Southeast Asia, the Xinjiang issue is seen not so much as a religious matter as an ethnic one, and thus an issue that touches fears of China’s claims to the South China Sea and its island groups, and occasional Chinese media references to past “tributary” relationships with most of its neighbors.

None of this suggests that policies toward China will change because of the Uighurs, who remain a minor issue in the wider scheme of international affairs. But they are and will likely remain what East Timor once was to Indonesia — a “pebble in the shoe” for China’s diplomacy.