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China's rebellious west - The Economist

Posted By Ashok V Chowgule (ashokvc@giasbm01.vsnl.net.in)
15 February 1997

Title : China's rebellious west
Author :
Publication : The Economist
Date : February 15, 1997

China and Indonesia, the two most populous countries in East Asia,
are both struggling to contain outbreaks of ethnic conflict. We
report first on the problems in China's Xinjiang province

Those who speculate that China might one day split up like the old
Soviet Union are often reminded that China is much more ethnically
homogenous than the old Soviet empire. Well over 90% of China's
population are Han Chinese - "sons of the Yellow Emperor". But
although the population is overwhelmingly Han, big chunks of its
territory are largely inhabited by peoples that chafe at the rule
of the Hans. So news trickling out of unrest in Xinjiang province
raises of perennial question of the strength of China's grip on its
harsh and sparsely populated far west.

Historically, control of the far west has ebbed and flowed
according to the vigour of the regime in Beijing. A century ago, a
weak China was just one of many other influences - Turkic, Muslim,
Russian, Indian, British - in the oasis towns of Xinjiang and high
plateaus of Tibet. In 1913 China was powerless to prevent Tibet
establishing an autonomy that lasted until 1951, when the Chinese
army marched in. Mongolia declared independence from China in 1924,
under Soviet tutelage. In 1944, in Xinjiang, a short-lived Eastern
Turkestan Republic was proclaimed. Later, tens of thousands of
Kazakhs fled Xinjiang for the Soviet Union after a revolt was
crushed in 1962, but there has rarely been a year since without
reports of minor unrest of some kind.

The latest reports from Xinjiang suggest violence on an increasing
scale. Several thousand Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group who
outnumber Han Chinese by two to one in the province, are said to
have been involved in a riot. The fracas took place in Yining, a
town close to the border with Kazakhstan, and ten people-both
Uighurs and Han Chinese-are said to have been killed. Local
officials have said that the rioters were "pro-independence
Muslims". there are around 20m Muslims in China and 8m of them are
Uighurs, who have been particularly resistant to assimilation.

Nationalists exiled in Kazakhstan say that this month's riots were
sparked by the execution of 30 Uighurs - a story the Chinese have
denied. A curfew has been imposed in Yining, and the airport has
been closed. Meanwhile, 1,000 protesters are reckoned to have been

Restiveness in Xinjiang has clearly been on the rise over the past
year or two. and so has official shrillness about it. List year a
Muslim cleric high in the Xinjiang Communist hierarchy was
assassinated; the presumed killers were later killed in a gun
battle with government forces. The authorities have said they have
"dealt with" - presumably, executed- "terrorists" who have killed
lowly government officials on half-a-dozen occasions. In all, the
official press reports, several thousand "terrorists, murderers and
other criminals" have been netted. The main separatist group based
in Kazakhstan puts the figure at 57,000 arrests last year, and also
claims that over 100 Koranic schools were closed.

The Chinese government has certainly launched a fierce rhetorical
campaign against what it sees a, the "grim threat" of Muslim
separatism. Predictably, die propaganda machine says, the unrest
is being masterminded by "imperialists who aim to split and
westernise our nation." Actually. if there is an outside source of
guns and influence in Xinjiang, it is likely to be Afghanistan's
Taliban militia-not noted for their fondness for the West.

The Chinese authorities have now tightened control over campuses,
cracked down on religious teaching and reinforced security at the
borders. Teachers have been exhorted to show "patriotic Brings and
uphold atheism". Government officials are to be on the look-out
for the many books being read in Xinjiang that are of "low taste,
or even works of a gloomy nature." But as is so often the case in
China, many of the problems in Xinjiang seem to lie within the
Communist Party itself. The local paper has even spoken of party
officials being involved in "explosions and assassinations of a
political colouring."

The Chinese government emphasises that it deems only a small number
of Uighurs unpatriotic. Indeed China has an avowed policy of
positive discrimination towards its 50-odd minorities and appears
quick to tackle insensitivities displayed towards Uighurs. It
banned a popular book last year called "Weird Sex Customs", which
gives a rather imaginative description of Islamic sexual life. In
an unprecedented case, the government investigated and publicised
the sexual harassment of a female Uighur soldier by a Han general.

China's traditional method of assimilating its outlying territories
has been to encourage Han Chinese to emigrate from the densely
populated heartland, swamping the minorities. In Inner Mongolia
Hans now outnumber Mongolians sixfold. And although Beijing hands
out graphs to foreign journalists purporting to show how few Han
live in Tibet, they have in fact been pouring into Tibet's larger
towns during the past few years.

In Xinjiang locals resent Han immigrants, who are said to get the
best jobs on the construction sites and in the oil fields that are
being developed. They resent the fact that few Chinese bother to
learn Uighur. They resent the suppression of anything other than
state-blessed worship. They are outraged at the forced
sterilisation of women. And they consider that China's
nuclear-weapons test site at Lop Nor threatens their health. (China
recently announced an end tests.) This string of grievances plays a
part in what the authorities perceive as a "separatist" movement.

But China's neighbouring Muslim states are also not keen to see
fundamentalism fanned in western China, for fear of the regional
instability that it might foster. Last year Russia, Kazakhstan,
Kirgizstan and Tajikistan signed border agreements with China.
Beijing has also pressured Central Asian governments to withhold
support from exiled groups.

Can Beijing maintain control? The numbers of troops in Tibet give
the place the air of an easily occupied country. And Xinjiang's
garrison also is kept strong, for three reasons: the troops serve
as a tool for domestic control, as a border force, and as a guard
for what some claim are two-fifths of China's potential oil
reserves. Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang all have powerful
public-security forces as well as the army, so China does not lack
for brute force. The authorities may have to resign themselves to a
diet of surly resentment, hit-and-run violence and sabotage, but
they could probably put down a popular uprising with ease. It might
need a crisis in Beijing to provoke one in Xinjiang; it was only
during a period of turmoil and civil war in China, from 1944 to
1949, that the Uighurs last gained independence.

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