Friday, August 5, 2011

Why did they choose Xinjiang?

The recent terror attack in China’s Xinjiang province and Chinese government's statement that that the attack has Pakistani terrorists’ stamp, has pleased so many in the world. The prophets of doom had started predicting sour Sino-Pakistan relations in the days to come and many even went to the extent of making preparations for celebrating “total international isolation” of Pakistan. The reason was China’s initial statement that terrorists were trained in FATA, a restive tribal area infested with anti-Pakistan terrorists. Fully aware of the ground realities, China turned the tables on these prophets the very next day by declaring total support to Pakistan in its war against terrorists.

Pakistan's FATA bordering Afghanistan has been volatile ever since opening of a number of unwarranted Indian consulates and intensification of the activities of intelligence network of a very powerful country, the latter being the major reason of strained US-Pakistan relations. The very fact that China was the target of terror attacks speaks volumes about who could be behind these terrorists. This also explains “Islamists’” acts of violence targeting Chinese citizens in Islamabad in 2007, after occupying a sacred place of worship and making the people hostage to this agenda.

The other reason for choosing Xinjiang was its volatility for ethnic reasons and its close proximity to Pakistan's international borders. The Chinese province of Xinjiang, having predominantly Muslim population of Turkic origin has remained in turmoil since long. Since those involved in turbulence are Muslims who, in their view, are fighting Chinese imperialism, the common perception is that probably the area is under the influence of al Qaeda or other terrorist activities for gaining political space. Only recently, an assault on a Chinese police station in Xinjiang has left at least four people dead, raising concerns about a fresh outbreak of violence in the restive far western region. The confrontation in Hotan – near one of China's most important energy-producing areas – comes two years after the deadliest ethnic rioting in the country's recent history left at least 197 people dead.

Details of the police station attack are contested. The official Xinhua news agency said on Monday that "thugs" forced their way into the building, started fires and took hostages before security reinforcements killed several attackers in a gunfight that also claimed the lives of two civilians and two officers. Six hostages were successfully rescued. Local police confirmed the report and said they were planning countermeasures.

According to Guardian, this version of events is disputed by the World Uighur Congress, which wants more independence and greater rights for the largely Muslim, ethnic group in Xinjiang. Dilxat Raxit, the Sweden-based spokesman for the WUC, said the shooting occurred in the main bazaar when a large number of locals tried to protest about the "disappearances" of young Uighurs taken away by the security forces.

The unrest is a major concern for the government in Beijing, which is increasingly dependent on Xinjiang for oil, gas and coal to power the economy. Many Han Chinese migrants have moved into the region to cash in on this boom, prompting tensions with the indigenous population.

Is this tension in the region driven and perpetrated by the Muslim terrorist outfits like al Qaeda? Has this turbulence got anything to do with enforcement of Sharia, as is the case elsewhere in Afghanistan and Pakistan or is it simply a struggle of Uyghur majority population to preserve their culture, faith and economic rights? In order to find answers to these questions, let us look at the history of this region.

The Uyghur are a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia. Today, Uyghurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the People's Republic of China. An estimated 80% of Xinjiang's Uyghurs live in the southwestern portion of the region, the Tarim Basin. The largest community of Uyghurs outside Xinjiang in China is in Taoyuan County, in south-central Hunan province. Outside of China, significant diasporic communities of Uyghurs exist in the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Smaller communities are found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Throughout history, the term Uyghur has taken on an increasingly expansive definition. Initially signifying only a small coalition of Tiele tribes in Northern China, Mongolia, and the Altay Mountains, it later denoted citizenship in the Uyghur Khaganate. Finally it was expanded to an ethnicity, whose ancestry originates with the fall of the Uyghur Khaganate in the year 842 AD, which caused Uyghur migration from Mongolia into the Tarim Basin. This migration assimilated and replaced the Indo-Europeans of the region to create a distinct identity, as the language and culture of the Turkic migrants eventually supplanted the original Indo-European influences. The name "Uyghur" reappeared after the Soviet Union took the ninth-century ethnonym from the Uyghur Khaganate, and reapplied it to all non-nomadic Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang, following a 19th-century proposal from Russian historians that modern-day Uyghurs were descended from the Turpan Kingdom and Kara-Khanid Khanate, which had formed after the dissolution of the Uyghur Khaganate. Historians generally agree that the adoption of the term "Uyghur" is based on a decision from a 1921 conference in Tashkent, which was attended by Turkic Muslims from the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang). There, "Uyghur" was chosen by them as the name of their own ethnic group, although the delegates noted that the modern groups referred to a "Uyghur" were distinct from the old Uyghur Khaganate. Soviets and the ruling regime of China at that time, the Kuomintang intended to foster a Uyghur nationality in order to divide the Muslim population of Xinjiang, whereas the various Turkic Muslim peoples themselves preferred to identify as "Turki", "East Turkestani", or "Muslim".

On the other hand the Kuomintang, grouped all Muslims, including the Turkic-speaking people of Xinjiang, into the "Hui nationality". They generally referred to the Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang as "Chan Tou Hui" (turban-headed Muslim). Westerners traveling in Xinjiang in the 1930s, like George W. Hunter, Peter Fleming, Ella K. Maillart, and Sven Hedin all referred to the Turkic Muslims of the region not as Uyghur, but as "Turki", in their books. Use of the term "Uyghur" was unknown in Xinjiang until 1934, when the governor Sheng Shicai came to power in Xinjiang. Sheng adopted the Soviets' ethnographic classification rather than the Kuomintang one, and became the first to officially promulgate the use of the term "Uyghur" to describe the Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang. After the Communist victory, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong continued the Soviet classification, using the term Uyghur to describe the modern ethnic group.

In current usage, Uyghur refers to settled Turkic urban dwellers and farmers of the Tarim Basin and Ili who follow traditional Central Asian sedentary practices, as distinguished from nomadic
Uyghurs staged several uprisings against Chinese rule. Twice, in 1933 and 1944, the Uyghurs successfully regained their independence(backed by the Soviet Communist leader Joseph Stalin): the First East Turkestan Republic was a short-lived attempt at independence of land around Kashghar, and it was destroyed by Chinese Muslim army under General Ma Zhancang and Ma Fuyuan at the Battle of Kashgar (1934). The Second East Turkistan Republic was a Soviet puppet Communist state which existed from 1944 to 1949 in what is now Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture.

Mao declared the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. He turned the Second East Turkistan Republic into the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, and appointed Saifuddin Azizi as the region's first Communist Party governor. Many Republican loyalists fled into exile in Turkey and Western countries. The name Xinjiang was changed to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where they are the largest ethnic group and Uyghurs are mostly concentrated in the southwestern Xinjiang.

The Uyghur identity remains fragmented, as some support a Pan-Islamic vision, exemplified in the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, others support a Pan-Turkic vision, as in the East Turkestan Liberation Organization and a third group would like a "Uyghurstan" state, as in the East Turkestan independence movement. As a result, "No Uyghur or East Turkestan group speaks for all Uyghurs, although it might claim to", and Uyghurs in each of these camps have committed violence against other Uyghurs who they think are too assimilated to Chinese or Russian society or not religious enough. Mindful not to take sides, Uyghur leaders like Rebiya Kadeer mainly try to garner international support for the "rights and interests of the Uyghurs", including the right to demonstrate, although the Chinese government has accused her of orchestrating the deadly July 2009 Ürümqi riots.

Most Uyghurs are Muslim, and practice Sufism. The relics of the Uyghur culture constitute major collections in the museums of Berlin, London, Paris, Tokyo, St. Petersburg, and New Delhi. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scientific and archaeological expeditions to the region of Xinjiang's Silk Road discovered numerous cave temples, monastery ruins, and wall paintings, as well as valuable miniatures, books, and documents. Explorers from Europe, America, and Japan were amazed by the art treasures found there, and soon their reports caught the attention of an interested public around the world. Throughout the history of Central Asia, the Uyghurs left a lasting imprint on both the culture and tradition of the people of central Asia.

Today, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), a territory in western China, accounts for one-sixth of China's land and is home to about 20 million people from thirteen major ethnic groups, the largest being the Uyghurs. Some Uyghurs call China's presence in Xinjiang a form of imperialism, and they stepped up calls for independence—sometimes violently—in the 1990s through separatist groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The Chinese government has reacted by promoting the migration of China's ethnic majority, the Han, to Xinjiang. Beijing has also strengthened economic ties with the area and tried to cut off potential sources of separatist support from neighboring states that are linguistically and ethnically linked with the Uyghurs.

Xinjiang's wealth hinges on its vast mineral and oil deposits. In the early 1990s, Beijing decided to spur Xinjiang's growth by giving it special economic zones, subsidizing local cotton farmers, and overhauling its tax system. In August 1991, the Xinjiang government launched the Tarim Basin Project (World Bank) to increase agricultural output. During this period, Beijing invested in the region's infrastructure, building massive projects like the Tarim Desert Highway and a rail link to western Xinjiang.

Growing job opportunities in Xinjiang have lured a steady stream of migrant workers to the region, many of whom are ethnically Han whose population has risen from approximately 5 percent in the 1940s to approximately 40 percent today. Many of these Uyghurs say China colonized the area in 1949. But in its first white paper on Xinjiang, the Chinese government said Xinjiang had been an "inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation" since the Western Han Dynasty.

In its 2007 annual report to the U.S. Congress, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China said the Chinese government "provides incentives for migration to the region from elsewhere in China, in the name of recruiting talent and promoting stability". Since imperial times, the Chinese government has tried to settle Han on the outskirts of China to integrate the Chinese periphery. But the Communist Party says its policies in Xinjiang are designed to promote economic development, not demographic change.

Ethnic tension is fanned by economic disparity: the Han tend to be wealthier than the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Some experts say the wage gap is the result of discriminatory hiring practices. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China reports that in 2006, the XPCC reserved approximately 800 of 840 civil servant job openings for Han. Local officials say they would like to hire Uyghurs, but have trouble finding qualified candidates. Uyghurs are also upset by what they consider Chinese attempts to "refashion their cultural and religious identity.

During the 1990s, separatist groups in Xinjiang began frequent attacks against the Chinese government. The most famous of these groups was the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). China, the United States, and the UN Security Council have all labeled ETIM a terrorist organization, and Chinese officials have said the group has ties to al-Qaeda. Concern about Uighur terrorism flared in August 2008—just days before the Beijing Olympics—when two men attacked a military police unit in Xinjiang, killing sixteen.

But many experts say China is exaggerating the danger posed by Uyghur terrorists. China has accused the Uyghurs of plotting thousands of attacks, but Andrew J. Nathan, a China expert at Columbia University, says, "You have to be very suspicious of those numbers." Many of the "terrorist incidents" that China attributes to ETIM are actually "spontaneous and rather disorganized" forms of civil unrest.

Xinjiang shares a border with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Because of the Uyghurs' cultural ties to its neighbors, says a report of Council on Foreign Relations, China has been concerned that Central Asian states may back a separatist movement in Xinjiang. According to Nathan, these fears are fueled by the fact that the Soviet Union successfully backed a Uyghur separatist movement in the 1940s. To keep Central Asian states from fomenting trouble in Xinjiang, China has cultivated close diplomatic ties with its neighbors, most notably through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which was created to ensure the support of Central Asian states, and to prevent any emergence of linkages between Uyghur communities in these countries and Xinjiang. As a result of these diplomatic efforts, China's neighbors "are now fighting their own Muslim fundamentalist groups," which makes them more sympathetic to China's plight.

None of China's neighbors have expressed official support for the Uyghurs, but the region's porous borders still worry Chinese officials. In the 1980s and 1990s, many Uyghurs traveled into Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they were exposed to Islamic extremism. Some enrolled in madrassas, some enrolled with [the anti-Taliban opposition force] the Northern Alliance, some enrolled with the Taliban, some enrolled with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

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