Philip Bowring had an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday on the uprising in Xinjiang and the sympathetic response East Turkestan’s Muslim Uighur population has received from other Asian and Muslim nations. I have some problems with his essay, including his glossing over of the invasion of East Turkestan by the Mao’s PLA in 1949 as settlement that occurred “postwar,” but there are some real gems of analysis in his piece. Notably his take on the Chinese government’s failure to recognize the underlying causes of unrest in Xinjiang, as in Tibet, are being ignored at the risk of further unrest.
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.
Bowring is spot-on in identifying Han chauvinism as a fundamental problem in the Chinese government’s response to unrest in occupied territories. As far as I know, the Chinese government has yet to concede that a single Uighur was killed by government forces or Han vigilantes yet – despite numerous reports from exile groups and independent media that Uighurs are being killed in great numbers.
Moreover, Bowring is right to identify the error the Chinese government is making in trying to pin the terrorist label on Uighur students holding protests. If you call someone a violent terrorist long enough and treat them as the same, before to long it won’t be shocking if some of these young men do turn to violent ways. This is why it is so fundamentally wrong for the Chinese government to try to pin the blame for this unrest and all instances of violence on Rebiya Kadeer of the World Uighur Congress. She is one of the strongest bulwarks against Uighurs turning to violence. She is an advocate of finding political resolution through non-violent means. Notably the tactic of trying to demonize the leading non-violent leader as a violent terrorist in East Turkestan is exactly the same one the Chinese government used, with no success, in Tibet with the Dalai Lama last year.
Bowring concludes that East Turkestan will remain “a “pebble in the shoe” for China’s diplomacy” but will not become an issue of international prominence. Sadly he is right unless people of conscience make efforts to hold the Chinese government to account for their violent military crackdown in East Turkestan. Just as in Tibet, China’s ongoing military occupations and how they treat the occupied peoples must be fundamental in consideration of the relationship foreign governments are willing to build with China. Few countries are willing to make Tibet and East Turkestan issues in their diplomatic relations with China, but that doesn’t mean the quietism of world governments is morally right.