While Tibet has played the role of China's "rock star" to human-rights
activists around the world, China's Xinjiang province has been treated more
like an unwanted stepchild. One reason is that Tibet has a true rock star in
the exiled Dalai Lama. Another reason is that the strife in Xinjiang involves
Muslim ethnic minorities with alleged ties to the most hated man in the Western
world - Osama bin Laden. All of this, however, is simply unfair because what is
happening in Xinjiang in terms of human-rights violations may be even worse
than the Tibetan repression.
Xinjiang is China's largest province geographically but, with its extremes of
heat and cold and desert climate, it is also one of its most sparsely
populated. This province was formally annexed to the Manchu Qing Empire as
early as 1759 but, for all practical
purposes, it remained under the control of provincial warlords until the
ascendancy of the Communist Party in 1949. That was when one of the most
interesting, and possibly most ruthless historical events was ever perpetrated
- one that allowed China to bring Xinjiang under its iron-fist control.
During the immediate post-World War II period, Xinjiang was controlled by
Stalin and the Soviet-backed East Turkistan Republic. Reluctant to support a
nationalist Muslim regime on the border of the then-Soviet Central Asian
republics, Stalin brokered what appeared to be a peaceful accommodation between
the Muslim leaders of East Turkistan and Mao Zedong's government. However, the
plane carrying the East Turkistan leadership to Beijing to negotiate the peace
agreement mysteriously - and all too conveniently - crashed and killed all
aboard. In the ensuing leadership vacuum, Mao's forces stepped in and assumed
control of Xinjiang, an "autonomous province" in name only.
From an agricultural point of view, much of Xinjiang is a virtual dustbowl in
no small part because of overgrazing, deforestation, overplowing, and the
failed efforts of the central government to turn grasslands into farmland.
However, beneath Xinjiang's dusty soil and mountainous steppes lies buried 40%
of China's coal reserves. Equally abundant and far more precious to the central
government are oil and natural gas deposits that total the equivalent of about
30 billion tons of oil and represent one-fourth to one-third of China's total
Xinjiang is not just one of China's best bets for energy resources. Bordering
eight countries in Central Asia and the Russian Federation, Xinjiang also has
important strategic value. Central Asia can serve as a transshipment area for
Middle East oil should war ever break out over Taiwan or China's various claims
for oil reserves in the South China Seas. Central Asia republics such as
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan also have large petroleum reserves of their own that
can help lessen China's Middle East oil dependence. For these reasons, China is
building a vast network of modern infrastructure that includes railways, roads,
and pipelines linking Xinjiang eastward to China's petroleum-thirsty industrial
heartland and west and north to Central Asia and Russia.
In Xinjiang, the majority of the population consists of a Muslim Turkic people
called the Uyghurs. These Uyghurs face some of the harshest and most repressive
measures in the world under the jackboots of Chinese communism - arguably even
more oppressive than what the Tibetans face. Any independent religious activity
can be equated to a "breach of state security", activists are regularly
arrested and tortured, and despite its sparse population, Xinjiang's ethnic
groups suffer more executions for state security crimes than any other
Tragically, repression in Xinjiang has only intensified in the wake of the 9/11
terrorist attacks on the United States. The Chinese government seized on this
attack on American soil as a golden opportunity to cut a very clever deal with
the US. China would support the US's "war on terror" if the United States would
agree that the separatist activities of the Uyghurs represented not simply an
indigenous rebellion against autocratic rule but rather a legitimate terrorist
threat with ties to al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. As part of its deal with
America, China now defines a terrorist in Xinjiang as anyone who thinks
"separatist thoughts", and Xinjiang's jails are crowded with such
Although China's iron-fisted repression in Xinjiang borders on the unbearable,
what sticks most in the Uyghur craw is the ongoing "Hanification" of Xinjiang.
As a matter of policy, for decades the Chinese government has sought to pacify
Xinjiang by importing large portions of its Han population from other,
primarily poor areas - and even by exporting young Uyghur women of
child-bearing age out of the region.
Consider this chilling passage from Reuters:
China's government is
forcibly moving young women of the ethnic Uyghur minority from their homes in
Xinjiang to factories in eastern China, a Uyghur activist told the US Congress
on Wednesday. Rebiya Kadeer, jailed for more than five years for championing
the rights of the Muslim Uyghurs before being sent into exile in the United
States, called for US help in stopping a program she said had already removed
more than 240,000 people, mostly women, from Xinjiang. The women face harsh
treatment with 12-hour work days and often see wages withheld for months ...
Many suspect that the Chinese government policy is to get them to marry
majority Han Chinese in China's cities while resettling Han in traditional
Uyghur lands ...
Today, as a result of these policies, the Han
population is rising at a rate twice as fast as that of the Uyghur population.
Rather than being pacified or tamed by the growing Han population, the Uyghurs
are simply becoming more and more radicalized. There is a very bitter and
dangerous irony in this ethnic strife reported in the Economist:
the Uyghurs historically have been "among the world's most liberal and
pro-Western Muslims, fundamentalist Islam is gaining sway among young Uyghur
men. Today, Uyghurs report that small-scale clashes break out nearly every day
between Chinese and Uyghurs in Xinjiang's western cities.
unlikely that a full-blown guerrilla movement will emerge in Xinjiang to engage
Chinese forces in an Algerian- or Vietnamese-style revolt. The populace is
simply too small, and Chinese security forces are too big and powerful.
However, in an age of "suitcase" nuclear bombs and biological terrorist
weapons, China is increasingly exposed to attacks from Uyghur separatists at
soft target points such as the Three Gorges Dam or any one of its teeming
cities. Indeed, as we have seen in a series of recent attacks, Uyghur
separatists are showing an increasing ability to strike at Chinese targets.
The question ultimately for this conflict - and the fate of the Uyghur people -
is how this conflict will be judged by world opinion. Will the Uyghurs be seen
as a ruthlessly oppressed people being gradually exterminated through the
policy of Hanification? Or will the taint of a Bin Laden connection prevent the
same kind of world outrage that we now witness over Tibet? It is an open
question - and one that the Chinese government itself could deftly sidestep if
it simply began to treat its autonomous regions as truly autonomous.
Peter Navarro is a professor at the Merage School of Business at the
University of California-Irvine, a CNBC contributor, and author of The
Coming China Wars (FT Press). www.peternavarro.com.