Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     Aug 19, 2009
Xinjiang serves as pan-Asian pivot
By David Gosset

Since the fatal riots on July 5 in Urumqi, capital of China's Xinjiang province, heated disputes and controversy surrounding the events have arisen in the world's media and political circles. On an issue subject to manipulation, some clarifications are needed.

Some analysts still regard China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as another source of instability in what is a larger zone of disorder at the heart of the Eurasian continent. The July 5 tragedy seemed to reinforce this view.

However, the violence that killed 197 people, traumatized the 20 million inhabitants of the region and shocked 1.3 billion Chinese


citizens is not representative of Xinjiang's overall situation.

Sporadic terrorist activity has affected the autonomous region since the beginning of the 1990s, but the violence in early July stunned the local population. In a profoundly disturbed Urumqi, the riots resonate as the worst calamity to strike the region since its establishment in 1955.

Just as the events of July 5 do not fully illustrate Xinjiang's recent history, the Uyghur rioters who assaulted Han Chinese are not representative of the province's almost nine million Turkic people, who practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam and have a rich and varied set of traditions.

During rioting on the night of July 5, many Uyghurs protected Han Chinese by opening the doors of their shops or houses to them. In the aftermath of the chaos, all local imams, known as ahong in China's Muslim community, unambiguously deplored the violence.
Xinjian province is China's westernmost region. Under the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) it was just called "Xiyu" or the Western Region. This was a reference to the land west of Dunhuang (now called Gansu Province) which covers a sixth of China's territory. One should not underestimate the importance of Xinjiang, which was described by Owen Lattimore (1900-1989), the American sinologist raised in Tianjin, as the "pivot of Asia". [1]

Covering some 1.6 million square kilometers (equal to the size of Iran, two times the size of Pakistan or three times the size of France), Xinjiang, whose Chinese characters mean "New Frontier", shares a border with eight countries: Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Its international border makes up one-fourth of China's total land boundaries.

Of the 55 official minorities of the People's Republic of China, 12 can be found in Xinjiang. Among them, the Uyghur, Kazak, Hui, Kirgiz, Mongol and Tajik minorities make up more than half of Xinjiang's total population. Within China, only Yunnan Province - with its 25 minorities - is more ethnically diverse.

Obviously, being next to Pakistan, Afghanistan or Tajikistan, Xinjiang is in contact with extreme poverty, religious radicalism and various forms of illegal trafficking, including narcotics.

Although the problems that plague its neighbors can not be totally stopped at Xinjiang's border, one should not look at Xinjiang as the Eastern periphery of a chaotic geopolitical space. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to president Jimmy Carter, called the region the "the Eurasian Balkans" in The Grand Chessboard (1997), referring to it as the most western circle of a pole of stability and economic growth.

Arguably the most comprehensive study on the autonomous region, Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland edited by Frederick Starr and published in 2004, goes beyond the usual collection of exotica or portraits of the Great Game's actors - two types of cliche that Peter Hopkirk's famous Foreign Devils along the Silk Road (1980) did not attempt to avoid.

However, despite all its value and academic rigor, Starr's book has two weaknesses. First, Chinese scholars were not invited to contribute. Second, it failed to take the full measure of the speed and the magnitude of China's transformation and its effects on the region.

The nebulous "Great Game" and its more recent variants were made possible by a decadent Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and a weak Republic of China (1912-1949), but with China's re-emergence the foreseeable future is much less uncertain. In a gradual and constructive domino effect, the Chinese economic re-emergence has created the conditions of Xinjiang's successful modernization, which in turn could become an important factor - in the long term, possibly the most decisive factor - of the stability of Central Asia.

From that perspective, Xinjiang's security and development is in the highest interests of the international community. The massive Chinese investment in the huge Aynak copper mine project near Kabul signals Beijing's willingness to participate in the reconstruction of the region.

At a moment when the "AfPak" (Afghanistan-Pakistan) concept is at the center of President Barack Obama's military strategy, the US administration - and equally members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) - has to measure the positive role of Xinjiang. They could even begin to seriously explore what Beijing can do to take Inner Asia at another level of development.

With this is mind, the US Congress, which through the National Endowment for Democracy finances partly the World Uyghur Congress, should urgently review a policy which is not only contrary to America's ideals but which also hurts its interests.

At the crossroads of civilizations and contiguous with a web of often antagonistic geopolitical forces, Xinjiang's complex reality requires a nuanced examination. In his introduction to Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland Starr rightly writes that the area is "one of the most complex zones of cultural interaction on earth".

Sun Yatsen (1866-1925), the leader of the 1911 Xinhai republican revolution, had already in mind the potential international role of Xinjiang. Written in 1922, his The International Development of China, referred to a great plan to connect Europe and China by railways in which Xinjiang was the pivot of an integrated Eurasian system. To a certain extent, Sun Yatsen's vision is now a reality.

The autonomous region's has rich energy resources - 25% of China's onshore oil reserve, 30% of its gas reserves and 40% of its coal reserves - solid infrastructure and a flourishing agriculture industry utilizing solid irrigation systems. It also has great potential for tourism due to its majestic scenery and the key location on the historic Silk Road. All these factors could help the region's entry into the 21st century.

In 2008, Xinjiang's GDP per capita (US$2,800) ranked 15th on the 31 administrative divisions of mainland China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau). Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan respectively have a GDP per capita of $1,000, $400 and $800, according to International Monetary Fund figures from 2008.

Four decades ago, the autonomous region was defined by its remoteness and backwardness. But today Urumqi, its capital, has 2.5 million inhabitants and six universities attracting students from all over Central Asia. Its success has led to hopes in Korla, the capital of the Bayin'gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, and in Kashgar, in the west of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, that these cities will follow in Urumqi's path.

On June 29 during an official visit to Xinjiang, Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, commented, "What I have seen in Urumqi makes me believe that the amazing city will resume its luster as a pivotal transition point in the Silk Road, which started in Xian, passed through Xinjiang and ended at Istanbul."

Xinjiang's accomplishments partly explain the government openness following the July 5 tragedy. After the attacks, more than 400 journalists from 29 countries covered the event from Urumqi. On August 10, diplomatic envoys from 26 countries embarked on a five-day visit to the autonomous region.

In the management of the crisis, several moves were crucial. By allowing the foreign media to report live from Urumqi - including CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime Florcruz - China avoided another unnecessary quarrel with the West. Last year, in the aftermath of the March 14 riots in Lhasa, Beijing implemented a media blackout that only created suspicion and misunderstanding.

On July 7, when Han Chinese took to the streets in protest at the rioters' behavior - and were on the verge of revenge attacks - the autonomous region's top leaders, Wang Lequan and Nur Bekri, made firm and clear public calls to avoid an escalation that would have had disastrous consequences.

When the Chinese President Hu Jintao decided to leave the G-8 summit in Italy to coordinate the response to the tensions from Beijing he had probably this nightmare scenario in mind.

Maintaining open access to the region is the most efficient way to counter misinformation and to expose disinformation about the highly strategic Xinjiang.

On July 29, an article in Time magazine, "Tearing Down Old Kashgar: Another Blow to the Uyghurs", alleged that the city is threatened by a Chinese-government redevelopment plan.

But Kashgar, is actually going through a process of renovation to improve its inhabitants basic sanitary conditions without affecting the original appearance of their homes. According to authorities, architects plan to preserve the city's urban configuration, its picturesque colors and wood sculptures. One of them, Wang Xiaodong, is a recognized specialist in Islamic architecture.

A real "blow to the Uyghurs" would be not to upgrade Kashgar's old district, when the financial resources and expertise are available to do so. Those familiar with the old city know it has poor sanitary conditions and that 30 kilometers of tunnels under the city - some built to serve as bomb shelters during Sino-Soviet tensions - put the inhabitants' life at risk.

More generally, after 31 years of "reform and opening-up", and the ruinous "Cultural Revolution" is a closed chapter - Beijing's elites are now aware of the importance of preserving China's cultural heritage. It would be highly counter-productive to deny that a segment of the Uyghur population which does not directly benefit from Xinjiang's modernization has developed frustrations. A better distribution of economic development, education and more balanced urban planning could minimize the future risk of tensions.

But when analyzing the events of July 5, one should not overplay the ethnic factor and politicize an issue that is to a large extent, socio-economic.

Given the scale of the July 5 riots, the scope of its impact on Xinjiang's collective psyche, and what it indicates about the autonomous region's social problems, it is important to learn as much as possible from this tragedy. By understanding the exact circumstances of the tragedy, China's Xinjiang will be better equipped to prevent other such catastrophes.

The riots could also be used as a chance to open, in a mature, sophisticated and confident Chinese society, the highly complex and sensitive debate on national policy toward ethnic minorities. Despite the huge differences between the former USSR and the People's Republic of China, Beijing's nationalities policy has been largely inspired by revolutionary Moscow. History proved that the Soviet approach towards a multi-ethnic state did not end as expected.

Beijing has the great advantage to be able to reflect on the various mistakes of the Soviet Union. Obviously, in China, preferential policies that have helped to reduce inequalities are still necessary. But one can also argue that systematic ethnic consideration is not conducive towards reducing the distance between the Han majority and the minorities.

China's elites have to consider the best ways to nurture the sense of belonging to the People's Republic of China through a shared understanding of the notion of citizenship and the rights, duties and privileges it envelops. Notes:
1. Pivot of Asia: Sinkiang and the Inner Asian Frontiers of China and Russia, (Boston: Little, 1950).

David Gosset is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations at CEIBS, Shanghai, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.

(Copyright 2009 David Gosset.)

Xinjiang crisis creates ripples abroad (Jul 31, '09)

Xinjiang riots confound Islamists
(Jul 29, '09)

Washington funds its Uyghur 'friends'
(Aug 18, '09)

Palestine problem hopeless, but not serious

2. China's war games unnerve neighbors

3. Realpolitik revealed in Myanmar release

4. Foundations undermined

5. BSNL - the undoing of a giant

6. A fog swirls in the Hindu Kush

7. Bank on inflation

8. Taliban rooting for Karzai's defeat

9. Hard facts ignored

10. China Inc taps seam of bribery

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Aug 17, 2009)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 - 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110