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    Greater China
     Sep 22, 2011


Catch-22 of Xinjiang as a gateway
By Jacob Zenn

KASHGAR - China wants nothing more than to portray Xinjiang as ripe to become Central Asia's primary trading hub and not a hotbed of ethnic unrest. It shouldn't be surprised however if an increasing focus on economic prosperity opens up a gateway to Uyghur militancy.

Less than two months after ethnic-related violence in Hotan and Kashgar cost the lives of 25 people, Chinese security patrols were beefed up throughout Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, for the first annual China-Eurasia Expo from September 1 to September 5. About 20,000 community workers were employed to monitor Urumqi's 550 neighborhoods, each of

 
which is allocated more than $35,000 annually by the government to support local security efforts.

The influx of foreign traders from more than 30 countries, especially neighboring Central Asian countries and Pakistan made China determined to put on a good show, with an inauguration ceremony featuring Vice Premier Li Keqiang, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, Kyrgyzstan's interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, Azerbaijan's Vice Premier Abid Sharifov, and Kazakhstan's Deputy Prime Minister Aset Isekeshev.

An upgrade from the 19-year-old China Urumqi Foreign Economic Relations and Trade Fair, this year's expo recorded contracts worth $130 billion, a sign of Xinjiang's emergence as one of Central's Asia most prosperous regions. As a province, Xinjiang's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is third only to Kazakhstan and Russia among the eight countries with which it shares a border: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Pakistan, India, Russia, and Kazakhstan.


As the Old City comes down, new buildings (foreground) are taking their place. All pictures by Jacob Zenn.

But beyond statistics, China's long-term challenge in Xinjiang is to placate the region's indigenous Uyghurs who constitute roughly 8 million out of a population of 20 million people in the province. July 2011 was Xinjiang's deadliest month since July 2009, when clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese and Chinese police forces in Urumqi left more than 200 dead.

The ethnic dimension
Uyghur concerns about China's unbalanced development are roughly the same as those of China's Han majority, but in Xinjiang these concerns take on an added ethnic dimension. The problem boils down to representation. In "neidi", or Inner China - the term Xinjiang's Uyghurs use to refer to the Han-majority interior of the country - the Han Chinese have begun protesting government land seizures on a scale unseen before in China's history.

A protest in April 2011 in Sujiang, Yunnan, for example, was attended by up to 2,000 people who claimed the government's compensation of approximately $1,200 per acre (0.405 hectare) was inadequate. More than one-third of the city's 160,000 residents were forced to move to make way for the new Xiangjiaba hydroelectric station.


New buildings rise in Kashgar.

The difference between Han and Uyghur protests, however, are that the Han have the Communist Party - a government dominated by their own - to blame, whereas the Uyghurs do not feel the autonomy provided to them protects their interests.

Although Xinjiang is officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Uyghurs see the Communist Party as representing Han interests by promoting Han in-migration from neidi to Xinjiang and exploiting Xinjiang's vast natural resources for the benefit of neidi. There is a common belief among Kashgar's Uyghurs that the government is sending in 20,000 Han Chinese per month in order to facilitate population displacement and exploitation.

The Uyghurs' negative perceptions about Xinjiang's economic boom revolve around two main issues. First, the economic pie in Xinjiang is not shared equally between the Han and the Uyghurs. Southern Xinjiang (Nanjiang), where the Uyghurs constitute more than 90% of the population, only contributes half the GDP of Han-dominated Northern Xinjiang (Beijiang).

In Urumqi, many of China's development plans involve creating new residential districts and industrial parks, most of which will support an additional two million Han Chinese from neidi who are expected to in-migrate to Urumqi by 2020 and raise the city's population to five million.

Second, and even more disconcerting for the Uyghurs, is the loss of their heritage. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kashgar, where in the name of making the city "earthquake proof" the government is tearing down large swaths of the Old City.


Uyghurs fear the traditional bazaar culture - animals, people and all - will disappear in a few years.

In practice, this will turn Kashgar's Old City into a version of what Urumqi's Old City now looks like - a football-field size shopping area called the Grand Bazaar, or ErDaoQiao, that bears little resemblance to Urumqi's past. For Kashgar's Uyghurs, who take pride in their city's role as a major trading post and Islamic center along the ancient Silk Road, the destruction of the Old City can neither be compensated with money nor the promise of new and modern apartment blocks.

Adding insult to injury, the new apartment buildings in Kashgar are often too expensive for Uyghurs to afford. Many Uyghurs will have to move away from Kashgar's city center and into the rural areas surrounding the city while Han in-migrants from neidi move into the new apartment blocks. Uyghurs who can afford to live in the new apartments worry about the loss of the sense of community that has defined Kashgar's Old City neighborhoods for millennia.

In neidi the same type of destruction of historical landmarks is also taking place.

The Three Gorges dam, completed in 2008, inundated historical landmarks such as the Taoist Temple on the Stone Treasure Fortress and other ancient villages. Gentrification in Beijing has forced the destruction of 1,800 Hutong alleyways which have a history dating back to the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries.


A Uyghur couple sets up a stand in an empty space where a building was torn down.

In Xinjiang the destruction of old cities is only exacerbated by perceptions of Han destruction of Uyghur history, even if the government's policies have less to do with the purposeful elimination of Uyghur culture than no-holds-barred development.

Kashgar's predicament
Kashgar's upgrade is part of the government's plan to make the city the focus of a 50-square kilometer special economic zone that will boost Kashgar's economy and raise its population to one million.

This will also mean an increase in road and air links between Kashgar and neighboring countries and the establishment of consulates for issuing visas to Central and South Asian countries for the purpose of facilitating border trade and attracting foreign investment. Currently, Kashgar's airport only serves Urumqi regularly on direct flights and there are no foreign consulates in the city.

While the internationalization of Kashgar heralds a return to a cosmopolitan Silk Road past, how much the Uyghurs will stand to benefit is uncertain. Uyghurs require special permission from the Chinese government to obtain passports and their visa applications to travel abroad are often denied based on their ethnicity. This includes for the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which especially angers the religiously conservative among them.

China fears that when Uyghurs travel abroad, especially to Mecca, and encounters Muslims from all over the world, they will learn about and be influenced by the example of other Muslims seeking autonomy from "infidel occupations", such as in the Philippine island of Mindanao, and in Chechnya and Palestine.


Kids play in the rubble of a demolished building.

Additionally, travel gives Uyghurs opportunity to become more linked to their Turkic ethnic brethren in Central Asia and as far as Turkey. The further removed Uyghur identity is from the Chinese state, the more likely the Uyghur separatist movement will grow and even thrive.

There is a point where Uyghur frustrations over the situation in Xinjiang and international trends converge. The violence in July 2011 is an example.

On July 18 in Hotan, what began as a protest at a local police station (which in Xinjiang is also responsible for issuing travel permits household registration), evolved into a drawn-out hostage crisis in which as many as 14 Uyghur protesters, two Han Chinese hostages, one security officer, and one policeman were killed.

While the pro-Uyghur German-based World Uyghur Congress says that the protest began as a "peaceful demonstration" calling for the release of fellow Uyghurs detained at the police station, a Chinese government called the incident a "severe terrorist attack".

The new city provides new forms of recreation - Uyghur girls enjoying bicycing.

Terrorists in Xinjiang have previously targeted police in the field, but never a police station itself. In Kashgar in 2008, two local Uyghur men armed with explosives, machetes, and a gun rammed a dump truck into a line of 70 Chinese police officers jogging near a police compound and then attacked the officers with machetes.

The two men were arrested during the fight after killing 16 officers. And in Aksu in 2010, three Uyghur men drove an explosive-laden tricycle into a patrol of police officers in Aksu killing seven.

Yet, the violence in Hotan is different from these two attacks because both the Chinese government and the World Uyghur Congress agree that there was a protest at first, and it was not a direct attack from the beginning. On the strength of their non-Hotan accents, the hostage-takers were also believed to be from out of town. It is very likely that this incident was based on local concerns, but the resort to violence and hostage-taking could reflect the inspiration or influence of international terrorist groups.

Whereas the Hotan incident hints of local actors lashing out because of local concerns, the Kashgar attacks on July 30 and July 31 show signs that international jihadi groups and Uyghur extremists are collaborating. The attacks in Kashgar have the signature of previous terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, notably in Kashgar in 2008 and Aksu in 2010, but only now can Chinese assertions that foreign-trained militants are responsible be corroborated.

The attacks began on the evening of July 30 when a vehicle-borne explosion detonated on a street lined with pedestrians and food stalls frequented by Han Chinese. Shortly after, two Uyghur men hijacked a truck, killed its driver, and then steered the truck onto the sidewalk and into the food stalls and then stabbed people at random.

On July 31, another attack continued on another popular dining and shopping street for Han Chinese. After two blasts at one restaurant as many as 10 Uyghur men shot and stabbed people indiscriminately, including the firefighters who came to the rescue. Overall, more than 10 civilians and eight attackers were killed and more than 40 others wounded on the two days.

A video released by the Turkistan Islamic Party in late August shows one of the attackers, Memtieli Tiliwaldi, in a Pakistani training camp wrestling with other fighters. Tiliwaldi was killed by Xinjiang police in a corn field days after the attack. This is the most concrete evidence ever introduced that links attacks in Xinjiang to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or militants in Pakistan.


Local police conduct rounds in front of Kashgar's oldest and most famous mosque, Id Kah.

By hosting events like the China-Eurasia expo and making Xinjiang a focal point of its foreign policy projection in Central Asia, China is exposing the province's Uyghurs to more influence from abroad. Ideally, the benefits of opening up Xinjiang's economy to its neighbors would endear the Uyghur population to China, but with the greater portion of the profits being seized by Han "newcomers" to the region many Uyghurs feel alienated in their own homeland.

Combined with the loss of their physical heritage, especially Kashgar's Old City, many Uyghurs succumb to the idea that the minority must submit to the majority. However, a growing number of Uyghurs in Xinjiang neither see the benefits of economic development, nor are willing to succumb to the realities that the Uyghurs are facing. For this group, other Muslim separatist movements, such as those in Chechnya or Mindanao, provide a path to resistance.

With Pakistan across the border from Xinjiang and the Uyghurs' close linguistic and ethnic affiliation to the Uzbeks from which the Islamic Movement Uzbekistan that rejects the secular autocracy in Uzbekistan, disaffected Uyghurs find plenty of options for resistance if they so choose.

This is China's Catch-22. With Xinjiang emerging as a gateway to Central Asia, the province's economy will continue to boom. But the side-effects of this success could include Uyghur militancy, locally rooted as in the Hotan protest and internationally influenced, as in the Kahsgar attacks.

Jacob Zenn graduated from the Georgetown Law Global Law Scholar's Program in 2011 and previously studied Uyghur at Xinjiang University in Urumqi. He was based in Kashgar in August and September 2011.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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