Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2008, pages 42-43

Islam and the Near East in the Far East

China’s Xinjiang Problem

By John Gee

  • An ethnic Uighur watches the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games on a big screen in the main square of Xingiang’s famed Silk Road city of Kashgar, Aug. 8, 2008 (AFP photo/Peter Parks).

KASHGAR’S grapes are large and plentiful. In the summer, they grow in great bunches on vines that seem to occupy the spaces trees would hold elsewhere: they even grow on road dividers in the newer parts of China’s most westerly city. Indeed, Marco Polo noted Kashgar’s vineyards and gardens while traveling along the ancient Silk Road linking the West with China. Two traditional routes from the east skirted the Taklamakan desert and converged there; two more left it for the Middle East and Europe, and another linked it to India.

Kashgar’s old city, with its mosques, narrow streets and markets, attracts tourists prepared to venture far beyond the end of the Great Wall. Many Chinese visiting from the east are surprised at how different it seems from their home regions. Not only do they think it has a Middle Eastern look to it, but the people look different, too.

Most of them are Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and are Muslims. Eight million of them live in what is officially known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The region also is home to Kazakh, Kirghiz and Han Chinese inhabitants, as well as a few Russians. Its capital is Urumqi, but locals think that Kashgar has much more of an Uighur feel about it.

The region faced a security clampdown this year as the Olympic Games neared. Groups calling for independence, notably the Pakistan-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement and Turkestan Islamic Party, threatened to carry out attacks on Chinese targets during the games, and the Chinese government responded by rounding up suspected militants. It claimed to have stopped five terrorist groups from carrying out attacks and to have destroyed 41 training bases, though information on the alleged plots was rather sparse.

The clampdown ensured that there were no disruptions when the Olympic torch was carried through Xinjiang in June. It did not prevent all separatist violence, however; at least 30 people were killed in attacks in the first half of August. Sixteen policemen were killed while out on a morning jog in Kashgar on Aug. 4. Two were killed by a bomb driven into the public security bureau in Kuqa on a tricycle on Aug. 10; that day also saw 11 other attacks, using crudely made bombs. Ten of the attackers were killed. Three more Chinese policemen were killed at a checkpoint by knife-wielding assailants on Aug. 12. The overall pattern of violence in Xinjiang has been one of relatively few, but deadly, assaults, rather than a sustained and widespread offensive.

Islam gained a toehold in Eastern Turkestan in the Middle Ages, after Tang dynasty control of the region loosened in the 8th century, but only gradually became the predominant faith. Sufi holy men, known as khwajas, who traced their descent to the Prophet Muhammad, gained great influence there in the 14th century. They intermarried with locals and their descendants continued to command respect in the following centuries.

Wary of the expansion of rival powers into areas they considered to fall within China’s traditional domains, the Qing emperors Kangxi and Qianlong conquered Eastern Turkestan in the 18th century. It was renamed “New Borders”—Xinjiang.

The crumbling of Qing power in the 19th century gave local leaders in the more distant parts of their empire a chance to assert a certain degree of independence. Yakub Bey, an Uighur from Khokand, west of Kashgar, was sent by the Khan of Khokand to take control of Uighur and Kirghiz lands from the Chinese. He did so, with the support of the local khwajas, and founded an independent khanate in 1865.

Based in Kashgar, it had the support of Britain. Worried by Russian expansion into Central Asia, the British saw it as a threat to its Indian empire, and thought that Yaqub Bey might put up an effective resistance. In 1878 an energetic Chinese governor reimposed Qing authority in Xingiang. By this time, the Russians had occupied the lands to the west of Kashgar and a treaty was signed between China and Russia in 1881 that established the border between the two empires. The new border divided Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kirghiz. At first, there was a relatively easy flow of people across it, but the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia led to tighter controls on movement.

For most of the first half of the 20th century, Chinese central authority in Xinjiang was relatively weak, but in 1948, the Communist advance brought its renewal. The new government recognized Xinjiang as an area that was predominantly inhabited by minority peoples (mainly Uighurs) and it was designated an autonomous region.

Han Chinese migration into Xinjiang since 1948 has been one source of discontent for Uighurs: in 1948, the Han made up less than seven percent of the population, but now they make up 40 percent—just a little less than the Uighurs. Some complain that they do not have full religious freedom, although after the Cultural Revolution, when religious institutions across China faced concerted attacks, efforts were made to repair the damage done. People of all nationalities in Xinjiang are aware that China’s economic growth has been concentrated on its east coast and feel that its benefits have been slow in coming to them.

These are concerns that China will need to answer if it is to avoid worsening conflict in the future.

Islam and Democracy Meeting

The aim of the Southeast Asian Forum on Islam and Democracy (SEAFID) is to develop a network of “moderate-progressive Muslim intellectuals and civic leaders” in the region. Launched in Manila in December 2007, it had its second meeting in Jakarta Aug. 12-14 of this year. Dr. Jusuf Kalla, vice president of Indonesia, delivered its opening address.

According to a statement posted on the Philippines’ INQUIRER.net:

“SEAFID’s main thrust is the promotion of peace, tolerance, mutual understanding, social justice, good governance, democracy and access to quality education. It asserts the upholding of human rights, economic opportunity, gender justice, intellectual, spiritual, artistic and cultural development, preservation and promotion of human dignity, and maximizing human resource development.”

The forum heard reports, discussed possible ways toward the solution of problems in Myanmar, Thailand and other countries, and adopted a statement of support for the peace process in Mindanao, the southern Philippines island where a peace agreement between the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had been delayed by renewed fighting that displaced 130,000 people from their homes. The statement called for the two sides to sign the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, which would give control over an increased territory to the autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao. National government negotiators had reached an agreement with the MILF, but the terms ran into strong opposition in the Philippines parliament, and the country’s Supreme Court imposed a temporary restraining order to prevent the agreement from being finalized.

The second SEAFID forum was attended by participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Timor Leste.

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Southeast Asia, and the author of Unequal Enemies: The Palestinians and Israel, available from the AET Book Club.