Xinjiang: the hidden dimension to China's separatist problem

Although the world’s attention is focused on the unfolding events in Tibet, the greater threat to Beijing’s power is from neighbouring Xinjiang. The restive province, home of the Muslim Uighur, has been the scene of dissent and anti-Chinese protest for decades.

By Alex Neill

Over the last month the Chinese politburo has faced its worst fears as a pan-Tibetan uprising has taken hold, capturing the attention of the world as the Olympic bandwagon gets underway. On 14 March, when ethnic Chinese shops and businesses started to burn in Lhasa, the Chinese central leadership put a well-rehearsed plan into action. In a nightmare revisited for China’s President Hu Jintao, who was Party Secretary to the region twenty years ago and who presided over the last crackdown in 1989, Tibet is now in lock-down. Learning from mistakes of two decades ago, the Chinese authorities deployed paramilitary police rather than the army onto the streets of Lhasa, encircled the city with a cordon sanitaire and prevented access to the region to Western journalists until the insurrection had been suppressed. This caused huge consternation for Western media networks now accustomed to enjoying largely unfettered access throughout China and contributed to a media backlash exacerbating the problem for Chinese leaders

The Chinese authorities were careful not to show too many firearms on the streets of Lhasa; armoured personnel carriers rather than battle tanks rumbled their way into town. The Tiananmen-style crackdown in Lhasa that some had envisaged failed to materialise.  Nevertheless, the sight of armed cohorts in camouflage uniforms and riot gear marching around Lhasa has prompted probably the greatest media campaign in the history of China’s party-run media organisation, the Xinhua News Agency.  In the wake of the ‘saffron revolution’ in Rangoon, Beijing is confronted with the difficult task of avoiding comparison with the Burmese military junta when dealing with the Tibetan monastic community.

The Chinese leadership has been waging its media battle on two fronts, with both an international and domestic campaign.  This has brought the gulf between Western and Chinese perception of the events into sharp relief. It has also illustrated to the world that despite the hypnotism of economic opportunity in China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rules the roost. Western observers have been given a crash course in the CCP campaign against the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, with all the trappings of the acerbic Maoist terminology thrown in for good measure. Conversely, patriotic Chinese citizens have been perplexed and aghast at the Western media’s coverage of the Tibetan independence movement’s efforts to ‘split the motherland’ undermining the celebration of China’s remarkable achievements over the last two decades. Externally, China’s international image is at stake; within China the legitimacy of the CCP in handling separatism in the real problem.

The timing of the Tibet uprising could not have been worse for Beijing. It is difficult not to agree with the leadership’s assertion that this was an international, co-ordinated effort as news reports on the mission of Tibetan independence activists to snuff out the Olympic flame dominate the headlines. Concurrent with the annual Chinese National People’s Congress last month, endorsing the fifth generation leadership in Beijing, Taiwan held its presidential election. For a nervous moment shortly before the Taiwanese election, there was speculation that the unrest in Tibet might influence the polls in Taiwan, swinging the electorate towards Taiwan’s ‘separatist’ independence movement. The only silver lining to Beijing’s current counter-separatism campaign is that Taiwan’s traditional ruling party the  Kuomintang is now back in power, heralding a thaw in cross-strait relations after an eight year deep freeze.

While the Beijing-dubbed ‘Dalai clique’ enjoys the support of an international movement enamoured with Tibetan Buddhism and the charismatic leadership of the Dalai Lama, another separatist movement in Tibet’s neighbouring autonomous region to the north has been largely ignored. Xinjiang is the homeland of the Uighurs, a Turkic speaking race whose genetic roots are entwined with the development of the early Silk Road and who share little in common with their Han Chinese overlords.  The Uighur population, numbering about 10 million, is Muslim. Like Tibet, and occupying a similarly vast expanse of wilderness, in the last fifteen years, Xinjiang has experienced an enormous influx of Han settlers and capital, acting as an overflow valve for China’s burgeoning migrant population. Unlike Tibet however, Xinjiang occupies the oil and gas rich Tarim basin, and is China’s commercial gateway to Central Asia.

The arteries that have fed the growth of Xinjiang in recent years follow the same path as the old Silk Road but the flow of Chinese outward investment is pointed in the direction of Central Asia while Xinjiang’s energy resources flow eastwards into China. Also like Tibet, most of this new found wealth rests in the coffers of Han Chinese, with Uighurs finding themselves outnumbered by the Han and largely disenfranchised in their own homeland. Although the pacifist Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama has captured the romantic imagination of some big Hollywood names, the Uighur separatist movement does not enjoy a similar press.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is home to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and its less fundamentalist affiliates, who call for independence from CCP rule and the establishment of a republic of East Turkestan. In recent weeks, evidence has emerged that Uighur protests have broken out across Xinjiang; the Chinese leadership could be facing insurrection worse than that experienced in Tibet. Prior to the riots in Tibet, on 7 March Chinese authorities reported that a hijacking attempt by Uighur separatists had been averted. Apparently an Uighur couple attempted to ignite liquid explosive devices contained in soda cans with the intention of bringing down China Southern flight CZ6901 en route to Beijing from the Xinjiang regional capital of Urumqi. The couple were subdued and the aircraft made an emergency landing in the north-western city of Lanzhou. Reports of arrests in the town of Yining, a hotbed of Uighur dissent close to the border with Kazakhstan, after the discovery of bomb making equipment, have been followed by rumours of a similar sting operation in Urumqi following a bus bombing there. Corroboration of these rumours is extremely difficult; suffice to say that the same kind of lock-down now in place in Tibet has been applied in Xinjiang.

Tianshan Lions Brigade

The Uighur independence movement was born during the days of the ‘great game’ played out by the British Raj in Afghanistan, and to the north by Tsarist Russia. The area occupied by modern-day Xinjiang (‘new frontier’ in Chinese) was squabbled over by Tsarist Russia and the Qing dynasty for decades. It is thought that nearly 200 Uighur protesters were shot dead and thousands imprisoned by Chinese authorities, following rioting in Yining in 1997. At this point Uighur separatists launched a campaign which, over the past decade, has waged a campaign of violence against Beijing and Han Chinese interests. In recent weeks, co-inciding with the unrest in Tibet, it appears that Uighur militant cells are active once more.

While the biggest threat to China’s international image is embodied by the Tibet independence movement, organised militant separatism in Xinjiang represents a greater real threat for Beijing. The Uighurs have been historically more enterprising throughout China with minority communities existing in most large Chinese cities. The ETIM allegedly operates networks throughout Central Asia and as far south as Pakistan and, furthermore, enjoys the support of Turkish nationalists in Istanbul.

The ETIM suffered a blow when, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US State Department placed the organisation on its official list of terrorist organisations, in what some analysts argue was a trade-off with Beijing for Chinese support in the ‘coalition of the willing’. The East Turkestan cause was weakened upon the discovery that ethnic Uighurs were found to be part of Osama Bin Laden’s body guard unit, some of whom ended up in Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay. Part of the problem is that some Uighur separatists from China have been attracted to Islamic extremist movements elsewhere in Central Asia and subsequently found themselves fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan.

With active cells operating within Xinjiang and elsewhere in Central Asia, ETIM has waged a violent campaign against Han interests for three decades across China’s western periphery, occasionally infiltrating the Chinese hinterland. Whether or not ETIM is linked to Al-Qa’ida and its campaign of global jihad against Western interests is less clear, although US authorities maintain that this is the case. The fear in Beijing is that ETIM cells have been planning attacks outside Xinjiang in Beijing and throughout China, timed to co-incide with the Beijing Olympics. These fears will have been re-inforced with the recent air incident and suspected bomb plots in Xinjiang’s capital.

The Olympic torch is scheduled to travel through the restive regions of both Tibet and Xinjiang in June. No doubt both Tibetan and Uighur elements will attempt to do more than simply extinguish the Olympic flame on their home territory and it remains to be seen what threat China’s separatists will pose when the flame arrives in Beijing in July.

Alex Neill
Head, Asia Programme

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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