Several disturbing reports have surfaced over media about Xinjiang region in China. The case in point is sweeping and punitive counter extremism strategy which Communist government has undertaken in Xinjiang against Uyghur Muslims. The issue is not just limited to the cosmetic measures rather it is much deeper than that. It is high time that an in-depth genesis of a dispute between Uyghur Muslims and Communist Party in China is undertaken.
What’s happening there?
The crackdown is an indication of much deeper and protracted low-intensity conflict between Uyghur and the Chinese government over ideology, power, and resources. Uyghur perceives Chinese government responsible for exclusion from Xinjiang rich economy and strict religious policies and hence pursue fundamentalism (violence and terrorism in few cases) to confront Chinese government. They demand political autonomy as has been stipulated in the Constitution.
The Chinese government considers Xinjiang as economically, politically, and geostrategically important region. It believes that communist and atheist control of this region is paramount to discourage other minorities embarking on the same path. The Economic and social disparity, ethnic stereotyping, struggle for control of natural resources, lack of religious and cultural freedom, and media control, are at heart of this conflict. The commonalities and dividers between the two parties show that the situation is much graver than it seems.
Systems and Institutions
The absence of a Muslim representative at an influential and decision making position in Communist Party is a major dividend at the system and institutional level. This explains why Uyghur Muslims fail to identify themselves with Communist Party as they feel that no one represents them there. Government employees working for the government in Xinjiang are strictly prohibited to practice Islam in office. In educational institutions, Mandarin is the medium of instructions while Uyghur is banned. Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), administrative authority in major cities, has Han migrants as the majority of its work force. This indicates that Uyghur Muslims are underrepresented in government and institutions at the provincial level.
Attitudes and Actions
Uyghur Muslims have been irked with government backed relocation of Han community to the region resulting in dilution of Uyghur communities to factories outside Xinjiang. There have been attempts to assimilate local population to traditional Han culture to undermine their distinct ethnical and religious identity. This has been coupled with forced disappearances and arrests of intellectuals, religious leaders, and civilians. Han Chinese and Communist Party in China look down upon Uyghur culture and practice which widens the gap between two entities.
Values and Interests
What lies at the heart of this conflict is a clash of values and interest between Uyghur Muslims and Communist Party. The former detests atheist policy of the Party which disregards their religious freedom. They consider it has their inherent right as enshrined in Chinese Constitution to have political autonomy independent of communist party narrative. On the other hand, Communist Party views fundamentalist take of Uyghur Muslims towards religion as a threat to their political control. So it takes the punitive counter measure as recourse to mitigate that threat.
Why is Xinjiang important?
The importance of the region for China manifests in the proactive role that it plays in Shanghai Cooperation Organization is to ensure the stability of Xinjiang region. Through its influence, it has received assurances from Central Asian states that they would not support any separatist sentiment in the region. It put pressure on the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to shut down Uighur political parties and newspapers. However, there are militant groups which operate in Central Asian states with the aim of creating East Turkestan. The local militant group draws inspiration and support across the border which greatly affects the course of the conflict.
Xinjiang region borders, Pakistan and Afghanistan, countries which have been fighting terrorism since past decade. The armed militant groups in Xinjiang take to support and inspiration from global terrorist groups based in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Evidence has surfaced where Uyghur militants have been found amongst terrorist groups all over the world. Many global terrorists groups have announced support for the Uyghur cause. Take for example ISIS’s chief message to Uyghur people that it will be saved. The presence of fault lines and potential terrorists amongst Uyghur explain Chinese government’s proactive measures.
Lastly, Xinjiang holds a central place in China’s quest to renew old Silk Road. The geostrategic location of the province makes it gateway through which it will be connected to Central Asian states and Europe for energy, raw materials, and markets. It also borders Pakistan through which strategic CPEC route will provide China with alternate trade route. For viability and success of project stability in Xinjiang is very important as instability and terrorism in the region has the potential to undermine the whole project. The conflict is likely to exacerbate when increased connectivity would make the region more accessible to spoiler elements and extremists.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.