Staunton, July 2 – China’s massive investments in Xinjiang combined with its willingness to repress quickly any challenges to its rule there is keeping that still 50 percent Muslim region from become “a Chinese Chechnya,” according to a Russian analyst who has travelled there regularly since 1991.
But that does not mean that the indigenous population likes let alone accepts its Chinese overlords or that it will not continue to revolt in the future, Igor Rotar argues in a thoughtful analysis comparing the future of Xinjiang with the past of the Soviet Union and the current situations in Central Asia and the North Caucasus (rosbalt.ru/main/2013/07/01/1147347.html).
The current outburst of violence between Muslim groups and Han Chinese in Xinjiang has prompted some Western journalists to call that Muslim region “a Chinese Chechnya,” Rotar notes, but the real parallels are “not so much with the situation in the North Caucasus than with the problems of the Central Asian republics of the former USSR.
Indeed, Rotar says, one’s “first impression” in Xinjiang is “that you are in Central Asia,” a feeling that is entirely appropriate given that “the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous District of China is an extension of Central Asia,” albeit one that has been “subjected to Chines (but not Russian) colonization.”
In antiquity, he continues, Eastern Turkestan as it is often called by its Muslim residets was “a most powerful state which exerted an enormous influence not only on Central Asia but also on China.” Chinese forces occupied it only in 1759, and that recent date is reflected in its name, “Xin jiang” or “new borderland.”
The indigenous Uyghur population has revolted more than 400 times since then, most significantly in 1944 when the Uyghurs, aided by the Soviet Union, were able to take under their control the western portion of Xinjiang and “proclaim the Eastern Turkestan Republic. But in 1949, Stalin decided to back the Chinese communists and that republic was suppressed.
Since that time, Rotar says, “Beijing has in practice completely copied Soviet nationality policy, setting up Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik national districts, putting members of the titular nationality in charge of them and establishing newspapers and even television channels in the national languages
But in contrast to Central Asia where relations between the representatives of the imperial power, the Russians, were relatively good, in Xinjiang, “the overwhelming majority of the Uyghurs view the Chinese as occupiers” and hated occupiers at that. They do not willingly associate with the Chinese or learn Chinese.
Moreover, the Uyghurs are much more devout Muslims than the peoples of Central Asia, but the Chinese authorities have “practically copied” the actions of the Uzbekistan and Tajikistan governments in order to try to reduce the influence of Islam, although it must be said, Rotar continues, that Beijing is much harsher than Tashkent or Dushanbe in this regard.
“Chinese propaganda loves to stress that the leadership of the country has taken into consideration ‘the sad experience’ of the USSR” and that Beijing has introduced economic “freedom” more quickly than it has granted “political rights.” And Beijing has in this regard invested far more in the non-Han regions than Moscow did in Central Asia.
The success of that strategy, Rotar argues, is “really striking” and has transformed Xinjiang from a backwater to an economically prosperous place. As a result, while in Soviet times, Central Asia was more advanced than Xinjiang, now the reverse is true, and that has had political consequences with the number of backers of independence having fallen dramatically.
In short, Beijing’s policy of carrots and sticks has brought it relative stability. It has not won over the hearts and minds of the indigenous people who continue to hate the Hans, but it has led many of them to decide that the benefits of cooperation and the certainty of punishment for separatist actions make going along most of the time the best choice.
Consequently, according to the Russian analyst, occasional local revolts, that will be “instantly put down by the authorities” are likely but “a major and lengthy revolt” in the region is not likely. Had Moscow behaved equally generously and harshly in Central Asia, it would not have lost those five republics in 1991.
As for comparisons between Xinjiang and the North Caucasus, Rotar says, there things are “somewhat more complicated. The latter region has a long tradition of resisting Russian power but “the majority of North Caucasians understand” that their situation would likely become worse than it now is.
But because Moscow today cannot afford to invest in the North Caucasus in the amounts that Beijing can and does invest in Xinjiang, it is left with fewer levers to control the situation and therefore almost certainly faces a more difficult road ahead than do the Chinese in their “new borderland.”