The February 15 killing of militant Uighur leader Abdul Haq al-Turkistani by an American drone in the border regions of Pakistan highlights China’s continued sensitivity about its remote and vulnerable western region, Xinjiang. It also brings into focus the role of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as an international sanctuary for Islamic militants and the reasons for China’s worries about social stability and potential terrorist threats in Xinjiang. China’s neuralgia about security in Xinjiang will continue - and perhaps even increase - as big power competition for influence and resources in Central Asia and its ties to the rest of the world continue to expand.
China’s troubles with the minority Uighurs are not new. But with the break up of the Soviet Union and the rising Islamist Taliban in once Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, the regional dynamic has changed. Since the early 1990s, China has faced recurrent waves of unrest in Xinjiang and widespread acts of violence, some of which seem to have been terrorist acts by disgruntled Uighurs. The 2008 attempted hijacking of an airplane in China by three people armed with flammable liquid was one of the latest - and scariest - examples.
There also have been several attacks against perceived Uighur collaborators in China and against Chinese interests outside the country. The capture of Uighurs fighting against coalition forces in Afghanistan, some two dozen of whom were imprisoned in Guantanamo, also indicate that China faces a real threat of terrorist acts against its interests at home and abroad.
The Chinese, however, have aroused scepticism by dubiously attributing dozens of explosions and incidents of civil unrest to instigation by “East Turkistan terrorist forces.” Officials, for example, blamed an August 2008 attack on a military police unit out for its morning jog, in which 16 officers were killed, on a Uighur terrorist group, despite the fact that the officers apparently were run down by a truck and attacked by a taxi driver and a vegetable vendor, hardly the modus operandi of a sophisticated terrorist organisation.
Even last July’s massive race riot in Urumqi - set off by rumours that an Uighur woman had been raped and several Uighur men killed by Han Chinese in far-away Guangdong - was labeled as an “organised, violent action against the public” and an act of terrorism.
So, while China does face periodic upsurges in politically motivated violence by Uighurs, one has to ask, why?
The answer: Beijing has engaged in a systematic, multi-decade program of marginalising Uighurs in their own homeland, fostering economic growth that favours the Han majority of eastern China and that encourages the exploitation of Xinjiang’s wealth of natural resources for Han areas. Beijing has organised and encouraged an influx of Han into Xinjiang, changing the ethnic ratio since 1949 from about 5 per cent Han to more than 40 per cent today. Moreover, Uighur culture and the Muslim religion are contained under tight restrictions.
Beijing proudly points out that Xinjiang in recent years has been among the fastest growing economies in the country, with per capita income higher than all regions except China’s southeast coast. Most of that growth, however, has accrued to State-owned enterprises, Han entrepreneurs, or the government; not to Uighurs. And income inequalities there have actually expanded significantly in recent years. The region also suffers from some of the worst environmental degradation in China. It is hardly surprising that frustration occasionally boils over into civil unrest - or that such conditions breed terrorist groups intent on taking action against the regime.
That many of China’s problems with terrorism and unrest are largely of its own making has reduced international trust and sympathy for the situation. China’s concerns also have both shaped its approach to the broader region and reduced China’s willingness to co-operate with the US in counter-terrorism, negatively affecting the overall US-China relationship.
Xinjiang, more than any other area of China, is strategically vulnerable, partially as a result of its location in one of the most fractious neighbourhoods outside the Middle East. Representing one-sixth of China’s territory, Xinjiang is rich in oil, gas, and mineral deposits and contains numerous sensitive military installations, including some of the country’s premier nuclear research and testing facilities. It borders the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, all of which are less than politically stable.
(Beijing is some 1,500 miles from Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi; Urumqi is nearly another 700 miles from Kashgar on the far Western border. By contrast, Kashgar is only 250 miles from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and 500 miles from Kabul.)
Complicating China’s relations with the Central Asian states is the fact that as many as 500,000 Uighurs - and sizable populations of other Chinese “minorities” - live across relatively porous borders and engage in extensive trade and contacts. Several of these countries contain anti-China Uighur separatist organisations, both peaceful and terrorist. And China is very afraid of the potential contagion of “colour revolutions” from Central Asia - like the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan - destabilising China’s control in Xinjiang. Uighur activities - including violent attacks - have complicated China’s relations with Turkey, a country with which China seeks closer relations but where public and official sentiment is highly critical of China’s treatment of the ethnically-related Uighurs.