By Peter Lee

There’s been rare good press for the PRC covering its initiative to promote security, economic growth, and sanity in “AfPak,” and there’s been the usual bad press concerning a vituperative PRC attack on three American historians on the seemingly esoteric question of “Manchu sinicization.”

The two issues are interrelated, and intersect in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which is inevitably and understandably described as “restive” thanks to friction between the indigenous Uyghurs and Han Chinese carpetbaggers.

The PRC’s enormous commitment to Pakistan – $46 billion worth of investment and infrastructure, clustered around a highway from Pakistan’s Gwadar port over the Himalayas to Kashgar, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region – appears to be the real deal.  It’s not only backed up a visit by PRC supremo Xi Jinping; it complements the PRC’s overall “New Silk Road” strategy for Central and South Asia as the US draws down in Afghanistan and backs off from Pakistan (and pivots to the Pacific to balk the PRC’s maritime aggrandizement to the east).  Given the real and potential political and security vulnerabilities—will India stand idly by, or yield to the temptation to diddle? – it is big, risky bet on Pakistan.

It’s also a big, risky bet that elevates the Xinjiang Autonomous Region – basically the PRC’s northwest quadrant – from dissatisfied “Wild West” backwater to the northern anchor for the Gwadar project and the focus of PRC development, infrastructure, growth – and security – concerns.

Through great-power diplomacy and relentless pressure on its neighbors, the PRC has effectively neutralized the aggrieved Uyghur diaspora.  However, the PRC has not done a very good job of conciliating and co-opting the local Uyghur population in Xinjiang.  Security is implemented through an oppressive and unaccountable military apparatus, the “Bingtuan”; the local Party apparatus is largely run by cowed, co-opted, and/or mediocre hacks; and the region has been flooded by Han immigrants regarded as pushy and bigoted, creating a bifurcated society composed of a burgeoning Han sector and an increasingly marginalized Uyghur component.  Uyghur resentment has been intensified by religious and educational policies intended to undermine Uyghur identity, and economic and administrative policies apparently giving aid and comfort to the Han immigrants.

The PRC is unlikely to be swayed by calls to win Uyghur “hearts and minds” in order to secure the region for accelerated economic development.  The PRC has based its Xinjiang policy on the most conspicuous if unsavory successes in containing Muslim self-determination movements – Chechnya & Kashmir – which emphasized a maximalist and militarized gloves-off approach.

One genie the PRC is struggling to keep in the bottle is Uyghur nationalism, which threatens to integrate and intensify Uyghur determination across classes, regions, and educational levels to avenge injuries to their religious and cultural practices and their political and economic rights.

Paradoxically, the most striking result of PRC policies in Xinjiang has the development of “Uyghur” identity and solidarity, apparently in the countryside as well as in cities.

Despite proud historical moments like the “East Turkestan Republic”, which briefly ruled out of Kashgar in the early 20th century, traditional Turkic identity centered on the local tribe and its particular oases or towns.  In fact, one theory posits that the term “Uyghur” and indeed a considerable chunk of the Uyghur historical narrative is actually a manufactured artifact of the minority policy of the Soviet Union, which sought to create manageable ethnic blocs for its imperialist slicing and dicing in Central Asia.

Historical construct or no, as the PRC brutally knitted the Xinjiang region together economically, politically, and culturally, Uyghur self-identity and cohesion grew with it.  And as the Uyghur identity has strengthened, Uyghur nationalism has entrenched itself among educated and cosmopolitan Uyghurs, much to the CCP’s dismay.

Ilham Tohti, a high-profile Uyghur public intellectual with mild, conciliatory public views, was recently sentenced to “indefinite detention” on rather questionable charges, apparently because he had the temerity to present himself as a possible interlocutor between the PRC and the Uyghurs.

Concerns about Uyghur nationalism also provides a good explanation for an attack launched on three American scholars by a PRC historian-bureaucrat-ideologue, Li Zhiting on the website and in the journal of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.  Li assailed the scholars for advocating the “New Qing History”, which treats the Qing dynasty (the last one, which was overthrown in 1911) as a Manchu empire formed as the Manchu kingdom expanded from its base near the Korean peninsula to subdue China, Mongolia, and the western oases.

NQH appears to be at odds with preferred PRC historiography, which asserts that the Manchus overthrew the Ming and became “Sinicized” i.e. adopted Chinese culture and outlook as their own, and also claimed the Chinese imperial dowry, including the Tibetan, Mongolian, and central Asian territories.

This seemingly esoteric issue is very much the hot button in the PRC nowadays, a fact which I expects dismays the avowedly apolitical scholars of NQH.  Their critics fret that, if the Qing dynasty is regarded as a holding company for a portfolio of Manchu acquisitions that happened to place its capital in its richest, most populous, and most nettlesome subsidiary, China, Chinese suzerainty over the other Manchu conquests – like Xinjiang (which actually means “New Territories”, not quite a reassuring endorsement of the ancient lineage and legitimacy of China’s claim) might be called into question.

Manchurian nationalism is not a concern for the PRC.  In what Uyghurs probably consider a disturbing historical precedent, Manchu nationality, language, and culture were almost extinguished during the Republican period by a flood of immigration from Shandong and other Han provinces into the Manchu homeland.

Uyghur nationalism is another matter.  There are 10 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang.  They could turn the PRC’s strategic “Silk Road” into, well, “The Big Sandy Dead End.”  The CCP doesn’t want that to happen.  Judging by the Centre’s close attention to things Xinjiang under Xi Jinping, it is determined not to let it happen.

Xinjiang may well be the fulcrum upon which the PRC pivot towards the west turns.  It may also be the millstone upon which the PRC expects to disintegrate Uyghur national identity.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of U.S. policy with Asian and world affairs.

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