By Ryskeldi Satke
China’s Western province of Xinjiang is back in the spotlight once again amid Beijing’s implementation of the restrictive measures in the traditionally Muslim populated region. Chinese authorities have officially banned fasting and Muslim rituals during a month of Ramadan. Xinjiang is a host province to minority Uighur population and other Turkic ethnicities. China’s northwestern frontier has seen numerous occasions of violent incidents and terrorist acts which are mainly directed against the Chinese government and Han migrants in the last decade. And as Beijing pours billions into the Silk Road project and economic development of the restive province, one argues if Chinese government is still on the path of unrealistic goals regarding policies toward pacifying the existing ethnic tension between the minority Uighurs and Han population.
Xinjiang’s instability spillover effect into the neighboring republics of Central Asia was brightly observed last year when a group of ethnic Uighurs were killed in a violent standoff with the Kyrgyz border guards in January 2014. China has insisted that these Uighurs were “separatists” linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement whilst World Uighur Congress (WUC) called for UNHCR to investigate this incident. Consequently, the latest repressive measures in Xinjiang placed on ethnic Uighurs add tenability to the views of the rights organizations on Beijing’s disproportionate approach to the domestic unrest and its impact in the region which is becoming more interconnected with the neighboring states as China’s ambitious Silk Road project moves forward in Kazakhstan and in the greater Eurasian region.
Oliver Hayakawa, former representative of the British Consulate in Shanghai, political researcher and PhD candidate with the University of Exeter (UK) believes that Beijing has done extensive work to manage the risk of the wider implications of the ethnic violence in Xinjiang outside China’s borders. Hayakawa told Asia Times that China’s “economic support is so substantial that it will be used to further consolidate the commitment by Central Asian governments to support China’s security agenda at home and in the region. This will inevitably mask any regional sympathies towards the Uighur’s in China that could develop into serious obstacles to China’s Silk Road strategy. Many cases of [Beijing’s] economic assistance are tied directly to a commitment to support China’s security agenda, as was the case with China’s 2014 offer of $5 billion in joint projects to SCO members.”
Likewise, WUC President and leader of the Uighur rights movement, Rebiya Kadeer has stated that the “Chinese authorities are exporting their repression abroad via the SCO to curb Uyghur activism and Uyghurs seeking refuge.” However, Chinese government’s narrative is indicating that ethnic violence and terrorism in Xinjiang are continuously instigated by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which has been “strengthening management in Kyrgyzstan”, according to Beijing based newspaper associated with Chinese state news media. ETIM is also listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government after findings of its close ties with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Global watchdog Human Rights Watch argues that the foreign “governments should be aware how Beijing is using the guise of counterterrorism to legitimize widespread human rights violations and press hard for change. If they don’t, China will blithely continue to persecute Uighurs, undermine the rule of law, and take actions that ironically are likely to fuel violent extremism.” Indeed, recent reports have indicated that more than 300 Chinese citizens have joined the radical terrorist group the Islamic State. It appears Chinese nationals traveled to the Middle East via transit routes in southern China used by ethnic Uighurs fleeing the country. Chinese government seems genuinely concerned regarding new developments with the extremism in the country as Beijing indicated that unknown number of its citizens have received combat training in Syria and Iraq.
Nonetheless, potential instability emanating from Xinjiang province is unlikely to disrupt Beijing’s massive efforts and progress with the Silk Road project in Central Asia. Russia’s retrieval and political survival of the cash strapped governments in the region gives China more opportunities to set projected political and economic influence in the former Soviet republics. Nicolás de Pedro, Research Fellow at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and specialist in Central Asian studies told Asia Times that “Xinjiang is now well integrated and connected to the rest of China and Beijing’s control is stronger than ever before. At the same time, Uyghur alienation and fear about their future seem deeper than ever as well. The main outcome of this –somehow paradoxical- situation is that China’s territorial integrity is not in question at all, but Xinjiang stability is highly uncertain.”
Arguably, uncertainty may well be ascribed to Central Asia, also. Regional stability is still a matter of concern due to remaining challenges in the conflict prone Ferghana Valley triangle. And so as the cooperation between the states, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan which are entangled in subregional divisive politics. “Instability might be more likely irradiated from Central Asia to Xinjiang than the other way around.” – says CIDOB’s researcher Nicolas de Pedro.
Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer-analyst with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the US. Contact e-mail: rsatke at gmail.com