BACKGROUND: Although China's brutal suppression of the Tibetans garners a great deal of international attention, outbreaks of Uyghur violent protest against the government have made Xinjiang more of a worrisome political flash point to the government than either Taiwan or Tibet. The execution of Uyghurs for "separatist" activities have been numerous since February 1997 when huge protests broke out in Ili, near the Kazakhstan border and turned violent. At least ten possibly as many as 300 were killed. The riot and the executions that followed led to a series of bus bombings in Urumchi on February 25, the day of Deng Xiaoping's funeral. Ten days later, a Uyghurs blew up a bus in Beijing. It was the first known terrorist incident in Beijing since the Chinese revolution in 1949.
What seems seem like sporadic outbreaks of violence throughout Xinjiang, are actually part of an historic cycle. In 1933, rioting in the Hami engulfed the region in bloodbaths. Uyghurs established the short-lived Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan in the southern oasis of Khotan. In 1944, Uyghur leaders set up an independent state in Ili called the East Turkestan Republic that ended with the peaceful entry of the People's Liberation Army. The communists brought tremendous changes suppressing religious worship, collectivizing labor, and sending millions of Han Chinese to develop Xinjiang. In 1949, Xinjiang had 3.2 million Uyghurs, and 140,000 Hans. Today, there are about 16 million inhabitants Xinjiang, with 8 million Uyghurs and over six million Hans.
The government maintains that economic development will make the Uyghurs content and bring "separatist activities" to a halt. The economic development policies have in fact brought material wealth to Xinjiang but many Uyghurs see jobs going to Han Chinese, and resent the steady stream of Han in-migrants. Xinjiangs oil reserves are believed to rival Kuwaits but Uyghurs also resent the governments extraction of Xinjiang's natural resources as theft of what is rightfully theirs. For most Uyghurs, the development of oil has increased Uyghur desperation that China's internal colonization will soon be irreversible. This is why the attacks have become more frequent, desperate and better coordinated.
IMPLICATIONS: China's economic policies have produced anti-Chinese sentiments that occasionally turn violent. China is working with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to stop support for Xinjiang separatist movements. For its part, the Chinese government tolerates a certain amount of Islamic practice and Uyghur cultural development. Uyghur nationalists often exploit the easing off periods to foster Uyghur pride. When authorities fear their eased policies have fostered too much anti-government activies, they clamp down, spawning more violent anti-government activities. China insists that Uyghur desires for an independent nation are fostered in mosques and even in English-language schools. But China's efforts to suppress Islamic worship and undermine Uyghur leadership ensure that Uyghur anti-government sentiments and actions will continue.
Rather than examining its own policies as sources of Uyghur discontent, the government blames Islamic militants from abroad. According to Jay Dautcher, an anthropologist who spent two years studying Uyghur merchant communities in Xinjiang, China's fear of Islam has caused it to be overly sensitized to Islamic worship. China has made criminal a great deal of the Islamic education and practice that it believes fill Uyghur hearts and minds with reactionary and "separatist" thoughts. The government has banned informal religious schools for young children. Courses in the Koran for elementary and middle school students are illegal. And mosque construction that flourished after 1978 is subject to Chinese government clamp-downs to control Islam's influence.
China has been most effective in undermining Uyghur unity by orchestrating the rise and fall of Uyghur leaders. China has recently brought down Rabiya Kadeer, a Uyghur bootstrap millionaire businesswoman and philanthropist of broad programs for Uyghur children and women. Her work led to her election as a member of the nationwide advisory body to the Chinese government from 1993-97 and as a delegate to the United Nations Women's Conference in 1995. She helped many Uyghur women start businesses and established English-language classes for Uyghur teenagers, several of whom she sent to the United States for schooling. But when she refused to criticize her Uyghur dissident husband who fled to the United States in 1996, she was vilified, stripped of her government position and charged with involvement "in the activities of Uyghur separatists."
CONCLUSION: Despite repeated government crackdowns on "separatism" and "illegal" religious practices, Uyghur protests and nationalist activities will continue. China has recently strengthened ties with the Central Asian republics to enlist their support in the fight against "ethnic separatists." But it is the manner that China conducts this fight that inflames Uyghur anti-Chinese activities. China hopes that the wealth produced from Xinjiang's large oil reserves will reduce social tension in the region but the pipelines and rail routes bringing oil out of Xinjiang are a source of Uyghur animosity. Xinjiang's oil infrastructure has already been targeted by bombing attacks, and is likely to be in the future.
China's brutal attempts to crush Uyghur anti-government activities, suppress Islam and stifle the development of Uyghur leaders, give rise to the very activities China attempts to subvert. While from the outside it appears that China is misguided in its approach, Xinjiang is now the only major region of the Turkic-Muslim lands of Central Asia that is not independent. China has succeeded in preventing the emergence of charismatic Uyghur leaders like Tibet's Dalai Lama, or of a successful independence movement. However, should China ever fissure like the Soviet Union, the Uyghurs, with no leadership and continued inter-oasis rivalries could possibly devolve into a Tajikistan-style civil war. China is banking that wealth will bring peace to Xinjiang. But its heavy-handed tactics to control the Uyghurs do not give peace a chance and do not give the Uyghurs peace.
AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Justin Ben-Adam Rudelson is the Editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst and Deputy Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at The Johns Hopkins University-SAIS. He is the author of Oasis Identites: Uyghur Nationalism Along Chinas Silk Road (Columbia, 1997) and three phrasebooks for Lonely Planet Publications on the languages of Central Asia, Mandarin, and Hebrew.