The Christian Science Monitor
Opinion/Essays, 27 August 1997

William D. Shingleton

In Xinjang, China's Consolidation Isn't Solid

A recent surge in anti-Chinese violence and the execution of nine dissidents mark the latest chapter in the eight-year revolt in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The rebellion, partially funded by Muslim extremists such as Afghanistan's Taliban and egged on by heavy-handed Chinese policies, has forced Beijing to deploy over 200,000 troops.

Xinjiang Uighur borders the Muslim underbelly of the former Soviet Union. Chinese control, dating most recently from 1949, has been intermittent throughout the last two millennia. Xinjiang's religion (Islam) and ethnicity (Uighur, Kazak, and Kyrgyz) are distinct from the rest of China.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) was able to take Xinjiang in 1949 thanks to an agreement signed between the break-away region and Mao Zedong. To prevent a bloody quagmire for the PLA, the peoples of Xinjiang were initially guaranteed autonomy. Once the Communists consolidated their hold on the rest of China, however, they had a free hand to spread the revolution to Xinjiang.

In its attempts to assimilate the Uighurs, Beijing repressed freedom of religion, assembly, and speech more harshly than the rest of China. The Chinese have engaged in a policy of ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang. In 1942, ethnic Uighurs constituted 78 percent of the region's population; today that has fallen to 48 percent. The massive population shift is the result of repressive Chinese policies. First, a purge of nationalists leaders led to hundreds of thousands of Uighur deaths, and amazingly, the migration of 20,000 Uighurs to the Soviet Union because of the greater freedom offered there. Moreover, there have been mass sterilizations of Uighur women as part of population control efforts. Finally, the Chinese government moved Han Chinese to Xinjiang in an attempt to water down the ethnic mix and, theoretically, Uighur nationalism.

The economic situation in Xinjiang stirs further tension. In Beijing's attempt to create economic growth in the coastal Han Chinese regions, it has ignored infrastructure improvements critical to improving Xinjiang's economy. On top of that, the radiation spread over Xinjiang as a result of the 45 nuclear explosions at the Lop Nor testing facility has resulted in an estimated 210,000 deaths -- a situation that hardly attracts foreign investment.

Combined with the lack of economic development in Xinjiang, China's ethnic policy fires resentment among the Uighurs. Since the vast majority of top-level jobs go to Han Chinese, who often don't bother to learn the local language, most ethnic Uighurs are shut out of the political system and become violent in protest. Instead of being the "big family of unity and progress" portrayed by the Chinese press, Xinjiang has been recently rocked by bus bombings in the capital of Urumqui.

In the same way that the focus is on Shanghai's development could hinder the development of Hong Kong. China's focus on development of Han Chinese areas has hindered the development of Xinjinag Uighur. Moreover, those Hong Kong citizens with any British blood can expect to face discrimination at the hands of the Han Chinese, just as the Uighurs do.

Xinjiang, however, is also an example of how international pressure can change Chinese domestic policy. Indeed, the economic situation of Xinjiang has improved as a result of Kazakstan's intelligent use of pressure and its support for Uighur nationalism. If the United States can maintain a properly nuanced policy, it can have a similar impact.

To deal effectively with Xinjiang, the US must step up its intelligence gathering among Uighur nationalists. Failure to do so risks the kind of disarray that marked US policy toward the former Soviet republics in 1991-1992. With a greater understanding of the actors and the forces involved, the US has a chance of dealing more coherently with any future splintering of China. At any rate, it is always better to have more information than less.