Friday, July 17, 2009

The New Great Game

By Charles Hill


"The July riots in Urumqi are not just one more case of "every 30 years a small rebellion," as the Uighur-Han confrontation has been described. A new concatenation of claims is taking shape."

For years it's been a closely held secret: The People's Republic of China is an empire desperately trying to make the world think it's a state.

The riots by Uighurs in China's far northwest are not something new; the place really erupted back about the time of the American Civil War. Clashes between Han Chinese moving into the basin, range and uplands inhabited by the much different ethnic people of the Central Asian heartland began at least 2,000 years ago in the Han Dynasty. Some of the most powerful pieces in Chinese literature, like the Tang Dynasty Ballad of the Army Carts by the eighth-century poet Du Fu, tell of the bitter hardships of lonely soldiers sent to garrison military settlements far to the west of China proper.

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) conquered East Turkestan in the 18th century and began to consolidate control there in the late 1800s. But the Qing court, terminally beleaguered by Western encroachments along the China coast, was too feeble to impose central control on its far-flung takings.

The collapse of the Qing in 1912 intensified China's Search for a Political Form, as historian Jack Gray titled it. Mao Zedong's successful guerrilla wars and 1949 takeover imposed the form: a Communist internationalism under which the acquisitions of dynastic empires past, as well as ethnic and nationalistic movements, were swiftly and powerfully subsumed by a Marxist-Maoist ideology aimed at bringing world revolution. The new People's Republic of China declared the far northwest to be its "Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region."

Ever since the rise and conquests of the Arabs in the seventh century, waves of Muslim influence began to reach Chinese Central Asia. Arab traders, indigenous converts, mystical Sufi enthusiasts and, eventually, the radical Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood arrived and even played a role in bringing about an end to the Qing Dynasty. Across the years, one constant theme was periodic rebellion by Muslim Uighurs and a growing sense in Beijing that the locals were intractable, treacherous and violent.

With China's rise to wealth and power in the post-Mao era, the PRC, now lacking the cover of world revolution, was forced to find some way to legitimate its possession of Xinjiang. World history's age of empire had ended by the mid-20th century. Communist China's evil twin, the USSR, had been the territorial successor to the Tsarist empire as Mao's PRC had been to the Qing.

At the Cold War's end, the Soviet Union came apart; its counterparts to China's Xinjiang became independent sovereign states and UN members. The PRC, determined to avoid a like fate, began a fervent campaign to convince the international community that all lands behind its borders, acquired in the imperial past, are inviolable internal possessions of its sovereign statehood.

Whatever the forum, notably in the United Nations and its associated international agencies, and whenever an issue touches on sovereign statehood, as when Kosovo was detached from Serbia in 2008, the PRC can be counted on as the most determined defender of the proposition that nonintervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state within the Westphalian international system is the most sacrosanct principle of world affairs. China takes every care to present itself as the perfect, and most particular, international citizen.

It's no wonder why. China's vast borderlands today encompass a dizzying variety of languages, ethnicities, religions and nationalities: Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs are the most prominent; a lengthy list of other distinctive minority peoples are spread all along China's southern and southeastern marches.

And yet China's apparent ambitions beyond its borders seem to belie its insistence on tightly wound statehood. Some of the Qing possessions not still under PRC control are in its sights--Taiwan and the entirety of the South China Sea down to Brunei are included. As the U.S. Navy is starting to realize, a major PRC aim is to transform all the waters of maritime Asia--those between the continental mainland and the offshore states of Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia--into a Chinese "lake." If nominally still in the category of international straits or high seas, these waters would become de facto a "no go" zone for the world's shipping. Chinese authorities would have to be prenotified and approve passage there--imperial-era influence regained.

The 1989 Tiananmen killings occurred when students confronted soldiers. The uprising was crushed but left a feeling that the Chinese Revolution, which might be dated back to 1911 or even 1839, was not over. Predictions were that when the next round came, it would not be students but urban workers who would have to be put down. The Uighur riots of July 2009 look something like that but with the added volatility of ethnicity and religion at work as well.

The epicenter of the Islamist war on world order (a more accurate term than the "war on terror") is now on the Afghan-Pakistan border, a fact that should be keeping China's leaders sleepless in Beijing as a restive Uighur population in "East Turkestan," as the locals call it, offers a new front for radical Islamist warfare. Perhaps this possibility was in President Hu Jintao's thoughts as he broke off from the G-8 summit in Italy to return to oversee the Xinjiang crisis.

The July riots in Urumqi are not just one more case of "every 30 years a small rebellion," as the Uighur-Han confrontation has been described. A new concatenation of claims is taking shape.

The Chinese will have to accelerate their program to overwhelm Xinjiang with Han-dominated population, culture, and economy--to complete their centuries-long imperial plan even as they insist on their privileges as a sovereign state.

The Uighurs and their external supporters in the World Uighur Congress will seek a solution in the autonomy promised by the original creation of the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region, but they won't get it any more than Tibetans will be allowed true autonomy in their autonomous region, where another process of Chinese-ization has been long under way.

By frustrating legitimate Uighur aspirations, Beijing will provide al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants with the means to radicalize the Muslim population of China's northwest in a jihad. China's minorities policy recognizes the existence of ethnic nationalities like Uighurs and Tibetans but refuses to recognize religion. This plays into the hands of Muslim extremists. Beijing has already branded the Uighur uprising as "Islamic terrorism."

The idea of a 'clash of civilizations' may be superseded by a clash of 'spheres of influence,' an old concept in world affairs that has raised its head again. China is extending its de facto power westward to fit its de jure state boundaries. Russia is seeking a sphere of influence over its lost territories in Central Asia; Russia approves what the PRC is doing with the Uighurs because it wants approval for its own ambitions in the area. The U.S. has important interests there as a staging area for its 'Af-Pak' counter-insurgency efforts.

And the rising power Turkey has come on the scene to claim a sphere of influence across all the Turkic ethnic-linguistic Central Asian lands that range well inside China's borders. The Turkish prime minister has called the situation in Xinjiang a "genocide." There are layers of complex factors in play here involving power politics, economic exploitation, ethnic rivalries and religion. A new "Great Game" is under way, and the Chinese Revolution is still not over.

Charles Hill, a former U.S. diplomat, is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he is co-director of the Hoover working group on Islamism and International Order.

16 Uighur Political Prisoners of Special Concern (

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