NEW DELHI – In the face of a spreading ethnic Uighur rebellion, authorities in Chinese-ruled Xinjiang have alleged that a prominent Uighur separatist they captured had received terrorist training in Pakistan, China’s “all-weather ally.”
The charge came on a day when Pakistan’s spy agency chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, after having just visited Xinjiang, was holding talks in Beijing on securing greater Chinese support to blunt the growing U.S. pressure.
The charge may reflect China’s irritation with Pakistan’s inability to contain the cross-border movement of some Uighur separatists. It also suggests that China’s long-standing policy of coddling Pakistan is turning around to bite it in its ethnic rear.
China, however, confronts not an externally sponsored proxy war or other foreign involvement in Xinjiang but a rising backlash from the Uighurs against their Han colonization. Even in Tibet — where resistance to Chinese rule remains largely nonviolent and there is no alleged terrorist group to blame — China is staring at the bitter harvest of policies seeking to deny natives their identity, culture and language and the benefits of their own natural resources.
To help Sinicize the minority lands, Beijing’s multi-pronged strategy has involved five key components: cartographically altering ethnic-homeland boundaries, demographically flooding non-Han cultures, rewriting history to justify Chinese control, enforcing cultural homogeneity to help blur local identities, and maintaining political repression. The Manchu assimilation into Han society and the swamping of the locals in Inner Mongolia have left only the Tibetans and the Turkic-speaking Uighurs as the holdouts.
But as underscored by the renewed Tibetan revolt since 2008, the Uighur rebellion since 2009 and the Mongolian protests in Inner Mongolia in 2011, the strategy of ethnic and economic colonization is now beginning to backfire. This year marked the recrudescence of large-scale Mongolian protests in the sparsely populated expanse of Inner Mongolia, even as a monk-led campaign on the Tibetan Plateau has challenged a continuing Chinese crackdown. And in Xinjiang, several dozen have been killed since last month as Uighur-Han clashes have spread from the desert town of Hotan to the Silk Road city of Kashgar.
Xinjiang — bordering Russia, Central Asian countries, Afghanistan and the Kashmir areas occupied by Pakistan and China — was annexed by the newly established People’s Republic of China in 1949, a year before it began its invasion of Tibet. Earlier in 1944, while World War II was raging, Muslim groups aided by Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin established the East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang.
Over the past six decades, millions of Han Chinese have moved to Xinjiang, turning the hydrocarbon-rich region into a major flash point between the new settlers and native communities and sharpening the interethnic competition over land and water resources.
The Great Wall as it exists today was built by the Ming Dynasty (1369-1644) mainly to denote the edge of the Han Empire’s political frontiers. Today’s China, however, is three times as large as it was under the Ming — the last Han dynasty — with its borders having extended far west and southwest of the Great Wall.
Han territorial power thus is at its zenith, symbolized by the fact that Xinjiang’s cultural capital, Kashgar, is closer to Baghdad than to Beijing, and that Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, is almost twice as far from the Chinese capital as from New Delhi.
The policies of forced assimilation in Tibet and Xinjiang, in fact, began after China created a land corridor link between these two regions by gobbling up India’s 38,000-square-km Aksai Chin, part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Yet now, as underlined by the bloody resurgence of separatist violence in several regions, China’s policies are exacting rising internal-security costs. Given that the restive homelands of ethnic minorities make up 60 percent of Chinese territory — with Tibet and Xinjiang, by themselves, constituting nearly half of China’s landmass — China’s internal-security problems are greater in range than India’s.
While India celebrates diversity, China seeks to impose cultural and linguistic uniformity throughout its borders, although it officially comprises 56 nationalities. By enforcing monoculturalism, China also attempts to cover up the ethnic cleavages among the Han majority, lest the historical north-south fault lines resurface with a vengeance.
In fact, China is the only significant country in the world whose official internal- security budget is higher than its official national-defense budget. This underscores the mounting costs of what the government calls weiwen, or stability maintenance.
The fixation on weiwen has spawned a well-oiled security apparatus that extends from state-of-the-art surveillance and extra-legal detention centers to an army of paid informants and neighborhood “safety patrols” on the lookout for troublemakers. Although the challenge of weiwen extends to the Han heartland, where rural protests are increasing annually at the same rate as China’s GDP, the traditional ethnic-minority lands have become the country’s Achilles heel.
The Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians in China face the choice of either fighting for their rights or risk being reduced to the status either of the Native Americans in the United States or the Manchus, whose identity has been virtually obliterated within China.
The readiness of an increasing number of Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians to stand up to the oppressive state power means that China’s internal problems will not go away unless its halts its decades-old policy of ethnic and economic colonization of minority lands.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan” (HarperCollins, 2010) and “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press, 2011).