China has succeeded in securing the full support of its Central Asian and Russian neighbours to contain the growing tide of Islamic revivalism in its north-western autonomous region of Xinjiang, where a ruthless crackdown on Muslims is being reinforced by bilateral and multilateral cooperation pacts.
The current campaign of suppression, first ordered at the end of April, seeks to purge believers in all walks of public life and in the professions as well as commerce, and to impose strict censorship on their freedom of expression, closing down their printing and communications facilities.
Xinjiang shares borders with Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Pakistan. Most of its inhabitants are Uighur Muslims (one of 10 Muslim nationalities in China) of Turkic origin who are ethnically related to their Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Kazakh neighbours.
In the past, Beijing exercised control over the region’s inhabitants through isolating them from their Muslim neighbours, exploiting their ethnic differences to divide them, and ordering brutal periodical crackdowns. An armed rebellion in Xinjiang was suppressed by Chinese authorities three years ago, for instance.
But discontent and pro-Islamic sentiments among the region’s Muslim population have resurfaced since then, largely as a result of the successful attempts by Central Asian nationalities at achieving independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union . The emergence of the new nation-States has fuelled the ambitions and efforts of Xinjiang Muslims to accomplish their own independence.
But the same events have instilled in the Chinese the fear that what has happened to the Soviet Union could also happen to their own empire. This explains the extent and severity of the present crackdown on the Xinjiang Muslims, who are described as ‘criminal separatists’ much as Chechen fighters are dismissed as ‘bandits’ by Moscow.
The decision to order the crackdown was reached at a meeting held in the regional capital of Urumki on April 30 by senior government and communist party leaders. According to a report by Xinjiang TV the following day the leaders called for ‘deepening’ the campaign, which ‘should focus on the violent and terrorist cases organized and manipulated by national separatist forces.
‘To those criminal elements who dare go against the wind to commit offences and the crackdown campaign, we must organize forces, wage a concerted battle, and ruthlessly and firmly clamp down on their unbridled arrogance’, Xinjiang TV said.
On May 3-6, the regional communist party committee held another conference in Urumki. This time to consider a directive from Beijing which claimed that ‘national separatism and unlawful religious activities are the key problems endangering Xinjiang’s stability.’ The party officials, drawn from all the region ‘ s ethnic groups, adopted a document setting out their conclusions at the end of the conference.
Both Xinjiang TV and the Xinjiang Daily, quoting extensively from the document, reported the party officials’ decision to order another crackdown, with more emphasis this time on the need to counter religious activities. ‘In recent years, religion has directly interfered with administration, law enforcement, education, family planning and other social services, ‘officials at the meeting concluded.
‘Those who have brazenly violated China’ s religious laws and policies and have deceived and coerced some ignorant masses who have naïve feelings about religion to engage in splittist and disruptive activities are by no means rare,’ the document said in an unusual signal of the extent of the rise of Muslim feeling.
The depth of Islamic revivalism in a region bristling with ethnic rivalries was also underscored by the admission in the Beijing directive that separatism and religion were the main threats to Xinjiang’s stability,.
The party officials adopted specific measures to counter the perceived dangers. These range from the reorganization of the party branches in villages which are apparently more vulnerable to infiltration by Muslims to the suppression of religious information and activities not approved by the authorities
‘In 1996 and 1997, we must reorganize those weak and lax party branches, especially the village level organizations, that have been dominated by religious forces’, the document said. It added that the authorities must tighten control over the publishing and printing industry, stop religious activities making inroads into schools by instilling ‘ideas of national division and religious doctrines into students’ and ban and confiscate printed material and audio products promoting nationalism.
‘Those books, magazines and audio products that distort history and promote national division and unlawful religious concepts must all be banned and confiscated’, it said. ‘And those who are involved in the production and distribution of these books and products must be held accountable for their actions ‘
Ironically, the very countries in Central Asia, whose independence from Russia has inspired the reawakening in Xinjiang, are siding with Beijing in its current crackdown. So is Russia.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia signed a treaty with China in April to guard against military clashes along the common border. The pact was signed in Shanghai on April 26 by Chinese president Jiang Zemin, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev and Tajik president Imomali Rakhmanov.
A Reuters report on May 12 quoted diplomats as saying that the five-year border accord ‘will help Beijing to combat any surge in Muslim sentiment and separatism in Xinjiang’.
But recent experience in many countries shows that crackdowns only serve to intensify such sentiment. And there is no obvious reason why the Chinese will succeed where others have failed.
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996