China is studying how European immigrants to North America wiped out the indigenous peoples and seized their country. The idea seems to be to find tactics for its war against the people of East Turkestan (officially Xinjiang province), who are Muslims fighting for independence. Beijing’s decision to abandon its stick-and-carrot strategies follows its alliance with the ‘Shanghai Five’ against Islamic movements in the former Soviet Union and China. Beijing must also be encouraged by the silence of Muslim and Western countries over its atrocities in East Turkestan and Russia’s brutal repression of Chechnya.
The news that China is thinking of adapting American genocide tactics does not come from Muslims sympathetic to the cause of East Turkestan, or hostile to China or the US. It comes instead from an American academic who specialises in Asian affairs, and whose views have been quoted in articles by American journalists. Dru Gladney, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii, was quoted in the International Herald Tribune: “There is a feeling that the Chinese government has given and given and given to Xinjiang, and all they get is criticism,” she said. “Now they have abandoned that tactic and are studying how America settled the West and decimated the Indians. They risk making the same mistakes we made.”
It is disingenuous (at least) to describe the process of wiping out a people as a “mistake”, but to say the same of the deliberate planning of an extermination is even worse. Beijing has already tried another method of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by settling large numbers of Han Chinese in the region, to turn the Muslim majority into a minority on its own ground. The Han Chinese enjoy a monopoly over the region’s resources and jobs, and non-Han who complain are either deported or imprisoned. In 1950 the Han Chinese constituted 5 percent of East Turkmenistan’s population, but now they make up 38 percent of the region’s 17 million people, thanks to Beijing’s resettlement programme. The Muslim majority consists of the Turkic Uighurs (49 percent); the rest are from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
But according to fresh media reports, Beijing is also extending its resettlement programme. The effort is part of a new plan to step up the exploitation of the region’s oil and gas resources in the interests of Beijing and the Han Chinese in East Turkestan, with the Muslims ruthlessly excluded.
China is now feeling confident of its ability to quell the struggle for independence, thanks to the full cooperation it has got from its Central Asian neighbours and Russia, which comprise the Shanghai Co-operative Organiz-ation. Regional officials admit publicly that the four Central Asian members of the Shanghai group cooperate fully with them, even to cracking down on Uighur activists in their own countries. The officials were quoted in the International Herald Tribune report as saying that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan “now routinely extradite alleged separatists back to Chinese soil.” According to the report, three deported to China from Kazakhstan last year are “believed to have been executed”.
In return for this cooperation, China is helping the security forces of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which feel unequal to the task of ending the emergence of Islamic groups in the region. To the dictators who govern the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, such groups are a threat to the dual foundations of their absolute power: corruption and the automatic respect for central authority. As most of these dictators used to be senior dictators of the KGB, their automatic response to dissent or to Islamic activism is repression. That explains why they do not hesitate to cooperate with Beijing in its crackdown on the fellow Muslims of Turkestan.
The immediate victims of such cooperation are the independence activists who have fled repression to set up training or information organisations in neighbouring Central Asian states. Such organisations not only support the fighting in East Turkestan directly, but also provide information about Chinese atrocities in the region for the international media. Their removal means an end to the flow of funds and trained fighters to the independence struggle inside the region. It also means the severe curtailment of news reaching the outside world about events in the area: a curtailment that Beijing is bound to exploit in carrying out its plans of genocide and “economic development.”
But although Beijing may have cause for celebration and East Turkestan’s Muslims may feel despondent, the independence movement, which has existed for many years and outlived many upheavals, will not vanish. Indeed, the increased repression may well backfire in the long term.