Xinjiang – China’s Uighur Problem

Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) or East Turkestan is the western autonomous province of China. It accounts for one-sixth of China’s landmass with a population of 20 million from thirteen major ethnicities with the majority being the Uighur Muslims of Central Asian descent. Xinjiang shares its borders with eight countries, namely Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India; and works as a strategic gateway to Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Large sections of Central Asia-aligned Uighurs in Xinjiang consider its Chinese occupation an imperial domination by the majority Han. The history of Xinjiang has been far more turbulent than reported independently to the outside world. The repression of the Uighur ethnic minority and the exploitation of the rich natural resources is bound to cause a substantial problem to China given the geographic importance of Xinjiang. We have discussed West Turkestan earlier detailing its potential to cause unrest within China by fueling the East Turkestan Independence Movement. 

The Chinese conquest of Xinjiang, which it considers as a part of its empire, is based on strategic interests in addition to historical claims on the region. The Chinese control of Xinjiang gives it a unique advantage of access to vast natural resources like Coal, Crude Oil and Gas; which it has heavily exploited after its modernization drive. Xinjiang holds 40 percent of coal, 22 percent of petroleum and 28 percent of the Gas reserves of China. The quality of coal available is high given the low sulfur deposits while oil deposits exist in shallow basins that are easily accessible. There are nearly 17 major Oil & Gas fields in Xinjiang with the prominent ones concentrated in Karamay, Tarim Basin, and Turfan Basin. The oil fields at Karamay are among the largest in China along with extensive deposits of coal, silver, copper, lead, nitrates, gold, and zinc. In 2003, the Chinese discovered a large gold mine with 53 tons of gold approximately valued at $3.2 billion in the Ili Valley, close to the Kazakh border in the western area of the Tianshan Mountains. The gold mine discovered in the Xinyuan county of Xinjiang also holds 31,200 tons of copper. These discoveries only underscore that a vast amount of mineral wealth lies beneath in Xinjiang and the neighboring Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, etc.; that China is attempting to bring under its sphere of influence.

Xinjiang not only provides critical energy resources but also acts as a transport corridor from Central Asia through the Chinese mainland to its industrial centers on the East Pacific coast. China has thus laid a network of pipelines connecting Central Asia to the Chinese coast through Xinjiang. It has laid out the ambitious East-West pipeline starting from the Lunanan Oilfields in Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin; spanning across the mainland and ending in Shanghai. The East-West pipeline is the longest natural gas pipeline in the world covering nearly 8,704 Km through fifteen provinces before reaching the Chinese coast. The other peripheral pipelines from Xinjiang interconnecting with the East-West pipeline are the Zohongwu pipeline (that pipes gas to the Sichuan province); and the Shaanxi-Beijing pipeline. The western section of the pipeline links Xinjiang to Shaanxi while the eastern one connects Shaanxi to Shanghai. In addition to extending the network of East-West pipelines to Hong Kong, (which began in 2013), China has also launched an ambitious project of constructing the SNG (coal based Synthetic Natural Gas) pipeline from Xinjiang to Zhejiang and the Guandong province running nearly 8,400 Kms and transporting approximately 30 billion cubic meters of SNG. 

China has also been engaged in building the Central Asian China Gas Pipeline (CACGP) that starts from Gedaim on the Turkmen-Uzbek border running through Central Uzbekistan and Southern Kazakhstan before ending in Horgos in Xinjiang. The three parallel pipelines; part of the CACGP network have a total capacity of 30 billion cubic meters. China has also embarked on a fourth pipeline in the CACGP and signed agreements with various Central Asian countries; becoming a nearly 50 percent stakeholder in the project. The CACGP transports natural gas from Central Asia to Xinjiang and further connects with the Chinese mainland through the East-West pipeline. These pipeline projects are critical for China to reduce its dependence on Coal and Oil as energy, which it largely imports from the Persian Gulf and Australia. Xinjiang has nearly 570 rivers and 270 mountain springs. Xinjiang, like Tibet, is home to Major River Systems like the Ili, Eerqisi, Kaidu and Yarkand that flow towards the mainland providing a critical supply of fresh water to the densely populated areas on the coast. Xinjiang in this sense is critical for China’s water and food security to feed its population. 

The above factors have led to the development of critical infrastructure like roads and railways in Xinjiang and have brought prosperity there. However, this has not percolated down to the Uighurs and has only benefitted the migrant Hans, who enjoy exalted positions in businesses run by the CPC. The Han are also systemically diluting the demographics of the region. The Han Population in the region has increased from 6.7 percent in 1949 to 40 percent in 2008. In 2012, as per statistics, of Xinjiang’s 22.32 million people, 8.47 million were Han Chinese, and 10.52 million were Uighurs. Besides them, there are other ethnic groups such as the Kazak, Hui, Mongolian, Kirgiz, Xibe, Tajik, Ozbek, Manchu, Daur, Tatar, and Russian. 

The increasing number of Han Chinese settling in Xinjiang led to widespread rioting in the region during the 1990’s. The denial of economic opportunities and jobs to the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang further fuelled separatism and turned violent as the suppression of the basic rights and demands of Uighurs continued. In the 1990’s the breakup of the USSR furthered the quest for independence from China. The PLA brutally crushed all dissent and carried out thousands of public executions to install fear in a flashback of Mao’s era. The Chinese administration has banned public servants from Ramadan Iftar meals and in 1997, China arrested Muslim youths for simply attending a religious ceremony. This resulted in nearly 15,000 people protesting against this Chinese oppression of the right to religion and also called for the release of prisoners taken during crackdowns such as the Ghulja incident. Since 1997 terror attacks in Xinjiang have been increasing regularly targeting the Han population. The 2014 Kunming attack, the 2015 coal mine attack and bomb blasts are just a few examples of the increasing terror in Xinjiang.  

The brutal crackdown of Uighurs, the economic exploitation of its rich resources and the large migration of Han population in Xinjiang has drawn strong resistance from the Uighurs. These events of repression have resulted in elements among them joining terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan. Uighur separatist groups were formed in the 1990’s and have carried out many bombings and attacks in Xinjiang. The most known group in the region was the ETIM (East Turkistan Islamic Movement) whose aim was to overthrow the Chinese control of East Turkestan or Xinjiang and establish the rule of Sharia. As per Russian media reports, Osama bin Laden convened a meeting in 1999 in Afghanistan that included IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and ETIM and agreed to fund them. The Kyrgyz security sources also confirmed the said collaboration between the terror groups in 2001. Pakistani officials have also admitted that the terrorist organizations in Western China have links with terror groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan (like the Pakistan-Taliban). Other groups seeking independence are East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO), United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan (URFET), and the Uyghur Liberation Organization (ULO). The ETIM was subsequently banned by US and UNSC as a terror organization in 2002 as part of increased US-China anti-terror cooperation post 9/11, but many human rights organizations have objected to the same stating that the Uighurs are justified in oppressing genuine dissent and human rights violations. 

The ETIM which later evolved as TIP (Turkistan Islamic Party) has links with various terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria/Iraq. Sheikh Abdullah Mansour, the Pakistan-based head of TIP has stated that all Muslims have a “universal jihad obligation” to fight China. In 2014, Al-Qaeda’s English magazine Resurgence called Xinjiang as “occupied Muslim land that must be recovered into the shade of the Islamic Caliphate” while al-Baghdadi of the ISIS spoke about Muslim rights being forcibly seized in China and called for Muslims around the world to pledge allegiance to him to liberate their fellow Muslim brothers in Xinjiang. Over 2000 Uighurs from Xinjiang and Central Asia have joined ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and are fighting in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has also begun a propaganda program to encourage Uighurs to join the fight for the Caliphate in what appears to be an indication of their support for the East Turkestan Movement. One of the prime reasons for Uighurs to join these terror groups is to gain militant experience in Syria & Iraq in order to prepare and return to fight for their independence in Xinjiang. Thus, it is quite possible that Xinjiang may also become the battleground for supremacy between the ISIS and Al-Qaeda and create a new terror syndicate like the IMU in Uzbekistan in the fight for Central Asia.

Turkey has special interest in Xinjiang due to its longstanding ethnic and cultural affinities with the Uighurs and a perception of them as an ‘authentic’ Turkic people suffering under Chinese occupation. The Grey Wolves, a nationalist Turkish organization created in 1968 is an anti-communist movement that dreams of Pan-Turkism similar to the wishes of President Erdogan who has unsurprisingly likened Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs to “genocide” and called for China to “abandon its policy of assimilation”. The Grey Wolves support the ETIM and have set up training camps in Central Asia and enjoy unequivocal support and recruitment from the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The East Turkestan Grey Wolf Party is among the major terrorist organizations of Xinjiang. The Bangkok bombings of 2015 were also linked to Uighurs holding Turkish passports and the arrest of a Turkish citizen with bomb-making material has brought the focus back to the Grey Wolves. The Grey Wolves have close ties to Turkish crime mafia gangs that operate in Bangkok and provide logistical support for the transit of Uighurs from China to Turkey. The attacks were carried out in response to Thailand’s deportation of over 100 Uighurs to China. 

External agencies and countries like the US have fueled the movement of East Turkistan for their strategic gains. Turkey is a NATO member and the US and its allies are using Turkey to carry out its dirty work for them. Thus, the US is achieving its foreign policy goals of destabilizing China politically and militarily through proxies. The independence of Xinjiang will result in a major loss of territory for China and combined with the Tibet separation movement (that is inevitable with the rise of China) will virtually isolate China from Central Asia. It can also have other ramifications such as the demand for independence in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Militarily, the Uighur movement is backed by the US and NATO through intermediary groups like Turkey’s Grey Wolves while politically it is in the form of World Uighur Congress through Washington and Munich-based organizations. They have been instrumental in pioneering the Uighur Separatist movement globally highlighting the Chinese repression and exploitation of the region. According to various reports, US-based Non-Governmental Organization NED (National Endowment for Democracy) has been actively funding and backing the activities of World Uighur Congress (WUC). It is estimated that NED nearly funnels in $2,15,000 annually to WUC for the advocacy of human rights and democracy. NED has been instrumental in orchestrating many such movements across the world from Ukraine to Georgia to Burma through its NGO’s and activists network. In 2006, Rebeiya Kadeer was elected as President of the Uighur American Association and World Uighur Congress. On July 6, 2006, the Xinjiang administration blamed Rebeiya Kadeer in Washington DC as the mastermind of abetting the violent clashes in the region and also linked her to the terrorist attacks, which was flatly denied by Kadeer. Rebeiya Kadeer had the full backing of the US Administration, evident from her meeting with President Bush in the year 2007 where he called on China to release her family members taken as prisoners. Simultaneously China’s handling of the protests sparked international outrage with countries like Turkey and the OIC Nations expressing concerns for the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. 

Xinjiang is an important part of OBOR. Its economic transit corridors make Xinjiang extremely critical to China’s global ambitions of reviving the ancient Silk Route. A train from China to Tehran recently opened the Silk Route, further aiming to connect Europe and Russia through Central Asia. The Chinese ambitions in Xinjiang are also about securing an alternate route to the Persian Gulf through Central Asia. The CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) connects the Karakoram Highway in PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) to the Gwadar Port in the Balochistan province of Pakistan. The CPEC will be instrumental in connecting Xinjiang with the Persian Gulf through the Karakoram and Gwadar Port giving China an alternate route for energy supplies from the Malacca Straits where it could face a blockade during a potential conflict. Xinjiang is a gateway to the Chinese expansion of influence in Central Asia and further to Eurasia and the Persian Gulf. 

Xinjiang is the most vulnerable province of China given the fact that its borders many Central Asian countries as well as Russia unlike the other provinces of China which are largely covered by sea or the Himalayan mountains. An interesting tug of war is being played out in Xinjiang. As China’s ambition grows; the voices for independence in Xinjiang will be heard louder with foreign powers like the United States covertly funding the separatists movement in Xinjiang and the Central Asian regions. The Chinese repression of the ethnic Uighurs by the increasing Han population will fuel support for the East Turkistan movement across the neighboring countries that are connected to Xinjiang. Even India has hinted about playing the Uighur card in countering China’s expansionist designs in Asia-Pacific region through military and economic campaigns. The Indian government recently allowed 8 Chinese dissidents and a member of World Uighur Congress to visit Dharamshala and meet Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan Government in Exile in India. China’s global quest for dominance will face many hurdles; most of them from within such as Tibet and Xinjiang without which China’s power will be severely compromised. The US has tasted some success in the democratization of the Middle East. Will it be able to pull off a democracy coup in Tibet and Xinjiang? Will it choose to align stronger with India and go against Pakistan for the Great Game of Central Asia? How much will India support the US and attempt to undo the wrongs of its erstwhile foreign policy? Only time will tell. 

Related Articles to Read:
The View into “West Turkestan”
Korean Peninsula A Pawn On The Geopolitical Chessboard Book


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