Thursday, July 9, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Central Asia’s Uyghur Problems Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 9 – The violence in Xinjiang has highlighted the plight of the Uyghurs living under often brutal Chinese rule and called attention to the broader Uyghur problem across Central Asia, where many Uyghurs live and whose regimes must now find ways to maintain close ties with Beijing while not further alienating their own peoples.
Most Uyghurs, as the world now knows, live in Eastern Turkestan, what the Chinese call Xinjiang or “the New Territory,” a reflection of its relatively recent occupation by China. But many Uyghurs live in Central Asia: roughly 300,000 in Kazakhstan, 60,000 in Kyrgyzstan and three to four thousand in Turkmenistan, according to censuses there.
The governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been watching the situation carefully over the last few days, not only because of these ethnic and religious ties, which are strengthened by the presence of more than a million Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and have evacuated more than a 1,000 of their own nationals from that violence-plagued region.
At the same time, the two governments have been extremely careful not to anger Beijing by criticizing what the Chinese have been doing. On the one hand, both countries have a long history of being subjected to Chinese pressure, as during the Olympics, on the question of cross-border ethnic ties.
And on the other, these regimes have an interest in maintaining and developing ties with the Chinese government, both as a counterweight to Russian power and as a means of developing their own economies. Only eight days ago, for example, Kazakhstan and China announced the completion of a new oil pipeline between the two.
But these governments, and especially that of Kazakhstan, are being pushed by the Uyghurs in their own population and by ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang to stand up to China. Kakharman Kozhamberdiyev, the leader of the Uyghurs of Kazakhstan, for example, has called for “solidarity” with his co-ethnics in Xinjiang (
And on Kazakh Internet sites, a document had surfaced entitled “An Open Letter of the Kazakh Youth of the City of Urumchi” to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev which asks him to direct the attention of his government to “the resolution of the existing problems of the Kazakhs living in China.”
That letter says that the Kazakhs living in China are “seriously concerned about “the future of their culture,” that the Chinese discriminate against them, and that the Chinese have printed textbooks for schools which show China extending into “the lands of independent Kazakhstan,” a report that will undoubtedly infuriate many Kazakhs in Kazakhstan.
The Uyghurs, however, have a special reason to believe they have some closet allies within the Kazakhstan government. The prime minister of Kazakhstan, Karim Masimov, is, as an article on Moscow’s pointed out, “not only a Uyghur by nationality but at one time graduated from the Beijing Institute of Languages and the Wuhan Law School.
In the short term, neither Central Asian government is likely to criticize China or given in to these popular demands. After all, both of these regimes are not only authoritarian but adept at deflecting popular anger at other targets. But one Moscow commentator has suggested that the situation could ultimately change.
In a note posted on today, Dmitry Popov who follows Central Asian affairs for Aleksandr Dugin’s Eurasianist movement, said that it is possible that the violence in Xinjiang could spark a “flood” of refugees, and that these refugees, combined with the indigenous Uygur groups, could become a problem (
The situation could develop in the following way, Popov writes. First, as a result of the arrival of refugees, there would be “innocent” protests in front of Chinese embassies” in Astana or Bishkek, and if the situation deteriorated in Xinjiang, these could spread, a possibility that he argues the two governments must be “worried” about.
Meanwhile, on his blog, Moscow journalist Aleksandr Baunov offered a counter-factual history of Xinjiang as an introduction to the broader discussion as to whether the disintegration of China along ethno-national or regional lines would be good or bad for the Russian Federation
Communist China copied many things from the USSR, including the creation of ethnic territories. But unlike the USSR, which created a union, intended to be “for all times” but that has proved not to be “forever,” the Chinese did not organize these territories in a way that could suggest to anyone the possibility of departure.
A major reason for that, Baunov says, is that as recently as 60 years ago, “the country of China was only a set of lines on a map.” In fact, there were several independent states on what it claimed belonged to Beijing. Among these were Tibet, which “rose up last spring,” and Eastern Turkestan or Xinjiang “which rose up last Sunday.”
Related to that pattern is yet another reason: “There is now more than one China” – the mainland and Taiwan, an arrangement that the late Vasily Aksyonov used as the conceit for his novel, “The Island of Crimea,” in which pre-1917 Russia survived and developed alongside the Soviet Union.
And there is a third: From the 1930s until 1949, an Eastern Turkestan Republic existed, a state recognized by no one but in fact controlled by the Soviet government, except for a period during World War II. “If Stalin had annexed [this territory at that time], then the Uyghurs after 1991 would have had an independent state,” the Russian journalist points out.
Whether that state would have been democratic or dictatorial will never be known and whether it would have been a good thing or bad for Moscow is uncertain. But the existence of these alternatives almost certainly informs the thinking not only of those on both sides of the divide in Urumchi this week but also of those in capitals further afield.

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