(FYI) FT: The lost cause of China’s Uighurs
- Financial Times
The lost cause of China’s Uighurs
August 5 2008
One of the side-effects of the September 11 2001 attacks on the US was
the way it enabled other countries to smuggle their unresolved conflicts
under the umbrella of George W. Bush’s global “war on terror”. Russia’s
assault on Chechnya suddenly became legitimate. Ariel Sharon got the
green light to retake the West Bank by force. China adroitly used the
opportunity to tar the Uighurs of Xinjiang, its biggest and westernmost
province, with the brush of al-Qaeda.
Now, on the eve of the Olympics, Beijing would have us believe the games
are under threat from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a tiny Uighur
group that China persuaded Mr Bush, in his “either with us or against
us” mood, to put on the US terrorist list. Monday’s incident in
Xinjiang, in which 16 policemen were allegedly killed by Uighur
separatists, may cause some alarm but the essential thesis is spurious.
If the ETIM survives in western China – which is far from clear – it is
the most rudimentary insurgency. Despite Beijing’s extravagant claims in
the run-up to the Olympics, the small number of attacks appears to
involve knives and primitive explosives. For Chinese security, this is
no more difficult than swatting a fly. But the Uighurs do appear to be
trying to use the Olympic stage to grab the spotlight.
And no wonder. Their cause is almost unknown. A cultured people who
founded the first Turkic state in the 10th century and published the
first works of Turkish literature, the Uighurs had an episodic autonomy
that ended with their forced assimilation by the People’s Liberation
Army in 1949. Since then their culture, language and Muslim religion
have been engulfed by Han Chinese colonisation. Discrimination over jobs
and housing has only worsened with the discovery of oil and mineral
wealth in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is in a similar situation to Tibet. But it lacks the religious
radiation provided by the Dalai Lama or, in another context, a city
built on combustible history like Jerusalem. It has no high-profile
Hollywood star such as Richard Gere to emote for it; more people
probably worry whether giant pandas mate than whether the Uighurs can
survive as a culture and a people. If only they were Buddhists.
Yet their restiveness is a flickering if forlorn hope that something
like the break-up of the Soviet Union might happen to China, not a
response to al-Qaeda. But if Beijing continues its bulldozer approach to
minorities and robs the Uighurs of their identity, it could incite
jihadism. China’s interpretation of the Olympics slogan “One World, One
Dream” is not universally shared.