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Considerations on the East Turkestan – Xinjiang issue

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] X [/yt_dropcap]injiang’s demographic and anthropic complexion is more complex than we tend to currently believe: according to China’s 2000 census-taking, 40% of the population of East Turkestan-Xinjiang is Han Chinese, while the remaining 60% is Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz or Oirat.

The latter are an ethnic group originating from the Altai Mountains, Mongolia; in the Russian Federation, they are called kalmik.

Hence, it is not a relationship between Han Chinese and Turkish-origin Uyghurs, but a complex network of alliances and tensions between various Islamic or non-Islamic ethnic minorities.

Obviously, the Uyghur issue is mostly political and strategic, rather than ethnic or religious, since everybody knows that the Uyghurs profess the Islamic faith.

For the East Turkestan’s population, the Sunni Islam has never been a strictly religious factor, but rather an ethnic-cultural and identity one.

Moreover, according to the latest scientific sources, the Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang region are estimated at approximately 10 million people, but they are present in all the 31 Chinese provinces – hence not just traditionally in Xinjiang.

This explains the perception of the danger caused by the extremist Islamization of the Uyghur Islam and, hence, operating in China.

Since 2001, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has been affiliated to Al Qaeda while, in 2013, it was integrated into the Syrian-Iraqi “Caliphate”, with two other Uzbek-origin Islamist groups, thus soon swelling the ranks of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front – namely the Syrian faction of the organization founded by Osama bin Laden, which has been currently renamed as Jabhat Fath al Sham.

According to Arab sources, the Uyghur militants operating in Syria are estimated at approximately 2,000 and they communicate via a Telegram channel organized by TIP’s information and propaganda centre, known as Islam Awazi, which spreads a large number of strongly anti-Chinese   – and obviously anti-Western – videos and texts.

On the other hand, TIP has already operated with terrorist attacks in China: in 2013 and 2014 in Tiananmen Square, and later in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang – not to mention the massacre of the Han Chinese in Kunming and Guangzhou, again in 2014.

A massacre perpetrated with knives and machetes – hence it not surprising that, today, the sources of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), the organization led by Rabiya Kader, note – with some shock – that the Chinese authorities force the owners of sharp blades to be registered with a special list.

Furthermore, TIP and the other Uyghur Islamist autonomist movements have always been secretly funded and supported by the Turkish intelligence services, on the basis of an ethnic-religious brotherhood, but also of a strategic project, which sees Turkey projecting onto Central Asia, thus uniting – under its geopolitical project – the Islam of the region and the many Turkish-origin minorities living in those areas.

Has NATO nothing to say in this regard? Can tension be created in Central Asia and in the Middle East, which could trigger the solidarity mechanism pursuant to Article 5 of the Treaty establishing the Atlantic Alliance?

In this case, China’s response has been economic: the State-owned oil company Sinopec has recently invested considerable funds in the oil fields and gas deposits in the Iraqi Kurdish areas – a clear instrument of geopolitical pressure against Turkey.

Obviously, it also becomes essential to defame China, accused of brutal repression of the whole Islamic and Uyghur population in China.

This leads to some Chinese weakness in the relations with the anti-terrorist and anti-jihadist fight of the West and of the Russian Federation, in particular.

Furthermore, Uyghurs’ bilingualism is largely prevailing in Northern Xinjiang.

In the urban areas of the region, only 20% of the population is Uyghur, while in rural areas the Uyghurs account for up to 80%.

Moreover, Islam penetrated Xinjiang as from the tenth century from the Turkish colonies in the Tarim region, and the Islamic religion spread equally between Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uyghurs.

Hence, it is somehow a stretch to equate and relate Islam only to Xinjiang’s Uyghur issue, but it is certainly not by mere coincidence that only the Uyghurs, and not the other ethnic groups, operate permanently against the Chinese government and interests.

As the most reliable sources report, there are continuing clashes. They are often Uyghurs’ operations against Han Chinese, although, there is obviously a clear level of pressure put by the Chinese authorities.

On July 24, 2014, Uyghur militants killed 37 civilians and injured 13 others in Shache-Yarkand.

There was also the harsh reaction of the Chinese police.

Hence spreading the idea that the Uyghurs are a peaceful people tortured by a Han Chinese minority is groundless.

We must wonder whether and how the other Islamic minorities do not radicalize so much as, on the contrary, happens to the Uyghur population of whom, however, strong religiousness has never been noted.

All international sources have always underlined that Islamic orthodoxy applies only to a minority of the Uyghur population or of other local ethnic groups professing the Islamic faith.

Hence, the political Islam is a way to radicalize a people and does not belong to the religious and ethnic history of the Uyghurs living in Xinjiang.

From this viewpoint, it is fully rational for the Chinese government to fear the effects of Islamic radicalism – which, as already noted, characterizes only the Uyghurs and not the other Islam-faith minorities such as the Hui – combining with the Islamic radicalism, which has long been present in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Another reasonable and understandable Chinese fear is that the Uyghurs’ Islamic movement radicalizes also other ethnic and religious minorities against China.

This regards also the governments of Xinjiang’s neighbouring countries, which also host Uyghur minorities and fear the Islamist-jihadist radicalization of these groups.

Therefore, it is reprehensible to see how many European democratic parliamentarians, championing democratic and liberal ideas, accept – without ever raising objections – the propaganda of the Uyghur organizations in the West, often disguised or covered by the Tibetan world which usually organizes anti-Chinese activities in Europe and the United States.

At geopolitical level, it is not clear what China could or should do differently: Tibet has a top-level autonomous military command and a highly-efficient intelligence network, namely SIGINT (SIGnal INTtelligence), as well as some nuclear and missile sites.

Should it possibly leave everything and leave undefended its most sensitive border, namely the Tibetan-Turkestan one?

Who would benefit from this situation? The Americans, maybe? Not at all. It would be the beginning of the end for all Central Asia.

Hence it is strange that, in the West, the Uyghur issue is dealt with by taking for granted that there is only China’s “crackdown”.

Moreover, the network of Uyghur organizations is complex and requires huge funds.

We have already talked about this issue in other articles, but it is strange that, for example, some leaders of the World Uyghur Congress have multiple passports and move freely in Europe and in the rest of the world.

If they create yet another ill-omened and unfortunate “Uyghur spring”, like the previous ones, they will generate a final jihad in China, with currently unimaginable damage and dangers, even in Europe.

Finally, if anyone thought of a structural weakening and a strategic downgrading of the Chinese government, the whole Asia would collapse with China and there would be no Western economy capable of absorbing the terrible asymmetric shock created by these strategic follies.

Therefore, the situation is much more complex and the “sword jihad” has everything to do with it.

Westerners, however, have now fallen asleep and believe that the jihadist Islam is a matter of little consequence, an internal dispute within the Islam faith, a regional conflict.

Not at all. It is the first problem of our time – and, certainly, it cannot be solved with nice words or with the “seductions” of freedom or mass democracy.

This is proved by the failure of the psychological warfare operations known as “Arab springs”.

Hence the Uyghur issue must be dealt with very carefully, without demonizing the reaction of China which, however, is investing huge funds precisely in Xinjiang and without even thinking – as data and statistics demonstrate – that the whole Uyghur population can be hegemonized and dominated by its Islamist-jihadist or autonomist minorities.  

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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East Asia

China’s soft power and its Lunar New Year’s Culture

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Authors: Liu Hui & Humprey A. Russell*

As a common practice, China has celebrated its annual Lunar new year since 1984 when the leaders of the day decided to open mysterious country in a more confident and transparent way. So far, the lunar new year gala has become a part of Chinese cultural life and beyond. The question then arises why China or its people have been so thrilled to exhibit themselves to the world, as its economy has already impressed the world by its rapid pace and tremendous capacity.

As it is well-known, in international relations, peoples from different cultural and ethnical backgrounds need to enhance their understanding which eventually leads to mutual respect and tolerance as the key to the world peace and stability. China is well-aware of this norm. As a rising power with 1.3 billion people, it is necessary for China to introduce its culture and notion of the peaceful rise to the audiences globally. Joseph Nye, Jr., the founder of the concept of the soft power, has argued: “The currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. During the information age, credibility is the scarcest resource.”In light of this, China has been steadily involved in cultural promotions abroad.

China is an ancient civilization but diplomatically it is a new global player in terms of its modern involvement into the world affairs, particularly in terms of reform and openness. Yet, since China has aspired to rejuvenate itself as one of the leading powers globally, it is natural for the world en bloc to assume Beijing’s intention and approach to the power transition between the rising power like itself and the ruling powers such as the United States and the G-7 club. Consider this, China has exerted all efforts to project but not propagate its image to the world. Here culture is bound to play the vital role in convincing the countries concerned that “culturally China has no the gene of being a threat to other peoples,” as Chinese President Xi has assured. The annual lunar gala is evidently a useful instrument to demonstrate Chinese people, culture and policies as well.

Culturally speaking, the Chinese New Year celebrations can be seen as follows. In a general sense, similar themes run through all the galas with the local cultural and ethnical ingredients, for instance, Chinese opera, crosstalk and acrobatics, as well as the lion-dancing or the dragon-dancing from time to time. Yes, the galas play the role of promoting the Chinese communities over the world to identify themselves with the Chinese culture which surely strengthen the cultural bonds among the Chinese, in particular the younger generations. Moreover, the dimension of the Chinese culture can be found beyond the country since its neighbors like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Malaysia, as well as Chinese communities in many other areas also perform those arts at the holiday seasons. The message here is clear that China, although it is a rising great power, has never abandoned its cultural tradition which has emphasized the harmony among the different races and ethnics.

Recently, the lunar new year celebrations across China have invited professional and amateur artists from all over the world. Those foreign guest artists and many overseas students studying in China have been able to offer their talents in either Chinese or their mother tongues. No doubt, this is a two-way to learn from each other because Chinese performers are benefited from the contacts with their counterparts globally. In terms of public diplomacy, Beijing aims to send a powerful and sincere message to the world: China can’t be in isolation from the world because it has aspired to be a great and inclusive country as well. To that end, the rise of China is not going to challenge the status quo, but will act as one of the stakeholders.

As usual, realists have difficulties and even cultural bias to accept the rhetoric from a country like China since it has been regarded by the ruling powers of the world as an ambitious, assertive and communist-ruled country with its unique culture. To that challenge, the Chinese government and the people have done a great deal of works to successfully illustrate Chinese practice of harmony at the societal level idealized by Confucius’ doctrines. This social harmony is made possible only by the realization of the Taoist ideal of harmony with nature – in this case, harmony between humans and nature. This explains why panda and many other rare animals are now viewed as new national symbol of China. Although they are unnecessarily an indispensable part of the lunar new year gala, the viewpoint is that the rise of China would not be completed at the cost of the ecological environment like many other countries did in history.

Practically speaking, the lunar new year celebrations are being conducted in a rich variety of ways such as concerts, cuisines, folk entertainments and even forums and receptions around the world. Major global commercial centers have also served to create a Chinese holiday atmosphere, adapt to the needs of Chinese tourists, attract active participation from local residents, and provide such diversities of cultural and social events. What is worth mentioning is that some Chinese-North American non-profit, non-partisan organizations are beginning to celebrate Chinese lunar gala in partnership with other local counterparts. For instance, the Chinese Inter-cultural Association based in California, recently hosted a Chinese New Year party in a Persian restaurant in partnership with a local non-profit, non-partisan organization called the Orange County Toastmaster Club, part of Toastmaster International. Also, in another Chinese New Year celebration that was open to people of all races in Pasadena, two Americans played the guitar and sang songs in fluent Chinese! Both galas were attended by people of all racial backgrounds around the world. Given this, it is fair to say that China’s soft power supported by its annual lunar new year festival is on the rise globally with a view to promoting mutual respect and friendship among the peoples of various cultural, ethnical and racial origins.

Yet, though the impressive feats are achieved, it has noted that China still has a long way to go in terms of its twin-centennial dreams. First, as a developing country with its unique culture, it is necessary for China to promote its great ancient culture abroad, but it is also imperative to avoid “introducing” China rashly into the globe. Essentially, soft power is more the ability to attract and co-opt than to use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Thereby, it is the very ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. As cross-cultural communication is a long process, Nye admitted a few years ago, in public affairs, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”

This is the key to all the countries. In 2014,President Xi formally stated, “China should increase its soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate its messages to the world.” In light of this, Chinese lunar new year gala surely acts as soft power to project the image of China internationally.

* Humprey A. Russell (Indonesia), PhD candidate in international affairs, SIPA, Jilin University.

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East Asia

China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The Middle East has a knack for sucking external powers into its conflicts. China’s ventures into the region have shown how difficult it is to maintain its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.

China’s abandonment of non-interference is manifested by its (largely ineffective) efforts to mediate conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is even more evident in China’s trashing of its vow not to establish foreign military bases, which became apparent when it established a naval base in Djibouti and when reports surfaced that it intends to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar as a military facility.

This contradiction between China’s policy on the ground and its long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy principles means that Beijing often struggles to meet the expectations of Middle Eastern states. It also means that China risks tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Middle Eastern autocrats have tried to embrace the Chinese model of economic liberalism coupled with tight political control. They see China’s declared principle of non-interference in the affairs of others for what it is: support for authoritarian rule. The principle of this policy is in effect the same as the decades-old US policy of opting for stability over democracy in the Middle East.

It is now a risky policy for the United States and China to engage in given the region’s post-Arab Spring history with brutal and often violent transitions. If anything, instead of having been ‘stabilised’ by US and Chinese policies, the region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to resolve. There is no guarantee that autocrats will emerge as the winners.

China currently appears to have the upper hand against the United States for influence across the greater Middle East, but Chinese policies threaten to make that advantage short-term at best.

Belt and Road Initiative-related projects funded by China have proven to be a double-edged sword. Concerns are mounting in countries like Pakistan that massive Chinese investment could prove to be a debt trap similar to Sri Lanka’s experience.

Chinese back-peddling on several Pakistani infrastructure projects suggests that China is tweaking its approach to the US$50 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese rethink was sparked by political volatility caused by Pakistan’s self-serving politics and continued political violence — particularly in the Balochistan province, which is at the heart of CPEC.

China decided to redevelop its criteria for the funding of CPEC’s infrastructure projects in November 2017. This move seemingly amounted to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time when they were flexing their muscles in response to political volatility. The decision suggests that China is not averse to shaping the political environment of key countries in its own authoritarian mould.

Similarly, China has been willing to manipulate Pakistan against its adversaries for its own gain. China continues to shield Masoud Azhar (who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and military forces) from UN designation as a global terrorist. China does so while Pakistan cracks down on militants in response to a US suspension of aid and a UN Security Council monitoring visit.

Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves China’s interest in keeping India off balance — a goal which Beijing sees as worthy despite the fact that Chinese personnel and assets have been the targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan. Saudi Arabia is also considering the use of Balochistan as a launching pad to destabilise Iran. By stirring ethnic unrest in Iran, Saudi Arabia will inevitably suck China into the Saudi–Iranian rivalry and sharpen its competition with the United States. Washington backs the Indian-supported port of Chabahar in Iran — a mere 70 kilometres from Gwadar.

China is discovering that it will prove impossible to avoid the pitfalls of the greater Middle East. This is despite the fact that US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seem singularly focussed on countering Iran and Islamic militants.

As it navigates the region’s numerous landmines, China is likely to find itself at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will at least have a common interest in pursuing political stability at the expense of political change — however much this may violate its stated commitment to non-interference.

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East Asia

Chinese extradition request puts crackdown on Uyghurs in the spotlight

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.

The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.

The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.

The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.

Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.

China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.

The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.

Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan

China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets

China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.

To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.

The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends,” according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.

Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies,” in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people,” the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.

The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.

Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.

The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”

A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”

The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.

Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.

The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.

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