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Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama quarrel: The way for rapprochement with China

Dr. Andrea Galli

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The last month or two have been a busy time for geopolitics. While Western leaders convened in Washington to discuss the potential trans-Atlantic trade war and the possibility of a conventional war against Iran in support of Israel, Korean leaders got together in the demilitarized zone and India’s Narendra Modi headed to Wuhan province in China for an informal two-day summit with President Xi Jinping. As a new world order takes shape, these two countries China and India, have evolved from peripheral actors to central players.

In 2000, China accounted for just 3.6 percent of the global economy; today it’s responsible for nearly 15 percent of the world’s economic output, and by 2032 it is poised to surpass the U.S. as the world’s foremost economic powerhouse. It has achieved this by harnessing the strength of state-capitalism, intertwining its political power with its financial clout on a scale never before seen in the global free market. Between 1990 and 2011, nearly 450 million Chinese were raised out of poverty. Over roughly the same time period (1994 to 2012), more than 130 million Indians escaped poverty, a 50 percent reduction in its poverty level.

Given today’s chaotic politics and the disruptive belligerence in the Middle East, the Chinese political model has become increasingly appealing. The goal of the Wuhan meeting was to help Xi and Modi keep things cordial between the two growing economic powers. There have been more than enough flashpoints in recent months to make a meeting like this necessary: in the Maldives, in Sri Lanka, even in sleepy Bhutan.

One of the most contentious issues springs from Beijing’s resentment that India continues to give shelter and a platform to the Dalai Lama and those Tibetans who followed the spiritual leader into exile following a failed uprising against Chinese rule almost six decades ago. This is particularly galling to the Chinese because the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government in exile had, until very recently, never lost an opportunity to needle Beijing about the legitimacy of its claims on Tibet. China sees Tibet as an integral part of its territory, and is extremely sensitive to any question regarding the legitimacy of its rule in the region.

A number of recent developments in the last month have however raised hopes for more cordial relations between Beijing and the exile government’s representatives, with both the Dalai Lama and the CTA at pains to minimize issues that in the past have strained relations between China and the exiled Tibetans. These include the issue of the Panchen Lama, and of devotion to the Dorje Shugden deity, both often the subject of heated debate between the two sides, although the subject matter might seem rather arcane to outsiders.

Squabbling over succession

The Panchen Lama is one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism, whose spiritual authority is second only to that of the Dalai Lama himself. Of particular significance is the Panchen Lama’s role in identifying the next Dalai Lama. Given the Dalai Lama’s spiritual leadership of the Tibetan community in exile, he is an important factor in both CTA relations with China and, to a lesser extent, China’s relations with its Tibetan Autonomous Region. A Dalai Lama who is open to a cordial relationship with China could ultimately pave the way for an agreement between the CTA and China that would allow the return home of Tibet’s exile community.

In May 1995, the current Dalai Lama, the 14th, recognized six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama. Three days later, Nyima was abducted by the Chinese and spirited away to an undisclosed location. Chinese officials said the whereabouts of Nyima and his family had been kept secret for their protection. However, China did not recognize Nyima’s legitimacy and, some months later, said a separate selection process had identified Gyancain Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama.

This controversy over the rightful Panchen Lama has created a further division between the CTA and China over the naming of an eventual successor to the Dalai Lama himself. The Chinese-sponsored Panchen Lama is likely to name a pro-China successor in order to foment controversy and weaken the “Tibetan cause”, reasons the CTA. The Chinese counter that choosing an aggressive, independence-minded successor would only serve to perpetuate old wounds and make the likelihood of reconciliation ever more remote.

Norbu hails from a line of devotees to the Dorje Shugden deity, to which the Dalai Lama himself has admitted that he once used to offer prayers before declaring it to be a malign spirit. Since 1976, the spiritual leader has stated publicly on several occasions that the practice of paying devotion to Dorje Shugden shortened the life of the Dalai Lama, encouraged sectarianism among Buddhists and represented a “danger to the cause of Tibet”. Thus the Dalai Lama and the CTA at the time saw the Chinese-sponsored Panchen Lama, a Shugden devotee, as a provocation and an attempt to create a rift in the exile community.

The Dorje Shugden deity is revered as one of several protectors of the “Geluk”, or “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lamas belong. But the spiritual leader and other critics said worship of the deity creates and deepens divisions among the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism despite them all sharing the same fundamental philosophy – their differences residing mainly in the emphasis they place on the vast body of Buddhist scriptures.

Shortly after the revelation that the Chinese had backed their own Panchen Lama, the CTA upped the stakes against Shugden worshippers, issuing resolutions and directives that effectively made outcasts of the Shugden community. For many years, they were accused of being stooges of China and supporting Beijing rule in Tibet. By continuing in their devotion, they were allowing China to exploit divisions among Tibetan Buddhists, the CTA said. Many were accused, some justifiably so, of accepting Chinese backing to encourage the ensuing turmoil within the community.

But ultimately, the Dalai Lama and the CTA’s efforts to use Shugden as an instrument against China backfired. The marginalization of the Shugden practice provided China with a pretext to oppose the Dalai Lama and draw devotees in Tibet and the exile community into its own ambit. At the same time, the manoeuvre alienated from the Dalai Lama and his followers a large percentage of Shugden worshippers in Europe and Asia who felt they had been unfairly targeted, since they played no part whatsoever in the Sino-Tibetan conflict, and had no desire to be drawn into it.

The CTA’s faux pas

In recent times, the CTA has been compelled to tone down its US-backed anti-China rhetoric significantly as it has begun to lose the faith and support of numerous exiles, having done little to ease their precarious situation after sixty years of exile. Its support has dwindled amid allegations of corruption and self-promotion; its people are leaving and its relevance is diminished, and just as serious, it appears to be losing international support.

One grave misjudgement of the CTA last year created more trouble for its Indian hosts than they were willing to tolerate. Specifically, The Dalai Lama’s visit to the Arunachal Pradesh region in April 2017, where hundreds of his supporters triumphantly waved Tibetan flags, earned India a stiff rebuke from China. Chinese authorities bridled at his reception by Chief Minister Pema Khandu and Minister of State Kiren Rijiju, which Beijing perceived as official backing of the Dalai Lama from India.

While the Dalai Lama’s previous visits to the area had also stirred Indi-China tensions, the latest one was followed by a military standoff between Indian and Chinese forces along their common border later in the year before both sides took steps to de-escalate the situation. Unlike on previous occasions, it appeared that this time India decided enough was enough, and that there was little value to be had in allowing a small group of long-term Tibetan refugees to provoke trouble between itself and a neighbour which happens to command the world’s largest army.

In diplomatic terms, India’s message to the CTA has been crystal clear: back off from antagonizing China. Senior government officials were earlier this year discouraged from participating in Tibet-related events, forcing the CTA to shift a high-profile celebration, planned to commemorate the start of the 60th year of the Dalai Lama’s exile, from Delhi to the much smaller city of Dharamsala. What had been originally planned as a full-scale jamboree in the capital – which would certainly have again roused China’s ire – was downgraded to a rather low-key event in the provinces.

According to the Hong-Kong daily South China Morning Post, “reports in January of a fresh Chinese build-up in the Himalayan area raised fears that an August peace deal may be unravelling, paving the way for an even bigger confrontation.” India will want to avoid any such confrontation if possible, and will certainly wish to ensure that the CTA is in no position to jeopardize the situation.

The modified Indian stance vis-à-vis its scattered Tibetan community finds an echo in how the U.S. attitude towards Tibet has changed, verging on outright indifference since the election of President Trump. That is in spite of a recent budget grant to support certain Tibet-focused projects. In fact, the grant seemed more the result of political horse-trading in Congress, with Tibet as a low-value bargaining chip, than any true desire to put the Tibet question on the agenda.

The changes in the attitudes of both the CTA’s hosts and what was once its most powerful advocate have forced the government in exile onto the defensive. No more can it provoke China with impunity and hope to maintain the unwavering support of its principal erstwhile benefactors, India and the United States. The Dalai Lama has certainly taken the lessons from these developments on board.

Indeed, in recent interviews and speeches, the spiritual leader has been more conciliatory towards China and the idea of Chinese rule in Tibet than at any time during his exile. His emissary, former CTA Prime Minister Samdong Rinpoche was reported to have paid a discreet visit to China in late 2017 for discreet discussions with the Chinese authorities, reportedly to advance negotiations for the spiritual leader’s eventual return to Tibet.

The Dalai Lama now seems more open to building bridges with China than in the past. In November 2017 he even admitted that most Tibetans want to remain part of China, effectively dealing the independence cause a severe blow. He also added that he would return to Tibet at once, if China agreed, flagging is the strongest manner yet his willingness to work towards better relations with China.

Signs of a change

In 2016 the China-sponsored Panchen Lama performed the Kalachakra ritual, an esoteric but important rite for activating dormant enlightenment. This was the first time the ritual had been practiced in the Tibetan Autonomous Region for 50 years, although the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, has performed the ritual in exile.

Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, director of London-based NGO Free Tibet, was highly critical, saying the Chinese were trying to impose their authority on Tibet “by co-opting Tibetan Buddhism.”

But since then, the evolving story of the two Panchen Lamas has begun to indicate a change in tactic, a silent signal that Dalai Lama’s position has softened markedly. Recently he has said that, according to reliable sources, the 11th Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima “is alive and receiving normal education”. Significantly, on April 27 the United States, which since the Trump election has been far less vocal on Tibet issues than previously, weighed in, calling on China to immediately release the Panchen Lama, Nyima.

As for the awkwardness of having two Panchen Lamas – which has echoes in the Western Schism of 1378-1417, when the Catholic Church had two rival Popes – the Dalai Lama has sought to downplay any question of a conflict by noting instances in Tibetan Buddhist tradition “where a reincarnated lama took more than one manifestation”. This is significant, since it shows a willingness to recognise China’s “version” of the Panchen Lama without repudiating his own.

His Eminence Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, spiritual advisor to the Malaysian Kechara Buddhist Association, has continued in his appeal to the Dalai Lama to heal the divisions around the religious tradition of Dorje Shugden, which is also practiced by the Chinese-backed 11th Panchen Lama. Tsem Tulku noted this would be a logical and opportune step following the spiritual leader’s recognition of the Chinese-backed lama and the great strides towards peace made during the recent meeting of the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President.

The recent developments represent a huge opportunity to bridge differences not only between India and China but between Chinese-controlled Tibet and its exile community. It has become clear over the years that the Central Tibetan Authority itself no longer sees an independent Tibet as a viable option, and that the most practical way of working towards a return to the homeland is through de-escalating tensions with China. Pulling back from the long-running controversies over the Panchen Lama and Dorje Shugden devotion represents a small step towards this end.

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Xinjiang: Pan-Turkism fuels China’s hearts-and-minds campaign

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Chinese efforts to woo Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community highlight the People’s Republic’s effort to avert criticism from the Muslim world of its crackdown in the north-western province of Xinjiang and strengthen relations with the kingdom and Middle Eastern nations.

The efforts to woo a community, a significant part of which is of Turkic origin, identifies itself as Turkestani, and long supported greater rights, if not independence for Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, are part of a larger, long-standing global Chinese effort to ensure the support of a mushrooming Chinese diaspora not only for its policy in Xinjiang, but also for its anti-Taiwanese One China policy and growing economic and geopolitical influence.

Tukestanis…do not identify as ‘Chinese in the ethnic, cultural or even geographic sense. Parts of this cluster perceive themselves…as being part of an oppressed group whose homeland is currently under Han occupation,“ said Muhammed Al-Sudairi, a Saudi China scholar and author of a recent report on the Chinese efforts in Saudi Arabia.

In wooing Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community, China is targeting a group that not only historically supported the Uyghurs but also maintained close ties to Taiwan. Mr. Al-Sudairi estimated the Saudi Chinese community to number at least 210,000, 150,000 of which have lived in the kingdom for decades.

It is a community that played a significant role in Saudi Arabia’s propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in China, part of a four-decade-long global campaign to counter post-1979 Iranian post-revolutionary zeal that more recently with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being curbed and given a more moderate makeover.

China this week sought to tighten relations with the Arab world with the allocation of US$106 million in aid to troubled nations, including Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon and the creation of a US$3 billion joint Chinese Arab fund that would invest in transportation infrastructure, oil and gas, finance, digital economy and artificial intelligence.

China announced the financial initiatives at a moment that it was putting the brakes on funds it pumps into its infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative that aims to connect Eurasia to the People’s Republic. The slowdown was designed to ensure that the initiative does not become a drag on the Chinese economy.

China’s Xinhua news agency meanwhile reported that President Xi Jingping would visit the United Arab Emirates this month on his way to a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Johannesburg. Mr. Xi visited Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt in 2016, the first visit to the Middle East by a Chinese head of state in seven years.

Chinese concern about Uyghur sentiment is compounded by the revival in post-Soviet Central Asian nations of pan-Turkism, a movement that emerged in the late 1900s that aims to unite Asia’s Turkic people. Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev sees pan-Turkism as a pillar of his country’s national identity.

Quoting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, Mr. Nazarbayev told a gathering in Ankara in 2012 that “the time will come when all the Turks will unite. Therefore I want to greet all the Turkic-speaking brothers. Between Altai and the Mediterranean Sea, over 200 million brothers live. If we all unite, then we will be a very effective force in the world.”

Pan-Turkism’s appeal in Central Asia, boosted by what Russia’s annexation of Crimea could mean for other post-Soviet states, does not stop at the borders of Xinjiang. The Altai mountains, Mr. Nazarbayev referred to is where Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia meet.

Mr. Nazarbayev last month took several steps to popularize pan-Turkic notions. The president sent a congratulatory message to a gathering celebrating the 125th anniversary of Magzhan Zhumabayev, a Soviet pan-Turkist poet whose works were banned by Joseph Stalin.

Days earlier, Mr. Nazarbayev signed a decree renaming the southern region of Shymkent as Turkestan, a reference to what pan-Turkists see as their spiritual homeland.

The rise of pan-Turkism puts China’s recent focus on Saudi Arabia’s Chinese Turkic community in a class of its own. China sought to boost its efforts by appointing in 2013 Anwar Habibullah, one of China’s few Uyghur diplomats as consul general in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

The consulate, since Mr. Habibullah’s appointment conducts events not only in Mandarin and Arabic but also Uyghur, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi.

Mr. Al-Sudairi attributes the focus on the Saudi Uyghurs, one of the largest and wealthy Chinese Turkic diaspora communities, “to the role of this community as a stronghold for anti-Chinse and anti-CPC (Communist Party of China) sentiment in Saudi Arabia, and one that has had some influence in shaping Saudi elite and popular perceptions toward the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and CPC.”

The Chinese focus is also fed by the country’s determination to stem the influence of what it terms extremist thought, including Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, that was promoted by Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese through their contact with Uyghur pilgrims and the distribution of literature and, audio-visual materials in Xinjiang, often through governmental non-governmental organizations like the Muslim World League, a major vehicle in Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.

Mr. Al-Sudairi’s portrayal of Saudi Turkic sentiment and its impact on perceptions of China in Saudi Arabia is noticeable given the fact that the kingdom, like almost all Muslim states, has turned a blind eye to China’s crackdown in Xinjiang and systematic attempts at forced assimilation of the Uyghurs.

Muhammad Amin Islam Turkestani, a strident Uyghur advocate of Xinjiang independence helped shape Saudi perceptions and propagate nationalism in his homeland after settling in the kingdom in the mid-1950s. Mr. Turkestani served as a translator for Uyghurs performing the haj and hosted a one-hour Uyghur-language show on Saudi radio in the 1980s.

Funded by the Saudi Turkic community, Mr. Turkestani published a book, A Message to the Islamic World … Facts about Muslim Turkestan, that criticized Han supremacism and denounced communist rule. The book was published in the kingdom and distributed locally as well as internationally as part of Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.

Mr. Turkestani’s book, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi, influenced Saudi discussions and perceptions and complicated the kingdom’s relations with China before and after Saudi Arabia in 1990 became the last Arab state to officially establish diplomatic relations.

Saudi Arabia, however, while at times critical of Chinese policy in Xinjiang, ensured that they plight of the Uyghurs did not fundamentally affect official relations.

The country’s controlled media were at times allowed to raise the issues and senior religious scholars called for support of the Uyghurs, Mr. Turkestani’s campaign to get the Muslim World League to recognize East Turkestan went however unheeded.

Moreover, no senior Saudi scholar has issued a fatwa or religious opinion on the issue. “Uyghur persecution by China will not stop the Saudis’ engagement with China, nor even slow it down,” said prominent China scholar Yitzhak Shichor.

The Chinese effort to woo Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese is being spearheaded by the United Front Work Department, the main communist party unit tasked with reaching out to key non-part groups in China and across the globe, including Saudi Arabia.

“In January 2018…Politburo member and former Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, Yang Jiechi, told the National Overseas Chinese Conference that the government should expand and strengthen ‘Overseas Chinese Patriotic Friendly Forces’ in the service of the ‘Great Rejuvenation’ of the Chinese nation. In plain language, what this means is that overseas Chinese should be persuaded, induced, or in extremis, coerced, into accepting allegiance to China as at least part of their identity,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat and chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, in a recent speech.

Mr. Kausikan noted that the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was incorporated two months after Mr. Yang’s remarks into the United Front Work Department.

“This is leading China into very complex, indeed dangerous, territory. China’s navigation of the complexities has in many cases been clumsy,” Mr. Kausikan said, noting that the policy had led Chinese diplomats to openly interfere in the domestic politics in for example Malaysia.

“Since my retirement, I have travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Complaints about similar behaviour by Chinese diplomats and officials are all too common in all these regions; in fact, so common that it is becoming somewhat tiresome to listen to them,” Mr Kausikan said.

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Xinjiang: China ignores lessons from the past

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uyghurs in its north-western province of Xinjiang in a bid to erase nationalist sentiment, counter militancy, and create an ‘Uyghur Islam with Chinese characteristics’ ignores lessons learnt not only from recent Chinese history but also the experience of others.

The campaign, reminiscent of failed attempts to undermine Uyghur culture during the Cultural Revolution, involves the creation of a surveillance state of the future and the forced re-education of large numbers of Turkic Muslims.

In what amounts to an attempt to square a circle, China is trying to reconcile the free flow of ideas inherent to open borders, trade and travel with an effort to fully control the hearts and minds of it population.

In doing so, it is ignoring lessons of recent history, including the fallout of selective support for militants and of religion to neutralize nationalism that risks letting a genie out of the bottle.

Recent history is littered with Chinese, US and Middle Eastern examples of the backfiring of government support of Islamists and/or militants.

No example is more glaring than US, Saudi, Pakistani and Chinese support in the 1980s for militant Islamists who fought and ultimately forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences of that support have reverberated across the globe ever since.

Some analysts suggest that China at the time was aware of the radicalization of Uyghurs involved in the Afghan jihad and may have even condoned it.

Journalist John Cooley reported that China, in fact, had in cooperation with Pakistan trained and armed Uyghurs in Xinjiang as well as Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The notion that Islam and/or Islamists could help governments counter their detractors was the flavour of the era of the 1970s and 1980s.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat saw the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-dote to the left that was critical of both his economic liberalization and outreach to Israel that resulted in the first peace treaty with an Arab state.

Saudi Arabia funded a four-decade long effort to promote ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam and backed the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces that helped create the breeding ground for jihadism and wreaked havoc in countries like Pakistan.

China’s experience with selective support of militancy and the use of religion to counter nationalist and/or other political forces is no different.

China’s shielding from designation by the United Nations as a global terrorist of Masood Azhar complicates Pakistani efforts to counter militancy at home and evade blacklisting by an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.

Mr. Azhar, a fighter in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for a 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station.

Back in the 1980s, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping saw his belief that what China expert Justin Jon Rudelson called a “controlled revival” of religion would foster economic development and counter anti-government sentiment boomerang.

The revival that enabled an ever larger number of Uyghurs to travel to Mecca via Pakistan for the haj made Saudi Arabia and the South Asian state influential players in Uyghur Islam. Uyghurs, wanting to perform the haj, frequently needed Pakistani contacts to act as their hosts to be able to obtain a Chinese exit visa.

The opening, moreover, allowed Muslim donors to provide financial assistance to Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia capitalized on the opportunity as part of its global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to put money into the building of mosques and establishment of madrassas.

Receptivity for more conservatives forms of Islam, particularly in southern parts of Xinjiang that were closest to Central and South Asia, suggested that the closure of Xinjiang’s borders during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s and 1960s and the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had done little to persuade Uyghurs to focus their identity more on China than on Central Asia.

In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia coupled with rising inequality rekindled Uyghur nationalism.

The rise of militant Islamist and jihadist Uyghurs constituted in many ways a fusion of Soviet and Western-inspired secular nationalist ideas that originated in Central Asia with religious trends more popular in South Asia and the Gulf in an environment in which religious and ethnic identity were already inextricably interlinked.

The juxtaposition, moreover, of exposure to more orthodox forms of Islam and enhanced communication also facilitated the introduction of Soviet concepts of national liberation, which China had similarly adhered to with its support for various liberation movements in the developing world.

The exposure put Xinjiang Uyghurs in touch with nationalist Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that fed on what political science PhD candidate Joshua Tschantret terms “ideology-feeding grievances.”

Nationalists, dubbed ‘identity entrepreneurs’ by Gulf scholar Toby Matthiesen, built on the presence of some 100,000 Uyghurs who had fled to Central Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960 during Mao Zedong’s social and economic Great Leap Forward campaign that brutally sought to introduce industrialization and collectivization and the descendants of earlier migrations.

With Pakistan’s political, economic and religious elite, ultimately seduced by Chinese economic opportunity and willing to turn a blind eye to developments in Xinjiang, Uyghurs in the South Asian country had little alternative but to drift towards the country’s militants.

Militant madrassas yielded, however, to Pakistani government pressure to stop enrolling Uyghurs. The militants were eager to preserve tacit Chinese support for anti-Indian militants operating in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s foremost Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, went as far as signing in 2009 a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese communist party that pledged support for Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang.

Despite eagerness to address Chinese concerns, Pakistan and China’s selective support of militants is likely to continue to offer radicalized Uyghurs opportunity.

“Jihadis and other religious extremists will continue to benefit from the unwillingness of the military and the judiciary to target them as well as the temptation of politicians to benefit from their support,” said former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, discussing overall Pakistani policy rather than official attitudes towards the Uyghurs.

Cultural anthropologist Sean R. Roberts noted that Central and South Asia became with the reopening of the borders in the second half of the 1980s “critical links between the inhabitants of Xinjiang and both the Islamic and Western worlds; and politically, they have become pivotal but contentious areas of support for the independence movement of Uyghurs.

The 1979 inauguration of the of the 1,300-kilometre-long Karakoram highway linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Abbottabad in Pakistan, one of the highest paved roads in the world, served as a conduit for Saudi-inspired religious ultra-conservatism, particularly in southern Xinjiang as large numbers of Pakistanis and Uyghurs traversed the border.

Pakistani traders doubled as laymen missionaries adding Islamic artefacts, including pictures of holy places, Qurans and other religious literature to their palette of goods at a time that Islamist fighters were riding high with their defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban.

Increased religiosity became apparent in Xinjiang.

Women donned veils in what was traditionally a more liberal land. Students of religion made their way to madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan where they came into contact with often Saudi-inspired Pakistani and Afghan militants – trends that China is trying to reverse with the construction of an Orwellian type surveillance state coupled with stepped-up repression and intimidation.

“The cross-border linkages established by the Uyghurs through access provided by the highway, Beijing’s tacit consent to expand Uyghur travel and economic links with Pakistan through Reform Era policies, and Beijing’s explicit consent in supporting anti-Soviet operations – all prompted the radicalization of a portion of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs,” concluded China scholar Ziad Haider more than a decade ago.

The process was fuelled by the recruitment in the 1990s of Uyghur students in Pakistani madrassas by the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, both of which were linked to Al Qaeda. Some 22 Uyghurs captured by US forces in Afghanistan ended up in Guantanamo Bay.

The eruption of protests in Xinjiang in the late 1990s and late 2000s against rising income differences and the influx of Han Chinese put an end to official endorsement of a religious revival that was increasingly seen by authorities as fuelling nationalism and facilitating Islamists.

Seemingly stubborn insistence on a Turkic and Muslim identity is likely one reason that China’s current assimilation drive comes as Xinjiang’s doors to its neighbours are being swung open even wider with the construction of new road and rail links as part of the People’s Republic’s infrastructure-centred Belt and Road initiative.

Forced assimilation is designed to bolster China’s expectation that increased economic ties to South and Central Asia will contribute to development of its north-western province, giving Uyghurs a stake that they will not want to put at risk by adhering to nationalist or militant religious sentiment.

The crackdown and forced assimilation is further intended to reduce the risk of a flow of ideas and influences through open borders needed for economic development and cementing Xinjiang into the framework of China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiatives that spans Eurasia

The assimilation effort is enabled by China’s Great Fire Wall designed to wall the country off of free access to the Internet. In doing so, China hoped in Xinjiang to halt cultural exchanges with Central Asia such as political satire that could reinforce Uyghurs’ Turkic and Central Asian identity.

The breadth of the more recent crackdown has complicated but not halted the underground flow of cultural products enabled by trade networks.

Mr. Roberts noted as early as 2004 that Chinese efforts aiming to regulate rather than reshape or suppress Islam were backfiring.

“Interest in the idea of establishing a Muslim state in Xinjiang has only increased with recent Chinese policies that serve to regulate the practice of Islam in the region,” Mr. Roberts said at the time.

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The transformation of the North Korean military and political system

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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How is North Korea’s political system currently changing, pending the Great Transformation with the USA and South Korea, wanted and carefully directed by Kim Jong-un?

In the future the Great Leader wants to have a new ruling class suitable for the economic and strategic changes which will affect North Korea in the coming years.

Far-reaching military and economic changes, with the support of Iran, the Russian Federation, China and other countries.

According to Kim Jong-un, without prejudice to the regime’s structure, everything else must change.

In the framework of this change, the State and the Party must be turned into quick and agile tools in the hands of the Leader and of his partly-renewed inner circle.

Kim Jong-un’s primary goal is to control the initial phase of North Korea’s economic transformation, as well as to keep the grip on the Armed Forces and the Party, and to finally create a new ruling class for managing denuclearization and the economic transformation.

In the case of North Korean Armed Forces, the new appointments have mainly concerned the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the Chief of Staff Department of People’s Armed Forces – with new appointments also in the Directorate of Operations – and, finally, the Director of the General Political Bureau of the Armed Forces.

In the specific hierarchy of the North Korean military system, these are the three most important posts.

Furthermore, each of the three above mentioned roles implies the alternating or fixed presence of the Workers’ Party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the Political Bureau.

Therefore the new appointments are No Kwang Chol, former first vice-Minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, replacing Pak Yong Sik, while Ri Yong-gil replaces his former boss, Ri Myong-su.

Ri Yong-gil was Commander of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, but he was later removed from office in February 2016.

As early as 2013 he had been Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and, despite the recent events, he had a stable and secure military career.

From 2014 to 2018 Ri Yong-gil was also Head of the Pyongyang Committee of the Workers’ Party.

From 2012 to 2013 he accompanied Kim Jong-un on many visits to nuclear and bacteriological-chemical sites.

Considering the symbolic relevance of the North Korean power, he is probably one of the true leaders of the nuclear and bacteriological-chemical program of the North Korean Armed Forces.

Ri Yong-gil was at first Party’s official and later became officer of the North Korean Armed Forces, while always keeping political and party positions rather than technically military ones.

Moreover, Kim Jong-un is still playing many of his cards on the Defence Ministry.

It is a source of foreign currency and of excellent profit in relation to the friendly powers, as well as of social control and of real and effective foreign policy.

Under the current leader, Kim Jong-un, six new Defence Ministers have been appointed.

Pak Yong-sik is one of the Ministers removed from office.

Probably he had some business roles, but we cannot rule out that in the future he can start again his career, interrupted on the basis of unpleasant news about his role as businessman in the phase of the Sunshine Policy with South Korea.

He had been member of the Council of State, of the Central Committee and of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, as well as of the Central Military Commission and finally of the Political Committee of the Pyongyang Defence Command.

Clearly Kim Jong-un is measuring his potential enemy lobby.

And he is certainly planning the generational and political change of all the important positions of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.

As we will see later on, the new Minister No Kwang Chol was Head of the Second Economic Committee, which is in charge of the defence industry and hence connected with North Korea’s supervision and construction of conventional and nuclear weapons.

He is an excellent manager loyal to Kim Jong-un.

He held various posts in the North Korean political system.

These newly-appointed people have certainly been selected due to their absolute loyalty to Kim Jong-un and the Party,but we must better analyse the decision-making process of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as their specific role.

The naive analysts who think that Kim Jong-un is “prisoner” of his ruling class have understood nothing of North Korea’s political and economic mechanism.

For the Leader, both loyalty and professional skills are needed. He is willing to get over some affectation or groveling too much, but Kim Jong-un wants the best of his technocracy, subject to loyalty to the Party and to himself.

And, above all, subject to the absolute non-involvement in any financial and commercial activity having even the slightest hint of irregularity.

Corrupt people are always at the mercy of the enemy’s blackmail.

The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, however, is currently placed under the dual and symmetrical control of the State Affairs Commission of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Nevertheless the Ministry deals mainly with the logistics and training of the Special Forces and operates with approximately 36 external organizations.

The Ministry acquires the orders, requests and notes from the basic military units and later organizes and distributes them between the Central Military Commission, the General Staff and the Party’s Ammunition Department.

The Ministry also deals with military finance and operates with commercial companies and production units which can export goods and hence supply the country with hard currency.

In fact, as already noted, at least 36 commercial companies operate in the field of export and internal distribution.

But someone talks about 50 of these companies.

The naive Western analysts were wrong in believing that the People’s Armed Forces were a “terrible cost” for the people and a huge obstacle to economic development.

The opposite was, and is, true.

Therefore the military system operates, above all, with the 44thBureau of the People’s Armed Forces, in controlling most of North Korea’s hard currency flows.

The Technology Transfer Department has also relations with both the companies owned by the Party and by the Ministry’s Ammunition Department.

In particular, it deals with the acquisition of information technology and advanced weapon systems.

The General Department of Logistics deals above all with the network of factories and farms supplying food and clothing to the People’s Armed Forces.

Sometimes they operate for the civilian and foreign market of food and clothing.

The Ministry, however, is subject to the control of the State Affairs Commission, which originates both from the Government and the Party, as well as from the Central Military Commission, which anyway results from the Party-government link only.

It is worth recalling that as early as 2000, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces directly controlled the Political Department, the General Staff, the Military Security Command, the Reconnaissance Bureau and the Coast Guard Command.

Later, around 2007, all these structures became an integral part of the Ministry itself, which was placed under the control of the National Defence Commission.

In 2016 the latter saw its powers restricted and was placed under the State Affairs Commission’s control.

It should also be noted that, unlike Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un has revolutionised the People’s Armed Forces more than any other predecessor.

For example, there was the handover in February 2009 – just before Kim Jong-un’s role as heir to Kim Jong-il was officially declared.

As you may recall, this happened in September 2010.

At that stage, only seven of the most important positions in the North Korean military system were changed. It was the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s grip on power.

The North Korean Leader had carefully analysed all the military and economic positions well before his full rise to power.

From July to November of that year, the Political Committee (PC) of People’s Armed Forces was combed through by the North Korean leadership.

It was, in fact, the first scrutiny carried out by the Organization and Guidance Department after 1996.

There were some surprises: for example, the PC ships that secretly fished in Japanese waters; some military promotions in exchange for “bribes”; some accounting problems and some suspicions of corruption.

As is typical of his political role, Kim Jong-un has been very harsh in putting an end to these situations and punishing these behaviours.

In fact, in 2017 many executives of the Political Bureau of People’s Armed Forces were removed, with repercussions on the military forces that,as can be easily imagined, affected also the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

Only after this long “purge” did Kim Jong-un focus on negotiations with South Korea and the USA.

In November 2017 Son Chol Ju, one of the officers promoted with the position of  Colonel entrusted “with upper management and tasks”, was appointed as Head of the Organizational Affairs Department of People’s Armed Forces, but his appointment was made public only in May 2018.

As already noted, Son Chol Ju has replaced Jon Nam Jin and, most likely, also Kim Wong Hong.

Until that date Son Chol Ju had been the Director of the Political Bureau with the portfolio for organizational affairs, where he had spent his entire career.

Before taking this post, Son Chol Ju was political Director of the Air and Anti-Air Force, in addition to being Head of the respective political committee.

Probably Son Chol Ju was Head of the Political Bureau with the Propaganda portfolio, especially in the Pyongyang region.

In the meeting held on April 2018 Kim Jong Gak was elected to the Political Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

These changes of the North Korean ruling elite, however, show the extreme and non-negotiable power now reached by Kim Jong-un, unlike what claimed by the most naive, but very widespread, Western analyses.

This is one of the signs that, in a North Korean extremely important phase, the Party wants to control its “separate bodies”, with a view to avoiding “political advantages” and the systems of influence – even the foreign ones – as well as all the grey and black areas of finance which must currently be transformed and be directly controlled by the Party and its ruling class.

In this phase we need to study the careers of important personalities such as Jo Kyong Chol, the Director of the Military Security Command since 2009, as well as full member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and member of Kim Jong-il’s Funeral Committee.

Jo Kyong Chol was essential in strengthening Kim Jong-un’s power – a member of the “old guard” that wanted continuity, independence and military power for North Korea.

Hence he has accepted the new system of international relations in North Korea.

Currently Kim Jong-un certainly wants the regime’s continuity, but also and above all the emergence of a ruling class capable – by training, background and political culture – of organizing the North Korean stability in a phase of opening to the world market.

Ri Song Guk, another fer de lance of Kim Jong-un’s current political and military system, currently leads North Korea’s Fourth Army Corps – after leading the 39th Division – a very special military structure deployed near the Yellow Sea and the Northern Limit Line.

He is the current Director for Special Operations of the Central Command.

Yung Jong-rin is serving as the Commander of the Supreme Guard Command – therefore he is responsible for Kim Jong-un’s personal safety, but he had the same post with Kim Jong-il and is hence the Commander of the most technologically advanced security service in North Korea.

He has been member of the Central Military Commission since September 2010, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, and General since April 22, 2010.

Hence Kim Jong-un is preparing the ruling class that will defend North Korea’s interests in its new, gradual and slow globalization.

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