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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.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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East Asia

Standing up to China: Czech mayor sets a high bar

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Czech mayor’s refusal to endorse Beijing’s One China policy potentially sets a high bar as Western powers grapple with how to respond to allegations of excessive use of violence by police against Hong Kong protesters and the implications of leaked documents detailing a brutal crackdown in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib rejected a sister city agreement between the Czech capital and Beijing in late October because it included a clause endorsing the One China policy, which implicitly recognizes China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, as well as Hong Kong and Tibet.

Mr. Hrib argued that the agreement was a cultural arrangement and not designed to address foreign policy issues that were the prerogative of the national government.

The mayor’s stance has since taken on added significance against the backdrop of US President Donald J. Trump’s signing of legislation that allows for the sanctioning of Hong Kong officials, embarrassing Communist party leaks that document repression in Xinjiang, the election of a new Sri Lankan government that intends to adopt a tougher policy towards China, and simmering anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia and beyond.

Mr. Hrib’s rejection was in fact a reflection of anti-Chinese sentiment in the Czech Republic as well as opposition to the pro-China policy adopted by Czech president Milos Zeman.

To be sure, Mr. Hrib, a 38-year old medical doctor who interned in Taiwan, was shouldering little political or economic risk given Czech public anger at China’s failure to fulfil promises of significant investment in the country.

On the contrary, Mr. Hrib, since becoming mayor in mid-2018, appears to have made it his pastime to put Mr. Zeman on the spot by poking a finger at China.

Mr. Hrib visited Taiwan in the first six months of his mayorship, flew the Tibetan flag over Prague’s city hall, and rejected a request by the Chinese ambassador at a meeting with foreign diplomats to send Taiwanese representatives out of the room.

Beijing’s cancellation of a tour of China by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in response to Mr. Hrib’s provocations forced Mr. Zeman to describe the Chinese retaliation as “excessive” and his  foreign minister, Tomas Petricek, to declare that “diplomacy is not conducted with threats.”

Perhaps more importantly, M. Hrib was taking a stand based on principles and values rather than interests. In doing so, he was challenging the new normal of world leaders flagrantly ignoring international law to operate on the principle of might is right.

“Our conscience is not for sale,” said Michaela Krausova, a leading member of the governing Pirate Party of the Prague city council. Ms. Krausova and Mr. Hrib’s party was founded to shake up Czech politics with its insistence on the safeguarding of civil liberties and political accountability and transparency.

While couched in terms of principle, Mr. Hrib’s stand strokes with newly installed Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intention to wrest back control from China of the island’s strategic Hambantota port that serves key shipping lanes between Europe and Asia.

Hambantota became a symbol of what some critics have charged is Chinese debt trap diplomacy after Sri Lanka was forced to hand over the port to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease because the government was unable to repay loans taken to build it.

“I believe that the Sri Lankan government must have control of all strategically important projects like Hambantota. The next generation will curse our generation for giving away precious assets otherwise,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.

Fears of a debt trap coupled with the crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which targets not only Uighurs, but also groups that trace their roots to Central Asian countries, have fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

“Given that China is likely to continue to expand its presence, further irritating local publics, the temptation of opposition groups to exploit such anger will only grow. If that happens…the anti-Chinese demonstrations that have taken place to date will be only the prelude to a situation that could easily spiral out of control, ethnicizing politics in these countries still further,” said Central Asia scholar Paul Goble.

Beyond Xinjiang, anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia is fuelled by some of the same drivers that inform Czech attitudes towards China.

The shared drivers include unfulfilled promises, idle incomplete Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, widespread corruption associated with Chinese funding, and the influx of Chinese labour and materials at the expense of the local work force and manufacturers.

Beyond Xinjiang, Central Asians worry about potential debt traps. The Washington-based Center for Global Development listed last year two Central Asian nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as risking China-related “debt distress.”

Warned China and Central Asia scholar Ayjaz Wani: “Chinese principles in Central Asia are hegemonic. China has always interacted with Central Asian states without regarding their cultural identities, but according to its own vested interests… However, the ongoing anti-China sentiments may be coming to a tipping point.

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East Asia

Old wine in new bottles: Chinese containment policy in South Asia

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A lot of discussion in international relations scholarship is concentrated upon how US maximizing its security presence in the Asia-Pacific region. It is trying to contain, growing Chinese Influence to protect its national interest.It was described by former US President Barack Obama as a pivot Asia policy. But in the case of South Asia, United States is strengthening its ties with India to boost it as a force to contain Chinese emerging influence. It was termed by John J Mearsheimer as buck-passing in which a world superpower will give power and authority to another state to try to contain the influence of an emerging world hegemon. The Indo-US nuclear deal and former President Barack Obama’s remarks about the inclusion of India inthe United Nations Security council demonstrates that the United States is helping India to rise as the regional hegemon. India considers itself as an important actor at international level.It is increasing its political clout internationally but in South Asia, it can face a new kind of isolation. This is evident from the three recent events that occurred in a span of only 10 days in the first half of October

On 07th October Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited China with high-level delegation. He met there with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other important officials, it was his third visit to China since he came into power. During the meeting, both leaders, Imran Khan and Xi Jinping, discussed strengthening bilateral relations which are already at a higher level in terms of military and economic partnership. China is already working on a project to invest more than $50 billion under the name of China Pakistan Economic corridor let alone the cooperation on strategic and political issues. During the course of the visit, officials from both sides discussed Free Trade agreement which will be helpful in solving the problem of trade deficit for Pakistan. Total trade volume between China and Pakistan is around $15 billion in which Chinese export to Pakistan is of 13 billion. This Free Trade Agreement will open up about 90% of the Chinese market to Pakistan and will reduce trade deficit. During his meeting with Imran Khan, Xi Jinping accepted Kashmir as a disputed region and asked both parties to solve it through peaceful means.

All this happened just a few days before the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India.Although both countries have made some progress on economy-related issues, no concrete efforts have been made to solve more radical issues like Indo-China border dispute in the northern Himalayan region. However more astonishing for India was that Xi Jinping visited Nepal after India. Nepal is a landlocked country crammed between two South Asia giants India and China. India is present on three sides of Nepal and considers it as its backyard. Both countries did have very solid relations and 60% of total Nepalese trade is done with India. In 2015 when Nepal adopted new constitution, relations between both countries soured. Although it was the internal matter of Nepal, India put an unofficial blockade for Nepal, which stopped all the supplies including food and medicine. Blockade continued for more than two months and it created a severe crisis because Nepal was already damaged by a strong earthquake in early 2015 in which more than 9000 people died. This blocked proved decisive in changing behavior of Nepalese leadership though they were complaining of Indian hegemonic role for many years. Nepal turned toward China for their needs. China also responded in a very positive way. Besides reconstructing earthquake effected areas, China also provided 1.03 million liters of fuel. In 2017 Nepal signed China’s Belt and Road initiative and pledged to construct a railway line which will connect China with Nepal directly. This initiated a new beginning in China-Nepal relations.

When Xi Jinping arrived at Katmandu, China by this time was thelargest foreign direct investor in Nepal.It was the first visit by any Chinese president in the last 23 years.During the course of his visit, 18 agreements were signed between Nepal and China, including a railway link between China and Nepal.

These three important tours in less than ten days present the new geopolitical reality of the region. Although the Chinese president visited India but this visit was sandwiched between Imran Khan’s visit to China and Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal. Pakistan is an arch-rival of India in South Asia and Nepal which historically remained in the Indian sphere of influence,  is slowly slipping away from it.it clearly demonstrates containment policy by China in which China is progressively growing its influence in South Asian states. The Story does not end with Pakistan and Nepal but other South Asian states like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka now also have very strong ties with China.it represents in a new normal situation in which South Asian region is no longer dominated by India. Though India is showing to the world that it is solely protecting peace and stability in the region but reality has changed In fact South Asian states consider it as dominating power evident from its relation with Pakistan and blockade of Nepal. With growing Chinese influence in South Asia containment of India is now very much a reality.

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East Asia

How Australia is becoming China’s Australia

Sisir Devkota

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If it were not for China, Australia’s population inroad scheme would take a serious hit. Out of more than 0.7 million international students, more than 30% Chinese are pursuing degrees in universities. Australia lives along the values of  the Western culture, but when it comes to its economy, rather dishonourably; it has had to lean towards the East. Chinese consumerism compensates for a healthy Australian economy and while it stands stronger on its democratic values, Australia, now faces a paradoxical relationship with the Asian hegemon. For instance, it is quietly ignoring the protests in Hong Kong. During recent elections, the Australian Prime Minister was mocked on WeChat; his funny nuances were subject to ridicule in the Chinese social media.

Now, Australia is facing the task. It is fighting a battle to save its identity against a consumer band, governed by communist policies. China’s message is clear; an interference of any sort is not welcome, else the consequences are going to be economical. Emancipated Chinese students in Australia have been protesting against the government backlash in Hong Kong. Resultantly, back home in China, apartments were raided and their parents taught the lesson of conformity. A lesson of nationalism that has blossomed outside its territories. Australia is swallowing up the hypocrisy. On its own land, it cannot protect the values of freedom and democracy.

Wang LiQiang or as he would like to be known as “William”, took to the Australian authorities for his involvement in spying activities. In his own admission, William was conducting intelligence operations and most significantly, assassinations on Australian soil. William is only one among high profile spies that have been operating in Australia. Ironically, his testament sufficiently reflects the Australian attitude towards Chinese interference, which has essentially been negligent and non-conversational. Notably, William’s particular mention about operating a system of political donation will nevertheless disturb Australian administrators. They will realize that it is only about time when China will explicitly begin to reassert its influence. The police did not find Wang Li Qiang; instead, he volunteered to surrender. Especially, coming from a senior Chinese operative, the message could not be clearer.

On the outset, China and Australia maintain a well-documented “good relationship”. However, administrative hierarchies in Canberra are also accused of implying a very positive attitude towards presenting and defending bilateral ties. As much as economic interests have motivated the Australian behaviour of non-acceptance, politicians do not shy away from painting an over simplified picture of Chinese problems that are realistically, complex in nature. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison handled the allegations of a Chinese backed ring that was trying to plot a spy in the parliament; the government has tried too hard to overlook the obvious. Mr. Morrison urged his citizens to not draw anxious conclusions, instead; he suggested that Australia would need to be vigilant from the threats that it faced more broadly. The substitutability of discourse that is apparent in Australian politics, marks a rather gifted trade-off for China and its actions. Andrew Hastie, parliamentary head of intelligence and security, claimed that such incidents did not surprise him. As more evidences would suggest, Chinese interference was knocking at the doors.

In terms of China, there are two faces of Australian political rhetoric. One that is motivated by the larger interests in the administrative chairs of governance, overlooking the infiltration for personal benefits. Secondly, the critiques emanating from opposition politicians and the likes of intelligence chiefs, for instance ASIO’s former Directorate General, Duncan Lewis, warned that China would take over Australia in a matter of time. Elsewhere in the borders of the communist giant, two Australian MP’s were denied travel entry, citing largely undetermined reasons. With a population of merely 25 million inhabitants, 1.8 million Chinese students have migrated to Australia for education. The dragon is marching towards the continent, in a first, the troops are ready on site.

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