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22:44, 18 September 2014 Thursday
Update: 11:14, 03 December 2013 Tuesday

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China’s Uyghur question as a strategic pit
China’s Uyghur question as a strategic pit
(File Photo)

PRC’s reaction to the recent Tiananmen incident in and its pattern of handling crises of ethnic tension are increasingly dragging China into a strategic pit, which gets deeper with every instance of ethnic violence related to Tibet or Xinjiang.

Kilic Bugra Kanat* / World Bulletin - U.S. 

The recent Tiananmen incident that led to the death of five people once again revived the debate on the Xinjiang/Uyghur question. The Uyghur issue not only exposes deficiencies in human rights and fundamental liberties in China but also appears as a hurdle for China’s two most pronounced strategic imperatives, namely “building a harmonious society” and the “peaceful rise of China.” PRC’s reaction to the recent incident and its pattern of handling crises of ethnic tension are increasingly dragging China into a strategic pit, which gets deeper with every instance of ethnic violence related to Tibet or Xinjiang. Beijing’s reluctance to acknowledge the root causes of minority discontent leads the PRC to “resolve problems in its own way” by using force, instilling fear in society, marginalizing minorities, and radicalizing dissent groups. 

There is still not a credible account of what happened in Tiananmen Square last week and the one provided by the Chinese government does not sound very convincing. The profile of the people involved in the incident does not match ordinary suicide bombers and the fact that there were no weapons and ammunition in the car makes the initial allegations of the Chinese government questionable. Immediately after the incident, the Chinese government stopped any access to the area, banned newspapers from investigating the incident, and declared that the attack was a rigorously planned, violent terrorist attack. The official account is challenged not only by external observers of Chinese politics but also within China through different online postings, which according to reports were censored shortly after their publication. However, despite the calls for more transparency and information regarding the nature of the attack and motivation of the attackers, the PRC stuck with its old jargon, which led to once again criminalizing an ethnic group, the Uyghurs, in China. 

However, the negative impact of the way China handles these crises has far reaching implications for the future of Chinese politics and its strategy in the international realm. First of all, since the 9/11 attacks and global war on terror, China has increased its pressure against any form of political dissent, criminalized any demand for cultural and religious rights by the Uyghurs, and depicted human rights activism as part of international terrorism. This policy of fighting with “three evils” not only creates an internal other within China but also endangers its much publicized goal of creating “political stability” and a “harmonious society.” It builds greater grievances among the Uyghur population and produces an anti-Uyghur political atmosphere within Chinese society. Although this atmosphere helps the PRC government consolidate its power through distracting public attention away from other domestic problems and rally the people behind the flag of the regime, in the long run, this state-sponsored ethnic bias will create fertile ground for further inter-ethnic tensions in this already divided society. The first signs of this tension were observable in 2009, when inter-ethnic conflict took place in the region after the lynching of some Uyghur workers in a factory in Shaoguan. Since then, in several different instances, the government pursued policies that widened the gap between the Han Chinese and Uyghurs, such as the acceleration of Han migration to Xinjiang. In fact, although government-sponsored patriotism against “three evils” nowadays looks like the anti-American nationalism of the 1990s, in the long run, the anti-Uyghur and anti-minority sentiment will create the same boomerang effect, leading to the questioning of the PRC’s legitimacy and political radicalization of society on a more local level by increasing interethnic intolerance and hatred.

The deterioration of the Uyghur problem also creates serious external problems for China and its strategy of “peaceful rise.” First of all, increasing militarization since the launch of its “war on terror” resulted in heightened skepticism in the international sphere of the possibility of China’s peaceful rise. In addition to being perceived a threat for the East Asian nations, Chinese militarization impacts domestic politics of its neighbors in Central Asia.  Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China is on the one hand trying to eliminate the existence of Uyghur dissent groups, and on the other hand, to form a “democracy prevention” program to stop the spread of ideals of human rights and democratization to Xinjiang and beyond. This policy includes avoiding any form of criticism of Central Asian governments, boosting anti-Western feelings, and providing development aid that is conditioned on suppressing Uyghur groups in these countries.  Although this policy is viewed favorably by the authoritarian governments in the region, the Central Asian public increasingly sees China as a significant threat not only due to its economic muscle and demographic power but also in terms of endangering political reform in these states. Although the public in Central Asia dictatorships receives limited information regarding ethnic suppression and the violation of human rights on the other side of the border, there is now an increasing fear among them of losing their limited rights and a possible “Xingjianization of Central Asia.” Public diplomacy campaigns by the Chinese government to promote and project its soft power fail to bring about significant results when the Xinjiang syndrome of China shapes its foreign policy towards the region.

Surely, this attempt to internationally suppress the Uyghur movement also creates a major hurdle for China and its standing in the international arena. Despite the high-level sophisticated censorship and public relations campaigns, human rights violations of the Uyghurs are being witnessed by millions of people through social media after every instance of ethnic unrest. The Islamic world, despite the silence of organizations, such as the IOC and active cooperation of some of the Islamic states, is watching warily when the Chinese authorities conduct raids into the houses of Uyghurs to confiscate “illegal religious material.” Further, gross violations of religious freedoms in the region are being reported on every religious holiday. The Turkic world is also watching the historic town of Kashgar, one of the most significant cities in Turkish history, which is being destroyed in order to “modernize the city.” Rights activists all around the world are monitoring with great concern China’s attempts to use all of its PR assets to describe the problem in the region as separatism, fundamentalism, and terrorism while it violates the most basic political, economic, and cultural rights of its minorities. Furthermore, the people in Taiwan and residents of Hong Kong are also watching the developments in the region very carefully in recent years. For all these concerned parties, this picture does not look like a China that is “rising peacefully” or a China that can attract people through its political ideals and values.

Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to see that the way China handles the Uyghur question is derailing China from its domestic and external goals. Failing to recognize the problem and following a policy of indifference towards ethnic grievances is putting China in a strategic dilemma in which every instance of ethnic conflict, followed by iron fist suppression, deteriorates the situation and makes the resolution of the conflict more difficult. This spiral of violence, repression, and fresh grievances cycle will only deepen China’s self-made strategic pit and create a major impediment for the country’s stability and international standing.


*Assistant Professor of Political Science, Penn State Erie, Behrend.



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