Readings on Strategy: China and Its Islamic Issues

By James Fallows

Recent news out of China has involved crackdowns and seemingly looking-for-trouble international provocations, as mentioned here yesterday. The latest occasion for the crackdowns, including the scenes of jampacked subways that dominated many news shows yesterday, was the wave of recent terrorist violence in the vast western-frontier Xinjiang region of China. 

Xinjiang is far closer to the Central Asian 'Stans than it is to Beijing or Shanghai, and its original dominant ethnic group is the mainly Muslim, ethnically Turkic Uighurs, who look more like the people you might see across the border in Afghanistan or Tajikistan than those in the rest of China.

American coverage of violence in Xinjiang seems to alternate, switching between two simplifications we inevitably apply to foreign news. Sometimes attacks there are portrayed as part of worldwide jihad—this is a Muslim region, and during the Bush-Cheney era the U.S. joined China in classifying a major Xinjiang group as part of the worldwide terrorist threat. Sometime they are portrayed as part of dissident or regional resistance to central Chinese government control.

In a new essay in the LA Review of Books, James Millward of Georgetown University, one of America's real experts on the region, explains the tangles of Xinjiang's situation. Both of the standard views are partly true, but both are mainly beside the point, he argues. For instance (spelling the name Uyghur):

What is the relationship between the civil rights problem [for people in Xinjiang] and the terrorism problem? Are they linked? Some say so. Uyghur rights groups, while deploring the attacks, say that Chinese oppressive policies have led to the outbreak of Uyghur violence.

The Chinese government opposes this view, arguing that the sources of religious extremism and terrorism are external and unrelated to its own policies.... 

It’s likely that the truth lies in between: Chinese policies and never-ending crackdowns, especially since the 2009 riots, have created a climate in which some Uyghurs are more likely to heed twisted, pseudo-religious ideologies that advocate killing innocents to send a political message....

Why then the repeated gratuitous insults against Uyghur culture — false claims that Uyghur is a primitive language, thoughtless dismantling of Uyghur-language education, suspicion and persecution of private Uyghur-language instruction, compulsion of government workers to eat during Ramadan, prohibition of doppa caps and scarves?

I suspect that the Chinese leadership and some Chinese scholars who advise them are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. They increasingly feel that this distinctiveness is itself a source of the problem....

Even while the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem. 

The subject is likely to remain in the news, and Millward's essay is worth reading now and keeping on hand as a guide to the complexities. 

For some previous installments, from when we were living in China and the Han-Uighur riots of 2009 were underway, please see thisthis, and this, with links to other posts.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/05/readings-on-strategy-china-and-its-islamic-issues/371767/