The War Against Terror and China's Treatment of the Uigher Ethnic Minority
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush reached out to the world to back the U.S. in a war to eradicate terrorism. One of the more surprising participants in this coalition, China, had until that point been at odds with U.S. policy but seemed to find sufficient common ground with the U.S. to support the war. In recent months however, China has not been lauded for unprecedented cooperation with its “strategic competitor” but has instead been criticized for using the war on terror as carte blanche to step up its “Strike Hard” campaign in the Uigher Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the northwest, resulting in unprecedented numbers of executions of political prisoners, a suspension of free religious worship, and a general decline in respect for human rights. The western media has claimed that Beijing had been waiting for a chance to crack down on Uigher separatists and is now behaving as an opportunist to pursue these goals while the U.S. is in no position to decry its behavior. However, this opportunism argument only explains some of the recent actions in Xinjiang; in this paper I will seek to show that Beijing’s increased policing of Xinjiang serves primarily to demonstrate to the international community that it will not be excluded from Central Asia.
The Roots of Today’s Conflicts in Xinjiang
An overview of the history of this volatile region is vital to understanding the present struggle for control. The movement for self-rule of Xinjiang dates back to the beginnings of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911) when ethnic Chinese sought to settle the region and incorporate it into the empire. Because of its remote location, Xinjiang was largely left unscathed by World War II and during this time an independent state was established in Kashgar, the cultural and religious center of the region. Between 1944 and 1949 the Turkic Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan was established; this short-lived period of impendence came to an end when the Communist Party formerly incorporated the province into the PRC with the agreement of the leaders of the Eastern Turkestan Republic. The agreement of the leadership did not, however, quell the movement for independence; a number of political and religious leaders refused to accept Beijing as the legitimate authority over the region. In the midst of the widespread upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, the separatist movement was able to organize into the Eastern Turkestan People’s Party, although fear of Red Guard attacks were pervasive and prevented any significant expression of minority or separatist sentiment. The demise of the Maoist era, however, would bring reforms and consequently new justifications and opportunities for expression of separatist sentiment among the Uigher population.
Deng Xiaoping’s accession to power brought with it reform and...