Last week’s riots in Urumqi, resulting in 180 deaths, recall similar protests in Tibet last year, though only 19 people were killed there. Both Uighurs and Tibetans exiles demonstrated during the Chinese Olympics, to little effect. Both regions, remote from the heart of Han China, were taken over under the Communists, and are important strategically and as storehouses of mineral wealth to feed the new capitalist China’s voracious appetite. They remind us that old-fashion colonialism is alive and well. Neither the Uighurs nor the Tibetans have any hope of independence, but they rightly would like the Han to be less greedy and invasive.
As in Tibet, it is the flood of Han immigrants and the wholesale destruction of the local culture that is the problem. The massive recent influx of Han Chinese, who now make up more than 50 per cent of the population (70 per cent in the major cities Urumqi and Kashgar), has reduced Uighurs to a minority in their homeland, ominously called “Xinjiang” (New Frontier) in Chinese. The use of “Eastern Turkestan”, the traditional name for this region, is outlawed, along with the blue star-crescent Uighur flag. Ethnic Han Chinese dominate nearly all big businesses in the region. All Uighurs must study Chinese, and very few Uighurs can dream of going to university.
Like the Kurds, they have no official state, only a hollow autonomous region, along with large diaspora communities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and the West. They number 8-10 million worldwide. There are Uighur neighborhoods in Beijing and Shanghai. Their history is the story of an nomadic tribe from the Altai Mountains rising to challenge the Chinese empire, founding their own in the 8th century, which stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria. Because of their strategic location on the Silk Road, they thrived on trade. They came under Han sovereignty only in the 17th century, but after numerous revolts expelled Qing officials in 1864 and founded an independent Kashgaria kingdom, recognized by the Ottoman Empire, Russia and Great Britain, which even had a mission in the capital, Kashgar. As usual British support depended on its imperial schemes and when the Chinese attacked in 1876, fearing Tsarist expansion, Great Britain supported the Manchu invasion forces. The Brits (excuse me, the Manchus) “won” and East Turkestan became Xinjiang.
The Soviets established the Revolutionary Uighur Union in 1921, but dissolved the organization in 1926 when Stalin abandoned dreams of world revolution. Undeterred, Uighur independence activists staged several uprisings, briefly in 1933 and then in 1944. In 1949, East Turkestan’s revolutionaries agreed to form a confederacy within Mao’s People’s Republic of China; however, on the way to Beijing to negotiate the terms, the Chinese plane crash, killing all the leaders. The Chinese army immediately invaded what is now Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. As with the Tibetans a decade later, East Turkestan Republic loyalists went into exile.
Uprisings occurred through the 1990s, supported by exiles in the West and Western governments, who are happy to use disgruntled expatriates from countries such as Iraq, Iran, China and Russia as geopolitical pawns, promoting unrest and calling for independence. The World Uighur Congress (WUC), based in Munich, and the Uighur American Association work hand-in-glove with the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy.
The Uighurs and Tibetans have old and unique cultures which the Chinese would do well to respect and nurture within greater China. But supporting the independence struggle is part of a cynical geopolitical chess game, and merely worsens the Uighurs’ plight. We are reminded of Britain’s scheming there in the 19th century. If Britain had stood by the Uighurs then, there would probably be an Uighuristan today. Instead, the destruction of Urumqi and the Old City in Kashgar continue. The latter will soon be a theme park where Uighurs will dress up and sell Han tourists plastic souvenirs.
However, Chinese colonialism — veni, vidi, vici — pales in comparison to the US/ British variant in nearby Afghanistan — We come, destroy, and murder in the name of freedom. It is repulisively hypocritical for the Western press to take such delight in exposing China’s dirty linen, as it slavishly hails US neo-imperial ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Uighurs riot, US drones massacre hundreds of innocent Afghans and Pakistanis, and Obama sends thousands more troops to Afghanistan in a mission that makes China’s arrogant encroachment on Eastern Turkistan look like an act of selfless generosity.
With huge new bases in Afghanistan and 90,000 troops, the death toll on both sides is skyrocketing as Afghans prepare to “elect” the hated — by both Afghans and Americans — Hamid Karzai on August 20. The new US strategy is designed to reduce civilian casualties, according to General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of NATO forces in the country, though “a price worth paying”, he assures us.
But civilian deaths are increasing. 22 Afghans were killed in the central Ghazni province in an air strike last week. And crime knows no borders, as 59 “militants” were killed just last week in neighboring South Waziristan by US drones, just days after a US missile strike there killed 16. The airstrikes are said to be aimed at militants, but Pakistani news outlets say only one in six have target Taliban insurgents in the country. More than five hundred Pakistanis — most of them civilians — have been killed over the past year in the US drone strikes. In any case, the terms civilian and militant are meaningless, as most so-called militants are local boys fighting the infidel invader, as they have every right to do. It would be more accurate to call them resistance heroes or martyrs. Their deaths are just as criminal as the deaths of little girls and women.
McChrystal’s boys are also dropping like flies with his new strategy. There were 82 Taliban attacks in June, compared with 24 in June 2007, killing 23 troops. On one day — 6 July, seven American troops were killed, the highest casualty rate recorded since the invasion. British fatalities since 2001 reached 184 last week when eight British soldiers were killed in 24 hours, surpassing the new US record. This compares to the 179 British deaths during the six-year military campaign in Iraq.
There are a few voices of sanity, even if retired and hence powerless. Drones are described by retired British lawmaker Lord Bingham as “so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance” and should be outlawed along with cluster bombs and landmines. But current Western “leadership” stands firmly behind the Bush wars. The slaughter is in fact accelerating under Obama.
What unites China and the US these days, is how they justify their respective crimes by blaming them on Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, a bogeyman that was created by the US itself during its earlier anti-communist phase. Uighur “terrorists” at Guantanamo were finally released, but China insists they are devotees of this bin Laden and wants them back.
Both the support of secessionists and the creation of the likes of bin Laden are examples of the infiltration of the enemy to subvert it from within — an age-old tactic. The Pakistani Taliban leader Mehsud’s ex-comrade Qari Zainuddin, critical of Mehsud’s policy of blowing up mosques and schools, accused Mehsud of being an American and Mossad agent. “These people are working against Islam,” he said last week, shortly before he was assassinated. Where does Mehsud get his sophisticated arms?
Afghanistan’s unending torment is very useful to the US, bringing Europe and Russia into line, as Obama’s summit in Moscow revealed. Initially after 2001, all of Central Asia and Russia were in thrall to America’s “Operation Enduring Freedom” though there have been snags. Under Obama, things are back on track. Now even isolationist Turkmenistan has agreed to allow US military to use its airbases. With its new lease to the US of Manas airport, Kyrgyzstan is back on board the US gravy train to Afghanistan.
Is all this part of a new Great Game, this time directed not against Russia, but even using Russia as part of a long-term strategy to contain the rising powerhouse China? The Chinese point the finger for the recent unrest at the WUC, Washington-based Rebiya Kadeer and the spread of rumors over the internet to incite and coordinate riots. President George W Bush lauded Kadeer more than once as an “apostle of freedom”. Whatever its claims to be supporting the cause of freedom etc, the US clearly assists the expatriates to foment unrest and destabilize China. This was and is being openly done in the case of Iraq and Iran. It most certainly will backfire for the poor Uighurs, who can only expect more repression. Any sincere attempt to help preserve Uighur culture and civil rights — in particular the destruction of the Old City of Kashgar — should be carried out through, say, UNESCO, not covertly to incite civil war. The best scenario for an easing of the Uighurs’ plight of course would be if the US operated on a policy of promoting peace and of not threatening and intriguing against other nations. Alas.
Perhaps the Chinese and Russians are tolerating US meddling in Central Asia in line with the age-old strategy of playing off your enemies against each other — in this case, the Americans and the Taliban. Recall Truman’s famous quip: “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.” It can just as well be used against the Americans today.
ERIC WALBERG writes for Al-Ahram Weekly http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/. You can reach him at http://ericwalberg.com/