China has a long-standing problem in its oil rich northwestern region of Xinjiang and it is persisting with solutions that have patently not worked.
Xinjiang is a predominantly Muslim area that has more in common with Central Asian Muslim republics than it does with Beijing. China has ruled Xinjiang since the eighteenth century but long regarded the region as a defensive buffer principally against Russian incursions from the west. For two centuries, this far-flung Chinese possession with its predominantly Muslim Uighur population astride the old Silk Road was largely left to its own devices. In 1954, Beijing actually accorded it autonomous status.
But since the Cultural Revolution and the advent of a resurgent economy, China has reversed its laissez faire policies. As in Tibet, it has sought to bring Han Chinese into the region to counter the Uighur dominance. And as with any other challenge to the Communist party’s orthodoxy, it has sought to marginalize Islam, cracking down on imams and mosques that it has chosen, very wrongly, to see as reservoirs of opposition to the state.
Resentment among the Muslim community had been building steadily.
Tragically, since the start of the century there have been increasingly angry Uighur demonstrations that have been put down with ever greater violence by the Communist authorities. Rivalry between the Han incomers and the indigenous population has grown. The region’s economy is now controlled by the Han and its natural resources are being busily exploited by businesses based in far-away Beijing. The result is that many Uighur feel like strangers in their own land. Their resentment is all the greater for the contempt that is often shown by the Han incomers for the local people. Chinese plans to revive the Silk Road as a new economic corridor with Russia and points west with high-speed rail links and highways are only exacerbating the divide and the tensions.
Now in an attempt to exert further control over the 11 million-strong Uighur population, Beijing has ordered all of them to hand in their passports, without which travel, even internally, is not possible. The official reason for the move is to “preserve social order.” However, it is hard to see how this Draconian measure can do anything other than provoke the very problems it is designed to counter.
That China wants a stable border province is entirely understandable. But repeating the repressive steps taken in Tibet is surely not going to achieve it. It is interesting how Beijing’s pitch to international tourists is based on the geographic and ethnic diversity of this extraordinary country. China, like India, is indeed a stunning historic fusion of cultures, as evidenced by the remarkably diverse cuisine. But the Chinese leadership lacks India’s genius in making a stable whole out of its very differences by celebrating them.
It cannot be too late to draw back from a repressive policy toward China’s Muslim Uighur, the failure of which ought by now to be abundantly clear. Burma under Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is now being seriously damaged by the appalling treatment of the country’s Muslim Rohingya community. China’s new world standing likewise will be imperiled if it persists with its discriminatory policies toward the Muslim Uighur. A wide-ranging and thorough rethink is called for at the highest level in Beijing.
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