For many years, the plight of the ethnic minorities of East Turkistan (Xinjiang), the largest group being the Uyghurs, was almost entirely eclipsed by that of Tibet and its people, and it seems that it’s only because of recent violence and the Chinese regime’s propagandised threat of terrorism that they’ve managed to pass the threshold of media attention and popular awareness at all. Consequently, if we were to have asked people about Xinjiang several years ago, most would have had very little or nothing to say about it, unless they had a special interest. Even now, in my own conversations with a range of people, many have indicated that, until very recently, they had no idea about Xinjiang or that its ethnic groups even existed—many Australians would probably still think that there’s just the one.
Presuming this is widespread and despite recent media attention, it probably still deserves to be briefly reiterated that, after struggles for independence and two short-lived attempts at forming small republics within the region in the first half of last century, Xinjiang was brought under the control of the CCP when the PLA entered in 1949, an event that many consider to be an invasion and was anything but peaceful or without bloodshed. The exploitation of the region’s resources, which include significant oil and natural gas reserves, began soon after annexation. It was in 1955 that Xinjiang became a so-called Autonomous Region; however, as with all such regions in China—including Inner Mongolia, which was established after a land grab in the mid 19th century—despite the conditions of autonomy being written into law, it has received less than what it legally deserves, with serious consequences.
It is now more widely known that the people of Xinjiang have suffered many parallel hardships to those of the Tibetans as a direct result of the contempt demonstrated by the Chinese regime’s policies and the negative views that it persistently perpetuates, all of which serve only to exacerbate tensions. Moreover, if you were to go to the eastern areas of China, you would find migrants from Xinjiang trying to survive in harsh conditions, gaining a reputation as untrustworthy, petty criminals in the process, and suffering callous discrimination by many of the Han majority who show little interest in understanding the stereotypes being employed and the causes of the Xinjiang people’s predicament.
Unfortunately for Xinjiang, Tibet has several advantages in its favor. As far as religions are concerned, for an international audience, Tibetan Buddhism has many attractive, colorful and exotic elements that can be readily found appealing, such as the story of the search for the Dalai Lama and the beliefs surrounding his status, which provides a compelling narrative, even without sharing Buddhist beliefs; whereas, the Uyghurs have the misfortune of being Islamic, with all that historically and currently entails. Although Rebiya Kadeer has stated an interest in becoming something like the Dalai Lama, due to the significant cultural and religious differences between the two autonomous regions, it will be an uphill battle for her to elevate the issues of Xinjiang to anywhere near the same level of international recognition as those of Tibet.
Furthermore, given China’s record, we shouldn’t delude ourselves about what can be achieved inside China by political campaigning and attempting to increase issue awareness internationally; the Chinese authorities have just about proven since 1949 that they will do what they want regardless of the opinion of the wider international community. Indeed, the way the CCP treats its political targets can be likened to a prisoner wearing a straight jacket: if they don’t like wearing it, and they struggle, it’ll just be pulled tighter. If Rebiya Kadeer does end up following the path of the Dalai Lama, perhaps we’re in for little more than a series of international promotional tours and cycles of media attention that span decades with very little to no real progress being made inside China’s boarders, unless, of course, substantive change somehow occurs in Beijing.
Robert Burns is an Australian based commentator with an interest in international issues.