The recent (March 01) attack by eight Uighurs including two women at the Kunming railway station killing thirty people and injuring many more may suggest that the tactics of the Uighur separatists in the western region of Xinjiang may be changing. The Chinese police killed four of the attackers immediately, and has one in custody. Following the attack, leader of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) Abdullah Mansuar, declared that this was a war against the Chinese by all Muslims and the fight will continue. Mansuar lives in the mountains of Pakistan bordering China. The Uighurs demand independence for Xinjiang which they call Eastern Turkistan.
On the other hand, more than 120 Tibetan monks, nuns and lay persons have committed suicide in Tibetan areas in China since 2011, demanding independence from China and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. The suicides have been singularly self-immolation making the act striking, catching international attention and putting pressure on the Chinese government.
China has 55 ethnic groups, the largest being Uighurs (10 million) and second largest being Tibetans (six million). The third largest are the Mongolians in Inner Mongolia in the north of the country bordering the independent state of Mongolia. The rest of the minorities have very small populations or are vanishing tribes. The huge Han Chinese population accounts for about 94% in this country of 1.3 billion.
China claims that both Xinjiang and Tibet were historically Chinese territory, but these claims are highly questionable. At the same time the international community have agreed that whether historical or not, Beijing exercises sovereignty over these areas; it is a fait accompli.
What the international community especially the west demand is a certain amount of autonomy for the Uighurs and Tibetans within Chinese rule. The autonomy is to allow freedom to practise their religion, use their language, and uphold their culture and traditions. The constitution of China promises autonomy to major minorities, but in practice they have less freedom than the Han Chinese. A privilege allowed to minorities is the freedom to have more than one child.
China claims to have “liberated” Xinjiang in 1949 and Tibet in 1951. To the ethnic people of these two regions the word “liberated” has a different meaning. Certainly, the Chinese brought economic development to the minority regions, but research by Chinese NGOs have revealed the benefits go mainly to the Han population who are being increasingly brought into these regions for demographic assault and domination. Simultaneously, the entire identity of the minorities are being erased save for those required to be showcased. The process is gradual but definite.
Trust deficit between the two major minorities and the Chinese authorities have increased. The Chinese failed to honour their promises and commitment. The 18 point agreement with the Dalai Lama was dishonoured leading to the Tibetan uprising and flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. The Chinese policy continued to marginalize the minorities, leading to greater alienation between the two sides.
In India, which is a multilingual and multi-ethnic country with common interests and aspirations where ethnic alienation and independence are not only alien ideas, but unthinkable, separatist movements in Nagaland, Assam and some others states were promoted by foreign countries. These movements have almost died down because of non-response from their brethren. In China, the situation is quite different. There is a huge Han majority and minorities are seen at best as irritations that have to be tolerated.
There is however, a political nervousness about minorities and the regions they inhabit and claim. They have not been assimilated in a natural process. The instruments have been coercion and through diktats. The resultant developments have led to a growing distance between the strong and the weak.
This also brings into question China’s claim that both Tibet and Xinjiang have always been part of Chinese territory. Both these regions are rich in natural resources with huge areas and sparse populations. They also form a kind of buffer for Han China against India and Central Asia. If these regions split, then foreigners would be much closer to mainland China’s borders. Therefore, even any kind of autonomy of these regions is non-negotiable.
The Uighurs, who are of Turkish origin, have been moderate Muslims all along. But this may be changing. While the so-called “liberation” by China had always been opposed and a struggle for independence endemic, the Uighur separatists earlier believed in the separation of state from religion, that is, the independence struggle did not draw strength from Islam as a religion. This began to change from the late 1980s when the separatists entered religious places to recruit fighters and religion became a cause for their separate identity from the Hans. This helped then get financial and religious support from some Islamic countries including Saudi Arabia. As Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism grew, the Uighurs became new recruits to the movement.
Uighur separatists initially received support and training from Pakistani religious right like the Jamaat-e-Islami, but as the Afghan war progressed many of them enlisted and fought along with the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Chinese knew this from the beginning and took up the matter with the Pakistani authorities, but the civilian authorities in Pakistan hardly had any say in the matter as it was controlled by the ISI.
The Chinese adopted an ambivalent position against international terrorism, while trying to solve their specific problem with a soft approach. They interacted with the Jamaat hoping to cut their support to the Uighurs, but that did not succeed. For the Chinese, terrorism emanating from Pakistan and impacting India or the USA was in China’s geostrategic interest. The US understood this. And the Uighur fighters taken to Guantanamo Bay prison from Afghanistan were not returned to China despite Beijing’s demand.
To quell the separatists, China adopted the “strike hard” campaign against both Uighurs and Tibetans, but it does not seem to have produced the desired results. In fact, following the July, 2009 riots in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, in which around 200 people died and several Uighurs were executed later, the Al Qaeda gave a call in support of the Uighurs. After the recent incident in the Kunming railway station, indications are that Al Qaeda support to Uighur separatists may have become stronger, making the Han Chinese more vulnerable. Chinese citizens may be targeted even more in Pakistan, and their security jeopardized in the Middle East / West Asian countries where Al Qaeda and its affiliates are active.
The Uighur separatists appear to have readjusted their tactics inside China. Last year there were 13 incidents, all inside Xinjiang, except for the suicide attack of a family of three last October in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. This year, two incidents have taken place. If this group adopts suicide attacks at a place and time of its own choosing like other Jihadi groups, the situation can turn messy. Till now, the Chinese leadership and security apparatus have not suggested an alternative approach to hard crack down.
The question is different. It always has been and continues to be, more of a political issue though separation/independence remains in the subsurface. Mao Zedong said as early as 1952 “We must take an extremely cautious approach towards politics in Tibet. We must recognize the extreme seriousness of the Tibetan nationality question, we must deal with it appropriately, this case cannot be handled as a regular case”. In the 1980s Deng Xiaoping said that “anything can be discussed except independence” referring to talks with the Dalai Lama’s representatives.
The two top Chinese communist leaders viewed the Tibet question at different times almost similarly. The Tibet issue has a complicated history and has global relevance. The 14th Dalai Lama has dealt with it astutely. He discarded “independence” and asked for “genuine autonomy” and inclusion of Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan to be merged with Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). He impressed upon non-violence by the Tibetan people and greatly succeeded. His position is not rigid and leaves a lot of space for adjustment.
The succeeding Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao failed to live up to Mao’s and Deng’s vision. Even today the Chinese see in the Dalai Lama’s offer a hidden agenda for independence. Talks have been suspended. The only instrument that Jiang and Hu knew was “strike hard”, a policy that did not succeed. Even Han scholars were silenced when they came up with the real problems and suggested solutions.
Given the sensitive nature of the Tibet question which involves territory (in terms of independence), hardliners usually dominate policy. Leaders like Jiang and Hu did not have the power and stature of Mao and Deng to overcome opposition.
Can President Xi Jinping come up with a new vision? Some interesting developments took place last year. An interview of Professor Jin Wei of the central party school in Beijing was published in the Hong Kong weekly the Asia Weekly in June last year. Jin Wei suggested the resumption of negotiations to solve the Tibet issue. She advocated a step by step approach to bring the Dalai Lama back to China. Jin Wei also pointed out that before the Dalai Lama passed away a negotiated settlement for his successor should be arrived at, otherwise there will the embarrassment of two 15th Dalai Lamas as in the case of two 11th Panchen Lamas one recognized by the Chinese government and one by the Dalai Lama.
Another interesting development was noticed in June, 2013. An autobiography of the founder of the Tibetan communist party, Phunwang was published in Hong Kong. In his book Phunwang charged the Chinese government of having exacerbated tensions between the Tibetans and Hans. He urged President Hu Jintao in a letter in 2004 to bring back the Dalai Lama which would make the question internal, and desist from using violence and economic development to firm Beijing’s rule over Tibet. Hu ignored this sane advice from a Tibetan who has spent his life serving the communist party of China.
Last year there were some experiments to relax prohibition on the worship of the Dalai Lama in private, but this was withdrawn soon after. The authorities however have decided not to denigrate and insult the Dalai Lama.
The Uighur and Tibetan cases are different in many ways but the Chinese authorities have failed to appreciate that in their response. The Uighurs do not have a leader like the Dalai Lama, but they are gradually finding some empathy and support from the west.
The Dalai Lama has retired from his political role and is a simple monk now. But he still enjoys as much influence over his people as he did before. A section of the Chinese leadership who believe that after the Dalai Lama’s death the Tibet movement will dissipate may be disappointed. It is only he who has ensured non-violence. After his passing there will be no Tibetan leader of his stature to ensure non-violence. Once that happens China’s relations with neighbours like India and Japan will deteriorate. The west led by the US will not just stand by quietly.
It may so happen that in a few years time the Uighur issue may become sharper if the present policy of the central government continues. Most Chinese are gloating over their growing political, economic and military power. This is all very well till these powers are not put in practice. Once blood is shed in quantity and human rights further abused in either case or both, the world will ask serious questions.
(The writer Mr. Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. e-mail email@example.com)