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Don’t Do Stupid Stuff

September 4, 2014

Westerners tend to think of China as an East Asian country, but China stretches far west into Central Asia. China’s western border abuts five Central Asian “stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The westernmost province of China, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, is largely populated by a Turkic people known as Uighurs.

Uighurs have a long history in Central Asia, including the eighth-to-ninth century Uighur Khaganate, or Empire, that reached as far west as the Caspian Sea, and two successor kingdoms that were not finally vanquished by the Mongols until the 1390s. Early Uighurs converted from ancient religions to Buddhism, then very gradually converted to Islam over 700 years beginning in the tenth century. The Uighurs fell under Chinese control over the course of the last imperial Chinese dynasty, the Qing.

Uighurs repeatedly rebelled against Chinese rule, winning at least nominal independence once in 1933, and once in 1944 – the latter time with Soviet backing, lasting five years until Mao Zedong’s victory over the Nationalists in 1949. Uighur unrest continued under Chinese Communist rule, although no longer with Soviet support. The unrest has occasionally become violent, always violently suppressed by the Chinese government.

China has long tried to dilute the Uighur population by encouraging ethnic Han to resettle in Xinjiang. This week, the Chinese government went farther: the government announced a program of cash payments and other incentives to encourage marriages between Uighurs and Han. The stated purpose of the program is to calm inter-ethnic tensions, but from the Uighur point of view it must look like the purpose is to wipe out Uighur ethnicity.

The short of it is that the Uighurs are an ethnic group with a proud history and a distinctive identity, a minority in a country whose official policy includes suppressing them. Those circumstances would radicalize pretty much anyone. Sure enough, Uighurs have formed pan-Islamic, pan-Turkic, and Uighurstan independence movements.

Uighurs are concentrated in the Tarim Basin in the southwest of the province; therefore the bulk of the Uighur people live closer to Kabul, Islamabad and even Tehran than to Beijing. The westernmost edge of Xinjiang is actually closer to Syria than to Beijing.

Twenty-two Uighurs found themselves among the 568 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Most were accused of being members of the Uighur independence movement who underwent training at an Al Qaeda camp, but fled the camp when the United States bombed it in 2001.

None of the 22 Uighurs expressed animosity toward the United States, but only toward China, and none wanted to return there. Apparently all were determined not to be enemy combatants and they were ultimately transferred to Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador, Palau, Slovakia and Switzerland. Neither the harsh conditions nor the long duration of the Uighurs’ confinement at Guantanamo was acceptable, given that none of them was ever prosecuted. They can’t have gone away with any great fondness for the United States.

There have been persistent reports of Uighurs fighting alongside Syrian rebels, and those reports have a certain credibility. Uighurs are Sunni Muslims, so might well be motivated to oppose the Syrian Alawite regime. But just as important, China is among the Syrian government’s chief backers, so opposing Bashar al-Assad could be seen as opposing China.

Uighurs fighting against Assad is one thing. To discredit Uighur activists, the Chinese government has been actively promoting the idea that Uighurs are fighting with ISIS. The fact that Chinese credibility is dubious on this point doesn’t necessarily mean that the accusation is incorrect. ISIS is Sunni, as is Al Qaeda and several others of the more violent Islamist groups in the Middle East. It’s no great leap to imagine alienated Uighurs looking to violent solutions to their suppression.

The world is complicated. We’re fighting ISIS, and so is Assad, who we want to surrender power. We’re aiding moderate Syrian rebels who are also trying to overthrow Assad. ISIS and the moderate rebels both want to overthrow Assad but are also fighting each other. Shiites backed by Iran are fighting ISIS, but we don’t trust Iran and we think Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. We also don’t trust Iraq, whose ruling Shiite party we would like to be more inclusive; but Iraq is also fighting ISIS. All of the above hate Israel, one of our closest allies. China backs Assad, and condemns ISIS, but treats its Uighur minority badly.

This ain’t tic-tac-toe. In this game, a move that seems small and unimportant now might be revealed 30 moves later to have been disastrous. Toward one end of the spectrum of outcomes is ouster of Assad by moderate rebels, pluralized Iraqi government, neutered ISIS, de-nuclearized Iran, and democratic China. Somewhere toward the other end of the spectrum is a war of all against all from Egypt to Iran and from Turkey to Iraq, the destruction of Israel, and the deaths of millions.

It shouldn’t be controversial to say that care is called for. Let’s don’t do stupid stuff.


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