China starts to panic over threat of revolt on frontier

Teresa Poole reports on the crackdown in Xinjiang, where the movement for autonomy is turning violent

In August 1949, when the Chinese Communists were close to final victory in China, Mao Zedong invited the Uighur and Kazakh leaders of the self-styled East Turkistan Republic to Peking, supposedly to discuss autonomy for the region. Carved out of the north-west of China's Xinjiang province, bordering what is now Kazakhstan, the foundation of East Turkistan five years earlier had been the defining moment for the nationalist movement in Xinjiang.

The East Turkistan leaders boarded the aeroplane, optimistic about negotiations with Chairman Mao. But the plane mysteriously crashed. Whether by design or accident almost the whole of the republic's leadership was wiped out, and with them the only hope of quasi-independence for Xinjiang's minorities.

"Uighur people these days still cry about this ... Young people today still revere the [East Turkistan] leaders," said Justin Rudelson, a specialist on Xinjiang at Tulane University in the United States.

Since 1949, the Turkic-Muslim nationalities of Xinjiang, China's far north-western province, have been ruled with varying degrees of brutality by Peking. The separatist movement has never died, erupting regularly and violently against Han Chinese domination, but it has been quashed by the Chinese authorities.

During the past few weeks, however, the authorities have shown unusual alarm over a perceived "splittist" threat in Xinjiang, just as a number of violent incidents, including political assassinations, have come to light. It is difficult to gauge what is going on in Xinjiang, a vast territory of just 16 million people which accounts for one-sixth of China's land mass. Large areas are closed to foreigners and journalists are unwelcome.

Unlike Tibet there is no powerful lobby group outside China and no figure such as the Dalai Lama to provide information. But, judging by the recent official pronouncements, something is amiss.

During the first week in May, Xinjiang party leaders held a meeting on how to fight separatism. "Local ethnic splittist activities have entered a period of revived dynamism", backed by "hostile" foreign forces, said the Xinjiang Daily, the regional party mouthpiece. Subsequent reports revealed that during the last six days of April, 1,700 suspected "terrorists, separatists and criminals" were arrested in Xinjiang, coinciding with the national "Strike Hard" crackdown on crime.

Then, on 2 May, in Kuqa town, nine alleged Muslim separatists were killed in a shootout with police. They were accused of "bombings, murders and other violent terrorist activities". According to the official accounts, the men were armed with home-made bombs intended for an attack in Kuqa. Two weeks later, in the provincial capital of Urumqi, an activist, Abduwayiti Aihemaiti, was jailed for three years allegedly for writing "reactionary articles" calling for the independence of Xinjiang.

Much official media coverage has been devoted this month to warnings by the hardline Xinjiang party secretary, Wang Lequan, who is Chinese. "We must be aware that Uighur nationalism and illegal religious activities pose the greatest dangers to the stability of Xinjiang," he said.

New regulations require all books on Islam to be published by the Xinjiang People's Publication House. Last week, Peking ordered that "party members and officials ... implicated in political bombings, assassinations or other violent terrorist activities, must be immediately investigated and punished with due severity".

This week there have been reports of six or seven murders by Muslim separatists. Among the victims were a vice-chairman of Xinjiang's political consultative conference, killed at the end of April, and two policemen and a pro-Peking Muslim Imam who were killed in February.

Last year five Muslims were executed for their part in a series of bombings in February 1992 and 19 were convicted for counter- revolutionary activities in Khotan city.

It all suggests that ethnic strife has been suppressed but not tamed. The question is how serious the separatist threat really is, and why officials appear so worried now. According to most Western analysts, although Uighur nationalism is strong, the separatists backing an armed struggle are a minority. Mr Rudelson said: "There are those who are calling for separatism and independence, but for the most part it is not seen as a sensible thing to try to push."

But there are serious grievances, especially the massive influx of Han Chinese which has made the Uighur people a minority in their own land. Some 38 per cent of Xinjiang's population are now Han Chinese, and 47 per cent Uighur. The rest are Kazakhs, Hui, Kirzhis, Mongols and other minorities. "Now a lot of Han are coming in to Xinjiang to make money. It causes a lot of friction," said Mr Rudelson.

The Uighurs resent the way Peking has exploited Xinjiang's vast oil reserves,with little benefit for the local population. "China views Xinjiang as a natural resources deposit; it is a storehouse for extraction," said Mr Rudelson.

The oil companies do not even hire local labour, preferring immigrant Han. Xinjiang remains one of the poorest parts of China and is used as China's nuclear test site. It is also host to a large number of Chinese convicts in numerous labour camps.

Professor June Teufel Dreyer, at the University of Miami, who studies China's ethnic minorities, believes the crackdown may be tied to Peking's recent border agreements with Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan. After seeing the emergence of these new Muslim republics, Peking fears cross- border links with Uighur nationalists in these states. "There is infiltration of weapons and Islamic fundamentalist propaganda," said Ms Dreyer. But she judges the Uighur threat to Peking as "mainly of nuisance value at the moment".

Peking, however, has considered desperate measures. According to Ms Dreyer, in 1990 they were willing to arm Han Chinese convicts in labour camps in the event of an Uighur uprising.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
News
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
news
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat