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Uighur Woes
China’s Uighur Catch-22

The war of words between Turkey and China continues over restrictions that have reportedly been imposed on China’s Uighur Muslims: the latest salvo comes from Beijing, which has responding to Turkish protests by playing down the turmoil in Xinjiang. Reuters:

China has no “ethnic problem” in its far west, and Muslim Uighur minorities there enjoy freedom of religion, the Foreign Ministry said on Monday, following anti-China protests in Turkey over Beijing’s treatment of the group. […]

“Uighurs live and work in peace and contentment and enjoy freedom of religion under the rules in the constitution,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters at a regular briefing. “So the so-called ‘Xinjiang ethnic problem’ you mentioned that has been raised in some reports simply does not exist.”

Notice the difference between that and the rhetoric noted in a Reuters report last week:

China’s military must bring “modern civilization” to the restive southern areas of the Xinjiang region, where Muslim ethnic Uighurs are in majority, and help develop its economy, two senior army officers wrote in an influential journal. […]

“The struggle against terror and to maintain stability is severe and complex. It is a real war with knives and guns, a life and death war,” it said. “Strike early, strike at the small and strike at the roots.”

The Uighur issue puts China in a tough spot. The country wants to fight a very real threat of domestic terrorism (and reverts to its default authoritarian style to do so). But one of the biggest initiatives of China under Xi is the “One Belt, One Road” scheme to develop mostly transportation infrastructure across central Asia and the to Middle East. To do that, it has to prioritize good relations with its Muslim neighbors, especially Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey. Beijing’s current diplomatic dust up with Ankara is a distraction from building up the China-Turkey relationship. What’s an aspiring regional hegemon trying to secure its strategic trade and energy supply routes to do?

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