In early July 2009, the official Chinese press reported that 197 people had been bludgeoned or stabbed to death and nearly 2,000 more injured in communal violence in Ürümqi, the principal city of Xinjiang, the People’s Republic of China’s farthest northwest region. For observers worldwide, the clash prompted a quick primer on another of the world’s festering ethnic conflicts. In this case, the antagonists were Han Chinese—Ürümqi’s dominant ethnic group thanks to decades of government-encouraged Chinese settlement—and Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority, some 7–9 million strong, who have long bristled under the PRC’s erratic and harsh rule.
Throughout its modern history, Xinjiang, and for that matter China as a whole, has been riddled with inter-ethnic violence. On the face of it not much about last July’s violence seemed new. Yet even as Beijing mobilized thousands of armed police to re-impose ethnic harmony, it was striking how quickly the unrest escalated and garnered worldwide attention. Muslim-majority societies in particular took note, and so did the Chinese political elite: President Hu Jintao hastily returned home from a G-8 meeting in Italy. This was new.
Something akin to the violence in Xinjiang had already flashed across the world’s television screens in March 2008, when violence erupted between Tibetans and Han Chinese in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.1 Then, foreign leaders had called for restraint as rank-and-file supporters of democracy and constitutionalism around the world urged Beijing to respect minority rights and religious freedoms. Diplomatic rows with Japan and Australia quickly erupted, followed by one with Taiwan when the Dalai Lama visited Taipei in September. By contrast, the Xinjiang episode drew somewhat less harsh comment from Washington, Tokyo and Sydney, but it engaged official and popular interest in predominantly Muslim countries in an unprecedented way. The sharpest official condemnation came from the government of Turkey, which, not coincidentally, is home to one of the Muslim world’s few democracies and has important historical and cultural linkages to the Uighurs. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the PRC’s policy in Xinjiang as virtually “genocidal.” This seemed a tacit avowal of “the New Ottomanism”, a foreign policy stance informed not only by an internationalist Islamic worldview but also by nostalgia for Turkey’s own multiethnic imperial glory that, at its height, abutted contemporary China’s own domains. For the most part, however, deference to China’s rising regional profile subdued the response of Muslim states in the Greater Middle East, sweeping from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, to the violence in Ürümqi. Even those two most self-congratulatory champions of Islamic causes, Saudi Arabia and Iran, behaved as avatars of Westphalian sovereignty, downplaying the violence as an internal Chinese affair of little concern to the foreign faithful. Each of these countries, of course, has billions of dollars of business on the line with China, and they are racked as well by their own domestic crises of legitimacy.
Will this silence persist in the event of another such flare-up involving China’s Muslims? Not if the popular reaction of the foreign faithful is any indication. Until now, Islamists have ranked China’s Muslims below their ongoing struggles in the Middle East, South and Southwest Asia and even Southeastern Europe and the Caucasus. But in recent years, some in the Central Asian, Indo-Pakistani and Arab revivalist movements have begun to denounce Chinese rule in Xinjiang as yet another example of post-caliphate crimes against Islam.
Some have even called for the lost lands of East Turkestan to come under Islamic rule once again. The Ürümqi clashes, for example, spurred al-Qaeda’s Maghreb offshoot to call on Muslims the world over to open up a new front in China. Likewise, the Turkestan Islamic Party—a Xinjiang-born secession movement now situated in Waziristan, where it has fallen in with more globally minded jihadists—declared war on the PRC’s international interests in reprisal for the Uighur crackdown. The Chinese “state of atheism and obstinacy” will fall to the Islamic resurgence, said the up-and-coming al-Qaeda commander Abu Yahya al-Libi, in a video rant equating the PRC’s occupation of Xinjiang with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. He predicted the PRC will “face the same fate of the Russian bear of disintegration and division” as it continues to divvy up the historical Muslim Nation and tyrannize over Islam’s rightful territories in China’s northwest.
The Chinese understand the political syntax of this charge very well indeed. In the PRC’s officially sanctioned historical narrative, China grew weak and outsiders took advantage, seizing land and imposing unequal relationships. The modern Islamist narrative is very similar; it is a tale of weakness and despoliation by alien others, except that in the Islamist narrative China is an aggressor rather than a victim.
However much Beijing would like to keep them apart, China’s internal Muslim problem has now become inseparable from China’s growing presence in the larger Islamic world, just as the larger Islamic world, its markets and above all its energy riches are becoming ever more vital to the PRC’s ambitions as a rising world power. Many different relationships between the Sinic and Islamic worlds have already sprouted, will continue to grow, and will doubtless have world-shaping effects. The local and the global have now merged in ways that will challenge Beijing’s capacity to cope with both ends of its Islamic connection. Beijing’s success or failure in coping with the 21st-century version of dar al-Islam could well determine whether the PRC can ultimately transform itself into the world power of its aspirations.
Last July’s riots in Ürümqi were the product of China’s new connectedness with the wider Muslim world. The immediate catalyst had been a brawl 2,500 miles away, in the town of Shaoguan, in China’s southeastern Guangdong province. The melee in Shaoguan occurred in a toy factory where thousands of laborers, some of them Uighur “guest workers” imported from the northwest, were employed by the Early Light Company of Hong Kong, the world’s largest toy manufacturer. Seized by rumors that Uighur laborers had raped a Chinese girl, Han vigilantes killed two Uighurs, and in the violence that ensued dozens more were assaulted. Word of these events reached Ürümqi almost immediately via a computer-based network of internal communication now run by, and wholly open to, ordinary people, who took to the streets to protest the government’s disregard for Uighur well-being. Here was another example that, just as the post-1979 PRC government no longer monopolizes the means of production, it now no longer monopolizes the dissemination of information. It is forced to compete in cyberspace with independent voices pushing their own versions of complex stories. And serious Chinese understand something about the Uighurs that few Westerners seem to: These voices don’t belong to bedraggled, illiterate and primitive nomads, but a people with a strong sense of corporate identity, a literary treasury and a collective political memory going back well more than a millennium.
Perhaps this explains why Beijing did not play down the reports of Xinjiang’s unrest and dismiss them as an isolated string of incidents. It claimed instead that the unrest was all about high politics—the result of a conspiracy orchestrated from overseas, the work of “splittists”, “extremists” and “terrorists.” Moreover, as if out of nowhere, Beijing acknowledged a leader of an effort heretofore treated as leaderless, a woman named Rebiya Kadeer.
Kadeer’s own improbable life story mirrors the abrupt twists and turns of the larger China story over the past three decades, one that has now doubled back to inform Han-Uighur relations in a wholly unexpected way. Kadeer had run afoul of the Cultural Revolution in the l960s, but she took advantage of the post-Mao reforms to start a business that made her one of the richest people in China. She soon became the poster child for the “New Woman” of the Deng Xiaoping era. Active in business and respectable politics, she was a delegate to the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing (memorably attended by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton).
But Kadeer ran afoul of the regime once again as she became more interested in the condition of her Uighur compatriots. Although she is in no sense an Islamist and has publicly renounced al-Qaeda’s efforts to insinuate itself into Xinjiang, she was arrested in 1999, imprisoned in 2000 and, finally, in 2005, exiled to the United States. Since then, she has met President George W. Bush and has been praised by Congress.
In response to all of this, in turn, the PRC channeled Josef Stalin and Lavrenti Beria: Two of Kadeer’s children in China were arrested and compelled to write letters and make broadcasts denouncing their mother. China’s Communist-era political slogans have never been taken very seriously in the West. This is partly because when rendered into English and other Western languages, they tend to have an antic quality about them. But when the regime proclaims that all good citizens must resolutely stand firm against “splittism” in Xinjiang and elsewhere, the stiltedness of the term to our ears should obscure neither the deep structure of the problem it denotes nor the scale of the Beijing government’s response to it. The exiled Kadeer aside, there is splittism aplenty in the People’s Republic of China. It is built into the nature of the PRC as we know it, and it is far from going away.
Today’s splittism is the inescapable legacy of China’s late imperial and modern history. Simply put, the PRC says that it encompasses not only venerable “China proper” as it once was, but also the vast territories acquired by Qing/Manchu Empire (1644–1912). Xinjiang alone among these territories stretches out for about 600,000 square miles, nearly three times the size of France. Thus when the last Manchu emperor abdicated in 1912, he bequeathed to his Republican heirs a “China” fully twice the size of the one his ancestors first took over. Today, the PRC’s existential structural challenge is to hold that unwieldy multiethnic legacy together. To do it, it unceasingly repeats—and does its best to enforce—its claim that the entire Manchu Empire has morphed, indivisibly and forever more, into “China”, for it realizes that without the Manchu-conquered domains (Xinjiang and Tibet principally) there would be no People’s Republic of China as we know it, but something akin to Russia’s lot after the end of the Soviet Empire.
In the 18th century, the Manchu emperors incorporated Xinjiang, Tibet and other places into their domain in accordance with a strategic doctrine for the defense of their realm. In the 19th century, during the Qing dynasty’s period of greatest strategic peril, the Manchu emperors and Chinese statesmen who worked for them learned that defense of that realm now required balancing dual dangers coming both by land and by sea. The empire’s Eurasian and maritime frontiers were under simultaneous assault for the first time in historical memory, and it was not clear how this dual threat should be resisted.
As it turned out, the threats originating outside the realm proved to be of secondary importance. The Qing had begun modernizing China’s military in the l850s (well before the Japanese began a comparable process in 1868), not so much in response to a long-term foreign danger, but to cope with the immediate challenge of the Taiping Rebellion, an apocalyptic insurgency in central China driven by bowdlerized Christian doctrine. The Taipings were defeated, but only after a 15-year counterinsurgency campaign that claimed tens of millions of lives.
Far less well known in the West, the Qing were also drawn into two smaller but still debilitating Islamic insurgencies on their Western periphery—one in Xinjiang in the northwest, the other in Yunnan Province in the southwest. The first unfolded in Xinjiang, where in 1865 the Dungani Rebellion, led by the charismatic Tajik, Yakub Beg, overthrew Manchu/Qing rule and established Kashgaria, an independent Islamic emirate that lasted until 1877. A second revolt, known in the West by its Burmese designation as the Panthay Rebellion, erupted in 1856 in the southwest province of Yunnan. Outraged by the Qing’s heavy-handed policies, the Muslim leader of that revolt, Du Wenxiu (known to Muslims as Sultan Sulayman), led a multiethnic insurgency that then founded an Islamic sultanate called the Pure Southerly Kingdom in the city of Dali, where the fight against Qing forces continued until finally being crushed in 1873. There is little evidence that these two Muslim rebellions were aware of each other. Had they been able to communicate and combine their efforts, the boundary where the Islamic world ends and the Sinic world begins might well have been shifted dramatically eastward.
While the Qing Dynasty ultimately suppressed these insurgencies, the heavy effort to do so constituted a slow-motion coup de grâce for the Manchu state. Were it not for the passion and power of Islamic splittism, the Qing might have fared better against Western encroachment. More important, it might have maintained the initiative over Japan in the 20th century. Thus, the consequences of overcoming these splittist forces proved significant for the balance of power not only in East Asia, but in the world at large. Just how has to remain another of history’s intriguing might-have-beens.
Today, because the PRC likes to portray itself as besieged on all sides by external enemies of one sort of another, the world focuses, understandably, on the outward implications of China’s military buildup. But in truth, China’s external security environment has never been more benign; it is the internal security environment, and the internal Chinese military buildup, that merits increased attention. The PLA’s major military exercises in August 2009 showed that it knows that China’s internal security challenges outweigh its external ones. According to the government’s official news agency, these war games were the PLA’s “largest-ever tactical military exercise.” They were clearly focused on the northwest region and involved units operating almost a thousand miles from their home bases in other parts of the country. This was power projection directed inward. At about the same time as these exercises were underway, the government acted to “clarify” the role of the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force thought to number more than a million, and given the special responsibility of dealing with domestic unrest.
The People’s Liberation Army’s forcible re-incorporation of Xinjiang in l950 seemed to mark the farthest western extension of the newly formed People’s Republic of China. At the time, the PRC had every reason to expect that the geostrategic situation to its west would remain fixed indefinitely. The Central Asian lands beyond seemed permanently embedded in the Soviet Empire and unlikely to offer opportunities for PRC aggrandizement anytime soon. Having ended the de facto autonomy that Xinjiang had enjoyed due to early 20th-century China’s endemic war and unrest, Mao Zedong had to content himself with doing no more than what the great Qing conquerors had done before him.
The wholly unanticipated collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 changed this strategic calculus. Among other things, it allowed Beijing to begin to look well beyond its own borders. Especially as its economy grew rapidly, it saw a need to expand its access to the outside world. In this, Beijing has followed an “all azimuths” course, seeking to connect the PRC to the far-away by as many routes as practicable. The PRC now has an increasingly expansive view of the length of its “lifeline.” In the maritime context, for example, its petroleum lifeline reaches beyond the Strait of Hormuz to the west coast of Africa, and soon even to the east coast of South America. In the continental context, it sees a “New Iron Silk Road” that reaches to Rotterdam and Helsinki.
We should assume that Beijing believes that both the maritime and continental parts of this network need to be connected in mutually reinforcing ways. The topography has not changed, but the dual dangers by land and sea of the 19th century have now been superceded by the dual opportunities of the 21st. One continental piece is the Karakoram highway to Pakistan via Afghanistan; the connected maritime piece is the port of Gwadar near the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. Another continental piece is a planned highway network into Southeast Asia; the connected maritime pieces are ports in Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. But the crowning continental piece is a trans-Eurasia rail network that will connect ports on the coast of the East China Sea to ports on the coast of Europe’s North Sea. Xinjiang has an enormously important role to play in fulfilling this vision, one that also harks back to grand Chinese projects of old. As it was in the 18th century, the continental Islamic frontier of a Beijing-based regime is once again on the move, shifting ever westward.
Ours is not the first era in which China has attempted to build a position in the Muslim world. The interactions between the Sinic and the Muslim world are rooted in a now centuries-long history, and their re-emergence in the present era is in some respects only a natural consequence of older, intra-Asian patterns of commerce and cultural exchange springing back to life after a brief modern quiescence. Indeed, as their societies have begun to reconnect, some Chinese leaders and their Muslim counterparts express nostalgia for old friendships broken off only by the rise of the West to world domination.
When the PRC began its own move into the Muslim world in the l950s, the concept of such a world as a unified whole bound together by a politics derived from religion was weakly developed. At the time, the most dynamic ideological force supporting Sinic-Islamic relations was a shared penchant for Western-derived secularist radicalism. Indeed, there was supposed to be an even larger convergence on this basis in the Third World as a whole. But the Sinic and Islamic worlds began to part ways in 1979, a defining year for both. That year, the PRC launched the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, which continue to drive the Chinese-speaking world toward greater integration with the global economic and political order, and with the world’s Western-inflected cultural and intellectual life. But 1979 was also the year of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, which both embodied and strengthened trends that have pushed much of the Islamic world in precisely the opposite direction.
Both America and China have had to react to changes in the Islamic world, and that has had the effect of changing their relations with each other. In one sense, U.S.-China relations have improved because of changes in the Muslim world. In other ways, they have become more complex and their special dimensions have altered. In essence, the United States newly entered an area into which Chinese attentions had been focused at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union, mainly through its land bridge of Xinjiang.
The United States arrived by air, contriving to bring the newly independent Central Asian states into the Western orbit. (In a remarkable feat of geographical and bureaucratic legerdemain, Kazakhstan, for example, became a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and, in due course, chair of that body.) After the 9/11 attacks, the United States became even more deeply involved in the region: fighting in Afghanistan, shoring up Pakistan and building military bases and infrastructure in Central Asian states. This may have been unexpected, but it was not exotic. American power was, after all, a known quantity in Beijing, and for decades the PRC had been bumping up against it in Asia and the Western Pacific. That it was now showing up to the northwest of China was disconcerting, but well in keeping with the Great Game as it had always been played.
The 21st-century version of Islam, however, posed a radically new challenge. How would it respond, especially in Central Asia, to the reintroduction of long-absent Chinese influence and unprecedented American influence? How would China, especially, assess its prospects in this suddenly re-opened part of the world? Though the political elites in these newly independent states were recycled versions of the old Soviet way, their populations quickly shifted beneath them. Cut off from actually existing Islam for decades, the Central Asian faithful were suddenly able to reconnect with the wider Islamic world. Yet the Islam from which they had been separated since the 1920s had changed greatly in the intervening decades, especially in its political manifestations. The Islamic world that Central Asia rejoined had been profoundly shaken by Khomeini’s revolution and the Islamic Republic’s relentless efforts to internationalize its influence. There also began an often-deadly competition for influence among the Muslim faithful, as Saudi Arabia, in particular, stepped up its own well-financed campaign to spread its preferred variant of Islam. Neither side has promoted moderation and state-building. Instead, both have served to complicate domestic politics and strategic calculations alike—and not only in Central Asia, as the United States has learned all too well. Farther to the West, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Persian Gulf itself, the geopolitical pivot of the carbon age, have been convulsed by Islam-inspired politics and violence, leading the United States to undertake a series of strategic reviews of its position in the Greater Middle East.
In venturing beyond Xinjiang’s borders, rising China’s own fortunes have increasingly become entangled in West Asia’s turbulence; is it also time for the PRC to begin its own “agonizing reappraisal”? If so, how might it proceed? In the United States, there is much discussion about the future of Pakistan: about its possible collapse, about the prospect of the Taliban’s somehow acquiring Pakistan’s store of nuclear weapons, about separatism in Baluchistan and along the Pashtun belt, and about what role, if any, the United States could play in Pakistan’s long-term reconstitution. Yet the PRC, which has been heavily invested in Pakistan for decades and has emerged, next to the United States, as Islamabad’s greatest strategic benefactor, remains Sphinx-like, at least in public. It says it will invest billions of dollars in developing Afghanistan’s copper resources but has been otherwise quiet about the situation there. Similarly, the PRC has maintained a façade of equanimity with respect to the West’s disjointed efforts to deal with Iran—yet another beneficiary of Chinese investment, not to mention nuclear know-how. In spite of the enormous consequences that a nuclear-armed Iran would have for the PRC’s interests in the Persian Gulf as well as its own backyard, Chinese analysts customarily write off Iran’s nuclear and regional aspirations as largely a matter of Western, as opposed to Chinese, concern and even lament that the United States is seeking to compel China to choose sides.
China’s reticence will eventually need to give way to something else—either to some manner of coordinated action with the United States, or to its own route to a proverbial separate peace. But one senses that the PRC, for all its experience with Islam within its own domains, has yet to come to grips with the dilemmas that its new involvements in the wider Muslim world have created. Twenty-first century Islam as an idea does not fit readily into any of China’s received wisdom. From a Marxist or post-communist perspective, it is a doomed rearguard action. China’s older Confucian tradition, especially as a governing creed, has always stood in uncompromising opposition to all subversive superstition and peasant impulsiveness. But the opportunities for the PRC in the Islamic world have been irresistible thus far. Energy from the Middle East and Central Asia beckons, and simple prudence suggests that a rising China should balance its deepening immersion in Africa and Latin America, for it is creating ever-more hostages to the world’s preeminent naval power, the United States. Will the U.S. Navy adhere indefinitely to its current mission of keeping the world safe for Chinese capitalism?
Yet to build China on a more secure continental foundation is to slog ever deeper into a Eurasian-Islamic Heart of Darkness. The more Beijing projects itself into the Muslim world, the more China encounters the Ineffable and the Other—the cultural, racial and religious power of Muslim civilization. One must wonder, based on Beijing’s now persistent incapacity to deal effectively and wisely with its own Muslim subjects, how it will fare farther afield. As for the Islamic world, the antipathy of some to “Western Imperialism” has become so conditioned a reflex that there is no actual thought in it at all; the obsession with Western power and Islam’s relative weakness has become more self-destructive than anything else. Now, the Muslim world is just getting to know Chinese power, and we cannot yet assess how the East Asian arriviste will be received. To be sure, we have little evidence that the PRC sees the dilemma in this way, but that is incidental to its reality. There may be danger in it, but also opportunity. We are bound to find out.
1See Warren Smith, “Tibet’s Last Stand”, The American Interest (July/August 2008).