Asia Program

Events

China and the Antiterrorist War

May 09, 2002 // 3:30pm5:30pm

By supporting the U.S. war on terrorism, Beijing saw an opportunity to win American sympathy for its harsh policies toward Muslim opposition in Xinjiang, a vast region in northwest China inhabited mainly by Uighurs and Han Chinese. Four experts gathered in a May 9 seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center to explore Beijing's relations with the Muslim population in Xinjiang as well as the implications for U.S. human rights policy and the antiterrorist war. The four speakers for the seminar were James Millward of Georgetown University, currently a Wilson Center/George Washington University Asian Policy Studies fellow, Ross Terrill of Harvard University, Gaye Christoffersen of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Gardner Bovingdon of Washington University. On the next day, Millward and Bovingdon spoke at a breakfast seminar on Capitol Hill on the same topic.

James Millward argued that the Chinese central government has maintained only sporadic and incomplete control of Xinjiang throughout history. After Xinjiang became part of China in 1949, ethnic conflicts between Uyghurs and Han Chinese continued to exist and resulted in the current crisis. Millward dismissed "clash of civilization" as a way to understand the situation in Xinjiang. Without ignoring the Turkic nationalism and Islam that have stimulated opposition movements in Xinjiang, Millward saw dissent arising primarily from chauvinistic Chinese policies, including Beijing's attacks on religion and excessive taxation. Economic development in Xinjiang has focused on Han areas, and thus only reinforced the Uyghur sense of being second-class citizens in the People's Republic of China (PRC). Moreover, Uyghurs cannot complain about their frustration for fear of prosecution in the wake of the antiterrorism war.

James Millward argued that China's control of the Xinjiang region is best seen as a legacy of Qing Dynasty conquest in the 18th century, and that PRC efforts to maintain control in the region, and do so economically, have their roots in that period. Contradictory policy approaches, one more pluralist, the other more assimilationist, have characterized the post-1949 period, and have contributed to ethnic tensions and separatist impulses among some Uyghurs. Millward dismissed clash of civilization as a way to understand the situation in Xinjiang, arguing rather that dissent has arisen from ill-advised Chinese policies, including Beijing s intolerance of religion and of even apolitical dissent, as well as perceived and real inequalities stemming from the recent economic development of Xinjiang. Though Islam has been a component of many Uyghur political and separatist incidents since the 1930s, Turkic or Uyghur nationalism, not political Islam, has been the primary motivating ideology underlying these movements.

Ross Terrill explored the issue of Xinjiang from the perspective of great power politics. Terrill observed that the PRC's taking over Xinjiang in 1949 resulted from a geopolitical deal between Stalin and Mao Zedong. Consequently, Beijing recognized the independence of Mongolia and allowed Moscow to maintain its sphere of influence in northeast China. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s provided an opportunity for Beijing to expand its influence in Central Asia through the "Shanghai Cooperation Organization." While Beijing saw cooperation with Washington on antiterrorism as a way to secure China's control of Xinjiang, its influence in Central Asia has decreased with the entry of other great powers into the region after September 11. Given China's ever-growing ethnic problems, central-periphery conflicts, and the absence of participatory politics in the country, it is possible that Xinjiang will be independent from China in the future, Terrill concluded.

Gaye Christoffersen pointed out that the identity of the Uyghur people has been fragmented into four categories: Pan-Turkism, Pan-Islamism, Uyghurs assimilated into Han society, and a Silent Majority with angry hearts toward Chinese rule. The first two groups consider violence a legitimate means of expressing their identity, while the last two groups are the targets of violence. Christoffersen argued that intra-Uyghur violence reflects diverse outside influences. While the Pan-Turkic movement aims at establishing a modern Turkic empire stretching from Northern Cyprus to northwestern China, the Pan-Islamic movement wants to make Xinjiang part of the anti-Western Islamic world. Meanwhile, Beijing hopes to maintain its control of the Uyghur community through economic modernization, secularization and Sinification. Washington, Christoffersen concluded, should state that it does not support armed terrorism in Xinjiang while pushing Beijing to improve human rights in that region.

Gardner Bovingdon argued that the major challenge facing Beijing is not political Islam in Xinjiang, but widespread and growing Uyghur dissatisfaction with the nature of Chinese rule. According to Bovingdon, there are three major groups among Uyghurs, including religious but politically quiescent Muslims, politically active atheist or anti-religious Uyghurs, and politically active Islamists. While political Islam has a presence in Xinjiang, it is not the source of political opposition in that region. Bovingdon observed that among Uyghurs, only a small minority appears quite content, and most bear substantial resentment toward Beijing and hope for real autonomy or even independence for Xinjiang. Thus, the United States ought not blithely to accept Beijing's claims that its attacks on "Uyghur extremists" are part of the global effort to fight terrorism.

This seminar highlighted the mixing of issues of antiterrorism and human rights in China's Xinjiang. All speakers agreed that political conflicts between Beijing and dissident Uyghurs are due to Beijing's misrule of Xinjiang rather than pure agitation of Pan-Turkists or Pan-Islamists. They disagreed, however, on what would be the best or most realistic solution—real autonomy or independence—for Xinjiang.



Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program

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