In the face of spreading civil unrest among China’s Uighur population, the Chinese government’s love-fest with its all-weather ally, Pakistan, may be starting to sour. Indeed, the authorities in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region are charging that a prominent Uighur separatist that they captured had received terrorist training in Pakistan. No less embarrassing for Pakistan, the charge came while its intelligence chief, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was holding talks in Beijing on securing greater Chinese support to blunt the growing US pressure on Islamabad.
No country has done more than China to prop up the Pakistani state — support that has included transfers of missiles and nuclear weapons technology. By playing the Kashmir card against India in various ways — even deploying People’s Liberation Army units in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near the line of control with India — China has clearly signaled in recent years its desire to use its alliance with Pakistan to squeeze India. Given the level of China’s strategic investments in Pakistan, the bilateral relationship is unlikely to change.
Yet the charge of supporting Uighur terrorism, even if leveled only by local Chinese officials, reflects China’s irritation with Pakistan’s inability to contain the cross-border movement of some Uighur separatists. However, China, confronts on Xinjiang neither a proxy war nor foreign involvement, but rather a rising backlash from its own Uighur citizens against their Han colonizers.
And the Uighurs are hardly alone. Even in Tibet — where resistance to Chinese rule remains largely nonviolent and there is no alleged terrorist group to blame — China is staring at the bitter harvest of policies that have sought to deny native minorities their identity, culture, language and the benefits of their own natural resources.
To help Sinicize China’s minority lands, the government has used a strategy made up of five key components: the cartographic alteration of ethnic-homeland boundaries, demographic flooding of non-Han cultures, historical revisionism to justify Chinese control, enforcement of cultural homogeneity to blur local identities and political repression. The Manchu assimilation into Han society and the swamping of the locals in Inner Mongolia have left only the Tibetans and the Turkic-speaking Uighurs as holdouts.
However, the renewed Tibetan revolt since 2008, the Uighur rebellion since 2009 and the recrudescence this year of large-scale protests by ethnic Mongolians in Inner Mongolia have shown that the strategy of ethnic and economic colonization is beginning to backfire. While a monk-led campaign on the Tibetan Plateau continues to challenge the Chinese crackdown, several dozen people have been killed in Xinjiang since last month as Uighur-Han clashes spread.
Xinjiang, bordering Afghanistan, Russia, the countries of Central Asia and the Kashmir areas occupied by Pakistan and China, was annexed by the newly established People’s Republic of China in 1949, a year before it began its invasion of Tibet. That put an end to the East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang, which Muslim groups, aided by then-Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin, established in 1944, while World War II was raging. In the six decades since then, millions of Han Chinese have moved to Xinjiang, sharpening inter-ethnic competition for land and water, not to mention control of the region’s abundant hydrocarbon resources.