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08-05-13, 20:29
The Kashgar incident and China’s Uyghur question/ Kilic B. Kanat
The increasing timidity of Western democracies to pursue the principle of responsibility to protect at an international level is leaving the Chinese government with the freedom to oppress

Kilic Bugra Kanat*/World Bulletin
The ethnic conflict in East Turkistan, (aka Uyghur Autonomous Region of China) erupted again on Wednesday, leaving 21 dead according to official numbers in Kashgar. Immediately afterward the spokesman for the regional government called the incident a terrorist attack committed by groups that targets stability and development in the area. His statement includes every buzzword that Beijing has kept using to describe the situation in the region, especially since 9/11. Although the information blackout prevents independent sources from getting information about the nature of the incident, these three buzzwords give us some clues about the nature of the incident.
After the deadly 2009 clampdown of Uyghurs in Urumchi, the Uyghur Autonomous Region is once again witnessing ethnic conflict and clashes. The city of Kashgar has been on the spot for the last few years because of Beijing’s policy of “modernization” and “development” in the city within the context of the Western Development Plan. The plan includes eradicating most of the city’s historic downtown and erasing many signs of Uyghur heritage, resulting in further cultural assimilation. Considering the significance of the city for Turkic history and ethnic affinity among the people of Turkey and the region, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu visited the city a couple of years ago and asked the Chinese government to protect the city’s historical landmarks. However, the recent reports reflected growing Sinicization of the city and increasing levels of poverty and estrangement among Uyghurs. Furthermore, the “development” also brings increasing Han migration to the city and gives them opportunities for employment at the expense of the local Uyghur population, leading a demographic threat. Studies show that the groups, which enjoy the benefits of “development” in most instances, are the newcomers instead of Uyghurs. In several different reports human rights organizations warned of the increasing ethnic restiveness in the region as a result of economic and spatial marginalization of Uyghurs in the city.
Kashgar is far from a unique case. In several different instances, the Beijing government attempted to “modernize” cities without protecting the local people and led to increasing ghettoization of them, destroying the ethnic balance in the region. In part this was a facet of the significant strategy for China to pacify the restive regions in its borderlands, including Tibet and East Turkistan. The paranoia of Balkanization in the 1990s led to Beijing’s harsh ‘strike hard` campaigns to eradicate any form of opposition and dissent activity in the region. The policy also served the Chinese government well in diverting attention from the problems of rapid economic modernization, such as an increasing income gap and high level of corruption, and the question of the state’s legitimacy after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. The government rallied its people around its flag of creating a “harmonious society” and protecting stability of the country and subsequently named any dissenting activity in the region as separatist, religious fundamentalist, or terrorist. The strike hard campaigns, however, turned out to be counterproductive in most instances. The number of demonstrations increased rapidly in the region and the people became estranged from the Chinese government.
With the independence of Central Asian republics, the increasing internationalization problem pushed China to deny the existence of the problem for the first time. Instead Beijing started to pursue regional cooperation to clamp down on Uyghur activity in Central Asia. Strike hard policies, which were pursued to protect domestic stability and form a “harmonious society” started to be adopted region wide. This time the Uyghur question was represented as a threat to regional stability. It formed one of the founding pillars of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. At several summits China bought the support of these nascent countries to round up Uyghur activists and extradite them to China whenever necessary. Although the people of Central Asia were in most instances sympathetic to the Uyghur cause, the authoritarian governments acted in accordance with the Chinese government in return for support for the sitting regimes in the region. Furthermore, cities like Kashgar started to be organized as a benchmark for the Chinese pivot to Central Asia and to increase its zone of influence in this region. The region was already a significant source of natural resources and fossil fuels for China’s rapidly increasing economy. With the independence of the Central Asian countries, the region became not only a transit zone for oil and natural gas from these countries but also became a springboard for Chinese economic activity. China’s increasing economic activity and its foreign aid to these countries in return for their support for China’s policy led to a pact between the Central Asian republics and China against the Uyghur question.
September 11th launched a new policy in the region and this time China was one of the first countries to join the global war on terror and for the first time announce the existence of terrorist networks in the region. It provided a fertile ground for China to restrict religious freedoms, freedom of expression and an excuse for the government to call any dissenting activity in the region terrorist activity. The discourse of China as a victim of international terrorism aimed to create international legitimacy for Beijing to suppress Uyghurs in the region and a shield for China to protect itself from international criticism and denunciation, whereas the discourse of the Chinese government fighting heroically against domestic terrorism aimed to unify the people of China behind the regime, to postpone any demands for political reform, and to create a national security state. This new image of the region as a bedrock of terrorism also fit nicely with the domestic orientalism that China had pursued for many years in the region. The binary opposition that Beijing fostered between Han Chinese and minorities and the role that China adopts as the modernizer of primitive, barbaric, counterrevolutionary, and finally terrorist people of its “Wild West” earned the government a sense of mission in the eyes of its own people.
All these policies led to further crackdowns on Uyghurs and strain in Han Chinese-Uyghur relations. The fact that the Uyghur image in China is increasingly identified with terrorism and anti-Uyghur discrimination is started to be reported is transforming the violence in the region to a communitarian level, just as occurred in Urumchi in 2009. Moreover, the three words, that spokesman used—terrorism, stability, and development—continue to endanger the cultural, economic, and physical existence of the Uyghur people.
The increasing timidity of Western democracies to pursue the principle of responsibility to protect at an international level is leaving the Chinese government with the freedom to oppress. Under these circumstances the US and other Western democracies must have something more to say than ‘calling parties to calm down’ if they want to remain relevant in the protection and promotion of human rights and liberties in Asia. The much commercialized and securitized pivot to Asia and rebalancing strategies lack a humanitarian face and continue to sacrifice human rights and liberties for the sake of trade. This will create not only a humanitarian disaster in the region but will also pave the way for a crisis of legitimacy for the policies of Western democracies.
*Penn State University, Erie