It is one of the possible ‘clashes’ that the late Sam Huntington alluded to in his landmark book about major world civilisations. Between the Sinic world and the Islamic one. Both have interacted with each other over millenia. Today, both have billion-strong populations, both wield immense power and exude wealth on a global scale, besides having ‘traditional spheres of influence’. Nevertheless, in the 21st century, a confrontation between the two was inevitable.
Today, 14 years into the new century, Huntington’s words seem prophetically true. China and Islam are clashing with each other. And the faultline is the continental crossroads of Xinjiang (East Turkistan to its native Uyghurs), deep in the heart of Central Asia. Since 2009, the region has been hurtling from one bloody tragedy to the next, underlining the simmering tensions among its native Uyghurs and migrant Han Chinese.
On May 22, 2014, two SUVs plowed into people gathered at an open market in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Explosives were tossed from the vehicles, before one of the SUVs exploded, leaving 31 dead and more than 90 others hurt.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack, but like in other incidents, the needle of suspiscion has pointed to Uyghur separatists fighting to free Xinjiang from Communist Chinese rule.
This is the latest in a string of attacks that have occurred all over China since 2009, all of which are related to the issue of Xinjiang.
The region first witnessed violence in July 2009, when Uyghur men went on a rampage, rioting against Han Chinese in Urumqi after reports filtered in that Han Chinese had killed two Uyghurs and assaulted many more in faraway Guangdong province in “China proper”. At least 200 people died in the riots.
In October 28, 2013, a jeep, purportedly driven by Uyghurs plowed into crowds in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five and injuring at least 40.
On March 1 this year, twenty-nine people were killed and 130 were injured when 10 men (thought to be ethnic Uyghurs) armed with long knives and meat cleavers stormed the railroad station in the southwest Chinese city of Kunming, stabbing and attacking people.
And on April 30, after Chinese President Xi Jinping had wrapped up a visit to Xinjiang, an explosion rocked the South Railway Station of Urumqi, followed by a knife attack at the same location. Three people died and 79 others were injured. Two people, described as religious extremists and part of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, were blamed for the incident. Both died in the blast.
And now this latest attack in Urumqi on Thursday. Suffice to say that the sporadic incidents that once were ocurring in Xinjiang against the Chinese state, are slowly taking the contours and shape of a full-fledged insurgency. In short, Beijing has serious trouble on its hands.
In order to understand the story of Xinjiang and its Uyghurs, one has to delve into the very history of Islam in China.
The ‘deen’ reached Chinese shores in 650 AD, when Saad Ibn Abi Waqqas, uncle of the Prophet and one of his ten companions or Sahaba, reached Guangzhou (Canton) during the reign of Tang Emperor Gaozong. Saad was received by the Emperor, who gave him permission to build the first masjid in China, the Huaisheng Mosque. Saad’s grave in Canton today is a pilgrimage site for Chinese Muslims.
Saad and his Arab companions may have also laid the foundations of that unique community of China, the Hui. In the centuries after Saad’s voyage, Muslim Arab and Persian merchants continued to visit Canton and other cities on China’s eastern seaboard. They married native Han women and settled in China. Their descendants are today called the Hui, culturally and ethnically related to the Han, the sole difference being of religion.
In the tenth century, the modern Uyghur nation as we know it today, took its shape, when Islam was introduced to Xinjiang by merchants travelling from the Turkic Muslim lands of Central Asia to China proper along the Silk Road. Till then, Xinjiang’s Turkic speaking Uyghurs had been predominantly Buddhist. Now, they had a new marker of identity: They were Turkic-speaking Muslims.
While Xinjiang has always been in the Chinese sphere of influence, it formally came under Peking’s rule in the 18th century, when China’s Manchu emperors incorporated Xinjiang, Tibet and other places into their domain in accordance with a strategic doctrine for the defense of their realm.
The first challenge to Qing rule in Xinjiang came in 1865, when the charismatic Tajik leader, Yakub Beg, overthrew Manchu/Qing rule in what is known as the Dungan Revolt and established Kashgaria, an independent Islamic emirate that lasted until 1877. Beg was however, defeated and Chinese sovereignty established over Xinjiang.
When the last Manchu emperor, Pu Yi stepped down in 1912, he bequeathed to his Republican heirs a China twice the size of the one his ancestors first took over.
However, Tibetans and Xinjiang’s Uyghurs stated that they had declared their allegiance to the Qing court and not to any other state. But China under Sun Yat Sen refused to let go of Xinjiang. The Koumintang, which followed the Republicans, also refused to let go of Xinjiang.
In 1933, Uyghur rebels declared independence and created the short-lived Islamic Republic of East Turkistan.
When the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Communist Party of China took over the province and in 1955, it was declared an autonomous region and given the new name of ‘Xinjiang’, meaning ‘new frontier’ in Mandarin.
The Chinese Communists have been even more brutal than their predecessors, the Qings, the Republicans and the Nationalists. Ever since they took over, millions of Han Chinese migrants have arrived in Xinjiang, displacing Uyghurs from their traditional lands. Currently, there are more than 8 million Han Chinese in Xinjiang, making up 41% of the region’s population. There are 10 million Uyghurs, constituting 43%. The Han have taken most of the new jobs, and unemployment among Uyghurs is high.
Even more worrying, Communist officials do not allow Uyghurs to fast during the month of Ramadan, select Imams for mosques and also decide the content of Khutbas, the Friday sermons.
Also, the Uyghur language, belonging to the Turkic family of languages and written in a modified Arabic script is being ignored, with Mandarin getting more and more patronage.
This, then is the saga of Chinese repression against its largest Muslim group. There are other groups professing Islam in China like the Kyrghyz, the Kazakh, the Salar and of course, the Hui. But most of them are either considered part of mainstream Han society (like the Hui) or are numerically too insignificant to cause any trouble.
What is even more intriguing is that even as China has been repressing the Uyghurs at home, it has, since the second half of the 20th century, making active efforts to court the Muslim (and especially Arab) world in a variety of ways.
In the heydays of post-colonialism after the Second World War, the Chinese had significantly interacted with Arab and Muslim nations as part of South-South cooperation.
But post-1979, when Deng Xiaoping ushered in economic reforms, heralding the ascent of China on the world’s economic and political stage, the dynamics of China’s interaction with the Arab and Muslim worlds have completely changed.
Through the 1990s, Chinese economic involvement in Islamic countries was modest and largely invisible. All that changed after 9/11, as Beijing stepped into the vacuum in Arab and Muslim societies, where America had vacated.
In little over a decade since 9/11, China has surpassed the United States as the foremost buyer of Middle East oil. Its exports to the West Asia have grown exponentially, nearly doubling between 2005 and 2009, according to statistics from the International Monetary Fund, and in 2010, China also surpassed the US as the leading exporter to the West Asia. Chinese imports and exports with the Arab world hit nearly $200 billion in 2011, and are expected to reach $300 billion in two years.
China has also encouraged investment by Arab businessmen in its economic centres. Hong Kong today is a gateway of sorts for Arab businessmen travelling to the mainland. Both, Hong Kong and mainland cities like Guangzhou and Yiwu have a burgeoning halal foods industry, besides being centres for Islamic finance.
Beijing has made various kinds of infrastructure investments in the Muslim world. Like building the Grand Mosque of Algiers the East-West Highway in Algeria and even the Mecca-Medina Light Rail system for Hajis visiting the holy cities.
From an Indian standpoint, China’s foremost ally in the Muslim world currently is Pakistan. Beijing, in pursuit of its strategic objectives against India, has invested heavily in Pakistan. From the Gwadar port in Baluchistan to the upcoming Metro Train in Lahore, Beijing is Islamabad’s all-weather friend. What is more, since both China and Pakistan have a common foe (India), both have forgotten everything else. While China supports Pakistan against India on Kashmir, the latter is willing to overlook Beijing’s atrocities on Uyghurs even as it harps about “India’s atrocities in Kashmir”.
Clearly, Beijing’s Janus-faced policies vis-a-vis Islam and Muslims had to unravel some day. Is the intensifying insurgency in Xinjiang a sign that this is indeed happening?
If the insurgency intensifies, obviously, Beijing is going to crack the whip. The state would crackdown even more on the hapless Uyghurs, which in turn could invite more reprisals. And China’s Arab and Muslim counterparts, who have so far looked the other way as far as Xinjiang is concerned, would be forced to finally confront Beijing. Will the insurgency endanger China’s prestige among the Ummah? That question can only be answered in the years to come.
And what about India? Should we gloat over China’s fate? Well, for one, China is too big, strong and powerful and does not need to be pitied. It can be expected to tackle the Xinjiang issue competently on its own. What India can wish though is that the Xinjiang affair would awaken the proverbial Chinese wisdom, in that China begins to at least understand India’s stand on Kashmir and stop its blind support to Islamabad. Only when it has itself been at the receiving end of an Islamist insurgency, would China be able to appreciate what India has gone through all these years. Of course, in the cold, hard world of international diplomacy and competing interests, it would be to much to expect this, but one can always hope.