China’s approach of political caution and alacrity to crush ethnic identities and cultural selves has struck again with the recent decision by its authorities of “banning 22 Muslim first names” in the Hotan prefecture in northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This is being interpreted as the latest manifestation of the administration’s tight-fisted control and rule in Xinjiang, and adds to violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur community, forced handover of passports to local police, mass round-ups and round-the-clock patrols.
The Uyghurs have frantically been struggling for socio-cultural survival in the face of a massive influx of government-supported Han Chinese migration. In reflection, the 9/11 attacks on the US rendered Beijing far more wary of a potential direct threat to its own security. Ever since 2001, it appeared that the Chinese initiative was to equate protests that sought for greater political, social, religious, and cultural autonomy, with terrorism, regardless of whether the separatist groups use political means or otherwise. Today, there is harsh repression of any form of debate, dissension, and the confrontation of ideas across China, however peaceful and law-abiding it may be. The common thread of political and social repression that is visible all across China remains intensely pronounced throughout Xinjiang.
It can be inferred through many accounts that China has surreptitiously been clubbing most protests as “acts of terror”, and has identified four specific groups inside Xinjiang, which threaten Chinese security. This includes the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which was designated as a terrorist group by the UN in 2002. Beijing also issued its first ever “terrorist list” which included the Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organisation (ETLO), World Uighur Youth Congress (WUYC), and the East Turkistan Information Centre (ETIC).
Incidents of sporadic protests by the Uyghurs seeking greater religious and cultural freedom are being met with rigorous crackdowns by the administration by means of slapping further restrictions on religious practices, to such an extent that Xinjiang is fast becoming a garrison province with brute military presence. The global anti-terror campaign has conveniently been channelised by Beijing to suit its domestic agenda of suppressing legitimate political dissent among China’s Muslim population, and its subdual and isolation.
The significance of Xinjiang also gets underscored owing to it being China’s gateway to Central Asia via Afghanistan. Reportage of Chinese ground troops inside Afghanistan, conducting joint counter-terror patrols with the Afghan forces along a 50-mile stretch of their shared border in the Afghan province of Badakhshan has been doing the rounds. Presence of Chinese military vehicles Dongfeng EQ 2050—a Chinese equivalent of the American Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, Humvee—has been reported from inside a region called Little Pamir, a barren plateau near the border. Training of the Afghan border police inside China is well known along with the force being provided with bulletproof jackets, demining equipment and armoured police vehicles. While Beijing maintains that its police forces conduct joint counter-terrorism operations along the border, it denies any involvement of the People’s Liberation Army.
The mountains without roads tend to block the access for vehicles from the Afghan and Chinese sides. Thus the border patrols being discussed above are likely to have been conducted via Tajikistan primarily since, the high plateau of Little Pamir is accessible from Tajikistan’s side. In September 2016, China signed an agreement with Tajikistan, pledging the construction of 11 outposts and a training centre for the Tajik border guards along the Afghan-Tajik border. A month later China and Tajikistan reportedly held counter-terrorism exercises in the Tajik part of the Wakhan Corridor—the narrow stretch of Afghan territory, wedged in between Tajikistan and Pakistan with the short border with China at its very end.
The Chinese have long been suspicious of illicit cross-border movements of alleged Uyghur extremists affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement around this region. Perceptibly, the Chinese government holds incentives to publicise the nature of Uyghur unrest in the harshest possible light, by picking and choosing sporadic incidents to report, and often attributing separatist motives to seemingly unrelated incidents of violence and protest. It has been observed that Chinese sources often lump together all Uyghur separatist incidents, irrespective of them being violent or not.
The issue of global terrorism and its gruesome fallout should not get obfuscated with the contentious issues of human rights violations and ethnic cleansing. The suppression of the movement in Xinjiang for protection of the fundamental right to secure its religious and cultural autonomy and identities needs far greater attention by the global community. Xinjiang will continue to be stained with blood, unless the culture, language, religion, education, and work of the Uyghur community are preserved.