It is all too easy to make sweeping judgments about recurrent violence in Xinjiang. Western human-rights groups and Uyghur exiles accuse China of systematic repression of aspirations for an independent republic of East Turkestan. On the other side of the barricades, ultra-nationalists – among them Han residents and Dzungar Mongols- call for the crushing of a hatred-driven minority that seeks to impose Turkic imperialism and sharia law on other nationalities. Hotheaded emotionalism on both sides is fueling an urge for violence that could thwart any dialogue toward positive solutions.
Lost in translation is the fact that Xinjiang’s troubles are not unique but widespread among the fast-developing economies of once-remote Inner Asia. The ethnic tensions in Urumchi are not as extreme at the brutal Kyrgyz-Uzbek conflicts in Kyrgyzstan, nor has religious extremism been as divisive an issue in Xinjiang as it is in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. These sorts of strains and skirmishes should not be blown out of proportion. The Silk Road is not just a unifying path for trade and cultural exchange – for centuries it has also been also a highway for spreading warlordism, ethnic conflicts, political ideologies and religious crusades.
Each violent incident out west has its specific root causes. In the majority of cases, the motivating factors have been economic, specifically local grievances against the favoritism toward business interests aligned with the provincial government. The rapid development of China’s west – expansion of transport infrastructure, energy resources, urban investment, trade in farm commodities and bank lending – tends to benefit well-connected players or newcomers.
The older generation of traders, craftsmen, vendors and suppliers have come under steady pressure from better-financed competitors. For example, street vendors turning kebabs over the grill are losing up-market clients to spacious and gorgeously adorned restaurants owned by Hui Muslims, Han operators or Uyghur families with the right connections to capital. Traditional bazaars are yielding retail sales to air-conditioned malls frequented by Uyghur teenagers dressed in jeans and the latest Chinese streetwear and who have no desire to don traditional costumes.
The Underworld Goes Global
The spark plug for violence often arises from the trucking networks and day laborers who are increasingly squeezed by stagnant wages, consumer inflation and the rising price of fuel. Many individuals in this mobile but poor subgroup have links to the “informal economy” or underworld that engages in the smuggling of goods into Central Asia and trafficking Afghan opium into China. The mafias of Central Asia have been increasingly internationalized in the decade since the collapse of the puritanical Taliban regime in Afghanistan.The Afghan conflict vastly expanded the trade in opium, human organs, boy prostitutes, weapons and money laundering through Central Asia into Turkey, Europe and East Asia.
As for the informal economy, exile leader Rebiya Kadeer did not become the richest person in Xinjiang by selling Hami melons and women’s garments, according to her CIA handlers. Her rise to business prominence coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its truck industry, when Xinjiang-based long-haul truckers took over the routes out of then warlord-controlled and opium-exporting Afghanistan.
Some of the Urumchi protesters two years ago, notably women who coordinated the attacks, were influenced by propaganda and training from the Gray Wolves organization, based in Turkey and now established across Central Asia. The Wolves are a pan-Turkic movement, which cooperated with the CIA during the Cold War as an anti-Soviet paramilitary force. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, their youth camps in Kazakhstan attracted hundreds of young Uyghurs to their strategy of creating a vast Turkish-speaking empire from the Mongolian steppes to the Black Sea. The Turkic revivalism was grafted onto the defunct Republic of East Turkestan, which was originally inspired by the Bolshevik agitator Nicolai Bukharin, whose Jewish family had roots in Central Asia, and later realized under Josef Stalin.
Despite the thin veneer of pan-Turkic imperialism, the 2009 street-fighting in Urumchi and Kashgar was primarily a battle to gain control over these most lucrative trading capitals with routes into Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia. In that sense, the contest for the alleyways of Urumchi are not much different from the turf-wars between gangs in Miami or Istanbul. Until the market is divided to each bloc’s satisfaction, the local police and security guards will just have to hold the line against excessive brutality. Welcome to the underworld of Urumchi Vice – that is the nature of raw capitalism at street level anywhere.
Spillover from the Caucasus
A more unusual case was the mid-July mob assault on a police station in Hotan, which reportedly had a religious dimension. Though some of the details remain sketchy, the chain of events was reportedly as follows:
On July 17, the police detain two men who were casing the station and allegedly carried knives. On the following day, a crowd of about 100 protesters gather outside, chanting Islamic slogans, apparently to demand the release of the suspect pair. The group storms the police station, set fire to an office and slash two Han women and an officer in the melee. The officers open fire on the intruders, killing 14 people. Among the articles confiscated were two banners, proclaiming “God is great”, which the protesters had apparently aimed to hang from the roof in triumph.
The reemergence of Salafist influence in western China is a curious development that coincides with the timeline of events in Chechnya and the troubled Caucasus region. The Salafists are orthodox Islamists, based in the Arabian Peninsula, who stress strict adherence to daily practices and support the spread of jihad. The first instance of Salafi militancy among Uyghurs was quickly smashed by Kyrgyz authorities a decade ago. In May 2000, a court in Osh sentenced five men on terrorism charge related to a plot to carve out the state of Uyguristan out of China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The guerrilla cell was allegedly formed on orders from the legendary Saudi-born warlord in Chechnya Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwallem, known his nom de guerre taken after the Second Caliph Omar Ibn Khattab. As commander of the Arab Mujahideen brigade in the two Chechen wars of the 1990s, Khattab led his Arab officers and Turk foot soldiers to score lopsided victories against the Russian forces.
His affinity with Turks came via his mother, a Jordanian citizen of Circassian descent. The largest cluster of Circassians, the oldest ethnic group in the Northern Caucausus,, live in exile in Turkey. Though his Turkish soldiers, Khattab encountered the Uyghur cause. One of Khattab’s recruits captured by the Russian Army was an Uyghur refugee from Turkey who was eventually deported to China. Khattab then crafted a new formula for spreading a Chechen-style rebellion into China and Central Asia by combining Salafist religious jihad with the Gray Wolves’ East Turkestan political ideology.
Khattab never lived to see the birth of his new Uyghur empire, dying in 2002 by poison planted on a letter from his mother that had been intercepted by Russian intelligence. Upon his passing, many of his Uyhgur guerrillas went over to Ruslan Gelayev, an opportunistic warlord allied with the much-celebrated and often-reviled Chechen guerrilla chieftain Shamil Basayev. Gelayev, under ever-tighter Russian pressure, planned to set up a new headquarters with his Uyghur followers in Central Asia, but was trapped and gunned down in early 2004 on the Dagestan border.
Through its cooperation with the CIA, following 911, Russian intelligence agencies became increasingly effective in tracking down and assassinating a succession of Islamist commanders in the Caucasus. 2004 was a vintage year for bloodletting with the shootout death of Gelayev and the bombing in Doha, Qatar, that liquidated the Chechen paymaster, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Former president of the Chechya Republic that briefly existed between the two Chechen wars, Yandarbiyev was a hardline Salafist, who had earned the trust of the Emir of Qatar. As such, he was intensely disliked by many leaders of the Sufi-dominated Chechen community.
The militant Uyghur escapades in Chechnya ended only last year with the shooting death of Khaled Yusuf Muhammada al-Emirate, better known by his contracted name Muhannad, the last in the line of successors to Khattab. Due to the impossible odds in the Caucasus, many Salafist fighters returned to Turkey, Qatar or slipped incognito into Central Asia, among them a handful of surviving Uyghur jihadists.
Salafist Comeback in Libya
This year’s Salafist-led rebellion in Libya, backed by the Western powers, pumped new blood into Islamist militancy worldwide. In Xinjiang, the U.S.-promoted Jasmine Revolution provided water for the seed planted by Omar Ibn Khattab. The question remains: Can that tender sprout of an Islamist Republic of East Turkestan survive under the blistering heat of a sun that rises out of the east?
Despite the enthusiasm displayed by the Hotan protesters, their assault on a police station is unlikely to trigger a Chechnya-style rebellion. The geographic challenges are simply too intimidating for would-be mujahideen. There is no Pankisi Gorge for Uyghur radicals based in Turkey and Georgia to infiltrate into western China. The path lies through Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which are showing zero enthusiasm for surrendering their lands to a new Uyghuristan. The notoriously corrupt Emirate of Qatar now stands exposed for its interventions against other Arab states and thereforre has no reliable channel for bankrolling Salafist rebels in Xinjiang Wishful thinking is not going to transform Kashgar into a Benghazi.
The Jasmine Revolution is taking a fatal turn as secular regimes counterattack, spelling doom to Islamist activists in Syria, Egypt and Libya. For devout followers of the Wahabi school of Islam, the Arab Spring has failed to protect their umma, or spiritual community, and has only brought more sacrifice and suffering to no avail. Just causes with international support such as the U.N.-mandated referendum for Kashmir or Palestinian statehood have fallen by the wayside in the fratricidal bloodbath across the Mideast and North Africa.
Salafism and slaughter are exactly what the predominantly Sufi Uyghurs do not need when they are trying to define their economic position in the fast-growing economies of Inner Asia. As cross-border traders and investors, the more ambitious and intelligent Uyghurs can thrive as middlemen of the Silk Road. As guerrillas and warlords, however, the young radicals will be trapped inside an ever-tightening Caucasian circle of no-win nihilism and early death.
Yoichi Shimatsu is Editor at Large for April Media.