Research Officer (IReS), IPCS
Beijing, thus, knowingly and/or unknowingly fuels the very unrest it has been trying to put an end to. Furthermore, China has, over the past few years, begun to equate Islam (the religion followed by most Uyghurs in the XUAR) to extremism – a regressive approach that will not only not resolve the unrest, but also further frustrate any effort towards the resolution of the issue.
The Core of Beijing’s Misinformed Strategies
In order to ensure sustainable stability in the XUAR, Beijing must take a fresh look at the Uyghurs and view and treat them as potential stake-holders who have shared interests in ensuring stability and peace in the region. Co-opting the Uyghurs by genuine means will automatically bring down the level of unrest drastically.
Today, the Uyghur region is in the exact geopolitical and geo-economic situation it found itself in, a few centuries ago, when trade on the Silk Route was still fully functional. A case in point is that in 2012, the GDP of the XUAR stood at $122 billion, a $94 billion rise from $28 billion in 2004. In fact, the role of the Uyghurs and the Region too is exactly the same: a buffer zone for the ruling entity that sat in the mainland, yet strategically important for trade and security.
If the CPC leadership makes a genuine attempt to understand the history of Islam in china, it would know that there was a potent mix of peaceful actors throughout the ages. That Islam of various kinds, including Sufi Islam, spread to and settled in China as early as during the Tang Dynasty – that ruled China from 618-907 AD – means that the religion has a rich and long history in the country. Therefore, viewing the Uyghurs’ demands of cultural rights should not be misinterpreted as a new phenomenon that is a result of hard-line Wahhabi indoctrination. On the contrary, the Uyghurs have historically detested the hard-line interpretations of Islam. A case in point is the strong opposition to the rigid Hanafi policies imposed by Tajik Commander of the then Khanate of Kokand, Yakub Beg, who briefly conquered the region in 1867.
China would do well to address the Uyghur issue by focusing separately but simultaneously on three areas: social freedoms, security, and inclusiveness.
Only those individuals that actually carry out violent attacks must be viewed from a security lens. Those who criticise CPC policies will have to be engaged instead of being labelled simply as separatists. Once the socio-economic concerns are genuinely addressed, any sympathies and/or support for the violent extremists such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and/or separatism will reduce considerably.The remainder can easily be tackled using its own security apparatus as well as with a little help from the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.