Rioting last week between ethnic Han Chinese and ethnic Uighurs in China's Xinjiang Province left 180 people dead and 1,000 injured. Chinese police and paramilitary forces arrested 1,500.
The Beijing government insistently weighs media coverage of China. The ethnic clashes so troubled Chinese President Hu Jintao that he left the G-8 economic summit. Hu's hasty departure, in front of the cameras of every global news organization, indicates how serious the Chinese government views the violence in its far northwestern province.
Though officially designated the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the region is not autonomous and, as time passes, less Uighur. Beijing dominates provincial politics, which is one reason the region's 9 million Uighurs chafe. For the Turkic and predominantly Sunni Muslim Uighurs, Beijing's policy of "Sinicization" is a key source of friction. The policy promotes the centralization of Chinese state authority on China's periphery, in the "delicate" border areas that make Beijing very nervous.
The migration of ethnic Han Chinese is another facet. The Han and Han sub-groups are the dominant ethnic group in China, and to ethnic Uighur activists, the slow but massive Han migration into Xinjiang amounts to cultural and ethnic drow
ning, and eventual Uighur assimilation as the Han population swells.
The Tibetans make the same accusation for the same reasons. Tibetans have rioted -- in 2008, 200 Tibetans died in a Beijing-ordered crackdown.
Uighurs, like Tibetans, have had their own state. An East Turkestan Republic briefly existed in the 1940s as distracted Chinese nationalists and communists fought the Japanese and their own civil war. The victorious communist army returned in 1949, and East Turkestan disappeared from the map. It has not disappeared from Uighur memory, however, as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) indicates.
ETIM is a testament to Uighur desperation. It is an al-Qaida affiliate. Radical Islamists offer money, weapons training and promises. Follow Osama bin Laden, and when he establishes the global caliphate, Islamist Uighurs will rule a revived East Turkestan, just like Spanish Muslims will reconquer Spain. The four recently released Guantanamo Bay Uighurs (arrested in Afghanistan, now starting a restaurant in Bermuda) likely fell for such propaganda.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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