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China: Analysis From Washington -- Instability In The East

  • Paul Goble



Prague, 25 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A Chinese crackdown against separatism in its predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region is likely to affect Beijing's relations not only with the adjoining countries of Central Asia but with other states as well.

On the one hand, this latest Chinese move seems certain to undercut Beijing's ties with Central Asian states by highlighting Chinese antagonism to Muslims within its own borders.

On the other, this move appears likely to lead the Chinese to adopt a more sympathetic view of Russia and Moscow's efforts to revive and strengthen the Commonwealth of Independent States as a means to limit the influence of Central Asian countries on Xinjiang.

And taken together, these two shifts are thus likely to change the geopolitical dynamics of inner Asia, possibly affecting oil pipeline routes and political alliances of concern to governments much further away.

Xinjiang Communist Party chief Wang Lequan announced the latest crackdown in a January 16 speech. He said that his region is now "the constant target of separatists both inside and outside the country."

He added that the "crimes" of the separatists must be "severely and swiftly punished with greater force and vigorous measures." And in conclusion, he noted that "You must absolutely never give them even half a chance."

As if to punctuate his words, Chinese officials said Friday that a Xinjiang court had jailed 29 Muslim separatists. They said they were convicted for ethnic rioting, stealing money to support separatism, and attacking Muslims who had cooperated with Chinese authorities.

According to these reports, 27 of these were ethnic Uighurs and two were ethnic Kazakhs. All were between the ages of 20 and 30. And the reports noted that many of those sentenced had taken part in the February 1997 Yili riots that claimed at least nine lives.

These Chinese reports are interesting for both what they say and what they do not.

In the past, Beijing generally downplayed separatist sentiment in Xinjiang and has given little information about it. The fact that the Chinese are saying more suggests that the movement may be growing stronger and that Beijing is more worried about it.

But equally interesting is that these reports do not suggest that Xinjiang has been quiet since 1997. They do not argue that the separatists are isolated domestically and internationally. And they do not suggest that separatists are unsophisticated rural people.

Instead, the Chinese point out that the separatists are behaving in a sophisticated fashion, penetrating firms to get money for their activities and enjoying the support of their coethnics abroad.

While the Chinese have made this last point before, their willingness to reiterate it at a time when China is working hard to cultivate its relations with Muslim states in Central Asia is extremely noteworthy.

During the past several years, Beijing and its diplomats have worked hard to extract promises from the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan not to allow Uyghurs and other ethnic groups with close ties to communities in Xinjiang to operate on their territories.

Now both by cracking down on Muslim separatists in Xinjiang and even more by suggesting that such groups enjoy support from abroad, China is presenting a clear challenge to the governments of these countries, a challenge they will find difficult to meet.

If the governments in Astana and Bishkek clamp down on Uyghur groups on their territory to please the Chinese, that will only offend their own national constituencies given Beijing's recent increasingly anti-Islamic attitudes. But if these two governments do not do so, that will almost guarantee a confrontation between the two of them on one side and the Chinese on the other.

And either of these outcomes -- a decline in the authority of these governments in the eyes of the population or heightened tensions with China -- will have at least three broader consequences as well.

First, it will likely presage a Chinese rapprochement with Moscow in order to gain Moscow's help in reining in the Central Asian states.

Second, it will almost certainly complicate plans to find a pipeline route to the outside world for that region's immense petroleum reserves.

And third, the Chinese challenge and the Central Asian response may further erode Chinese influence in Islamic countries more generally, a trend that could reduce Beijing's role in Pakistan and elsewhere.

In this way, a Chinese pledge to crack down against separatism and a Muslim trial in the distant Xinjiang region are likely to reverberate far beyond their point of origin.
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