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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington--Xinjiang And Central Asia

Washington, 2 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - China's crackdown on Uighur activism in Xinjiang is likely to cast a larger shadow on the countries of Central Asia than will the Afghan fighting that has attracted so much attention both in that region and beyond.

And that is so despite the statements and reporting attending the arrival in Central Asia of Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

According to her aides, Ogata is there in anticipation of a flood of refugees from Afghanistan into Central Asia as the result of the Taliban advance into the northern part of that country.

But the Taliban advance has stalled, and the fears that brought Ogata to Central Asia have somewhat ebbed for the time being, even though her press officer suggested last Tuesday that a refugee flood "could still happen."

The Chinese crackdown, on the other hand, is very much in full swing. Its latest manifestation came on Thursday when the Chinese authorities in Urumqi executed eight and sentenced four others for a series of bus bombings there earlier this year.

The authorities imposed these sentences less to punish specific actions than to send a message to the increasingly restive Uighur minority that China will not tolerate any further separatist or Islamic activism.

Over the past year, the Muslim Uighurs have protested in various ways against Beijing's dispatch of ever more Han Chinese to the region, an influx that has reduced the Uighur share of the region's population to only 47 percent.

Beijing reported the latest executions not in the domestic Chinese press but only in news services directed at foreign audiences, the English-language China Daily and the Xinhua news service.

By not distributing the news at home, the Beijing authorities appear to be hoping both to continue to present their own society as one without significant problems and also to contain the nationalism of the Han Chinese.

The second of these may becoming a serious problem: Han Chinese officials in Xinjiang already sound more like Chinese nationalists than communist party stalwarts. And their attitudes may only exacerbate the feelings of Uighurs and the Han Chinese there.

And by distributing the news about the executions abroad, the Beijing authorities appear to be hoping to send a powerful signal to China's Central Asian neighbors that China will not tolerate any interference in what it defines as its own internal affairs.

The governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have deferred to China on this point already. They have promised not to provide any support or sanctuary for the Uighurs. And this latest report will give them yet another reason to continue that policy.

But Beijing's message may have a very different and unintended impact on the peoples of these countries, whose populations include Uighurs and other groups who see themselves as closely linked to the Islamic one just over the border in China.

Many of these people are likely to be infuriated with the Chinese authorities for their new efforts to wipe out a movement that seeks no more than the Central Asians themselves have achieved.

Even more important, at least some of these people are likely to be angry at their own governments for going along with the Chinese crackdown.

While most of the Central Asian regimes are far from perfect democracies, their leaders may decide to defer to the anger of their own populations lest that anger power political movements against themselves.

And to the extent that were to happen, it could trigger a fundamental shift in the geopolitics of inner Asia, a shift that might give the Uighur national movement a greater chance than it has had at any time since the Chinese communists seized power.

And that in turn would affect both the domestic development and foreign policy outlook of the Central Asian countries far more than would any likely refugee flow into the region from Afghanistan.