China, Maitra: “Xinjiang is not a religious, but an economical issue”
European Affairs interviewed Ramtanu Maitra (analyst with the US-based Eir magazine. He contributes regularly in three Indian defense quarterlies: Aakrosh, Agni and the Indian Defence Review. He used to write on South Asia in the Asia Times online) to speak about Beijing “will have to move westward in order to bring over land oil and gas from Central Asia and Arabia”. And Xinjiang where Islam that “is surely not a major issue for the Uyghurs”.
For the Uyghurs, do the issues of independence and religion go hand in hand?
“Religion is surely not a major issue for the Uyghurs. They do not seem to be ready to lay down their lives to protect their religion. But when a number of other factors that disturb them come into play against a powerful front, such as the Han-led Beijing, religious identity is displayed. Particularly since adherents of Islam, many of whom are victims of colonial West in the past, have begun to assert themselves in recent years, to display religion on their shirtsleeves is surely considered an effective weapon. Beijing has shown little competence in dealing with the Muslims and does not seem to realize that to dishonor Muslims, even in China where Muslims are a very small minority, it could mean localized trouble that Beijing may have to curb by using state’s authority, which often overlooks compassion and legality. Not allowing the Uyghurs, even to a handful of them who are in the workforce, not to fast during the Ramadan is a policy which could bring together the more assertive Uyghurs and get them in direct contact with more aggressive Muslims who are in the lookout to declare Jihad against any non-Islamic country”.
“I think most Uyghurs are not interested in seeking independence. There could be a few who do so, but majority of the Uyghurs just do not want to get swamped by the Hans. Since Beijing has adopted the policy of developing at least a minimal infrastructure in the western China ( read: Xinjiang) in order to gain an access to Central Asia, South Asia and Southwest Asia, it has brought in , and will be bringing in more in the future, many Hans from east of Xinjiang. These Hans are skilled, better paid and have come to settle down in Xinjiang to raise their families”.
“All these are issues with the Uyghurs, who really want to be left alone. However, that is not going to happen. While many Uyghurs will take it lying down this demographic change, undermining their absolute majority in Xinjiang ( not that different from what happened or what is happening in Tibet) over the years, some will stand up indignantly declaring it as a state policy to obliterate their identity, culture, their way of life and impose upon them the culture to be obedient to the Hans. The latter group of Uyghurs may talk about independence, but they cannot, like the Tibetans, can build up a case to justify their independence from China, a massive power. At the same time, many Uyghurs, who, and whose forefathers, had lived a hard life, welcome the developments that Beijing is bringing into Xinjiang. There is no way the rebellious Uyghurs can bring under one umbrella the entire community on a very abstract cause such as independence from China”.
Has the repopulation of Xinjiang, through the shifting of the Han there in the last 15 years, had a contrary effect with respect to Beijing’s aim to suppress the Uyghurs requests?
“Beijing’s policy to bring in Hans into Xinjiang during the last 15 years is not to undermine the Uyghurs. As I have pointed out earlier, China needs to develop an infrastructure to gain access to its West where seas of oil and gas exists that Beijing could use effectively to sustain and grow its economy. The process has unleashed migration of many Hans to Xinjiang, the Uyghur land, one may call it. The process has also modernized ,and will continue to modernize further, strips of Xinjiang. Uyghurs will draw benefit from all that, but they will also have to come into a daily contact with the Hans, many of whom have little understanding of Islamic do’s and don’t’s, their culture and the isolationist attitude of the Uyghurs. Some Hans may even go as far as trying to prove a phony Han superiority over the Uyghurs. These differences may result in clashes and conflicts from time to time, but there is no reason to believe that over many years, these two ethnic groups will not be able to live side by side”.
“Going back to answering your question, I believe Beijing’s policy is not to suppress the Uyghurs but loaded with non-compassion, Beijing saw no reason to make real social efforts to integrate the Uyghurs with the rest of China. On the other hand, if China wanted to suppress the Uyghurs, why didn’t Beijing bring in the Hans into Xinjiang between 1950 and 2000? They did not bring in the Hans into Xinjiang, because China was not involved then in its newly-adopted Silk Road economic policy”.
Does the fact that over 200 Chinese have gone to combat in Syria since 2012 make China one of the most at-risk countries as regards the Jihadi threat?
“No. This is ridiculous. If thousands of Islamic radicals have not posed a serious threat to 64 million Brits, why 200 radicals would pose any sort of problem to a nation of 1.2 billion? It will not. But what China does not want is being forced to use his hammer to deal with the Uyghurs. China wants a “peaceful rise”, that is its constant refrain. Violent acts to curb the Uyghur uprisings, however small those could be, would be played up by the western media in bold headlines and will be seized upon by the powers-that-be in the West to showcase that China, in essence, is ruthless, intolerant to other religious groups and will readily exercise force when it cannot get its way”.
The passage of the new Silk Road and the presence of oil and gas resources. Is economics the real driver behind Beijing’s anti-Islam policy in Xinjiang?
“A yes-and-no is my answer to that question. China will have to move westward in order to bring over land oil and gas from Central Asia and Arabia. But China will also need to bring in many mineral reserves in order to keep its factories churning out varieties of products. But it is not going to be an one-way road. China, with its very broad and capable production base, will actively seek markets in Central Asia, Southwest Asia, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Crimea Europe et al. Already in Kyrgyzstan almost every item that is sold in the market carries the label: “Made in China”. That is the “yes” part of my answer”.
“The “no” part of the answer is that China is not doing this as an anti-Islam policy in Xinjiang. All the countries in China’s west who are expected to provide China an access to their valuable energy sources and many mineral reserves, with the exception of Russia and Georgia, are all Muslim nations. The “Stan” nations, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the entire Arabia are Islam-dominated nations. Beijing has so far been less than sensitive to the Uyghurs, at least as of now, but it is not foolish. It knows which side of the bread is buttered and who provides and butters it”.