Last week�s riots in Urumqi, resulting in 180 deaths, recall
similar protests in Tibet last year, though only 19 people were killed there.
Both Uighurs and Tibetans exiles demonstrated during the Chinese Olympics, to
Both regions, remote from the heart of Han China, were taken
over under the Communists, and are important strategically and as storehouses
of mineral wealth to feed the new capitalist China�s voracious appetite. They
remind us that old-fashion colonialism is alive and well. Neither the Uighurs
nor the Tibetans have any hope of independence, but they rightly would like the
Han to be less greedy and invasive.
As in Tibet, it is the flood of Han immigrants and the
wholesale destruction of the local culture that is the problem. The massive recent
influx of Han Chinese, who now make up more than 50 percent of the population
(70 percent in the major cities Urumqi and Kashgar), has reduced Uighurs to a
minority in their homeland, ominously called �Xinjiang� (New Frontier) in
Chinese. The use of �Eastern Turkestan,� the traditional name for this region,
is outlawed, along with the blue star-crescent Uighur flag. Ethnic Han Chinese
dominate nearly all big businesses in the region. All Uighurs must study
Chinese, and very few Uighurs can dream of going to university.
Like the Kurds, they have no official state, only a hollow
autonomous region, along with large diaspora communities in Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and the West. They number 8-10 million worldwide. There
are Uighur neighborhoods in Beijing and Shanghai. Their history is the story of
a nomadic tribe from the Altai Mountains rising to challenge the Chinese
empire, founding their own in the 8th century, which stretched from the Caspian
Sea to Manchuria. Because of their strategic location on the Silk Road, they
thrived on trade. They came under Han sovereignty only in the 17th century, but
after numerous revolts expelled Qing officials in 1864 and founded an
independent Kashgaria kingdom, recognized by the Ottoman Empire, Russia and Great
Britain, which even had a mission in the capital, Kashgar. As usual British
support depended on its imperial schemes and when the Chinese attacked in 1876,
fearing Tsarist expansion, Great Britain supported the Manchu invasion forces.
The Brits (excuse me, the Manchus) �won� and East Turkestan became Xinjiang.
The Soviets established the Revolutionary Uighur Union in
1921, but dissolved the organization in 1926 when Stalin abandoned dreams of
world revolution. Undeterred, Uighur independence activists staged several
uprisings, briefly in 1933 and then in 1944.
In 1949, East Turkestan�s revolutionaries agreed to form a
confederacy within Mao�s People�s Republic of China; however, on the way to
Beijing to negotiate the terms, the Chinese plane crashed, killing all the
leaders. The Chinese army immediately invaded what is now Xinjiang Uighur
Autonomous Region. As with the Tibetans a decade later, East Turkestan Republic
loyalists went into exile.
Uprisings occurred through the 1990s, supported by exiles in
the West and Western governments, which are happy to use disgruntled
expatriates from countries such as Iraq, Iran, China and Russia as geopolitical
pawns, promoting unrest and calling for independence. The World Uighur Congress
(WUC), based in Munich, and the Uighur American Association work hand-in-glove
with the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy.
The Uighurs and Tibetans have old and unique cultures which
the Chinese would do well to respect and nurture within greater China. But supporting
the independence struggle is part of a cynical geopolitical chess game, and
merely worsens the Uighurs� plight. We are reminded of Britain�s scheming there
in the 19th century. If Britain had stood by the Uighurs then, there would
probably be an Uighuristan today. Instead, the destruction of Urumqi and the
Old City in Kashgar continue. The latter will soon be a theme park where
Uighurs will dress up and sell Han tourists plastic souvenirs.
However, Chinese colonialism -- veni, vidi, vici --
pales in comparison to the US/ British variant in nearby Afghanistan: We come,
destroy, and murder in the name of freedom. It is repulisively hypocritical for
the Western press to take such delight in exposing China�s dirty linen, as it
slavishly hails US neo-imperial ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Uighurs
riot, US drones massacre hundreds of innocent Afghans and Pakistanis, and Obama
sends thousands more troops to Afghanistan in a mission that makes China�s
arrogant encroachment on Eastern Turkistan look like an act of selfless
With huge new bases in Afghanistan and 90,000 troops, the
death toll on both sides is skyrocketing as Afghans prepare to �elect� the
hated -- by both Afghans and Americans -- Hamid Karzai on August 20. The new US
strategy is designed to reduce civilian casualties, according to General
Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of NATO forces in the country, though �a
price worth paying,� he assures us.
But civilian deaths are increasing. Twenty-two Afghans were
killed in the central Ghazni province in an airstrike last week. And crime
knows no borders, as 59 �militants� were killed just last week in neighboring
South Waziristan by US drones, just days after a US missile strike there killed
16. The airstrikes are said to be aimed at militants, but Pakistani news
outlets say only one in six have targeted Taliban insurgents in the country.
More than 500 Pakistanis -- most of them civilians -- have been killed over the
past year in the US drone strikes.
In any case, the terms civilian and militant are
meaningless, as most so-called militants are local boys fighting the infidel
invader, as they have every right to do. It would be more accurate to call them
resistance heroes or martyrs. Their deaths are just as criminal as the deaths
of children and women.
McChrystal�s boys are also dropping like flies with his new
strategy. There were 82 Taliban attacks in June, compared with 24 in June 2007,
killing 23 troops. On one day, 6 July, seven American troops were killed, the
highest casualty rate recorded since the invasion. British fatalities since
2001 reached 184 last week when eight British soldiers were killed in 24 hours,
surpassing the new US record. This compares to the 179 British deaths during
the six-year military campaign in Iraq.
There are a few voices of sanity, even if retired and hence
powerless. Drones are described by retired British lawmaker Lord Bingham as �so
cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance� and should be outlawed along
with cluster bombs and landmines. But current Western �leadership� stands
firmly behind the Bush wars. The slaughter is in fact accelerating under Obama.
What unites China and the US these days, is how they justify
their respective crimes by blaming them on Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, a
bogeyman that was created by the US itself during its earlier anti-communist
phase. Uighur �terrorists� at Guantanamo were finally released, but China
insists they are devotees of this bin Laden and wants them back.
Both the support of secessionists and the creation of the
likes of bin Laden are examples of the infiltration of the enemy to subvert it
from within -- an age-old tactic. The Pakistani Taliban leader Mehsud�s
ex-comrade Qari Zainuddin, critical of Mehsud�s policy of blowing up mosques
and schools, accused Mehsud of being an American and Mossad agent. �These
people are working against Islam,� he said last week, shortly before he was
assassinated. Where does Mehsud get his sophisticated arms?
Afghanistan�s unending torment is very useful to the US,
bringing Europe and Russia into line, as Obama�s summit in Moscow revealed.
Initially after 2001, all of Central Asia and Russia were in thrall to America�s
�Operation Enduring Freedom,� though there have been snags. Under Obama, things
are back on track. Now even isolationist Turkmenistan has agreed to allow the US
military to use its airbases. With its new lease to the US of Manas airport,
Kyrgyzstan is back on board the US gravy train to Afghanistan.
Is all this part of a new Great Game, this time directed not
against Russia, but even using Russia as part of a long-term strategy to
contain the rising powerhouse China? The Chinese point the finger for the
recent unrest at the WUC, Washington-based Rebiya Kadeer and the spread of
rumors over the Internet to incite and coordinate riots. President George W
Bush lauded Kadeer more than once as an �apostle of freedom.�
Whatever its claims to be supporting the cause of freedom,
etc, the US clearly assists the expatriates to foment unrest and destabilize
China. This was and is being openly done in the case of Iraq and Iran. It most
certainly will backfire for the poor Uighurs, who can only expect more
repression. Any sincere attempt to help preserve Uighur culture and civil
rights -- in particular the destruction of the Old City of Kashgar -- should be
carried out through, say, UNESCO, not covertly to incite civil war. The best
scenario for an easing of the Uighurs� plight, of course, would be if the US
operated on a policy of promoting peace and of not threatening and plotting
against other nations. Alas.
Perhaps the Chinese and Russians are tolerating US meddling
in Central Asia in line with the age-old strategy of playing off your enemies
against each other -- in this case, the Americans and the Taliban. Recall
Truman�s famous quip: �If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help
Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them
kill as many as possible, although I don�t want to see Hitler victorious under
any circumstances.� It can just as well be used against the Americans today.
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at ericwalberg.com.