Out of This World
“…more people probably worry whether giant pandas mate than whether the Uighurs can survive as a culture and a people”.
The Financial Times – August 6, 2008
One of the side-effects of the September 11 2001 attacks on the US was the way it enabled other countries to smuggle their unresolved conflicts under the umbrella of George W. Bush’s global “war on terror”. Russia’s assault on Chechnya suddenly became legitimate. Ariel Sharon got the green light to retake the West Bank by force. China adroitly used the opportunity to tar the Uighurs of Xinjiang, its biggest and westernmost province, with the brush of al-Qaeda.
Now, on the eve of the Olympics, Beijing would have us believe the games are under threat from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a tiny Uighur group that China persuaded Mr Bush, in his “either with us or against us” mood, to put on the US terrorist list. Monday’s incident in Xinjiang, in which 16 policemen were allegedly killed by Uighur separatists, may cause some alarm but the essential thesis is spurious.
And no wonder. Their cause is almost unknown. A cultured people who founded the first Turkic state in the 10th century and published the first works of Turkish literature, the Uighurs had an episodic autonomy that ended with their forced assimilation by the People’s Liberation Army in 1949. Since then their culture, language and Muslim religion have been engulfed by Han Chinese colonisation. Discrimination over jobs and housing has only worsened with the discovery of oil and mineral wealth in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is in a similar situation to Tibet. But it lacks the religious radiation provided by the Dalai Lama or, in another context, a city built on combustible history like Jerusalem. It has no high-profile Hollywood star such as Richard Gere to emote for it; more people probably worry whether giant pandas mate than whether the Uighurs can survive as a culture and a people. If only they were Buddhists.
Yet their restiveness is a flickering if forlorn hope that something like the break-up of the Soviet Union might happen to China, not a response to al-Qaeda. But if Beijing continues its bulldozer approach to minorities and robs the Uighurs of their identity, it could incite jihadism. China’s interpretation of the Olympics slogan “One World, One Dream” is not universally shared.