With China coming under increasing criticism for its actions in Xinjiang particularly treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, the two-day visit of President Xi Jinping to the region is of immense geo-strategic significance. He last visited the region eight years ago before the present crackdown, seen as genocide, was unleashed on the Uyghur minority.
“Xi’s visit certainly is a symbol that Beijing feels firmly in control of the region,” avers Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Opinion is divided, though.
Because, President Xi with his visit is signalling a two-fold message to the world – firstly that his regime does not accept the US-led global criticism and secondly that there is no question of relaxing the iron grip over Xinjiang which serves as a direct link to Central Asian, West Asian and European markets. Moreover, Xinjiang is at the heart of his flagship programme, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is from here the BRI show piece, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) takes off to provide a direct access to the Arabian coast.
No surprise, President Xi went gaga saying that “with the deepening of the construction of the Belt and Road, Xinjiang is no longer remote area, but a “core area and hub” in BRI initiative. And patted the local apparatchiks: “You’re doing something of historical significance and have achieved good results.”
The Chinese news agency Xinhua circulated a photo showing a maskless Xi surrounded by smiling and clapping residents, many of them appearing to be Uyghurs wearing ethnic costumes and Muslim prayer caps. The photo and the very visit are no more than a PR exercise. It barely hides the fact that Beijing is rattled by the spectre of sanctions and consequent loss of global market that its practices among the Uyghurs have invited.
Like it did in Tibet, in Xinjiang, known as “a living ethnological museum”, with 14 different nationalities, also, China is attempting a massive demographic transformation, while tapping into its vast deposits of coal, gold, tungsten, oil, tin, silver, copper, lead and salt. It is said that uranium also exists in such large quantities to make Xinjiang a prime source of supply of the nuclear material.
As a result, the population of Han Chinese in the region reached 40 percent in 2010 from a meagre 6 percent in 1945. They have captured the job market with as many as 65 percent of Han Chinese employed in the secondary and tertiary sector. Bulk of the locals that 81 per cent of the indigenous population makes a living on agriculture and allied activities.
The demographic changes and increased economic exploitation have given rise to ethnic discord, which the CCP is blaming on separatism, violent extremism and terrorism. To keep its hold, it has let loose a reign of repression that has only heightened bitterness. Clashes have become a common occurrence at the work place in Urumqi and other places across Xinjiang. So are the so-called re-education camps where millions are locked in detention as leaked police files showed, and forced Uyghur labour to make a wide range of export products.
From all accounts it is clear that Uyghur Muslims have especially become the target of the CCP after commencement of the BRI initiative. Because, CCP is worried that massive BRI investment in Xinjiang is susceptible to risk. Hence it has hit upon a “three-evil card of terrorism, separatism, and extremism” as a pretext to suppress the Uyghur Muslims and to ensure that its investment is safe.
There have been reports that militants from among the Turkic Muslim Uyghur minority native to Xinjiang have found shelter in Afghan-Pak border region. Under the banner of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), they have for years fought a low-level insurgency. And are aligned with the Islamic State group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province.
After Taliban 2.0 came to power in Kabul last year, Uyghur fighters were said to have been moved away from Afghanistan’s narrow border with China. A UN report, however, found “no recent signs” that the Taliban is actively seeking “to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters.”
Against this backdrop, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kabul, and also hosted a top Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar at Tianjin (a coastal metropolis bordering Beijing municipality, and under the direct administration of Chinese State Council). He described the Taliban as “a pivotal military and political force in Afghanistan,” and sought assurances that the Taliban would not allow anti-China groups to operate under their rule.
China also has economic and mining interests in the war-ravaged country. It is working on extending CPEC to Afghanistan. This plan heightens the importance of Xinjiang and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) which has been an uncomfortable fit within the Chinese state. It is located on the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and therefore an important component in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Since the BRI now underpins Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, the Uyghur region has increasingly become interwoven into the China Dream, and Xi’s legacy.
Going by reports in public domain, President Xi emphasized “social stability and lasting security” as the Communist Party’s goal in governing Xinjiang. Also, directed that Islamic practices must conform to Chinese sensibilities. And said that Xinjiang must groom a team of “politically reliable” religious representatives. He also travelled to the city of Shihezi after spending some time in Xinjiang capital, Urumqi.
The Chinese president did not forget to needle the Americans. He visited the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a supra-governmental organization under US sanctions, and praised its “great progress” in reform and development. For the uninitiated, XPCC runs its own courts, schools and health systems.
The short point is that President Xi’s visit to Xinjiang and his mixing with the local Muslims has much significance – politically, diplomatically, strategically and even in economic terms. Whether he achieved what all he had set out to accomplish is a moot point.