Western reporting on China’s problems with her minorities tends to concentrate on Tibet. The spectacle of a picturesque and eccentric culture (the Younghusband expedition of 1904 found that the Tibetan official they were dealing with bore the title “Grand Metaphysician”) being stomped into the dust by a brutish and amoral despotism naturally arouses our sympathy. There is the focusing presence of the Dalai Lama, too; and also the simple fact that Tibet has always had a long border with the Free World, across which thousands of refugees have been able to escape. However, when unrest among the “national minorities” keeps China’s leaders awake at night, it is not Tibet they are worrying about, but Eastern Turkestan.
It is still not widely understood in the West that Mao Tse-tung’s greatest achievement was the re-creation of most of the old Manchu Empire. Less than half the territory of the People’s Republic is ethnically Chinese. A quarter is Tibetan; a sixth is Turkic; a tenth is Mongolian. (And the fact of that last — Inner Mongolia — being only a tenth still rankles with the Chinese. The Manchus held Outer Mongolia, too — now an independent country after seventy years as a Soviet puppet state. When Khrushchev called on Mao in 1959, Mao’s first remarks were a demand for the “return” of Outer Mongolia.)
Of all these territories, it is Eastern Turkestan that is most populous, most productive, strategically most important, and most fractious. Occupying the westernmost part of the People’s Republic, Eastern Turkestan is home to several million non-Chinese peoples speaking Turkic languages and practising Islam. By far the largest group is the Uighurs. Precise numbers are hard to state because Chinese statistics on minority populations are deeply unreliable. Officially there are 8 million Uighurs; there may in fact be more than 13 million. They are rapidly being swamped by incoming Chinese, most recently by more than 100,000 peasants resettled from west-central China as part of the Three Gorges Dam project. All this is of course deliberate policy by the Peking government, as is revealed by occasional lapses into frankness in the Chinese press. Da Gong Bao, Peking’s mouthpiece newspaper in Hong Kong, reported on June 2nd this year that official policy was “to adjust the proportions of the populations of different ethnic groups in Xinjiang.” (“Xinjiang” — which means “New Territory” — is the Chinese name for Eastern Turkestan. It is an abomination to the Uighurs, who say: “It may be ‘New Territory’ to the Chinese, but it’s been our homeland since the beginning of time!”) This population policy is augmented by parallel strategies for cultural annihilation that will be familiar to followers of Tibetan affairs: forced abortions, religious persecution, outlawing of local languages, suppression of any truthful discussion of the region’s history, and so on.
Three factors have turned the Eastern Turkestan issue into a major headache for China’s imperialists. First there was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent independence of the Central Asian republics, which are close in language, religion and culture to the Uighurs. Second has been the coming into existence of a Uighur diaspora. Having no significant border with anyone else, refugees from Eastern Turkestan once had nowhere to go but the U.S.S.R. Now they can be found everywhere, though the greatest concentration is still in Turkey. Third has been the utter failure of the Dalai Lama’s calm and reasonable approach to Chinese leaders. For forty years His Holiness has been pleading with Peking to let his people have some real autonomy. He has made it plain that he will settle for much less than full independence and has used his immense authority with Tibetans to discourage anti-Chinese violence. The result of these approaches has been a complete victory for Chinese imperialism and the near-extinction of Tibetan culture in its homeland. The Uighurs have drawn the appropriate lesson.
The Uighurs used to have their own Dalai Lama. His name was Isa Yusuf Alptekin (those forenames, incidentally, translate as “Jesus” and “Joseph” — the Holy Family are minor saints in Islam). Born in Eastern Turkestan, Alptekin served in the government of the short-lived Eastern Turkestan Republic in the 1940s and fled to Turkey when the Republic was crushed in a joint operation by Mao and Stalin. He kept the mindset of a diplomat and in a famous incident in 1981 played host to a delegation from the Chinese Embassy in Ankara. This was during the most liberal period of recent Chinese history, when the leadership was still feeling its way out of the dark madness of the Mao years. Following that meeting, Alptekin issued a list of 31 requests to the Chinese government, covering religious freedoms, economic equality between Uighurs and Han Chinese, truth in population statistics and so on. The Chinese never responded. Realizing where a liberal policy toward their subject peoples was leading them, they quickly reverted to despotic norms.
Alptekin died in 1995 at age 94 and the irenic approach died with him. Current attitudes among the Uighurs can be gauged from the fact that their main expatriate organization, the Istanbul-based Eastern Turkestan National Center, is headed not by a monk but by an ex-General in the Turkish army, Korean War veteran Reza Bekin. Even so, the ETNC is regarded as insufferably tame by yet more militant Uighur groups. Chinese dissident journalist Cao Chang-ching, who published a long and illuminating report on Eastern Turkestan in the October 11th Taipei Times, unearthed one group calling themselves “The Home of Eastern Turkestan Youth” who claimed 2,000 members and told him that “the Chinese only understand force.” They also refer to themselves as “the Hamas of Eastern Turkestan” and brandish slogans like “every one of us is a bomb.”
This is not idle boasting; the three bomb explosions of February 1997 in Urumqi, Eastern Turkestan’s capital, was only the best-reported of a large number of violent incidents in the region — including, most recently, a well-equipped attack on a Chinese missile base. The Chinese themselves now routinely report intercepting arms shipments coming into Eastern Turkestan — a thing they have not had to worry about in Tibet since the CIA operations of the early 1960s. There is a general feeling that progress on the Karakoram Highway, intended to link China with Pakistan, is being held up by Chinese foot-dragging, probably because they fear too-easy communications between the Uighurs and their ethnic kin in Central Asia.
It is not Buddhist monks that China faces in her western colony but Turks, cousins of those fearless warriors — the Huns, the Seljuks, the Ottomans — who terrorized Europe and the Middle East for twelve hundred years. The national symbol of the Uighur is a wolf. This is not a people that will go quietly into the long night of Chinese imperial domination.