[Opinion] The Xinjiang problem

Aziz Ali Dad

Commentators were taken by surprise when China blamed recent unrest in its territory of Xinjiang on militants reportedly trained in Pakistan. The Chinese accusation has deepened the perception abroad of Pakistan being a haven for terrorists.

Most commentators have kept their analyses confined to the need for containment of the problem to the alleged infiltration into Xinjiang, but none tried to look at the issue beyond the element of friendship between the two countries. There is no denying that Pakistani soil should not be used against neighbouring countries. Pakistan ought to deal with the issue seriously if its land has indeed been used by militants from Xinjiang. For that purpose greater inter-state collaboration is necessary.

However, the violence and terrorism in Xinjiang cannot be eliminated only by focusing on external links. Within Pakistani society we need to start rethinking our approach against the menace of terrorism and violence and do some soul searching, rather than blaming this or that external element. Likewise, more attention should be given to Xinjiang as an internal problems.

In his book The Roots of Terror, Terry Eagleton says that “some form of terror lies at the origin of most political states, but this fact is cast into the political unconscious.” He suggests: “Only by confronting it, rather than repressing it, can we hope to get beyond it.”

In addition to dealing with element of foreign links in the troubles in Xinjiang, it is indispensable for the problem to be seen it in its local and historical context. This would be conducive to understanding the issue more holistically.

Xinjiang’s secessionist movement is far older than the contemporary wave of terrorism since the early 1980s. Historically, the region of Xinjiang has been an area contested by Mongols, Chinese, Tibetans, Turks and Russians. The major ethnic group in the territory are the Uyghurs, who are a Turkic people. Xinjiang came under China’s suzerainty soon after the communist revolution in 1949.

With the arrival of the communist regime, a process of the taming of Xinjiang started. Secessionist sentiments have always simmered in local ethnic groups, being particularly strong in the Uyghur population, which was a majority only decades ago. These sentiments occasionally burst forth into violence and terrorist acts.

To control the indigenous population, the Chinese state employed its biggest weapon – mass migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang. As a result, the Uyghur people are rapidly becoming a minority in their own area. They now form 45 percent of the total population of Xinjiang, while the population of ethnic Chinese is rapidly approaching 40 percent.

While the grievances of the Uyghurs and other indigenous ethnic groups remained unaddressed, the defeat of the Soviet Union emboldened the separatists to increasing their efforts for an independent state of their own. Some separatist elements even joined the global jihad. Drawing inspiration from the jihad, these elements established the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in the 1990s. In the period since the Sept 11 attacks, some Uyghur jihadi elements were either killed in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan or incarcerated in the Guantanamo Bay. Overall, the global jihadis have failed to find a foothold in Xinjiang itself.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government invested in education, health and infrastructure to try to appease the ethnic population. But the ruffled feelings of Uyghurs and the other indigenous nationalities, including Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrghis and Tatars, has remained a major irritant.

A salient feature of Chinese communism is that, unlike the former Soviet Union, it is basically nationalistic in character. The Soviet Union followed communism in the ideological sense. With the disintegration of the USSR, we witnessed old ethnic identities emerging unscathed from 70 years of communist rule. On the other hand, the strong underpinnings of Chinese ethnicity in the identity of the Chinese state, other ethnic minorities feel their own identities in jeopardy. Hence, we see sporadic eruptions of ethnic discontent among the Uyghurs and some indigenous groups, such as Tibetans and Mongols.

In order to eliminate the scourge of violence and terrorism in Xinjiang, China needs to complement its efforts to develop the region economically with the political and social empowerment of Uyghurs and other indigenous ethnic groups in the territory. Xinjiang is primarily an internal problem. Therefore, it can be resolved only if local grievances are addressed.

Pakistan can help by discouraging Xinjiang militants’ maintenance of ties with global jihadists, but it cannot offer a panacea for the internal problems of the Chinese state and society.

The writer is a social scientist associated with a rights based organisation in Islamabad. Email:

Courtesy: The NEWS

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  1. Dear Aziz your analysis of Xinjiang terror attack might be neutral
    and it is also bitter truth that around the world 97% terrorists attacks
    of militants have used Pakistan soil .

  2. What a Balance and realistic analysis…….. Aziz Bhai you are doing very weeeelllllll

  3. This is truth and a realistic insight into the problems in Xinjiang.
    Tibet is a good example of the demise of a culture. I appreciate how well written and thought provoking this article is.
    Thank you.

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