In the face of a spreading Uighur rebellion, China's love-fest with its 'all-weather ally', Pakistan, may have started to turn a bit sour, with Xinjiang authorities charging that a prominent Uighur separatist they captured had received terrorist training in Pakistan. No less embarrassing for Pakistan, the charge came on a day when its spy agency chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was holding talks in Beijing, after having just visited Xinjiang.
No country has done more to prop up the Pakistan State than China, to the extent of transferring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) technology. By deploying People's Liberation Army (PLA) units in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) near the line of control with India and playing the Kashmir card against New Delhi in various ways, China has clearly signalled in recent years that Jammu and Kashmir is where the Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India. Given the level of China's strategic investments, its relationship with Pakistan is unlikely to change.
Yet the charge, even if by local officials, reflects China's irritation with Islamabad's inability to contain the cross-border movement of some Uighur separatists. China, however, confronts not a proxy war or even foreign involvement in Xinjiang but a rising backlash from the Uighurs against their Han colonisation. Even in Tibet — where resistance to Chinese rule remains largely non-violent and there is no alleged terrorist group to blame — China is staring at the bitter harvest of policies seeking to deny natives their identity, culture and language and the benefits of their own natural resources.
To help Sinicise the minority lands, Beijing's multipronged strategy has involved five key components: cartographically altering ethnic-homeland boundaries, demographically flooding non-Han cultures, rewriting history to justify Chinese control, enforcing cultural homogeneity to help blur local identities, and maintaining political repression. The Manchu assimilation into Han society and the swamping of the locals in Inner Mongolia have left only the Tibetans and the Turkic-speaking Uighurs as the holdouts.
But as underscored by the renewed Tibetan revolt since 2008, the Uighur rebellion since 2009 and Mongolian protests in Inner Mongolia in 2011, the strategy of ethnic and economic colonisation is now beginning to backfire. This year marked the recrudescence of large-scale Mongolian protests in the sparsely populated expanse of Inner Mongolia, even as a monk-led campaign on the Tibetan plateau has challenged a continuing Chinese crackdown. And in Xinjiang, several dozen have been killed since last month as Uighur-Han clashes have spread from the desert town of Hotan to the Silk Road city of Kashgar.
Xinjiang — bordering Afghanistan, Russia, the Central Asian countries and the parts of J&K occupied by Pakistan and China — was annexed by the newly-established People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, a year before it began its invasion of Tibet. Earlier in 1944, while World War II was still raging, Muslim groups aided by Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin established the East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang. Over the past six decades, millions of Han Chinese have moved to Xinjiang, turning the hydrocarbon-rich region into a major flashpoint between the new settlers and native communities and sharpening the inter-ethnic competition over land and water resources.
The Great Wall, as it exists today, was built by the Ming Dynasty (1369-1644) mainly to denote the edge of the Han Empire's political frontiers. Today's China, however, is three times as large as it was under the Ming — the last Han dynasty — with its borders having extended far west and southwest of the Great Wall.
Han territorial power is, thus, at its zenith, symbolised by the fact that Xinjiang's cultural capital, Kashgar, is closer to Baghdad than to Beijing, and that Lhasa, Tibet's capital, is almost twice as far from the Chinese capital as from New Delhi. The policies of forced assimilation in Tibet and Xinjiang, in fact, began after the PRC created a land corridor link between these two regions by gobbling up the 38,000 sq km Aksai Chin, part of the princely state of J&K.
Yet today, as underlined by the bloody resurgence of separatist violence in several regions, China's policies are exacting rising internal-security costs. Given that the restive homelands of ethnic minorities make up 60% of the PRC territory —with Tibet and Xinjiang, by themselves, constituting nearly half of China's landmass — China's internal security problems are greater in range than India's.
While India celebrates diversity, China seeks to impose cultural and linguistic uniformity throughout its borders, although it officially comprises 56 nationalities. By enforcing monoculturalism, China also attempts to cover up the ethnic cleavages among the Han majority, lest the historical north-south fault lines resurface with a vengeance.
In fact, China is the only significant country in the world whose official internal-security budget is higher than its official national defence budget. This underscores the mounting costs of what the government calls 'weiwen', or stability maintenance. The fixation on weiwen has spawned a well-oiled security apparatus that extends from state-of-the-art surveillance and extra-legal detention centres to an army of paid informants and neighbourhood 'safety patrols' on the lookout for troublemakers. Although the challenge of weiwen extends to the Han heartland, where rural protests are increasing annually at the same rate as China's GDP, the traditional ethnic-minority lands have become the country's Achilles' heel.
The Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians in China face the choice of either fighting for their rights or risk being reduced to the status of the Native Americans in the US. The readiness of an increasing number of them to stand up to the oppressive State power means that China's internal problems won't go away unless its reverses its decades-old policy of ethnic and economic colonisation of minority lands.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan. His forthcoming book is Water: Asia's New Battleground. The views expressed by the author are personal.