My article on the PRC’s handling of its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, titled “The Stan That Never Was” is in the current edition of CounterPunch Magazine, the subscription-only print/digital monthly. Subscribe here! Now!
The piece will provide, I think, useful background to readers who wish to make sense of the spate of news concerning Xinjiang.
Long story short, from the CCP point of view, Xinjiang needs the best and the brightest to manage its profound contradictions, but the hardship posting tends to attract cadres and citizens who trend toward the “worst and dimmest” end of the spectrum. The Center is trying to square this circle with money, attention, and smarter policies; but it also realizes its strategy for Xinjiang has a certain chance of failing catastrophically because of growing local dissatisfaction with what is essentially colonial occupation harshly implemented by mediocre cadres. The PRC has no interest in cultivating capable and sophisticated local Uyghurs—like Ilham Tohti, recent recipient of an extravagantly draconian sentence—who might serve as an alternative rallying point for improved governance of Xinjiang. Instead, it is muddling through with what it’s got, while preparing for the worst-case scenario by beefing up the full suite of effective repressive measures.
The PRC government invokes the threat of terrorism to justify its actions, and its reactions to the occasional spectacularly bloody acts involving aggrieved Uyghurs, Han citizens, and the security apparatus. Western governments and the press instinctively gag at the idea of endorsing the repressive Chinese regime’s insistence on characterizing Uyghur violence as “terrorism” even when—as in the case of ethnic Uyghurs running amok in a train station in southern China and slaughtering 29 people and injuring 143 more—it’s hard to call it anything else.
Even the paranoid sometimes have real enemies, if only in the future, and the PRC government has confronted the reality that the nasty political dynamic provoked by its rule over Xinjiang has the potential to generate bona fide, professionalized, international-seal-of-approval candlelight-vigil terrorism, instead of the frantic ad hoc hatcheting that seems to be the rule today.
The explanation for PRC Xinjiang policy, I believe, can boil down to one word: Chechnya.
In the West we tend to pigeonhole Chechnya as Putin’s Problem, Bloodsoaked Caucasus Division. In fact, there seems to be a sizable contingent of Putinophobic Western journos who view Chechnya primarily as a Russia v. Freedom cage match and wait with barely disguised impatience for Chechnya to fall to pieces again so that Putin, his tsar-light repressive regime, and his ferocious local client, Ramzan Kadyrov, can be discredited.
But Chechnya has another, less Euro-centric, more Central Asian identity, as a way station on the global jihad trolley. After the USSR got its ass handed to it in Afghanistan, the trained, motivated, and at that time generously funded (Saudi religious foundation, natch) jihadis went looking for a new battle. After a few stopovers in Bosnia & Tajikistan, they found one in Chechnya. Chechnya in the 1990s looked pretty much like a reprise of Afghanistan—same terminally dysfunctional Russky military machine savaging another freedom-loving Islamic population with a brutal occupation/security operation.
Arab jihadis, led by Ibn al-Khattab, descended on Chechnya in the mid-1990s. Thanks to their ruthlessness, fighting experience, and attractive, practical ideology (Khattab was a champion of what one might characterize as “jihadism in one country” a la Stalin as opposed to Bin Laden's rather Trotskyite global jihad focused on attacking the US) the Arab militants to a significant degree took over the indigenous Chechen independence movement, and also set up a conveyer belt of Chechen fighters to be trained in Afghanistan (many of whom, unable to go home to a liberated Chechnya, have found employment and distraction in Syria/Iraq, but that’s another story).
Khattab was a ferociously effective military leader who bested the Russians in numerous military engagements. He also benefited from external support, as Thomas Hegghammer describes in his book, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979:
Shortly after his arrival in Chechnya, Khattab began building a training infrastructure which he would run in partnership with the legendary Chechen commander Shamil Basayev. By mid-1995 a logistics chain had been set up to facilitate the arrival of foreign volunteers. The main stations on this chain were Istanbul (Turkey) and Baku (Azerbaijan). The Baku safe house was run by Arabs operating under the cover of the Islamic Benevolence Committee. Khattab enjoyed a certain amount of logistical and financial report from Saudi Arabia. Saudi sheikhs declared the Chechen resistance a legitimate jihad, and private Saudi donors sent money to Khattab and his Chechen colleagues. As late as 1996, mujahidin wounded in Chechnya were sent to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, a practice paid for by charities and tolerated by the state. After the end of the first Chechen war, Khattab expanded his activities in Chechnya, build more camps and set up an institute in which old Saudi friends of Khattab taught religion and military science to Chechen rebel leaders.
Khattab also benefited from the de facto haven of the Pankisi Gorge in neighboring Georgia which, according to whomever you believe, has either been shut down by the pro-US Georgian government in a fit of altruism, or still provides rest & resupply infrastructure for current and new jihadis hoping to stick it to Putin in Chechnya and Assad in Syria.
He was killed during the night of March 19–20, 2002, when a Dagestani messenger hired by the Russian FSB gave Khattab a poisoned letter. Chechen sources said that the letter was coated with "a fast-acting nerve agent, possibly sarin or a derivative". The messenger, a Dagestani double agent known as Ibragim Alauri was turned by the FSB on his routine courier mission. Khattab would receive letters from his mother in Saudi Arabia, and the FSB found this to be the most opportune moment to kill Khattab, rather than attack his mountain hideout and risk losing soldiers. It was reported that the operation to recruit and turn Ibragim Alauri to work for the FSB and deliver the poisoned letter took some six months of preparation. Ibragim was reportedly tracked down and killed a month later in Baku.
What’s this got to do with Xinjiang?
Seven areas of high or partial correlation, I would think, as far as PRC strategists are concerned.
First of all, there’s the thirst for independence shared by activist Uyghurs and Chechens that decades of immersion in a multi-ethnic communist empire has failed to quench.
Second, there’s the powerful “godless foreigners oppressing Muslims” dynamic that worked so well in Afghanistan and carried over to Chechnya.
Third, the religious dynamic in the Xinjiang Uyghur community is similar Chechnya in the 1990s: indigenous, relatively quietist Sufism discredited by its impotence in the independence struggle.
Fourth, the challenge of militant Wahabbism, its philosophy of jihad, its well-heeled charities backed by Saudi sheikhs, and its fifth column of madrassahs, to traditional religious/political practice.
In Chechnya, Wahabbists were able to achieve an at least temporary and partial ascendancy.
In the PRC, as this excellent article by Muhammed al-Sudairi in The Diplomat points out, the PRC has been vigilant in restricting Wahabbist efforts at prostelization, education (within the PRC and at Arab universities), and pilgrimage sponsorship via Saudi charities.
With this context, for instance, the offensive and intrusive PRC regulations against religious observances within homes, and for growing beards and wearing hijabs, are understandable. It is assumed that, by abandoning traditional Uyghur dress and observance in favor of Wahabbi-tinged practices, these individuals are self-identifying as malcontents and professional troublemakers. And, in particular, by making beards and hijabs a regulatory offense, the PRC has a basis for questioning these people and creating a useful database of worrisome individuals, families, and social networks.
It pretty much runs in parallel with Chechen Republic efforts to re-establish the prestige of indigenous Sufi observance as an alternative to “foreign” and subversive Wahabbism.
Fifth, the availability of havens. At the height of the Chechen war, many parts of the country were no-go zones, there was Pankisi, and behind it the incalculable comfort of knowing that medevac to Saudi Arabia was available (just as fighters in Syria and Iraq are granted access to Turkish medical facilities).
The PRC is expending immense resources to ensure that its writ runs the length and breadth of Xinjiang. But outside of Xinjiang, there’s wobbly stans, there’s Afghanistan, and there’s the security trainwreck that is the Pashtun regions of western Pakistan—and there’s the reduction of the intimidating if strategically ineffectual US/ISAF presence thanks to the Obama drawdown.
Sixth, there is admission to Jihadi University, the international network of experienced, talented and, “entrepreneurial” Islamic militants. Only a few hundred can make a difference, as Higghammer states:
In the Islamist historical narrative, the emergence of the Saudi jihadist movement represents a spontaneous 'rise of the people' in the face of outside aggression in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya. The reality was far more complex. 'The people' never rose to any of these causes, and the mobilisation was far from spontaneous. A few thousand men were mobilised, and only as the result of the systematic and sustained effort of entrepreneurial groups of devoted individuals.
Khattab helped bring jihad to Chechnya.
In Pakistan, as I have attempted to point out frequently, the essential identity of the Pakistan Taliban (not, please, to be confused with the PRC-friendly and open-for-business Afghan Taliban) is to avenge the bloody assault on the Lal Masjid Mosque in Islamabad—which was undertaken at the insistence of the PRC, partially because it believed that Uyghur militants were being harbored there.
In Central Asia, the PRC has historically benefited from the contacts and resources it developed in its role as the CIA’s quartermaster to the anti-Soviet mujahidin, and in its intimate security alliance with Pakistan’s military. But those relationships are in danger of fraying, at least with some groups that have dumped al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban to declare loyalty to the Islamic Caliphate. And there, militant Uyghurs have reportedly found haven.
PRC’s diplomacy and security policy for Central Asia is, I believe, a matter of trying to shore up the anti-terror capability of its more rickety neighbors against the day when a significant chunk of professional Islamic militants decide that fighting the Chinese infidel in Xinjiang on behalf of Islam and the Uyghurs is the cause du jour.
Seventh, there is outside money. Saudi fiddling in Chechnya is a matter of record. And there is the notorious rumor that Prince Bandar threatened President Putin with Chechnya problems at the time of the Sochi Olympics if Russia did not abandon its pro-Syria policy.
Thankfully, for the PRC at least, the prospect of Saudi Arabian sheikhs funneling money and support to Uyghur rebels-- and thereby terminally offending and alienating China, the 21st century’s biggest customer for Middle East hydrocarbons--is relatively remote.
As long as the PRC is left to its own devices and the Uyghur community is fragmented internally and isolated from outside support, the CCP’s divide and rule/assimilationist/repressive model for Xinjiang—backed by the world’s largest population and second largest economy—has good prospects for success.
But factors 1-6 offer the PRC plenty of food for thought.