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The history of securitisation in Xinjiang

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Security guards stand at the gates of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Huocheng County in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, 3 September 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter).

In Brief

Two developments in Xinjiang are being felt across Central Asia. The first is the internment of around one million Xinjiang Muslims — mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs — in what can only be understood as forced cultural assimilation. The second is the outbound flow of capital and technology from China through Xinjiang by way of so-called continental bridges and economic corridors.


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Although the bridges and corridors idea predate the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has since been brought under President Xi Jinping’s signature plan for global connectivity.

Itinerant traders had shuttled goods between Xinjiang and neighbouring countries since the 1980s, but the numbers of such traders continue to drop. Following the BRI, localised border trade has been eclipsed by Chinese corporations and state-owned enterprises directing investment to distant locales. While the BRI is held up as a win–win by Beijing and by countries eager for investment, it inevitably entails other countries entering into long-term — and complex — relationships with China that can extend beyond economic cooperation and diplomacy.

A long view of Chinese–Central Asian relations helps to illustrate, in particular, how Beijing’s approach to internal security actually stemmed from its economic policy and regional diplomacy. This is evidenced in three significant shifts on internal security in Xinjiang in 1988, 2001 and again in 2005.

The first of these shifts appeared towards the end of the 1980s. When that decade began, China was turning the page on the Cultural Revolution. Although there had been isolated unrest in Xinjiang in the early 1980s that fractured along a Han–Uyghur line, for the Chinese leadership the question was over how to integrate Xinjiang — an infrastructure-deficient region — and Xinjiang’s Muslim populations into the development and modernisation envisioned by Deng Xiaoping. This was described in official parlance as a matter of ‘nationalities work’ (minzu gongzuo). It was not a security question.

The Cultural Revolution years had also seen an escalation in hostility between China and the Soviet Union, resulting in thousands of localised border skirmishes. In 1982 there was the first hint of rapprochement, and on 16 November 1983 regional cross-border exchanges resumed when the Chinese took delivery of Soviet-made trucks at Khorgos. This was regulated barter trade; in 1983 it totalled US$24 million and was a confidence-building step between the Cold War antagonists. Xinjiang Muslims remained insulated from these initial contacts.

The earliest suggestion indicating a shift in thinking on internal security appears to date to 27 August 1988, when the Xinjiang Daily reported that separatist elements abroad were undermining China’s national solidarity. This was likely a reference to Central Asia; between 1986 and 1988, border trade went from the purview of provincial authorities to county and prefectural officials. Consequently, border trade boomed. By now perestroika had also reached Central Asia and there was little to stop ideas at the border. Put differently, within half a decade cross-border trade had led to concerns over internal security.

The concern over separatists dovetailed with Beijing’s caution following the independence of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, along or just beyond the border with Xinjiang. In the 1990s the emphasis shifted from ‘nationalities work’ to ‘nationalities problem’ (minzu wenti).

In relations with Central Asia, Beijing was aided by the Shanghai Five grouping whereby, in 1996, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan implemented confidence-building measures along their mutual borders. By 1998, the Shanghai Five grouping took up regional security cooperation and, with the addition of Uzbekistan, became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. These multilateral frameworks provided a mechanism for coordinating security. They also offered a shared lexicon, notably through the ‘three forces’ threatening SCO members: terrorism, separatism and extremism.

The second shift on security in Xinjiang appeared after 11 September 2001. Beijing began to ascribe instability in Xinjiang to transnational forces operating out of Afghanistan, also running amok in Pakistan’s border areas and southern Central Asia. Uyghurs were said to have been fighting alongside the Taliban (and were later said to have fought in Central Asia, Pakistan and Syria).

In a landmark declaration on 11 September 2002, following lobbying from Beijing and Washington, the United Nations added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to its list of terrorist organisations. Doing so ascribed a rigid organisation structure to Uyghur resistance to Chinese state policies, which had previously manifested across a very broad spectrum. ETIM now became a legitimate label and those accused of being within its ranks were seen little differently to al-Qaeda or its associated franchises around the world.

The third shift occurred in 2005, after Uzbek security forces fired on protestors in Andijan on 13 May, killing hundreds. In the wake of international condemnation, Beijing threw its support behind the embattled Uzbek president, Islam Karimov. The SCO demanded the dismantling of a US military base in Uzbekistan, effectively beginning the rollback of the US security presence in Central Asia. After Andijan, Beijing was in a stronger position to set the narrative not just on internal security but also on regional security, tacitly supported by its Central Asian neighbours. It continues to enjoy this support.

This is not to say that Central Asian states have been passive recipients of a security framework imposed from China; on the contrary, use of categories such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’ have periodically allowed Central Asian leaders to quell opposition. Still, large-scale internment of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang appears to have generated wariness across the border.

As new regional developments unfold, Central Asia has little leverage on China. Economic exchanges, which appeared insignificant in 1983, today add up to heavy Chinese investment in Central Asia’s energy sector, resource extraction and infrastructure development. Central Asia finds itself inextricably dependent on China.

Dependency on China is also on display in Central Asia’s informal entrepôt bazaars, where every year billions in Chinese-manufactured goods are re-exported to Russia, and from which the Central Asian elite extract the rent that helps them stay in power.

How much can these states hope to influence Beijing? Probably very little, and as the latest of the Silk Roads travels beyond Central Asia, countries drawn by all that China has to offer should consider the turns such paths can take over the long term.

Dr Hasan H. Karrar is an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He is author of The New Silk Road Diplomacy: China’s Central Asian Foreign Policy since the Cold War, University of British Columbia Press.

A longer version of this article originally appears in the next edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly Chinese realities Vol. 11, No. 2.

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