Regional tensions surface in China

FRFI 210 August / September 2009

The Chinese government said that 156 people were killed in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, on 5 July. By 16 July the figure for deaths in the region had risen to 192 killed and 1,721 wounded, with over 1,400 people arrested. Xinjiang, in North West China, accounts for one sixth of China’s territory but has only 20 million of China’s 1.3 billion people. It is now caught up in the geo-strategic struggle for control of Central Asia between the US, and Russia and China. 

Uighars, a Turkic and Muslim people, constitute approximately 45% of Xinjiang’s population. The Han make up 37%, but they form 92% of China’s total population. The Chinese government has encouraged Han migration to Xinjiang and last year 1.2 million new workers arrived in the province. Similarly, the government has encouraged Uighars to work in the coastal provinces.  From early May 2009, 818  were brought to work in a toy factory in Guangdong owned by a Hong Kong-based tycoon. On 26 June an internet posting claimed that two Han women workers had been raped by Uighar migrant workers. Two Uighar workers were then killed at the factory. On 5 July the Uighar people in Urumqi protested that nothing had been done to bring the killers to justice and the protest turned into an attack on Han people and their businesses. The Chinese state responded by sending 25,000 police and soldiers onto the city streets and blamed ‘three forces at home and abroad’ (religious extremists, separatists and terrorists) for the trouble, and named the World Uighar Congress (WUC) which is based in the US.

Xinjiang has one third of China’s domestic oil reserves and 40% of its coal, and it produces industrial crops like cotton. However, it is Xinjiang’s geographical location that is critical. Key oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan pass through Xinjiang to the Chinese coast. Kazakhstan’s Kashagan oil field is the largest outside the Middle East and China has made considerable investment in it. There are proposals to build a gas pipeline from Russian Siberia through Xinjiang. These fuel supplies are critical to China if it is to avoid dependence on oil that passes through the Malacca Strait which can be cut off by the US fleet.

A regional alliance between Russia, China and Central Asia with Iran is viewed by the US ruling class as challenging its plans for global hegemony. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) comprises Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The SCO has called for the withdrawal of US bases from Central Asia. At a SCO meeting on 29 April, Russia and China announced 25 joint military manoeuvres for the coming year. The WUC is funded by the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), one of whose founders, Allen Weinstein, told the Washington Post in 1991, ‘A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.’ The NED has lent a hand in the so-called ‘colour revolutions’ in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and, more recently, Iran. On 18 May it hosted a conference in the US entitled East Turkestan: 60 years under the Communist Chinese Rule. The Republic of East Turkestan was established between 1944 and 1949 and East Turkestan is the name that Uighar separatists give the region. On 1 July the Munich office of the WUC issued a call for demonstrations against China around the world.

In 1997 there were clashes between Chinese state forces and Uighar separatists with fighting in three Xinjian cities. In 2007 China said its troops killed 18 people when they raided a training camp. This April two Uighars were executed for attacks in 2008 that killed 16 police officers in Xinjiang.

As China has proceeded further down the capitalist road so inequalities have increased: between the coastal regions and the interior; between urban and rural populations. The Financial Times reported the income gap between Xinjiang’s rural Uighar population and Han urban residents of the same province as having grown from 2.1 times in 1980 to 3.24 times in 2007.  While natural gas production in Xinjiang grew twenty-fold from 2000 to today, Xinjiang receives a small fraction of the revenues compared to the central state. As the influence of Marxism has declined and the state resorts to a more nationalist ideology to legitimise itself, so the threat of competition between workers and nationalities increases. As Professor Jian Junbo, from a Shanghai university, explained, ‘In China, political equality based on class equality has collapsed. For the past 60 years, this idea of class equality was a basis on which all common people, including minorities, could maintain an identity as one member of the Chinese political community. Now, the economic and political marginalisation of ethnic minorities is destroying the foundation of some ethnic groups’ Chinese identity. At the same time this marginalisation is deeply misunderstood by many of the Han ethnic group. The shared identity of the Chinese – as socialist labour – is gradually falling to pieces. The resulting riots in Urumqi may be just the start of something, much, much bigger.’ (‘Ghost of Marx haunts China’s riots’, Asia Times, 8 July 2009) This possibility will have occurred to the US strategists.

Trevor Rayne


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