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Pan Turkic Nationalism in Xinjiang: A Clash of Civilization

By Eric Hyer

Since the evaporation of the Soviet empire, and amid the breakup of the Soviet satellite states, nationalist movements so long kept in check by totalitarian dictatorships, have re-emerged. The fiction that socialism “solved the national question” as Marx predicted, has been clearly exposed. This post-Cold War development is not limited to Central and Eastern Europe, but is a global phenomenon that had an impact on the minority nationalities in China. The sudden independence of the former Soviet republics has had a demonstration effect in China, resulting in a stronger assertiveness by minority nationalities, which have renewed their demands for a change in the status quo. This underlines the continuing importance of the nationalities question (minzu wenti) in the PRC.1 Several scholars have done excellent studies of the minority nationalities in China, but it seems that reviewing the nationalities question is appropriate at this time (Dreyer 1976; Eberhard 1982; Herberer 1987; Benson 1990).

Before turning our attention to China, it will be helpful to first discuss nationalist movements in general. Joseph Rothschild has argued that “fertile circumstances abound in modern and traditional (modernizing) societies,” for the politicization of ethnicity. He concludes that “politicized ethnicity has become the crucial principal of political legitimation and delegitimization of systems, states, regimes, and governments.” (Rothschild 1981:1-3). Recent developments clearly show that Marxist scholars and others underestimated the cultural, psychological and linguistic forces behind nationalism, which they viewed as a historical phenomenon that would eventually be transcended, by global economic and other transnational forces.

Nationalist movements, although held in check for a time following World War II, reemerged with raucous consequences that are altering the political map of the world and will undoubtedly persist for a time. Just as post-World War II decolonization, justified by the ideology of self-determination, was ending, a second wave of independence movement based on the same ideology emerged, spawning score of new nation-states. The reemergence of these nationalist movement and the epidemic of secessionist movements has quickly become one of the most distinguishing features of the post-Cold War era. Ongoing conflict are no longer characterized by “East-West” tension, but are predominantly wars waged by “nations” against “states” in a struggle to reconcile state and national identity (Nietschmann 1987). These secessionist movement claim “nationhood” based on historical, cultural and linguistic characteristics; these are the same element on which nation-states have based their claim to legitimacy in the past. Established nation-states have resisted such movements by a variety of means, including violent suppression. However, a subtler means has been to deny these peoples the fundamental elements of “nationhood.”

For example, Chinese (Han) do not recognized the minority nationalities within the present border of China as “nations”, but refer to them by terms such as zhongzu (race) or zongzu (clan or branch), and use categories such as “Chinese” (Zhongguo ren), in which they include many ethnic groups –all of which they include within the “Chinese nation” (Zhonghua minzu). The term minzu does not have a “political”. connotation, but only a “cultural” one and this is recognized by the present regime in Chine as autonomous regions inhabited by non-Han Chinese (Jagchid 1979:234-36). The People’s Republic of China (PRC) regard itself unified multi-ethnic country. This policy denies the national identity of minority nationalities and regards them as simple “ethnic groups” or “national minorities” within the Chinese State. Thus, the only relevant aspect of the nationalities question in the eye of the Chinese government is relations between the different “Chinese nationalities.”

Unlike the Soviet Union that granted “republic” status to larger national group (which these republics used as the basis for independence during the disintegration of the USSR), the PRC only recognizes the “cultural independence” of the various minority nationalities within autonomous regions directly under the central government. This artificial separation of political and ethnic/cultural domains has bedeviled the Chinese communist regime and will continue to do so as the non-Chinese population of China seeks to reconcile their sense of “nation” with independent territorial states. Unlike the Soviet Union that, at least in principle, recognized the right of self-determination, the People’s Republic of China has never, since it was established, recognized the aspirations for national independence or the right of secession of the non-Chinese nationalities currently under the control of Beijing. Beijing has shown no patience with such movements, as was clearly proved in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang in recent years (Crackdown 1991; Straits Time July 10, 1990). This same policy continues today, but since September 11, 2001, it is carried out under the guise of global war on “terrorism.”

National Self-Determination

I will narrow the following discussion by focusing on one aspect of the nationalities question in China, namely the right of national self-determination. Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong’s views on the nationalities question are strikingly similar. Close analysis reveals an underlying Sino-centricism and idealism regarding the nationalities question that is deeply rooted in China’s cultural and historical traditions.

Initially Sun Yat-sen held a Sino-centric view, but later supported the principle of national self-determination. Sun claimed China was a united nation inhabited by one people. He asserted that “China, since the Ch’in [Qin] and Han dynasties, has been developing a single state out of a single race,” and that eventually “all names of individual people inhabiting China” would die out, thus uniting all minority nationalities with the Han in a “single cultural and political whole” (Sun 1929:6; Sun 1970:181-82). Following the revolution in 1911, the Nationalist government adopted policies that reflected Sun Yat-sen’s assimilationist views and they strongly opposed independence movements. Sun advocated a government-sponsored migration plan to transfer Han from Southeast China to the sparsely populated Northwest (Chang and Gordon 1991:44).

However, after their expulsion from the government by Yuan Shikai in 1913, the Nationalists adopted a more liberal policy. Sun Yat-sen modified his sinocentric view of China’s nationalities question and accepted the principle of national self-determination. At the First National Convention of the Nationalist Party held in January 1924, they issued a declaration that stated: “We hereby repeat solemnly that we recognize the right of self-determination for all people in China, and that a free united Republic of China based upon the principles of free alliance of the different peoples will be established after the downfall of imperialism and militarism” (Hsu 1933:128-29).

Following the death of Sun, Chiang Kai-shek reverted to the earlier, more Sino-centric policy. Chiang rejected the right of national self-determination: “The Chinese nation has lived and developed within these river basins, and there is no area that can be split up or separated from the rest, and therefore, no area that can be split up or separated from the rest, and therefore, no area that can become an independent unit” (Chiang 1947:35; 39-40). Chiang initiated a public education policy in the border areas to assimilate the non-Han population. They designed the curriculum to teach a “clear understanding of the Chinese race and nation” (China Handbook, 1937-43 1943:403-4; China Handbook, 1937-45 [revised and enlarged] 1975:341).

Following the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the Nationalists changed policy and again supported the right of national self-determination. This change in KMT policy was set forth in a statement made by Chiang at a joint session of the Nationalist Party’s Defense Council and Central Executive Committee. At the meeting, held on August 24, 1945, Chiang stated that:

If frontier racial groups situated in regions outside the provinces have the capacity for self-government and a strong determination to attain independence,… our government should, in a friendly spirit, voluntarily help them to realize their freedom;… and as equal of China we should entertain no ill will or prejudices against them because of their choice to leave the mother country. (Chiang 1969, 2:857)

After a plebiscite in Magnolia in 1946, the Republic of China recognized Mongolia as an independent state. Chiang’s statement appears to include Tibet as an area that qualified for independence, but unlike Mongolia, Tibet had no patron. At the time, although it had become a province of china in 1884, Xinjiang was also autonomous of Chinese government control and subject to significant Soviet influence.

CCP Nationalities Policy

As the Chinese Communist Party’s power grew stronger, it changed from its initial policy of supporting the right of national self-determination, to condemn secession as “reactionary” (Renmin Ribao October 2, 1951 cited in Dreyer 1976). The CCP reluctantly accepted the “loss” of Outer Mongolia as a fait accompli, but in Tibet the new Communist regime forcibly annexed Tibet and Xinjiang. Secessionist movements in Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia have persisted to the present (Straits Times Oct. 7, 1990:9; The Free China Journal Sept. 25, 1991:7; International Herald Tribune April 30, 1992).

After its organization in 1921, the CCP initially accepted Stalin’s argument that “Leninism broadened the conception of self-determination and interpreting as the right… to complete secession, as the right of nation to independent existence as states. This precluded the possibilities of…. Interpreting the right of self-determination to mean the right to autonomy” (Stalin 1942:183). In 1928, at the Sixth National Congress of the CCP supported the right of national self-determination (Brandt 1996:132). During the Jiangxi Soviet, the CCP’s views on national self-determination were made more precise. At the First All-China Congress of Soviet held in November 1931, a resolution on the “Question of National Minorities,” declared that:

The Chinese Soviet Republic categorically and unconditionally recognizes the right of national minorities to self-determination….

In the Fundamental Law (constitution) of the Chinese Soviet Republic it shall be clearly stated that all national minorities within the confines of China shall have the right to national self-determination, including secession from China and the formation of independent states… (Kun 1934:78-83)

Article fourteen of the constitution spelled out the right of self-determination:

The Soviet government of China recognizes the right of self-determination of the national minorities in China, and to the formation of an independent state for each national minority. All Mongolians, Tibetans, Miao, Yao, Koreans and others living on the territory of China shall enjoy the full right of self-determination, i.e., they may either join the Union of Chinese Soviets or secede from it and from their own state as they may prefer. (Brandt 1966:223)

In “On Coalition Government”, written in 1945, Mao supported the “right of self-determination and of forming a union with the Han people on a voluntary basis.” (Mao 1965, 3:305-06).

However, the Communist eventually adopted a narrower interpretation of self-determination and began to consider it to mean self-government within a single federated Chinese state. This was made clear in a July 1944 interview with Gunther Stein in which Mao stated:

Outer Mongolia is part of China. But it is a nation… [and] all nationalities should have equal and fraternal relationship under a united government of all. China must first recognize Outer Mongolia as a national entity. Then organize a sort of United States of China to meet their aspirations. We believe they will come to join.

The same is true concerning Tibet…. The Mohammedans should also be given a chance to form their state. (United States Senate 1970:982; Stein 1945:244-45, 442-43)

The notion of self-determination evolved to mean autonomy a united China. When the CCP came to power in 1949, it did not establish a federated state, as it had called for previously, but declared that China was a “united nation of multiple nationalities.” This policy, they argued, was the “outgrowth of the historical development of the past several thousand years” (Weng 1950:6; Hudson 1960:53-54). The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, convened on September 29, 1949, drafted the Common Programme establishing the policies of the People’s Republic of China. There was no mention of the right of national self-determination. Instead, China was characterized as a “big fraternal and co-operative family composed of all nationalities” (Hinton 1980:55). The constitution drafted at the First National People Congress, did not consider secession a legitimate right, and frontier regions inhabited by non-Chinese were considered “inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China” (Documents of the First Session 1955: Article 3, chapter 1). The “Programme for Enforcement of National Regional Autonomy” provided for the establishment of autonomous region, but stated that “all national autonomous districts shall be an inseparable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China” (Survey of China Mainland Press 394 August 1952:9).

Deep-rooted Sino-centricism culminated in the establishment of a multinational unified state. Some form of federation, along the lines of the Soviet model, although advocated during the early years after the CCP was organized, was now rejected due to the historical legacy and the Sino-centric desire for a strong, unified Chin. This change on policy justified by arguing:

[T]he Communist Party…. Consistently advocated self-determination and federalism from the day the party was founded until the period of the Anti-Japanese War. It was only with period of China’s third revolutionary war that these slogans ceased to be emphasized…. Led and instructed by the Chinese Communist Party, the people of each nationality had already greatly heightened their… patriotic consciousness, greatly changed and transcended their original situation of mutual antagonism, and gradually formed bonds of equality, unity, mutual help, and cooperation as a basis for realizing common political aims and interests. Therefore, the establishment of a united, multinational state was the desire of the great bulk of the people of all nationalities in our country. (Chang 1966:67-68)

Minority nationalities were not considered suitable for “nation-statehood,” because in political, social, economic, cultural, and other respects, these people…. Were ill prepared for separation; all the national minorities (including those of Sinkiang and Tibet), because of cultural and historical conditions, and especially because of close economic relations, formed with the Han a single, unbreakable unit. (Chang 1966:71-74)

Since 1949, despite the lip service to the ideal of a unified multinational state, Beijing has pursued a policy of integrating and assimilating the minority nationalities. In “On the Rectification Campaign and Socialist Education Among the Minority Nationalities,” written in the latter 1950s, the case for assimilation was made by arguing:

In remote days, China was already a country…. Practicing the system of centralism….[T]he historical development of our country led to the formation of an irresistible and inevitable trend, namely, the trend toward a united people’s China… Any nationality attempting secession is acting contrary to the trend of the long historical development and its basic requirement. (Wang 1958:9)

In a 1957 speech, Zhou Enlai, after condemning the “two type of chauvinism,” Han chauvinism and local –nationality chauvinism, argued that assimilation is a “progressive act if it means natural merger of nations advancing towards prosperity. Assimilation as such has the significance of promoting progress “(Zhou 1980, 32.9:19). This view is based on the assumption that non-Han people are economically and culturally drawn to China and willingly accept signification (Hanhua), as often happened throughout much of China’s history, and with the end of “national difference,” the nationalities question will cease to exist.

However, since the end of the Cold War, the World has clearly embarked on a renewed period of national independence movements. The breakup of the Soviet Empire contributed to invigorating nationalist movement around the world; and the impact on the nationalities question in China is already evident in the will-publicized situation in Tibet, but also the lesser known Muslim revolts in Xinjiang that attempting to establish an independent Muslim nation-state.

The Muslim-Turkic Separatist movement in Xinjiang

Tibet has attracted the world’s attention and human right groups are actively challenging Chin’s control over Tibet, despite the Dalai Lama’s claim that he only seeks greater autonomy for Tibet within China. There is evidence that in Inner Mongolia, a small, but very weak, nationalist independence movement exists. However, Inner Mongolian independence movements enjoy little or no support from Mongolia. In both case, Tibet and Mongolia share cultural and historical affinities with China. Thus, a great degree assimilation has occurred throughout history. On the other hand, the Muslim-Turkic population of Xinjiang shares little in common with China culturally, linguistically, or historically. The independence of their ethnic brethren in Central Asia, has invigorated the nationalist independence movement among Turkic-Muslims in Xinjiang. Due to the ethnic character and geopolitical circumstances, the nationalist movement in Xinjiang is probably more threatening to China’s unity than any such movement in Tibet or Inner Mongolia.

Just over a decade ago, Samuel P. Huntington outlined a new paradigm to explain conflict in the post-Cold War era (Huntington, 1993). Huntington argued that rather than wars between states, conflict between civilizations would characterize the post-Cold War era. At the international level we have not yet experienced the predicted conflicts, but certainly at the sub-national level, we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations.” As I mentioned at the outset of this article, now many conflict appear to be characterized by nations against states, as ethnic groups seek to realize their aspirations for statehood. The conflict smouldering in Xinjiang has the characteristics of a clash of civilizations as the Turkic-Muslims assert their independent national identity against a strong Chinese nation-state. Xinjiang is culturally, linguistically, and historically part of a civilization distinct from the civilization that developed in China. The Turkic-Muslim of Xinjiang have never assimilated Chinese culture as many other minority nationalist have. The growth of Islamic nationalism as a transnational force makes this nationalist movement in Xinjiang, especially challenging for Beijing. Turkic-Muslim separatist movements in Xinjiang have sparked violent riots and bombing in recent years. For the remainder of this article, I will briefly consider development in Xinjiang in recent years.

Religious and ethnic unrest has simmered for many years, but the anti-Chinese feeling among Xinjiang’s Turkic-Muslim population erupted in February 1997 in Yining, a strategically important town along the border between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. Reports vary, but official reports claim that during the riots nine people were killed and nearly two hundred were injured. Uygur sources in Kazakhstan claim as many as one hundred died in the disturbances. Following the riots, they executed twelve leaders and jailed about twenty seven people for their roles in the unrest. The spokesman for the United National Revolutionary Front of East Turkistan based in Kazakhstan claimed that by the end of the year, the military had killed nearly two hundred Uygur nationalists and had arrested more than two thousand people. Following the February riots, separatists planted bombs in Yining and Urumqi that killed many people. Eight people were executed for involvement in this series of bombings (South China Morning Post [SCMP] July 29, 1997; China News Digest [CND] March 14, 1998).

Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan admitted that “we must soberly realize that enemy activities are still serious.” There are lingering concerns about the loyalty of local Turkic-Muslim officials, and 260 grassroots cadre who were suspected of being sympathetic to the independence movement were sacked. Chinese authorities also took measures to prevent the spread of such uprisings by dispatching 17,000 officials to key villages, work units, and military farms to reinforce propaganda and education work. They doubled the number of security guards and military presence was enhanced by an estimated one hundred thousand soldiers (SCMP July 17, 1997; December 29, 1997; February 6, 1998).

Chinese attributed the anti-Chinese demonstrations and terrorist activities not only to separatists, but religious fanatics and “Foreign forces;” this was a direct reference to the East Turkistan Independence Movement, an internationally recognized terrorist organization based in Central Asia. Amudun Niyaz, chairman of the Xinjiang People’s Congress concluded that “we must maintain high vigilance and be profoundly aware that the main dangers…. are splitism and illegal religious activities” (SCMP July 23, 1997). During the February 1997 demonstrations, many banners displayed Islamic religious expressions and many small neighborhood mosques have become the focal point of anti-Chinese activities. The government clamped down on what it considered “illegal religious activities” and closed many mosques (Asiaweek October 10, 1997). Hasimu Mamuti, deputy chief of the Xinjiang procuratorate, accused Uygur separatist and “religious extremist forces “of encouraging “Pan Islam” and “religious fanaticism” to deceive “people who have little common sense, no knowledge of the truth and only a native love for religion” to create public opinion in support of national independence. He argued that “all the disturbance, chaos and violent terrorism…. are almost without exception connected to illegal religious activities.” He concluded that, “if the illegal religious activities are not resolutely stopped, if the unlawful and criminal separatist activities under the cover of religion are not resolutely dealt with, there will never be any peace in the region” (Foreign Broadcast Information Service, China – Daily Report [FBIS-China] 19 November 1997).

The eruption of pro-independence demonstrations and other activities have deep historical and religious roots and will persist for the foreseeable future, which have gained momentum since September 11, 2001. In September 1997, demonstrations were held in several areas in Xinjiang. According to reports from Hong Kong, more than three thousand people were involved and many rebels used small arms and bombs to attack local party, PLA officer and soldiers, and eighty demonstrations were killed (FBIS-China 22 October 1997). Beginning October 1 and lasting for a few days, bombs were detonated killing more than twenty people. Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan concluded that “national separatist, violent terrorists, and religious fanatics … have continued to secretly muster force … to stage sabotage activities whenever an opportunity arises…. [T]he struggle between separatists and anti-separatists will be a protracted, fierce, and arduous one (SCMP October 10. 1997; FBIS-China 5 December 1997).

What is the motivation of those carrying out the uprising, what is their ultimate goal, and from whom do they receive support? Party Secretary Wang believes that the separatists are “religious reactionaries” that want to establish an “Islamic kingdom.” However, there is ample evidence that the leaders of the rebel movement are not simply religious fanatics, but Pan Turkic nationalists.

The support for the movement comes from neighbouring Turkic-speaking countries. Despite the pledge by the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to not support the Xinjiang separatist movement, supporters of the movement openly operate from these countries. Uygurs living in Turkey also support the movement. In March 1998, a demonstration in front of the Chinese embassy in Istanbul called for “freedom for East Turkistan” (SCMP March 10, 1998). During the many demonstrations over the past few years in Xinjiang, slogans calling for the CCP and the PLA to get out of Xinjiang, and the establishment of “Xinjiangstan” are common. The common denominator is not Islam, but Pan-Turkic nationalism. One common slogan was “sha han mie hui” (kill the Chinese and destroy the Hui [a Muslim Chinese minority]). Murat Auezov, the former Kazakh ambassador to Beijing, said the Uygurs are “struggling to preserve their cultural identity against an officially sanctioned mall influx of Han Chinese into their region.” Auezov underlined the international dimensions of the anti-Chinese uprising when he said the “Central Asian region is an organic whole. If the Uygurs lose their traditions this is a terrible loss for all the Turkic-speaking peoples” (Jones 1997).

Given the deep cultural, linguistic, and historical roots of Pal Turkic nationalism, once the Central Asian became independent, we should not be surprised that ethnic nationalism in Xinjiang was invigorated. Historically Xinjiang was a central battle ground in the “great game” of nation-states. Now again in the Twenty-first Century, Xinjiang may be a battle ground on which an ethnic nationalist movement seeking to exercise its right national self-determination will wage war against a Chinese regime that no longer recognizes such a right.


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Source: Indian Journal of Asian affairs, June 2005