Cross-regional and Blogosphere, Politics and SocietyOne Comment
Editor’s Note: This guest post is by Michael Manning, and is cross-posted at the Opposite End of China. What follows is part of a cross-blog survey that explores what Central Eurasia might look like fifteen years from now.
At the behest of neweurasia, I’m diving today into the unfamiliar waters of wild speculation. What will Xinjiang be like fifteen years from now, in the year 2021? Of course, no one really knows. If my predictions turn out to be correct, chalk it up to luck rather than extraordinary foresight. Still, I hope you’ll enjoy this exercise in imagination: a blog entry from December 20, 2021 sent by my future self to my present self via QQQ — the bloated successor to QQ — which evidently has a time-travel email feature.
December 20, 2021
In 2021, energy needs and security concerns have focused Beijing on Xinjiang and the restive lands in Central Asia to the west. With Taiwan on a firm path towards integration and Tibet little more than an expensive tourist playground, the situation in Xinjiang remains one last painful thorn in the side of the central government. The events of this past year clearly illustrate that Xinjiang remains of paramount importance in terms of China’s both domestic and foreign
When the Xinjiang Production & Construction Corps (XPCC) were disbanded in 2014, experts expected privitization of the agriculture sector to bring about a higher standard of living for the region’s migrant worker and ethnic minority populations. The hope was that the elimination of an unfair government advantage would result in an even playing field for the region’s small farmers, as well as market-driven wage increases. While a few land-owning minorities did in fact benefit from the privitization scheme, the overall result was the loss of tens of thousands of farm-related jobs. Unexpectedly, former XPCC brigade leaders established partnerships with multinational agri-conglomerates, mechanizing and automating existing large farms while simultaneously buying and combining small farms throughout the region.
Coming at a time when both the regional and central governments were emphasising the extraction of energy resources over agriculture, the loss of the XPCC was the final step in Xinjiang’s march towards ethnic segregation and urbanization. Unable to find jobs in either the oil industry or Han-owned factories near Urumqi, young Uyghurs began migrating en masse towards cities along the southern Silk Road, especially the area between Kashgar and Hotan where they formed a solid ethnic majority. Many of the Han workers crammed into the Urumqi Special Economic Zone (USEZ), where factories producing goods for Russia, Central Asia, and the Middle East are encouraged by government subsidies and extensive rail links; others headed for Xinjiang’s new capital city, Korla, where the completion of the gargantuan 3,000 km GUSAC (Gulf South Asia China) oil pipeline from Qatar via Pakistan — not to mention the Siberian pipeline via Altay — gave rise to the city’s nickname, “Gobi Houston”.
Between 2006 and 2021, the population of Korla increased from 400 thousand to 2.6 million, while the former capital of Urumqi increased from 2.4 million to more than 5 million. All other regions of Xinjiang except for Kashgar and Hotan prefectures in the south lost population, as rural life in northern Xinjiang quickly faded away.
One of the most significant unintended consequences of the ethnic concentration of displaced Uyghurs in southwest Xinjiang was the resurgence of seperatist sentiment and activity, which had been relatively dormant since a harsh government crackdown in the late 1990s. Beijing ignored initial protests in Hotan during the spring of 2018, only to send in troops that summer when evidence surfaced that Islamic extremists from Pakistan were actively infiltrating the Uyghur population and fomenting unrest. On September 11, 2018, an anti-government protest in Kargilik was violently supressed, resulting in between 7 and 26 deaths. On January 1, 2019, public gatherings of more than eight people were banned in Hotan, Kashgar, and Kizilsu prefectures, effectively outlawing Muslim prayer services and mosque attendance. Needless to say, this step was effective at quieting local protests while enraging the entire Muslim world.
2021: China’s War on Terror
With a heavy presence of PLA troops on the streets of Hotan and Kashgar and public gatherings impossible, Uyghur seperatist elements went deep underground in 2019. Occasional raids turned up small groups of anti-government rebels in September 2019 and May 2020, with several public executions being held as a warning to the Uyghur population. While the situation was tense, a “hot conflict” similar to the continued fighting in the West Bank and Gaza had not yet erupted.
But when a bomb planted by the Pan-Islamic Turkestan Association (PITA) ripped a hole in the GUSAC pipeline west of Tashkurgan on February 12th of this year, things heated up considerably. Faced with a two week interruption of their most important crude oil supply,
Beijing sent additional troops to Xinjiang to protect the pipeline and seek out the perpetrators. A second attack on the pipeline — this time on the Pakistani-controlled Kashmir side of the border — resulted in a declaration by Beijing that al-Qaeda was “now clearly attacking China directly” using both hardened extremists in Pakistan and new recruits among the Uyghur population.
The attacks came as no surprise to experts in the West, who had been predicting since the US withdrawals from Iraq in 2015 and Afghanistan in 2018 that Islamic extremism would now turn its fury against the rising superpower of China. An influential 2019 article in Foreign Policy written by Dr. Condoleezza Rice argued that “with a long, porous border in Central Asia and a history of repressing its Muslim population, China now represents an almost irresistible target to the forces of extreme Islam.”
With all of northern Pakistan controlled by Taliban forces, Beijing in May forced the signing of a pact establishing a Chinese “zone of military control” (ZMC) in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Ostensibly invited by the Pakistani government in Islamabad, the first Chinese occupation troops crossed the border using the Karakoram Highway on May 29th.
On June 26th, PLA border troops in Xinjiang intercepted a shipment of nearly 800 kg of heroin coming over the Wakhjir Pass from Afghanistan. This represented the largest drug confiscation in modern Chinese history, and was also a significant development in China’s own War on Terror. Announcing the bust, Chinese authorities stated that they had unequivocal evidence that funds from the sale of illegal drugs were being used to finance Uyghur resistance groups, and that all Taliban forces worldwide were now legitimate targets for the PLA. Only a week later, citing the Afghan and Tajik governments’ de facto abandonment of their easternmost territories to Taliban forces, the Chinese unilaterally extended the ZMC to include those areas.
Since the establishment of the ZMC six months ago, China has been fighting a low-intensity defensive war, attempting to avoid mistakes made by the US during their two decade occupation of the region. Whereas the US actively patrolled and sought out terrorist elements during their campaign, the Chinese military has so far been content to simply protect the integrity of the GUSAC pipeline and China’s far-western border.
If recent history is any indication — China being the third country to occupy Afghanistan, if only partially, in the past fifty years — the PLA has a long, tough fight ahead. Common sense indicates that extremists in the Muslim world are only concentrating their resources and organizing forces for another jihad against what are already being called in Arabic kafir asfar, or yellow infidels.
Editor’s Note: Comments are disabled on this post in order to limit discussion to one venue. Please go to the Opposite End of China to post and view comments.