Xinjiang’s demographic and anthropic complexion is more complex than we tend to currently believe: according to China’s 2000 census-taking, 40% of the population of East Turkestan-Xinjiang is Han Chinese, while the remaining 60% is Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz or Oirat.
The latter are an ethnic group originating from the Altai Mountains, Mongolia; in the Russian Federation, they are called kalmik.
Hence, it is not a relationship between Han Chinese and Turkish-origin Uyghurs, but a complex network of alliances and tensions between various Islamic or non-Islamic ethnic minorities.
Obviously, the Uyghur issue is mostly political and strategic, rather than ethnic or religious, since everybody knows that the Uyghurs profess the Islamic faith.
For the East Turkestan’s population, the Sunni Islam has never been a strictly religious factor, but rather an ethnic-cultural and identity one.
Moreover, according to the latest scientific sources, the Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang region are estimated at approximately 10 million people, but they are present in all the 31 Chinese provinces – hence not just traditionally in Xinjiang.
This explains the perception of the danger caused by the extremist Islamization of the Uyghur Islam and, hence, operating in China.
Since 2001, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has been affiliated to Al Qaeda while, in 2013, it was integrated into the Syrian-Iraqi “Caliphate”, with two other Uzbek-origin Islamist groups, thus soon swelling the ranks of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front – namely the Syrian faction of the organization founded by Osama bin Laden, which has been currently renamed as Jabhat Fath al Sham.
According to Arab sources, the Uyghur militants operating in Syria are estimated at approximately 2,000 and they communicate via a Telegram channel organized by TIP’s information and propaganda centre, known as Islam Awazi, which spreads a large number of strongly anti-Chinese – and obviously anti-Western – videos and texts.
On the other hand, TIP has already operated with terrorist attacks in China: in 2013 and 2014 in Tiananmen Square, and later in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang – not to mention the massacre of the Han Chinese in Kunming and Guangzhou, again in 2014.
A massacre perpetrated with knives and machetes – hence it not surprising that, today, the sources of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), the organization led by Rabiya Kader, note – with some shock – that the Chinese authorities force the owners of sharp blades to be registered with a special list.
Furthermore, TIP and the other Uyghur Islamist autonomist movements have always been secretly funded and supported by the Turkish intelligence services, on the basis of an ethnic-religious brotherhood, but also of a strategic project, which sees Turkey projecting onto Central Asia, thus uniting – under its geopolitical project – the Islam of the region and the many Turkish-origin minorities living in those areas.
Has NATO nothing to say in this regard? Can tension be created in Central Asia and in the Middle East, which could trigger the solidarity mechanism pursuant to Article 5 of the Treaty establishing the Atlantic Alliance?
In this case, China’s response has been economic: the State-owned oil company Sinopec has recently invested considerable funds in the oil fields and gas deposits in the Iraqi Kurdish areas – a clear instrument of geopolitical pressure against Turkey.
Obviously, it also becomes essential to defame China, accused of brutal repression of the whole Islamic and Uyghur population in China.
This leads to some Chinese weakness in the relations with the anti-terrorist and anti-jihadist fight of the West and of the Russian Federation, in particular.
Furthermore, Uyghurs’ bilingualism is largely prevailing in Northern Xinjiang.
In the urban areas of the region, only 20% of the population is Uyghur, while in rural areas the Uyghurs account for up to 80%.
Moreover, Islam penetrated Xinjiang as from the tenth century from the Turkish colonies in the Tarim region, and the Islamic religion spread equally between Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uyghurs.
Hence, it is somehow a stretch to equate and relate Islam only to Xinjiang’s Uyghur issue, but it is certainly not by mere coincidence that only the Uyghurs, and not the other ethnic groups, operate permanently against the Chinese government and interests.
As the most reliable sources report, there are continuing clashes. They are often Uyghurs’ operations against Han Chinese, although, there is obviously a clear level of pressure put by the Chinese authorities.
On July 24, 2014, Uyghur militants killed 37 civilians and injured 13 others in Shache-Yarkand.
There was also the harsh reaction of the Chinese police.
Hence spreading the idea that the Uyghurs are a peaceful people tortured by a Han Chinese minority is groundless.
We must wonder whether and how the other Islamic minorities do not radicalize so much as, on the contrary, happens to the Uyghur population of whom, however, strong religiousness has never been noted.
All international sources have always underlined that Islamic orthodoxy applies only to a minority of the Uyghur population or of other local ethnic groups professing the Islamic faith.
Hence, the political Islam is a way to radicalize a people and does not belong to the religious and ethnic history of the Uyghurs living in Xinjiang.
From this viewpoint, it is fully rational for the Chinese government to fear the effects of Islamic radicalism – which, as already noted, characterizes only the Uyghurs and not the other Islam-faith minorities such as the Hui – combining with the Islamic radicalism, which has long been present in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Another reasonable and understandable Chinese fear is that the Uyghurs’ Islamic movement radicalizes also other ethnic and religious minorities against China.
This regards also the governments of Xinjiang’s neighbouring countries, which also host Uyghur minorities and fear the Islamist-jihadist radicalization of these groups.
Therefore, it is reprehensible to see how many European democratic parliamentarians, championing democratic and liberal ideas, accept – without ever raising objections – the propaganda of the Uyghur organizations in the West, often disguised or covered by the Tibetan world which usually organizes anti-Chinese activities in Europe and the United States.
At geopolitical level, it is not clear what China could or should do differently: Tibet has a top-level autonomous military command and a highly-efficient intelligence network, namely SIGINT (SIGnal INTtelligence), as well as some nuclear and missile sites.
Should it possibly leave everything and leave undefended its most sensitive border, namely the Tibetan-Turkestan one?
Who would benefit from this situation? The Americans, maybe? Not at all. It would be the beginning of the end for all Central Asia.
Hence it is strange that, in the West, the Uyghur issue is dealt with by taking for granted that there is only China’s “crackdown”.
Moreover, the network of Uyghur organizations is complex and requires huge funds.
We have already talked about this issue in other articles, but it is strange that, for example, some leaders of the World Uyghur Congress have multiple passports and move freely in Europe and in the rest of the world.
If they create yet another ill-omened and unfortunate “Uyghur spring”, like the previous ones, they will generate a final jihad in China, with currently unimaginable damage and dangers, even in Europe.
Finally, if anyone thought of a structural weakening and a strategic downgrading of the Chinese government, the whole Asia would collapse with China and there would be no Western economy capable of absorbing the terrible asymmetric shock created by these strategic follies.
Therefore, the situation is much more complex and the “sword jihad” has everything to do with it.
Westerners, however, have now fallen asleep and believe that the jihadist Islam is a matter of little consequence, an internal dispute within the Islam faith, a regional conflict.
Not at all. It is the first problem of our time – and, certainly, it cannot be solved with nice words or with the “seductions” of freedom or mass democracy.
This is proved by the failure of the psychological warfare operations known as “Arab springs”.
Hence the Uyghur issue must be dealt with very carefully, without demonizing the reaction of China which, however, is investing huge funds precisely in Xinjiang and without even thinking – as data and statistics demonstrate – that the whole Uyghur population can be hegemonized and dominated by its Islamist-jihadist or autonomist minorities.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France