The bloody riots in China’s autonomous regions (the Tibet and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regions) that broke out during 2008-2009 invariably produced an international reaction from Western governments, human rights organizations, and ethnic and Western nongovernmental civic organizations. They reveal a clear-cut tendency towards consolidation of activities by Tibetan and Uyghur movements. On the surface, the trend appears spontaneous, but in reality it is a new development in the program to systematically destabilize China and its “strategic partners.”
It appears that a key component of this program may be the Uyghur project, which the West has been developing unsuccessfully for decades. In its new human rights format, the Uyghur project is fully capable of increasing the potential for conflict in Central Asia, South Asia and the Islamic Orient.
The ideological markers of the Uyghur project.
Before the turn of this century, the Uyghur and the Tibet projects seemingly developed entirely independently of one another. They nevertheless were united by a common dominant idea—the effort by the West to establish politically active diasporas consolidated along ethno-religious lines. The West’s 20 years of work with the Tibetan ethnic community have not been in vain. The riots in Tibet during March 2008 and the subsequent firm response by the international community demonstrated that the transnational Tibetan Buddhist network not only is functioning successfully, but it may also be used in resolving geopolitical issues.
For a long time, the transnational ethno-religious consolidation of the Uyghur project encountered a number of barriers: an inability to nominate a single religious leader able to speak for all Uyghur enclaves, an inability to form a government in exile, and an inability to come to an agreement on ideology among the Uyghur and Western NGOs in their struggle for an independent East Turkestan. It became obvious to Western sponsors only in the late 1990s that the Uyghur project was failing to develop along ethno-religious lines. In its plan to exploit the “Uyghur issue” geopolitically, the democratic West was held hostage by its own geopolitical successes: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fight against global terrorism.
The collapse of the Soviet Union also caused the collapse of its former coalitions—for the Uyghur project that meant Turkey’s refusal to cultivate a politically contentious Sunni-Uyghur enclave on its own territory. After making a Uyghur-Kurd trade with China in the mid-1990s, Turkey opted for a time to distance itself from its Western partners. In 1998, the Turkish government officially recognized the Uyghur Xinjiang Autonomous Republic as an integral part of China and banned politically contentious speeches by the Uyghur Diaspora in Turkey, and it ceased granting Turkish citizenship to Uyghur refugees. The Uyghur NGO for an independent East Turkestan in Turkey was forced to look for new locations. The United States and Germany stepped forward. The East Turkestan National Center, which had just been reorganized in 1998, hurriedly moved to Munich, where in 1999 it became the East Turkestan National Congress.
The newly formed CIS republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan—which have always been happy to accept Uyghur migrations and host large enclaves of the Uyghur Diaspora, came to be guided in their treatment of national minorities by their strategic partnership with China. Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan, which had been indifferent to the plight of the Uyghurs in the Soviet Union, took an interest in Muslim Uyghurs in the post-Soviet economic and geopolitical space.
Islamic terrorism, which the United States in the late 1990s declared the new “enemy” of democracy and peace on a global scale, decisively crippled the Uyghur project. By utilizing the West’s rhetoric about the international struggle against Islamic aggression, Beijing in 2002 obtained the agreement of the United States and the United Nations to classify the umbrella organizations of the transnational Uyghur movement that had been nurtured for decades as international terrorist organizations and accuse Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia of complicity in Uyghur separatism and the creation of a pan-Turkic state.
Although hoist on their own petard, the West has nevertheless worked to rectify its mistakes. The most problematic aspect of reviving the Uyghur cause has been transcending the reasons for the project’s failure, of which there are at least three. First of all, the Uyghur project was for decades on the periphery of analysis and sponsorship by Western ideologues of global democracy. In essence, only Turkey was involved in developing the Uyghur project. Turkey gave Uyghurs citizenship, funded the establishment of Uyghur political organizations and catered to the growth of the nationalist ideology of Uyghur separatism. The Uyghur enclaves that settled in the United States, Belgium, Germany, Australia, Canada, Great Britain and Sweden, as well as countries of the Islamic Orient (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Egypt), were left to themselves and the governments of their host countries. They had no ties with each other and no unified leadership, planning or goals.
Secondly, Western involvement until 2004-2005 was limited to inclusion of the Uyghur cause in the international activities of such organizations as Amnesty International (AI) and the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization (UNPO). However, although both of these organizations are well adapted to ideological struggle in a bipolar world, the impermeability of national borders and the effectiveness of international law, they were unable to create the democratic public relations image that the Uyghur movement needed in the context of expanding globalization. Thus, the bloody riots in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Republic that occurred with enviable regularity throughout the 1990s were not adequately covered in the Western media or given sufficient international publicity. AI and UNPO international digests about harassment and genocide of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Republic, etc., were unable to create much interest as new geopolitical alliances formed and China came to the front of the international stage. Equally irrelevant to global news was the election in 1999 of Uyghur leader Erkin Alptekin to head the UNPO, which is located in The Hague.
Since 2004, the West has again been paying close attention to the Uyghur project. Prominent American political scientists and analysts have been commissioned to conduct a systematic study of the “Uyghur problem” and the prospects for a global solution to it. And from them we are already hearing disparate views on the political hopelessness of the struggle for an independent East Turkestan, the need to establish a unified political organization for the enclaves of the Uyghur Diaspora and the inutility of its leaders’ ideological actions. Most of the analytical expert opinions of America, Oxford and Israeli scholars have clearly articulated one of the main reasons that past efforts failed. They write about the geopolitical irrelevance of the previous religious and nationalist version of the Uyghur project. That version was primarily limited to attempts to consolidate the loose Uyghur Diaspora around the idea of armed struggle for the political independence of an East Turkestan and increase the ideological solidarity of Uyghur enclaves with radical organizations in the Islamic Middle East and Islamic political organizations in Central Asia.
It was in the context of these analytical concepts for future Western participation in the Uyghur project during 2004-2005 that the first proposals were heard for rebuilding the Uyghur Diaspora by analogy with the transnational Tibetan Buddhist network and evolving a leader with international influence comparable to that of the 14th Dalai Lama. That idea garnered no support within the Uyghur ethnic community. The rebuttals concerned the impossibility of nominating a single religious and political leader for all Muslim Uyghurs and the desire of the Uyghur ethnic community to struggle for an independent East Turkestan, rather than negotiating with Beijing. However, the Uyghur ethnic community’s identity as Islamic and radical could hardly be well received in the global discourse about democracy, human rights and the non-violent nature of ethnic minorities. Therefore, these rebuttals only convinced the West of the need to create a new format for the Uyghur project.
The new human rights format of the Uyghur project.
The key points of the new Uyghur project format currently are as follows: the evolution of a “spiritual” leader for the global Uyghur Diaspora, activation of virtual and media spaces for a new elaboration of the “Uyghur issue” and coordination of the activities of Tibetan and Uyghur NGOs.
Analysis of current publications on activities of the Uyghur Diaspora allows us to conclude that the Uyghur project’s new format primarily involves the reformation of the Uyghur movement by analogy with the existing Tibetan Buddhist network. That involves completing three components in the near future—the Diaspora, a government in exile and various NGOs for political self-determination. The experience of the Tibetan movement has shown that an ethnic project can only be effective as a tool for geopolitical manipulation when the activities of these three components are coordinated. In the Uyghur version, the attempts initiated by the West in 2004 to establish a Uyghur government in exile met with failure. Beijing’s tough position in which it immediately pronounced the Uyghur organization a terrorist group was hardly the only reason for the failure.
In 2004, Western sponsors of the Uyghur project started a seminal experiment that contributed to the emergence of two Uyghur NGOs—the East Turkestan Government in Exile (ETGE) in Washington and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) in Munich. The ETGE represented the interests of the radical part of the Uyghur Diaspora, while the WUC made a bid to change the ideology of the movement as a whole. The WUC brought together the East Turkestan National Congress, which had been in existence for a long time and had experienced many setbacks in the struggle for independence, and the World Uyghur Youth Congress. The WUC proclaimed the struggle for democracy and ethno-cultural self-determination of Uyghurs as its primary goal.
The two-year public confrontation between the two new Uyghur NGOs culminated with the total discreditation of the ETGE in the eyes of Western human rights organizations and its subsequent disbandment. Thus, the democratic majority of the Uyghur Diaspora found a clever way out of the Uyghur deadlock by eliminating the ETGE—the radical Uyghur NGO. The West’s next step in promoting the new format for the Uyghur project was to showcase the WUC in the media as an ethnic diaspora organization that can be accepted in the global discourse on democratic freedoms and human rights. An important component of the West’s maneuver is to position the WUC as an international ethnic NGO that functions as a de facto government in exile.
Because the reformation of the Uyghur movement was based on the Tibetan network model, the next step was the search for an ideological leader capable of representing the Uyghur Diaspora on the global public stage that the international PR media and Western human rights organizations would find intriguing. Such a leader needs to establish ties between the Uyghur enclaves scattered over the world, revive or found an NGO for the ethno-cultural self-determination of Uyghurs and, finally, head up the WUC.
The United States made a major contribution to solving this problem when it got Beijing to release the Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer in March 2005. That concession by China’s leadership contributed significantly to the revival of the Uyghur project. Western sponsors spent the next four years growing a new “spiritual” leader of the Uyghur movement who is no longer political or religious: teaching Kadeer English, creating the image of a “mother of the Uyghur people” who is fighting for the rights and freedoms of the Uyghur ethnic minority, taking her on an international tour to become acquainted with the governments of the countries where Uyghur refugees have settled, and making repeated unsuccessful attempts to nominate her for the Nobel Prize. And finally, in 2009 Kadeer’s wagon was hitched to the Dalai Lama’s train. Throughout 2009, they appeared together at all major human rights events and conferences. In her poster presentation on the July events in Urumqi delivered in September 2009 at a session of the European Parliament’s Commission on Human Rights in Brussels, Kadeer repeatedly drew comparisons between the “struggle and hardships” of the Uyghur and the Tibetan People’s in China, and between herself and the Dalai Lama. In Prague on September 11, 2009, at the Peace, Democracy and Human Rights in Asia conference organized by five Nobel Prize laureates, the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer spoke as co-rapporteurs on the “diplomatic and peaceful settlement of ethnic conflicts in China’s autonomous regions.” Thanks to the efforts of the Western media, the July 5, 2009 riots in Urumqi suddenly are a kind of logical extension of the events of March 2008 in Tibet. Uyghur NGO websites regularly feature a column devoted to the “Tibet problem,” and all public expert assessments of the Uyghur issue invariably feature an analysis of the Tibetan Diaspora’s positions of on autonomy for the Tibet Autonomous Region.
An analysis of the facts of the Tibetan-Uyghur convergence in 2009 suggests that giving the Uyghur project a human rights format in no way means the West has abandoned the idea of radicalizing it in the future. Moreover, the convergence of two ethnic communities that are alien by nature—a radical Islamic community and a Buddhist community that positions itself as democratic—could reinforce and multiply areas of political conflict.
Elena Ostrovskaya holds a Doctorate in Sociology and is a Professor in the Theory and History of Sociology Department of St. Petersburg University. This article was published in Vestnik Analitiki, No. 2, 2010, of the Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis.