According to a report from The Economist, twelve were killed last Friday (the 24th) in yet another instance of sectarian clash in Xinjiang Province, China. On the 15th, Chinese authorities had arrested Ilham Tohti. Accused of, among other things, “separatist activities,” Mr. Tohti is a professor, economist, and member of the Uighur minority native to Xinjiang. He has been arraigned before (once after a clash in 2009 that resulted in 200 deaths, and again when trying to board a plane to take a teaching position in the US last year). As is often the case in violent disputes such as these, some consider the Muslim rebels freedom-fighters while others (including the central government) consider them terrorists. For China, avoiding clashes like these should be matter of improving the welfare of Uighurs and spreading a message of national identity and unity. It has failed in this effect with its top-down development approach (which Mr. Tohti criticizes) disproportionately benefiting the ethnic Han transplanted to the region, and leaving the Muslim Uighurs in destitution and lacking representation.
These same tensions, which often erupt into violence, also plague China’s other “rimlands” or “borderlands,” as Robert Kaplan describes them in The Revenge of Geography: those provinces which the central government has, for good reason, designated as “Autonomous Regions.” These include Xinjiang and Xizang (Tibet) to the West, Guangxi in the South, and Ningxia and Nei Mongol (Inner Mongolia) to the North. Kaplan describes these territories as being crucial to China’s geopolitical might, for (while they have historically been the major threat to China’s stability, i.e. invasions from the north-west steppe) they form a protective, if artificial, “buffer zone” and border around China’s fertile cradle. Moreover, the desert plateaus of Xinjiang and Tibet act as a passageway into Central Asia, while the steppes of Ningxia and Inner Mongolia act as a passageway into the Russian Far-East, and Guangxi into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean (described by Kaplan as a critical geopolitical and geoeconomic pivot to which China seeks access through a newly-open Myanmar). What is more, Tibet holds massive underground and glacial freshwater reserves, the headwaters of the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej Rivers, as well as significant deposits of oil, copper, iron, uranium, lithium, chromite, and gold. Xinjiang also holds massive deposits of oil, natural gas, coal, salts, metals, and rare-metals. From Inner Mongolia, Han Chinese are spreading into Russia in vast swaths, along with their roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure. These same roads and pipelines are extending west from Xinjiang into Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and the rest of Central Asia: thus China’s sphere of influence has grown much larger than its own borders.
So how then can China protect itself from the separatist movements within its own rimlands? It has over the past several decades adopted the approach of forcibly and non-forcibly transplanting hundreds of thousands of ethnic Han into these areas while rapidly building roads and infrastructure to cement their territorial claims and violently putting down any protest. However this approach might actually be fanning the flames, so to speak, as it has generally had a neutral-to-negative rather than positive effect on the native populations. Religious, ethnic, and national identity, which has been the basis for these clashes, has only been supplemented by the tensions which have arisen from mass migration and epidemic economic inequality across purely ethnic lines. To quench these sectarian flames, China may need to adopt a softer approach of taking concrete steps to promote the welfare of native peoples, allowing for peaceful protest and freedom of speech, as well as spreading a message of religious and ethnic tolerance and national–but multicultural–identity. Only time will tell how successful the central government is at doing this.