ANALYSIS: "Pakistan is our Israel" —Peter Young
There is a strong sentiment amongst a large number of non-Han in the region that their ancient cultures, some of which can be dated back to the 7th century BC, are being eroded and replaced by Han culture
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the setting up of diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Pakistan: a relationship that has been and still is one of the closest state alliances in modern history. Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognise the PRC in 1950 and break ties with the Kuomintang-governed Republic of China, which by that time had retreated to Taiwan. With the passage of time the relationship, bolstered by a series of events such as the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and prolonged cooperation on political, military, and economic matters, has only strengthened. China became, as Musharraf put it, a "time-tested and all-weather friend" to Pakistan.
The Chinese and Pakistani governments now pledge mutual support on virtually every key issue. China has become — and I say this with only a hint of Orwellian irony — Pakistan's Communist big brother. Most importantly, China fully supports Pakistan's stance on Kashmir while Pakistan has been similarly supportive of China's 'core interests': namely issues relating to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Indeed the Sino-Pakistan relationship has been likened to another international alliance that Pakistanis might find less flattering. In a widely reported incident in 2010, a US delegate confronted a Chinese diplomat on China's unwavering support for Pakistani policy to which the diplomat responded with the sarcastic retort: "Pakistan is our Israel."
Last month, in keeping with diplomatic tradition, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar reaffirmed Pakistan's support for China's "core interests" during her two-day visit to the country. Commendably, she also committed to cooperate with China to seek out any bases of the terrorist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), suspected of operating from Pakistani soil. The ETIM — members of which perpetrated the Kashgar attacks in late July — is a mujahideen-based organisation which has the somewhat ambitious aim of creating a fundamentalist Islamic state in Xinjiang and converting all Chinese people to its distorted version of Islam.
Like so many radical organisations throughout history, their influence is not necessarily linked to popular support, rather more often their influence is based on their ability to attract headlines, something the ETIM have become very proficient at. Much of the support for the ETIM comes from outside Xinjiang, with sources of training and funding suspected of coming from bases in North Waziristan and Central Asia. The movement's presence in North Waziristan is particularly sensitive for Pakistan because of China's awareness of Ziaul Huq's covert support for the movement during his tenure in power. My concern, however, is that the motives of this terrorist ETIM are being equated with those of the majority of the people of Xinjiang, many of whom have legitimate political grievances.
When one looks at a political map of the modern day PRC, one sees Xinjiang as a well-defined bloc one-sixth the size of the country as a whole. Yet historically the region has evaded easy definitions. Xinjiang has been and still is home to Uighur, Kazakh, Han, Hui, Mongol, and Dongxiang people amongst others, each from different cultural and religious traditions. Historically these people were drawn together by the presence of oases in a largely arid region and the sense of there being a unified people has only existed shakily in the region. Additionally, its political boundaries — both self-defined and recognised by foreign powers — have been invariably fluid.
Mentioning the multifaceted nature of Xinjiang seems particularly relevant when discussing its modern day problems. The people of that region do not speak with one voice — this comment can also be taken quite literally due to the number of languages spoken — and air their grievances in a variety of different manners, if at all. This disparateness has relevant parallels in the modern politics of the region. There are some who resort to violence to pursue their endeavours, but there are also peaceful movements which sympathise with secularism in the tradition of Kemal Ataturk, as well as those who are happy to remain part of the PRC but want changes in the way their region is governed. My concern is that the activity and prominence of movements such as the ETIM have sullied the name of those who seek to peacefully air genuine political grievances in the region.
Listing some of the afflictions that are widely held in the region may help us to make a more informed judgement on PRC policy in Xinjiang. As mentioned above there is a strong sentiment amongst a large number of non-Han in the region that their ancient cultures, some of which can be dated back to the 7th century BC, are being eroded and replaced by Han culture. There has been overwhelming internal migration by ethnic Han Chinese — who are exempt from the one child policy whilst there — resulting in massive demographic change. Natives have complained of discrimination in a number of areas including appointments to state jobs and the use of disproportionate police violence when demonstrations have taken place.
Since 2009 it has become illegal to even discuss the issue of independence of Xinjiang on the internet. This severely inhibits any legitimate attempts at 'self-determination' that the people of that region might want to pursue, which is arguably in contravention of international law. There also exists an amendment made to the Chinese constitution in 1997 on the "subversion of state power", which is sufficiently ambiguous that calls for independence, however peaceful, can be punished by very long terms of imprisonment.
Islam is an important part of the culture of the vast majority of Xinjiang's natives and the PRC only allows state-approved religion to be practiced. The state controls all mosques and Islamic teaching. This has resulted in the driving of religious movements underground (as has happened with large Christian denominations across China.)
The fact that support for the PRC's policy in Xinjiang is one of the "core interests" that the Pakistani foreign minister reaffirmed unwavering support for last month should not sit easily on the conscience of the liberal-minded Pakistani. After all, if there is one people who can understand the feeling of being treated like second-class citizens in their own country then it is a people who trekked agonisingly across the plains of north-west India to found their Muslim homeland.
It could be argued that even if Pakistan did fundamentally oppose an aspect of Chinese policy then — as some say is true of the US-Israeli relationship — Pakistan would be strategically inclined to gloss over the issue. It may well be in Pakistan's interests to support the way that China rules Xinjiang but let us bear in mind that sometimes it is politically prudent to say things that are not strictly moral. For now at least, all Pakistanis can do is recognise the moral shades of grey involved in China's "core interests" and, as far as Xinjiang is concerned, avoid falling into the trap of equating the will of extremists with the will of the regional population as a whole.
The writer currently lives and works in China and has an interest in Chinese politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org