Gordon Chang is an expert on China and North Korea. He is a columnist at Forbes.com and blogs at World Affairs Journal. He is the author of The Coming Collapse of China.
The following is Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro’s interview with Gordon Chang about the restive Muslim minority in China:
Ryan Mauro: Can you tell us about the Muslim province of Xinjiang in China?
Gordon Chang: Beijing, in what it calls its Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, has a problem it cannot solve. The Uighurs call it East Turkestan.
Essentially, the Chinese have conquered a people who do not want to be a part of the People’s Republic. The Uighurs, in short, are not “Chinese.” They are not the same race as the Han majority, and they have their own religion, traditions, language and culture, all of which Beijing is trying to eradicate. The multi-decade attempt to assimilate the Uighurs has kept the area under Chinese control, but it has alienated the population.
Beijing pursues the same hardline policies in Xinjiang/East Turkestan that it imposes in Tibet. There is virtually no prospect that the current leadership will change those policies, so it is difficult to see a long-lasting improvement in relations between Uighurs and Hans.
Mauro: Is there a terrorist presence in Xinjiang?
Chang: Except for spontaneous street fights between Han and Uighurs, mostly every Uighur act of violence in Xinjiang has been directed against the Chinese authorities and not civilians.
The isolated deadly attacks on buses outside Xinjiang in the last decade appear to have been the work of Uighurs, but the facts regarding these incidents are not clear given the lack of information from independent sources. Beijing has announced some claims of responsibility from Uighurs were in fact false. In any event, these attacks outside Xinjiang against civilians have been extremely rare.
Uighur attacks against government targets in Xinjiang obviously have not been the work of trained professionals, and in many cases, they are evidently spontaneous reactions to Chinese official violence against Uighur civilians.
There have been few Uighur terrorists, and one indication of that is that the Uighurs at Gitmo, who may have ended up there due to incorrect information from Chinese authorities, were released.
In general, it is remarkable how little outside support the Uighurs have received.
Mauro: Since China is targeted by Islamists, is there an opportunity for closer cooperation between the Chinese and U.S. governments?
Chang: Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang are so harsh they prevent the United States from cooperation with Beijing, at least over the long term.
In 2002, the State Department branded the East Turkestan Islamic Movement a terrorist organization in what now looks like a questionable decision. That designation pleased Beijing, but the Chinese were angered when the U.S. later released Uighurs held at Guantanamo. Since then, the Uighur issue has divided the two countries more than it has united them—and for good reason.
Mauro: Why was it questionable to label the East Turkestan Islamic Movement a terrorist group?
Chang: To this day, the nature of ETIM is unclear as is the extent of its activities, especially because much of the information about the organization comes, directly or indirectly, from Chinese authorities who lack credibility when it comes to Uighur matters.
State Department officials have not given clear and convincing explanations in defense of the designation of ETM, especially once Beijing-supplied information is discounted.
Mauro: Do the Uighurs want Sharia Law?
Chang: I am sure some Uighurs want Sharia, but that has not been the thrust of protests in Xinjiang. Uighurs have been demanding basic human rights and the end of Beijing’s increasingly repressive rule.
Mauro: If China is concerned about radical Islam, why is China supporting Iran?
Chang: China supports Iran because it wants Iran’s oil and gas; it sees Iran as a market for its manufactured goods; it wants Tehran as an ally in what the Chinese perceive to be a war of ideas with the West; it desires Iran’s vote in the U.N. General Assembly and its support in U.N. bodies such as the Human Rights Council and it wants to make sure Tehran does not support the Uighurs.
Mauro: China is supportive of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, as is Russia. If the U.S. strikes Syria, how do you think China will respond?
Chang: China will huff and puff if the Obama administration ultimately decides to strike Syria, but there is little Beijing will do beyond words. Beijing has too many things it wants from Washington—especially now that its economy appears fragile—so it will not attempt to impose real costs on the United States for a strike.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.