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The Dalai Lama’s words usually have a calming effect on people. But one phrase that he occasionally uses can infuriate the Chinese leadership. This is not a mantra learned in the monasteries of Tibet, but is in fact a dullish geographic term: “East Turkestan.”
What does it mean? And why does it drive the Chinese government crazy?
East Turkestan is a huge area in northwest China amounting to about one-sixth of the country. The Chinese government absolutely insists it be called Xinjiang, or, even more officially, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The local people are Uighurs — Turkic-speaking Muslims. Like the Tibetans, they would prefer independence from China but would probably settle for genuine autonomy. Like the Tibetans, they feel little affinity with China on any level.
When the Dalai Lama uses the phrase “East Turkestan,” he is in effect saying that Xinjiang is a natural part of Central Asia and not of China, which holds it by force alone. To the Chinese this is a seditious term, a call to revolt. In 2010, a Foreign Ministry spokesman declared that the Dalai Lama’s use of the term proved “his intent of splitting the country and sabotaging ethnic unity.”
The Dalai Lama must currently be watching carefully. Recent months have brought reports of increased discrimination against Uighurs and — echoing ethnic clashes in 2009 that left hundreds slain — deadly violence in Xinjiang, with at least 100 believed to have been killed this past year, and more than 100 detained for spreading “religious extremism.” Authorities have cited separatist activity in the region to justify their ongoing crackdowns.
Until now, Beijing has dealt with Xinjiang much as it has dealt with Tibet. It has flooded the region with Han Chinese to tip the population balance against the indigenous locals. (The current population in Xinjiang is about 45 percent Uighur and 40 percent Han.) Mandarin is the language of social advancement; the local language, culture and religion impede progress. Job listings frequently request native Mandarin speakers only. But perks have been offered to those who are willing to cooperate with authorities: Some Uighurs have been exempted from China’s one-child-per-family policy, and the government has tinkered with programs offering soft loans to small farmers.
But such inducements have at times been a double-edged sword. When Stalin was establishing Soviet power in Central Asia, he ordered that chadors be burned — not to liberate women so much as to smash the existing patriarchal, Islamic power structure. In the 1980s, authorities helped Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman, to become one of the wealthiest women in China, in order to show other Uighurs that collaboration was the road to inclusion and success. Government support caused her Chinese business rivals to hate her. At one point, fearing for her life, this most liberated of women re-donned the chador so she could move freely about the streets. Ultimately realizing that the Chinese authorities were using her as a tool, she broke with them, was imprisoned for many years and is now an exiled leader of the Uighur independence movement.
Beijing wants a docile Xinjiang — but this seems increasingly unlikely. China’s nightmare is the collusion between the two great Western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang. Tibet’s freedom fighters are more likely to express their discontent by means of self-immolation, whereas the Uighurs tend to opt for overt violence against Chinese officials and citizens. Though Beijing declares that these rebels are instigated and financed from abroad, their benefactors must not be very generous: An attack on a police station in Xinjiang this June that left 27 dead, including nine police officers, was carried out with knives.
Xinjiang is important to China not only because of what is beneath the ground — the country’s largest gas deposits and considerable oil — but also because of what moves across the ground. Much of China’s imports and some of its exports must pass through Xinjiang. A new rail line, already dubbed the Silk Road after the ancient trade routes that linked China and the Mediterranean world more than two millennia ago, is faster than shipping through the Suez Canal. Just as important, China increasingly gets its gas and oil through pipelines that cross Xinjiang west to east. If a reasonable, just and humane solution to the “East Turkestan” problem is not found, China can expect the Uighur rebels to graduate from knives to explosives that can cut those rail and pipe lines.
China can keep this a local problem for a while — but not for long. A major crisis is already on the horizon. The two largest countries in Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, are ruled by strongmen who have been in power since Soviet times. There are all sorts of rumors about their health, but there is no controversy about their dates of birth. Both men are in their 70s, and neither has a male heir. The populations of both countries suffer from income inequality and violent repression. Central Asia is as ripe for a “spring” as the Middle East was two years ago. The Uighurs will no doubt seize the moment to attempt a definitive break from China.
Crises usually seem to emerge out of nowhere. This one, however, comes as close to being predictable and inevitable as such things ever are. It even has the blessing of the Dalai Lama.
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.