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Bolstered Silk Road trade could hurt China’s Uighurs

President Xi Jinping’s notice of $40 billion to boost trade could mean more repression in Xinjiang, advocates say

Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to invest $40 billion in Beijing’s burgeoning political and economic partnership with Central Asian countries — a move rights advocates fear could mean increased repression for China’s beleaguered Muslim Uighur minority.

The Silk Road Fund announced at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing aims to finance “infrastructure, resources, industrial cooperation, financial cooperation and other projects” related to reviving the historic trade route for which it is named.

The announcement follows a series of diplomatic visits by Xi and his administration to Central and South Asian countries, where China has in recent months signed several multi-billion-dollar energy deals. The deals would funnel oil and gas from neighboring countries directly into China through its restive Xinjiang region, where scores of Uighurs have been recently killed in clashes with Chinese authorities.

Amid the business deals, the countries – members or observers of the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a political and economic union – have almost all pledged their support against what Beijing has called “Uighur terrorism.” China has faced a number of attacks at the hands of what it says are Uighur extremists and separatists, including a car crash at Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of China’s ruling Communist Party.

Uighurs say the acts were either perpetrated by troubled members of the repressed religious and ethnic minority or wholesale fabrications by Chinese authorities. Independent information on the incidents is difficult to obtain — as all the attack sites were barred to the press and cleaned up within 24 hours.

Most recently, Xi traveled to Afghanistan, with an eye on the country’s virtually untapped mineral deposits – including copper, iron and ore – as United States-led Western forces leave the war-torn country. During Xi’s visit, newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani pledged symbolic support for China’s national security concerns.

“Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Shanghai Cooperation countries’ deals means more heavy-handed repression of Uighurs with the acquiescence and support of neighboring countries,” said Alim Seytoff, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy organization and the self-professed government in exile of Xinjiang, which the group refers to as the independent state of East Turkestan.

For decades, China has sought to economically develop Xinjiang as a means of quelling unrest over a dearth of opportunities for Uighurs. However, critics say that the measures have more so benefited ethnic majority Han migrants in the region.

While the Silk Road Fund will likely bolster Xinjiang’s role in China’s economic partnership with its energy-rich neighbors and be billed as a boon to Uighur livelihoods, it is also another reason to crackdown on unrest in the region, said Seytoff, as China will need to ensure a peaceful climate for investments.

“The Chinese investment of $40 billion that Xi revealed is really bad news for the Uighur people,” he said. “Chinese investment has not brought so-called prosperity, stability or peace for the indigenous Uighur people in East Turkestan. In light of the strategic importance of East Turkestan, which is a gateway to Central and South Asia for China, we have seen more of the repression Uighurs have faced over the past decade, especially since 9/11.”

Advocates like Seytoff argue that Washington’s “War on Terror” has given the Chinese government a pretext for cracking down on its own Muslim population.

That crackdown has manifested in countless forms against China’s Uighurs — including the banning of beards and traditional snacksflying a Chinese flag at the top of a mosque and sentencing a prominent economics professor to life in prison on charges of encouraging separatism.

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