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The Other Orientalism: China's Islamist Problem

The Other Orientalism: China's Islamist Problem

Mini Teaser: Three years ago, China was exporting revolution; now it faces a rising tide of Islamism, both without and within. Xinjiang may become China's Chechnya.

by Author(s): Charles Horner

A generation ago, men of divergent personal appearance, political experience, and cultural inheritance ascended to political leadership in the Third World and decided to embrace a transcendent secular radicalism. Whatever their inherited differences, they hoped to construct a united front against the First World and all its evil works, and thereby gain standing for themselves and power for their countries. This was an ambitious project, for as partisans of a broadly-conceived Third World they would need to submerge intramural rivalries of religion, race, culture and conquest into a vocabulary of left-wing solidarity that had been devised by and intended for Europeans.

China invested heavily in this undertaking, for there seemed to be good possibilities in it. The old China-that is to say, mere Imperial or Republican China-could not have imagined the extension of its influence into so much of this world. The ambitions of Imperial China had certainly been great and its confidence in its own universalism highly developed. It was also long-accustomed to being the richest and most powerful country in the world. Even more, Confucianism, China's homegrown ideology, was integral to the growth and consolidation of China's influence in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. But the New Thinking of New China-Communist and Maoist China-carried even grander ambitions to make China a force in places where it had never before been well-established. Among those were the core countries of that other great non-European center of culture and power, the Islamic world. This was an improbable development, perhaps, but one made at least conceivable by the Cold War's admixture of geopolitics and ideology.

In at least this one respect, China's day-to-day encounters with the Islamic parts of the post-colonial world resembled our own. The representatives of the "new emerging forces" (the term is owed to Sukarno of Indonesia, then and now the most populous Muslim nation in the world) convened conferences, held summit meetings, issued declarations, and established worldwide personal reputations. Their comings, goings and pronouncements were closely scrutinized. A new kind of Great Game was being played in all these regions, and it required the contestants with real power to pretend that their local interlocutors were something more than buffoons.

But there was another part of the play that was neither flamboyant nor ridiculous, but deadly-murderous internal violence and protracted cross-border warfare. To stay for a moment with Indonesia-a prominent case study of the day-one can cite the events of 1965, when secular radicalism informed both Chinese strategic ambitions in Southeast Asia and Indonesia's own internal political vocabulary. The Communist Party of Indonesia, made up mostly of local Chinese, attempted a coup d'etat that, had it succeeded, might have solidified a much-feared Beijing-Jakarta axis. Instead, what we remember about "the year of living dangerously"-aside from the classic motion picture made about it-is that it laid the foundation for decades of anti-Chinese authoritarian government in Indonesia, beginning with the murder of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese Indonesian nationals.

Our worries today, of course, focus on other sources of political energy. The most dangerous plotting in Indonesia now is based in extremist Muslim madrassas, not in Maoist cells. ("Mr. Abu Bakar, 63, is the leader of Jemaah Islamiah, a regional terrorist organization whose goal is to create Daulah Islamiah, an Islamic state that would include Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines. Under pressure from its neighbors, Indonesia has agreed to summon him for police questioning." So begins one account.) If we imagine a successful Islamist coup d'etat, one that does not miscarry as did the Communist one, we do not see Beijing at the other end of the axis but rather some "Islamic" power or person-and with local Chinese again on the receiving end of great brutality in the bargain. Even Indonesia's separatist movements have lost their secular "internationalist" character; the oil-rich enclave of Aceh on Sumatra wants greater independence from Jakarta to give greater sway to local Islamic intensity and to hold on to more of its money. If it succeeds, it will become another statelet too rich for its own good, a financier for Islamic violence and terror, and perhaps a pivot in some kind of international Islamic archipelago in Southeast Asia.

It is a similar story in other countries nearby, where "Islam" is understood to have replaced "Third World Solidarity" as the wellspring of political energy. In Malaya during the 1950s-even before there was a Malaysia-Communist China had bet on an insurgency based on local ethnic Chinese to produce a pro-Chinese regime. In the Philippines, China had comparable hopes for the Huks' "national liberation movement." Today, these episodes are remembered in footnotes, if at all. Now, it is Muslim, not Maoist, malcontents who have achieved worldwide celebrity and, were they to prevail, it would not be a strategic gain for Beijing but an enormous setback. This, then, is one measure of the changing situation on the Islamic side of the Sino-Islamic frontier in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. It is as though China's situation vis-à-vis the Islamic world has been turned upside down in the course of a mere quarter century.

There have also been changes on the Chinese side. Twenty-five years ago, China stopped looking to Mao Zedong Thought and its slogans to inspire socialist construction at home or to gain standing in the world. The Chinese know that Mao's grand world design failed as utterly as did his domestic one. The World Countryside did not surround the World City after all. Relieved by China's abandonment of blood-curdling rhetoric and massive subversion, the outside world decided to help this change along. But neither China nor its associates in America, Europe or East Asia thought very much about an Islamist challenge to China as these changes worked their way along. Now we must. Of course, whenever we imagine the Chinese pondering their place in the scheme of things, it is our conceit that they are somehow deeper, more introspective, and subtler than we are, that they go about it more incisively and more profoundly. But whatever their level of sophistication, it is clear that the Chinese are thinking about "Islam" today, and that their thought process is colored by history.

China's Islamic Narrative

"Orientalism" is a disdainful term used by some contemporary intellectuals to describe the Western interest in things Islamic (usually in the Near East, but easily extended to Southeast Asia or Inner Asia, too), which actually masks the West's pursuit of imperial grandeur and economic domination. It is said to be a phenomenon of both cultural study and social science, so that even an eccentric's naive infatuation with the exotic becomes, somehow, part of an expansionist design.

A gimlet-eyed Muslim scholar of China's age-old interest in far-flung Islamic places-someone, that is, interested in defending the far corners of the Islamic world against Western and Chinese encroachment-might allege the same combination of insouciance and cynicism in China. He might connect the ebb and flow of Chinese political and economic influence in Islamic places, whether in the South Seas or in Central Asia, to a comparable Chinese "orientalist" outlook. Armed with the West's formidable intellectual weapon of "post-colonial studies", and warned by it not to trust the professed friendship of any non-believer, such an engagé scholar might find an abundance of confirming evidence in a vast Chinese literature.

The rise of Islam is itself closely coincidental to the flourishing of China's great Tang dynasty (618-907), a dynasty renowned through the ages for its many splendors. There are Chinese accounts of Arab traders in Canton offering a dazzling array of goods. There are records of intrepid Chinese pilgrims like Xuanzang, the 7th-century monk who traveled the Silk Road westward. There are Chinese versions of the travels of Hungarian-British archaeologist Aurel Stein (1862-1943; Stein, for good measure, died in Kabul) and the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952), famed travelers in Central Asia once well known to European schoolboys as well as to their Chinese contemporaries. There have also been modern Western political travelers, most of them apologists for the expansion of Communist Chinese influence into historically Islamic domains. Lately, some contemporary Chinese literary travelers have been recovering an older Chinese sense of the "journey to the west" (to Inner Asia, that is) as a route to personal self-discovery and introspective escapism.

China has also produced its own version of a Chinoiserie mania in the form of a venerable interest in natural and man-made artifacts from far-off Islamic lands. A generation ago, the aspiring student of Tang-era China learned how the country created part of its sense of wealth, worldliness and conspicuous consumption by reading Edward Schafer's canonical catalogue of wonders, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand (1963). In earlier centuries, of course, the cultivated Chinese mandarin had himself come to the topic through books based on this sensibility, "pre-political" in a way, yet celebratory of the great Islamic emirates that provided the Chinese empire and those who ran it with useful and beautiful things from all over the world.

The contemplation of such vaguely-defined and exotic realms far away was, for a very long time, just a pleasure and not a problem for Chinese. But, eventually, it did become a problem when the Empire and its Republican successor concluded that vast tracts and large populations of peoples who were palpably not Chinese-including many millions of Muslims of Central Asian origin-nonetheless belonged inside "China." Over time, it became an accepted axiom of Chinese statecraft that these people simply had to stay in China.

It remains an axiom still, but the foundation beneath it has shifted over time, and continues to shift today. The Chinese understanding of what "China" is, and why some places belong in it and others do not, is found in many sources: in the writings of scholars and literati across the centuries who romanticized distant realms; in the records of political debate since the mid-18th century about the Empire's ideal boundaries (China's narrative about "imperial overstretch"); in notions of geopolitics and grand strategy (such as "control of the heartland" or "the influence of sea power") that entered China in the 19th and early 20th centuries; in the mantra of "nation" and "race" and "ethnicity" and "culture" that are mid-20th century inventions; in secular radical ideas like "proletarian internationalism" or "solidarity among the peoples"; and, now, in early 21st-century "threat assessment."

These concerns can lead to a kind of meandering. Just as we in the United States shift focus in the war against terrorism from Afghanistan to the Philippines and then to the Near East, so too have the Chinese shifted focus from Southeast Asia to the South Seas to the heart of Asia. At the moment, for example, Beijing's most important preoccupation is drawing the Sino-Islamic boundary in Xinjiang ("New Territories" in Chinese, or Chinese Turkestan or East Turkestan in our gazetteer), a 600,000 square-mile chunk of land that accounts for about 20 percent of the territory of the "People's Republic of China." Perhaps twenty million people live there, of which about 13 million are Muslim. Of those, 9 million are Uighurs, and 4 million are a mix of Kazaks, Uzbeks, Tajiks and others.

The region's Muslim presence alone gives the place its heightened relevance right now, though its exotic past is more than enough for some. Even more than the majestic mountain ranges, like the Pamirs or the Tianshan, which virtually surround the territory, Xinjiang's defining topographical feature is the great Taklamakan desert-a true wilderness . . . intimidating, beautiful, dangerous, that preys on the mind and enslaves the senses." That describes the forbidding spirit of this inland ocean of silicon-50 degrees below zero (centigrade) in the winter, blinding sandstorms in the summer-well-captured by Christopher Tyler, who visited there in 1996 wanting to retrace the route of Sven Hedin, the first European to go to the heart of the great desert a hundred years before. The place is no less harrowing a century later.

But it is not so much what the Taklamakan is as where it is. Settlements strung out along its northern and southern rims were way stations on the ancient Silk Road. Centuries later, the larger region as a whole, finding itself situated between expanding Romanov and Manchu empires, became a place of rivalry-and this well before anyone had internalized the significance of large oil deposits in Xinjiang's Tarim Basin. Before then, it was only rare jade and fine gold that mesmerized outsiders. As for matters strategic, Owen Lattimore once tagged Xinjiang the "pivot of Asia", the "heartland" view of things at its highest.

One can recite, then, reasons for the region's importance to China, but this will not of itself tell us how Chinese came to think of Xinjiang as China. To understand that, we need know that in the mid-18th century, Qianlong (1736-96), the greatest of the Manchu emperors, brought Qing imperial rule there. James Millward of Georgetown University has reconstructed for us the debate over this great enterprise and has especially recapitulated the opposition of the Manchu emperor's Han Chinese counselors of state. These men saw no point in wasting the empire's resources on the conquest of barbaric wastelands. The Emperor argued back that the incorporation of the New Territories would prove an economical way of defending the core of the empire in China proper over the longer run. The Emperor's real justification for the huge expeditions, however, lay in his personal understanding of the meaning of the great empire he was creating. Qianlong conceived his subjects in their sameness, all equal on account of their loyalty to him, rather than as inferiors or superiors to anyone or anything else. Hence, a place might be a wasteland, but that did not necessarily make it barbaric as long as its inhabitants honored his rule.

As it happened, the decay of the Qing dynasty's power resulted in the loss of Xinjiang to local "rebels" in the mid-19th century. The Manchu rulers were certainly not pleased by this turn of events, but seemed resigned to it, the better to focus on the seaborne threats of the Western maritime powers. Now, however, it was members of the Chinese mandarinate who began to argue for the re-establishment of imperial power in the region, seeing the problems there as the result of prior misunderstandings of how to govern the place. In this view, a re-conquered Xinjiang properly run-that is, run along traditional Chinese, not Manchu, lines-would contribute to the solution of the country's difficulties, not exacerbate them; it would somehow make the country stronger in the face of the seaborne threats, not weaker. The 18th-century approach would thus have to change. These men were advocates, as Millward puts it, of "nothing less than the political, demographic, economic, and even ecological remaking of the Western Regions in China's image." Central to the Manchu view of things was the notion that "China" and "Xinjiang" were separate places, joined only at the head, not at the hip-and certainly not in the heart. But once originally indifferent to this distinction, many high-ranking Chinese officials came to conclude that the two needed to become one and the same.

To be sure, this conclusion was easier to establish in the Chinese mind than on the non-Chinese ground. Over time, it became relatively easy for political figures in the far northwest to exploit imperial weakness and international rivalries to free themselves from Beijing’s de facto control. Yet, as one might perversely expect, the more this became the reality in Xinjiang, the stronger became the psychological, philosophical and ideological denial of it in Beijing. When the dynasty was strong, sinicization had not been the preferred policy of the empire. But the weaker the central government became and the less able it was to enforce its writ, the more committed to sinicization it became. Indeed, a traveler in Xinjiang today will be told by local Chinese that "Taklamakan" means "you go in, but you don't come out." The quip aptly expresses what they think about Xinjiang's entry into China more than 200 years ago.

Meanwhile, the ancient connections and affinities of Islamic Central Asia overall have been constantly affected by the ebb and flow of politics elsewhere. The Manchu dynasty ended in 1912, the Romanov in 1917. The other empires based in Western Europe either disappeared or were debilitated after World War I. But Xinjiang and its neighbors were too far from Wilsonian influence to be shaped by it. They were to experience instead the effects of the Leninist alternatives to it. First, Russian influence returned in the form of the Soviet Union and its Stalinist mode of governance. East Turkestan thus had good reason to cherish its separateness from its Sovietized neighbors in the adjacent "stans." On the other hand, though the new Chinese Republic may have held legal title to the place in the opinion of international lawyers, the struggles among the warlords and the Nationalists and the Communists were tantamount to a Xinjiang independence movement by default. In fact, between 1944 and 1949, there was even a formally-proclaimed East Turkestan Republic. It was soon brutally crushed by the new People's Republic of China, even as Beijing was enthusiastically offering support to decolonization movements elsewhere. In this convoluted way, the re-conquest once envisioned by Chinese strategists in the Manchu court of the 19th century was finally brought about.

In the early 1950s, the regimes in both Stalin's USSR and Mao's PRC were sufficiently synchronized in their debased brutality that a Turkic person on one side of the line had no particular reason to envy his brother on the other. They also shared a roughly similar radioactive peril: while the Soviets were busily contaminating Kazakstan, the Chinese were establishing their nuclear testing site at Lop Nor, in Xinjiang. But with the death of Stalin, the inhabitants of East Turkestan could sense a certain moderating of conditions to the west, contrasting all the more with their own experiences of Maoist madness during the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s and 1980s, the advantage moved again to the east, for the post-Mao reforms could be contrasted favorably to the last-gasp effort to shore up the Soviet Union. But with the end of the USSR, the Turkic peoples of Xinjiang could only envy their brethren who had not only gained independence but, in an astonishing feat of bureaucratic legerdemain, had even become a part of Europe-as members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation, and with their "desks" in the Bureau of European Affairs in our own Department of State.

Xinjiang as Imperial Atavism

The situation in Xinjiang today is anomalous. It is the last place of its kind that is still part of someone else's multi-national empire, in this case, the Chinese one. Contemporary Chinese rule is modern enough in name; Xinjiang is a "self-governing autonomous region of the People's Republic of China." But Beijing is not modern-minded in tolerating "diversity." Like some empires in the 19th century, it promotes a total transformation, a total sameness of "Xinjiang" and "China." Moreover, Xinjiang has no international standing. It has no "decolonization" cachet (unlike, say, tiny East Timor, whose independence advocates received the Nobel Peace Prize.) And because the population of Xinjiang is thought to consist of "militant Muslims", not "gentle Buddhists", it has no pop-culture cachet either (unlike, say, Tibet, whose leader-in-exile has quite a following in Hollywood).

In another sense, though, Xinjiang is thoroughly up-to-date-in the Islamic Internationalist character of its politics. The phenomenon is almost instantly recognizable in its form, content and worldwide connections. The war in Afghanistan in the 1980s is the archetype-local fighters backed by Muslims of every stripe, including Islamic governments such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, who otherwise may be bitter enemies. Whereas a "liberation struggle" of the 1970s had as its objective the creation of a "democratic republic" of Leninoid cast, an "Islamic struggle" has as its objective another kind of regime entirely. Similarly, while one combats a 1970s-type"liberation movement" with a political-cum-security program broadly understood, those who wage jihad announce in advance that they are incorrigible, so that the only way to deal with them is to kill them.

As this is a novel problem in the modern world, it is also a novel problem for China. A droll PLA general might describe it as confronting a "People's War with Islamic characteristics." This struggle in Xinjiang has been going on for a number of years now, and the Chinese report to us about it from time to time. Executions are announced and successes against local separatist and terrorist cells are publicized. The "splittists" will occasionally assassinate pro-Beijing collaborators, murder local officials, and set off bombs, not only in Xinjiang but in China proper. Sometimes there are reports of ethnic conflict and communal rioting. People outside the country who support their Xinjiang kinsmen report on Chinese repression beyond that which Beijing itself publicizes, so that Beijing admits to "hundreds" of arrests, while others say "thousands." Beijing admits to "dozens" of executions, while others say "hundreds." We also know that Beijing has deployed to the territory ever-larger numbers of regular PLA forces as well as so-called People's Armed Police. Reminiscent, too, of that older notion of turning "Xinjiang" into "China" are the government-sponsored migrations of Han Chinese into the area and the promotion of large-scale investment (also intended to help narrow a growing and politically dangerous income gap between the country's hinterland and its far more prosperous coastal areas.)

Thus far, Beijing seems satisfied by its success in quarantining Xinjiang from well-meaning liberal internationalism, or soft-headed trendy internationalism, or "concerned" busybodies generally. Indeed, Beijing's contempt for "world opinion" and the "international community" is empirically well-justified. But "Islamic opinion" and the "community of the faithful" are different. Beijing's insistence on repression in Xinjiang creates a need to disentangle Xinjiang from the Islamic world, and as the repression grows, so does the effort at disentanglement.

But the brutal pursuit of an anachronistic Chinese imperialism at home has as its mirror image abroad a supine Chinese diplomacy in the Islamic world; it is little more than appeasement and payoff on a grand scale. That the policy is undignified should not cause us to be dismissive of it, however, for it has not yet failed-and it may even succeed.

Since China fears, for example, that Iran and Saudi Arabia might stir up and subsidize discontent among Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as they once did among the Afghans, the Chinese response is to cool proliferation concerns and supply arms and "problem technologies" to them-at generous prices. Since China fears that the now-independent "stans" will harbor sympathizers and supporters of independence for East Turkestan, it subsidizes their trade, overpays for their mineral rights, gives them weapons, and, most of all, provides great ceremonies for their leaders. (In this respect, the theatricality of it resembles the lavish attention paid to Third World leaders of the last generation. It is a fine art in China, honed across the centuries-the host's exquisite politeness as a way of showing contempt for his guest.)

To be sure, these efforts have a history. Long before the world worried about Islamic extremism, China was hard at work building back doors through the Islamic world to the world beyond as, for example, the fabled Karakoram Highway chiseled into forbidding mountains, ultimately designed to connect China's far west to the Pakistani port of Karachi. There is also the need for oil; China is now a major importer and, therefore, a competitor for access to energy in the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, the Indonesian archipelago, and the waters adjacent. Obviously, these projects are advanced by the co-optation and isolation of extremist Islam, not only by China, but also by others.

In the end, though, China's experience of Islam at home and abroad has likely created a kind of cognitive dissonance in the Chinese political mind. Everywhere it encounters Islam it appears at best opaque, more often as irrational and dangerous to China and Chinese. Yet there seems to be an unalterable commitment within the Chinese government to keep millions of such bloody-minded people under Chinese control, with the risk of turning Xinjiang into a Chinese Chechnya. Indeed, it is not only kindred Islamist states who may have an interest in doing this. The United States itself, committed though it is to the struggle against international terrorism, may come to see a distinction between "terrorism with a global reach" on the one hand, and a "struggle for human rights among an oppressed Turkic minority" on the other. After all, Beijing cannot but notice that U.S. efforts against terrorist influence in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines also manage to strengthen the American position against China in the contentious South China Sea. The civil and military presence of the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan and the other "stans" is comparably ominous from Beijing's perspective. No wonder, then, that the Chinese government has complained bitterly to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf about his having granted the United States exclusive access to airfields at Jacobabad and Pasni, and to his allegedly having allowed U.S. intelligence agencies to set up listening posts in the north opposite Xinjiang and Tibet.

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