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

The late Chairman Mao liked to describe the policies of China's opponents as ultimately self-defeating: "like lifting a rock only to drop it on their own feet", he used to say. Early in 2002, China may have, perhaps unwittingly, reminded us that the rock of its policy in Xinjiang may have become a little heavier to carry. The regime issued an official paper linking heightened disorders in Xinjiang to Osama bin Laden saying, among other things, that "bin Laden has schemed with the heads of Central and West Asian terrorist organizations many times to help the East Turkestan forces in Xinjiang launch a holy war with the aim of setting up a theocratic Islamic state in Xinjiang." The intent of saying such a thing, of course, was to gain international sympathy and acquiescence-a truce, if you like, in the international human rights wars against China-so that China can go about its business in Xinjiang, not only for its own benefit but, presumptively, for ours, too. Yet in so doing, Beijing has underscored the depths of its difficulties, its lack of success thus far, and its potential vulnerabilities in the future.

China's problems in Xinjiang cannot but become a temptation for the United States if a future deterioration in Sino-American relations focuses attention on China's most deeply-seated structural weaknesses. It is of course a dangerous temptation; we will succumb to it only if China itself transforms Muslim militants in and around Urumqi into our friends-just as the Soviet Union once did to their cousins in and around Kabul. Then, Beijing's great modernization project, however well-launched and energetically consolidated, will fall victim to China's anachronistic imperial pretentions.

Charles Horner is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. During the administrations of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, he served in the Department of State and the U.S. Information Agency.

Essay Types: Essay