The domination of a large part of Islamic Central Asia has a basis in Chinese history—medieval Tang armies threaded their way between Mongolia and Tibet to establish protectorates as far away as Khorasan in northeastern Iran, thus further enabling the Silk Road. At the same time, though, we should remember that East Turkestan—the area of Xinjiang—was taken back by the Manchu Qing Dynasty only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is not truly part of historical China to the same degree as the arable cradle.
So the question becomes whether the dominant Han people, who comprise more than 90 percent of China’s population and live mainly in the arable cradle, will be able to keep the Uighur Turks, Tibetans and Inner Mongolians who live on the periphery permanently under control, with a minimum degree of unrest. The fate of the Chinese state will hinge on this geographical issue, especially in the face of economic and political disruptions that loom large.
The next thirty years in Chinese history are not going to be as smooth as the last thirty years. While analysts in the United States might ferociously complain about China’s lack of transparency, about its autocratic system, and about its naval aggression in the South and East China Seas, China, especially since the end of Deng Xiaoping’s rule, has been governed by a collegial group of enlightened autocrats and technocrats, conservative in nature and averse to risk-tasking, so that China has generated relatively few surprises. This has helped encourage a bipartisan consensus on China policy in Washington, with the differences between Democrats and Republicans muted compared to the disputes that envenom Middle East policy. But more than three decades of double-digit growth, in addition to generating vast and profound contradictions and inefficiencies in the Chinese economy, have also created a more sophisticated, restive and socially complex society—one that is harder to satisfy. China is now a crucible. The leadership has become ever more centralized and autocratic, with a personality cult beginning to form around President Xi Jinping, even as the economy requires a never-ending stimulus merely to run in place. The dramatic decline of economic growth in recent years is only the beginning of a tumultuous transformation that will test the rulers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as never before.
The decline and fall of dynasties and empires has always been a messy business. And one should never forget that the CCP is another Chinese dynasty which runs an empire of desert and sown, with non-Han peoples on the periphery dominating much of the land area: an area containing the water, copper, iron ore and other resources upon which inner China relies. Xinjiang, twice the size of Texas, is now becoming a transport corridor for roads, rail and energy pipelines—part of the new Silk Road connecting China with Central Asia and eventually the Middle East and Europe. Not only is the bazaar in Kashgar full of Chinese-made consumer goods, but so, too, are the bazaars in the nearby former Soviet republics, demonstrating the stubborn dynamism of the Chinese economy at the most basic level. China’s economic and strategic reach, moreover, may eventually extend south from Kashgar to the Indian Ocean, as Xi announced in April the building of a major transport system from Xinjiang to the Pakistani port of Gwadar. As a result, Beijing can tolerate no substantial unrest in Xinjiang, even as the security atmosphere features ethnic tension and increasing violent attacks by Uighurs against Han Chinese. Here in East Turkestan is where China’s attempt at empire building is most pronounced and also where the Chinese state is most brittle.
Of course, experts have been discussing the possibility of the collapse of the CCP for years. But what would that collapse actually look like? Would it be merely the conversion of a collegial one-party system into a highly centralized and efficient authoritarianism; or a military coup from within that keeps the party nominally in control; or a slow rot that takes years and decades to play out? Remember, while the fall of the Soviet Union happened within a few short years, the Ottoman Empire, the “sick man of Europe,” took more than a century to expire. In any event, whether the center transforms into something entirely new or crumbles slowly from within, the relationship between inner China and outer China could somehow change. The places that I visited may increasingly comprise a police state controlled from Beijing—or they could be at the forefront of China’s subtle fragmentation, in which China reverts back by degrees to its arable cradle. I believe the former possibility is much greater than the latter one, but the latter one cannot be ruled out.
We have already seen chaos in quite a few Middle Eastern and African states. But China could yet evince unrest of a kind that could engulf not only itself but also other states in Central Asia, which are linguistically and culturally part of historic Turkestan. The adjacent Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union have yet to experience a post-Soviet upheaval, even as their aged leaders will soon pass from the scene, exposing regimes that lack fundamental legitimacy at the same time that the United States continues its withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan. In none of these places do ethnic borders coincide with official ones. A place like Kashgar might normally be associated with back-of-beyond travel writing. But, in fact, it could be at the center of the geopolitical world.
Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of fifteen books, including The Revenge of Geography (Random House, 2012) and Asia’s Cauldron (Random House, 2014).
Image: Wikimedia Commons/star5112