Voices from the Region

Interview with Ablet Kamalov: On Studying the History and Contemporary Situation of the Uyghurs

By Ruslan Izimov

On January 13, 2016

In an interview with CAA Network, leading Kazakh specialist in Uyhgur language and culture Ablet Kamalov tells us about modern international Uyhgur studies discussions, how the relationship between the Uyhgur ethnic group and the Chinese government is being studied from historical and contemporary points of view, the potential for radicalization in Xinjiang, and the “new” Chinese foreign policy.

Ablet Kaiumovich Kamalov is a leading Kazakh scholar, Uyhgur studies specialist, Chinese studies specialist and professor who holds a doctorate of historical sciences. Kamalov is the author of the monograph Ancient Uyhgurs: 8th 9th Centuries (Almaty 2001), which was republished in Farsi in Tehran in 2002, and of more than 150 scholarly articles on the history of the Turkic- and Iranian language-speaking peoples of the Tang dynasty of China, the Uyhgurs of China and Central Asia, questions of Uyhgur and Chinese historiography, and source studies. He has also extensively studied Russian, American, and British archival documents on the politics of the superpowers in Xinjiang in the 1940s, on the basis of which he is currently preparing a new monograph.

To read in Russian:
Аблет Камалов: об изучении истории и современного положения уйгуров

Ablet Kaiumovich, you very recently returned from Paris, where you took part in an annual conference on Uyhgur topics. Can you tell us about this initiative, its background, the goal in conducting it, and also in general about the format and participants of this international conference?

The initiative to conduct an international conference on Uyhgur studies belongs to the Central Asia Program at George Washington University, led by Marlene Laruelle. The first conference of this kind was held in 2014 in Washington. The second international conference on Uyhgur studies was organized by that research center in cooperation with scholars from Belgium and France. It was held in Brussels and Paris in November 2015. The conference was called the Second Annual Conference on Uyhgur Studies: History, Culture, and Society. The format of the conference is not limited to the narrow framework of a concrete topic; it is open for discussion of a wide array of questions relating to the history, culture, and contemporary situation of Uyhgurs. It reminds one of the Soviet tradition of conducting regular All-Union Uyhgur Studies conferences. Such conferences were held on the premises of the Department, and later the Institute, of Uyhgur Studies in the Academy of Sciences of the Kazakh SSR in Almaty from 1986 to 1995.

The main goal of today’s international Uyhgur studies conferences is a renewal of large scholarly forums on Uyhgur themes. Its organizers see the necessity of building a sort of bridge between two academic spaces: the intensively developing Uyhgur studies (Xinjiang studies) field, in Western countries, and Russian Uyhgur studies, which was a fairly well developed branch of Oriental studies in previous times – the huge contribution of Russian scholarship to the study of the history and culture of the Uyhgurs is well-known. Therefore, many Russian Turkic and Chinese specialists who study Uyhgur issues took part in both the First and the Second Uyhgur conferences. In the methodological sense, Central Asian research on Uyhgur studies is very close to the traditions of the Russian school.

What issues were the center of attention at the conference this year in Brussels and Paris? Tell us in a little more detail what panels there were this year and what the thematic division and content of the papers was like.

This Uyhgur studies conference was conducted in not one but two countries, Belgium and France, with two days of sessions held in each country consecutively. In Brussels, over the course of the two-day session, the discussion was mainly of issues of modern Uyhgur society and Chinese policy regarding Uyhgurs. You can judge the themes addressed by the names of the breakout sessions: “Xinjiang in the Context of Chinese Global Policy,” “Security and Social Change in Xinjiang,” “Social Evolution in Xinjiang and in the Diaspora,” “The Chinese School System and the Uyhgur Reaction,” “Uyhgur Opposition Methods and Stability,” “Living Uyhgur Culture,” and “Regional Actors and International Responses.” The Parisian part of the conference was dedicated to questions of Uyhgur history and culture.  All told, across the two cities there were 45 papers presented by scholars from the USA, Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, Turkey, Israel, Australia, Sweden, and Hong Kong. Unfortunately, as with the previous conference, this year’s was held without the participation of scholars from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is, however, gratifying that Uyhgur scholars living in Western countries have begun to participate in international Uyhgur studies forums, especially young researchers working in various social science fields.

The Russian delegation of scholars was, for the second time, led by the famous Turkologist Dmitrii Vasil’ev, head of the Department of the History of the East at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and chair of the Russian Association of Oriental Specialists. The papers of the Russian scholars encompassed a wide range of issues regarding the history and culture of Uyhgurs: for example, “Uyhgur Manicheanism in Southern Siberia” (Dmitrii Vasil’ev), “Russian Imperial Policy Toward the Government of Yaqub Beg” (Aleksandr Vasil’ev), “Chinese Sources on the History of the Western Region in the Sui Period” (Dinara Dubrovskaia), “The Role of the Uyhgurs in the Mongol Era” (Aleksandr Kadyrbaev), “Political Processes in Xinjiang in the 1940s and the Role of the Soviet Union in the Creation of the East-Turkestan Republic” (Valerii Barmin and Vladimir Boiko), and “Russia’s Cooperation with Xinjiang through the Altai Republic” (Anna Bondarenko). Papers by colleagues from the Institute of the Far East (Moscow) addressed the energy resources of Xinjiang (Andrei Ostrovskii) and the Silk Road Economic Belt project (Elena Bazhenova).

The discussions at the conferences were very interesting and productive. The exchange of opinions between the Uyhgur studies specialists of various countries will, without a doubt, facilitate the development of this branch of Oriental studies. I would very much like to think that one of these international conferences on Uyhgur studies will be held in Kazakhstan in the future, considering our country’s role in the development of this branch of scholarly inquiry and the fact that we have the largest Uyhgur community outside of the Xinjiang–Uyhgur Autonomous Region.

On the whole, in your opinion, where is the so-called “Uyhgur question” at this time? You have been working on these issues for a long time. How would you divide the “Uyhgur question” in China into stages or periods of development?

The Uyhgur studies conferences in the USA and Europe are convened for the discussion of a broad range of questions surrounding the history and culture of the Uyhgurs, the majority of whom live in the Xinjiang–Uyhgur Autonomous Region of the PRC. The “Uyhgur question” is not the main theme of these scholarly forums. But before turning to a discussion of the “Uyhgur question,” let us specify what we mean by that. The “Uyhgur question” or “Uyhgur problem” is really a general understanding that unites a number of questions connected with the difficult relationship between the Uyhgur ethnic group and the Chinese government under which it has developed over the last hundred years. These questions are: the ethnic separatism of the Uyhgurs, the various forms of protest of the Uyhgurs against the Chinese government, and their tactics for surviving as an independent ethnic group in a Chinese-dominated environment. I want to say right off that the Uyhgur question is not only about ethnic separatism and secession, that is, the desire to create a state independent of China. However, if we put aside the social components of the “Uyhgur problem” and speak only of the political manifestation, that is, of Uyhgur separatism, then we should note that the other side of the “coin” is the implementation of a people’s right to self-determination. In this sense, the “Uyhgur problem” is a product of the modern era of nationalism, the predominance of the national idea, when the all-consuming and moving idea of modern societies is the idea of nation, in whatever form that idea might exist – ethnic, civil, or official (state).

In this sense, the “Uyhgur problem” is a product of the modern era of nationalism, the predominance of the national idea, when the all-consuming and moving idea of modern societies is the idea of nation, in whatever form that idea might exist – ethnic, civil, or official (state).
It is interesting that the formation of the Uyhgur national idea, that is, the idea of the existence of a single Uyhgur nation (millet), finds its origin in the Russian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. Then the national discourse delved into Russian Central Asia, including the environment of the Semirechye Taranchi people. The fact that Uyhgur identity was formed in the Russian Semirechye is very important for understanding Uyhgur identity as a whole: culturally and linguistically, the Uyhgurs saw themselves as part of Central Asia and the Turkic world, and, despite developing under the Chinese government for the past hundred years, they have yet to see themselves as part of the “Chinese nation” (Chin. Zhonghua minzu). The “double” nature of Uyhgur ethnic identity is their cultural closeness to the Turkic peoples of Russian/Soviet Central Asia and their development under a dominant Chinese culture; thus the title of a Uyhgur studies conference organized at the London University in 2006. It was called just that: “Uyhgurs Between China and Central Asia.”

As for the background and periods of development of the “Uyhgur problem,” I want to draw attention right away to the fact that any attempt to separate out periods of the historic past is conditional in nature. Nevertheless, I will try to separate various periods of the difficult relationship between the Uyhgurs and the Chinese authorities. I would include in the first period the rather large chunk of time when East Turkestan was part of the Manchus’ Qing empire: that is, the period from the  subjugation of Dzungari and Kashgari by the Qing in 1759 to the Xinjiang revolution in 1911, the overthrow of the Manchurian Qing empire, and the proclamation of China as a republic. The imperial (Qing) period was not uniform. From the point of view of political development, it includes several ambiguous stages, namely: (1) the entrance of East Turkestan into the Qing empire as a conquered territory in which, alongside the Qing imperial structures, traditional local institutions of power were preserved, primarily the institution of local rulers called begs (1759–1864); (2) the short period in the latter part of the nineteenth century (1864–1876) when independent Muslim governments were created in the territory of East Turkestan as a result of the overthrow of the Qing authorities: the Kashgar emirate (Yaqub Beg’s state) in the south, the Dungan khanate in Dzungaria (subsumed into the Yaqub Beg state), and the Tarachin sultanate in the Ili region, won in 1871 by the Russian empire; and (3) the period from 1884, when, after the restoration of the Qing authorities, Xinjiang received the status of a province of China, to the Xinjiang revolution in 1911.

I combined these three ambiguous times into one period in order to show the imperial character of that time when the rebellion and war of the Uyhgurs and other nationalities against Qing rule had not yet acquired a national character. At that time, people didn’t yet think of themselves in national categories – more important was their religious affiliation. Though ethnic identity existed, ethnic groups still didn’t see themselves as nations. Today, there is a narrative of the national-liberation battle of the local peoples of Central Asia against the Qing and Russian empires, even though multiple declarations and uprisings of that period were not of a national character (although they did have some ethnic connotation).

The “Uyhgur problem” in its contemporary sense arises only in the twentieth century, with the beginning of nation-building in China. By the way, a Soviet model of national politics was introduced in Xinjiang. That happened in the 1930s, when Soviet influence there reached such a level that some Western observers called Xinjiang a “semi-colony” of the Soviet Union. Precisely in the 1930–40s, Xinjiang became an object of the “big game” of world powers, under whose influence and participation the East Turkestan republics were created in the south of the province in 1932–33 and in three northwestern regions (Ili, Altai, and Tarbagatai) in 1944–49. One characteristic of the ethnic separatism of that time was that Uyhgurs took part in the battle against Chinese rule together with other local peoples. In other words, at that time Uyhgur separatism was part of East Turkestan separatism.

Finally, in the period of the People’s Republic of China (from 1949 to the present day), separatism in Xinjiang acquired a purely Uyhgur “face.” Thanks to the age-old policy of “divide and rule,” Chinese Communists were able to fracture the unity of the Uyhgurs and other local peoples. It is enough to share the example of the relationship of the Uyhgurs with the Chinese Muslims (Dungan). In the Qing and Republican periods, the Uyhgurs repeatedly united with the Dungan in the struggle against the Qing and Chinese authorities; however, the Chinese Communists managed to win the loyalty of the Dungan thanks to a diversification policy in relation to the two Muslim peoples. For example, the harsh measures of control of religious practice in Xinjiang were applied exclusively to the Uyhgurs, whereas the Dungan were offered relative freedom. Incidentally, famous American scholar Dru Gladney illustrates the differential attitudes to the Uyhgurs and the Dungan with the life sentence given to the Uyhgur scholar Ilham Tohti for criticizing the economic policy of the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, at a time when in an analogous situation where a Dungan author criticized the authorities did not elicit any harsh measures.

An ethnic group can develop in any political space, if cultural specifics and interests are taken into account. In the PRC, unfortunately, the Uyhgurs ended up on the outside of the rapid economic development of the country. The “benefits” of the industrial development of Xinjiang, which are often presented as a service by the Chinese government, unvalued by the thankless Uyhgurs, are a boon mainly to the Han population of the region. Thus, the “Uyhgur problem” in China is now a social conflict brought on by excluding Uyhgurs from the process of economic development and, according to Gardner Bovingdon, making them “strangers in their own land.” All other factors that exacerbate the “Uyhgur” problem are, in my opinion, secondary.

Not long ago a new book came out from the well-known Kazakh China scholar Konstantin L’vovich Syroezhkin. In it, the author analyzes problematic issues that China encounters in assimilating the so-called “rebellious province” of Xinjiang. The author gives a number of reasons for the escalation of the conflict in Xinjiang, which, in Syroezhkin’s opinion, has transcended a confrontation between the Uyhgur population and the authorities to become a confrontation between the Uyhgurs of the autonomous region and the Han population.  How, in your opinion, has the situation been developing in Xinjiang in recent years?

I read with interest K.L. Syroezhkin’s book Xinjiang: A Big Question for China and Kazakhstan. In it there was much interesting material and analysis, though no small amount of it has already been published by him more than once in his earlier works. I would like to pause to discuss the general position Syroezhkin has in relation to the “Uyhgur question,” which determines the whole line of reasoning and logic behind the facts laid out in this book. This position is very close to the Chinese authorities’ interpretation of the past and current situation of Uyhgurs in China. It is possible that such closeness to the Chinese government’s view of the situation in the region can be explained by the extraordinary dependence of the author on Chinese publications and sources. Of course, knowledge of the Chinese language and access to Chinese materials improves the quality of any research in China studies, but an uncritical relationship to Chinese sources and a lack of knowledge of local sources leads to a one-sided understanding.

As a historian, primarily, what jumps out at me is the inadequacy of the historical composition on which the analysis of the conflict in Xinjiang is built. In terms of the activation of ethnic conflict in the region, Syroezhkin sees the first and nearly the most important reason for it to be the “myth of the autochthony of the Uyhgurs in modern Xinjiang,” the assertion that the Uyhgurs were dominant in the Western Region (as he calls Xinjiang, following the lead of Chinese authors), and the existence there of Uyhgur states in the past.

Syroezhkin’s position on the Uyhgurs’ homeland is that the Uyhgurs are not native inhabitants of Xinjiang. This conclusion by the author corresponds with the position of official Chinese historiography, which sees modern Uyhgurs as outsiders who moved into the territory of Xinjiang. As is well known, Chinese historians and politicians equate the modern Uyhgur people with the ancient nomadic Uyhgurs who made up the famous Uyhgur khanate in the eighth–ninth centuries in Middle Asia, which had its center in modern Mongolia; they see the migration of the Uyhgurs in 840 after the fall of their state to the eastern oases of East Turkestan (Xinjiang) as the benchmark for the appearance of Uyhgurs in this territory. From this follows the conclusion that the Uyhgurs are just as much newcomers to Xinjiang as the Hans, who appeared there much earlier than the Uyhgurs. Consequently, the Uyhgurs do not have the right to the lands on which they live.

Syroezhkin comes to roughly the same conclusion on the question of the indigenous Uyhgurs of Xinjiang, only as a result of different reasoning. Following the linear interpretation of history, like the Chinese, he references the same relations between ancient and modern Uyhgurs, but, unlike the Chinese authors, he negates the connection between them and suggests the conclusion that, “if modern Uyhgurs are not the descendants of the arriving Uyhgurs, that means they must be descendants of the indigenous population of the region” – which can be successfully countered by the argument that the ancient indigenous population of Xiyu was Indo-Iranian, but the  Uyhgurs are not.

In taking away the right of indigenous status on their own land from a population numbering more than 10 million, Syroezhkin somehow never asks the question, “If they are not indigenous, then where did they come from?” There are very few peoples in the world who have lived in one and the same territory for millennia and never mixed with anyone else. The whole history of Central Asia is a history of migration and the mixing of various peoples. East Turkestan is no exception. What’s more, scholars have proven that in ancient times and in the Middle Ages, East Turkestan and Central Asia made up a single ethno-cultural zone in which the same processes occurred; the modern borders were created only in the time of the Russian and Qing empires. And in ancient times all the populations of Central Asia were Indo-Iranian, but that doesn’t prevent all modern Turkic nations from claiming autochthony within their current territories. If we adhere to scholarly logic, then the modern Uyhgur ethnic group formed on the territory of East Turkestan from the mixing of ancient Indo-Iranian substrata and a Turkic component. Thus, neither substratum group is homogeneous. The Turkic component was mainly present in the ancient Uyhgurs and Karluks, at a time when the Indo-Iranian base was made up of Tocharians and Khotan-Saka peoples. This, in the broadest of brushstrokes, is the origin chart of the modern Uyhgurs.

Without going into detail on other contradictions in Syroezhkin’s logic concerning the history of the Uyhgurs and their historical homeland, it becomes clear that the author’s thesis that the autochthony of the Uyhgurs of East Turkestan is a myth is itself not a scholarly but a political construct. As a political narrative, it belongs on the same plane as the Uyhgur nationalist narrative, which also has nothing in common with scholarly inquiry.

Other reasons for the escalation of ethnic conflict in Xinjiang put forth by Syroezhkin seem more acceptable, though they are likewise not indisputable.

As for Syroezhkin’s observation that the conflict in Xinjiang has transcended a confrontation between the Uyhgur population and the authorities to become a confrontation between the Uyhgurs of the autonomous region and the Han population, this is completely natural and a wholly predictable result of the massive relocation of the Han population to the territory of the Xinjiang–Uyhgur Autonomous Region. While in 1949 the Hans made up 6 percent of the population of the province, in 2013 they were 38 percent. With further increase of the Han population of the region and the rise of Han nationalism, the probability of bloody interethnic conflict in the region increases. It is obvious that the Chinese authorities will use the Han population and Han nationalism to combat any form of protest on the part of the Uyhgurs and other ethnic minorities.

It is impossible to deny the fact that in Xinjiang certain groups’ positions have become radicalized; in trying to counteract the policy of the central powers, they are turning to terror tactics with ever greater frequency. In your opinion, what is this connected with? And on the whole, how do you evaluate the prospects of the “Uyhgur problem”?

Before speaking about the radicalization of certain Uyhgur groups’ positions in protesting the policy of Chinese authorities and turning to terror tactics, I would like to turn attention to the fact that there is no single, generally accepted definition for terrorism. One researcher on terrorism, Alex P. Schmid, counted about 250 definitions of this term. Nevertheless, the majority of analysts and researchers rely on the “working” definition of terrorism accepted by the Ad Hoc Committee on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism (1996). This definition is not perfect and is subject to criticism from several international organizations. The Chinese authorities have their own definition of terrorism, established in a special resolution of the National People’s Congress and signed in October 2011. According to this definition, any violence threatening public safety is an act of terror. However, if we draw from another definition that says that a terrorist act is an act of politically-motivated violence against a civilian population, then acts of violence directed against representatives of the authorities or their allies cease to be considered acts of terrorism, and can be seen as a form of armed opposition to the powers that be.

For example, in Xinjiang there is the case of the murder of Uyhgur imams who compromised themselves in the eyes of the population by holding a pro-Chinese position. This example shows to what extent methods of studying terrorism are imperfect if they are built not on scholarly but on politically colored definitions. In December 2015, the highest legislative body of the PRC signed a new anti-terrorism law in which there is such a broad definition of terrorism that it is highly likely that it will be used in the struggle against dissent and religious minorities. According to the law, they are planning to create a single center for the fight against terrorism; special anti-terrorism forces will be created; control over telecommunications and internet providers will be strengthened; police will be given the right to use weapons immediately; and military personnel can be used for anti-terrorism activities abroad.

The radicalization of the Uyhgurs’ positions is facilitated by various factors, both internal and external in nature
Now, about radicalization and the increase of terrorist acts in Xinjiang. The radicalization of the Uyhgurs’ positions is facilitated by various factors, both internal and external in nature. However, in many ways it has been brought on by the policy of the government itself. Let’s look at how ethnic policy in China has developed. In the first decade of the PRC, between 1949 and 1957, ethnic policy was characterized by pluralism, and the Chinese government sought to consider the interests of ethnic minorities. This policy changed, in 1957, to an aggressive policy of assimilation with respect to non-Han peoples, with the result that the relationship of the latter to the Hans was considerably “spoiled.” After 1976, with the coming to power of Deng Xiaoping, imbalances in ethnic policy from the time of the Cultural Revolution were reexamined in favor of increasing liberalization, which was reflected in the formulation of the rights of national autonomies in the Constitution of the PRC from 1982. According to the Constitution, national minorities’ right to autonomy consisted of three components: political rights (the head of the administration should be from the majority ethnic group of the autonomy), economic rights (governance of local economy and finances), and rights to use of language, to education and cultural development (the right to use their own language and preserve customs and traditions). Unfortunately, however, the autonomy of ethnic minorities in China exists only on paper. This especially concerns the Xinjiang–Uyhgur Autonomous Region, which is divided into a large number of autonomies of different ethnic groups living in the region, including autonomy down to the county level. The division of the Xinjiang–Uyhgur Autonomous Region into a host of lower-level autonomies had the goal of pitting Uyhgurs against other ethnic groups. In this, it should be admitted, the Chinese policy was rather effective.

The ethnic policy of China changed in the 1990s, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, which strongly influenced the self-identity of the Uyhgurs of Xinjiang. The opposition of the Uyhgurs to Chinese policy led to the tragic Uyhgur–Han clash in Urumchi in 2009. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of acts of violence in Xinjiang that are regarded as terrorism. Researchers have established that radicalization is connected to societal dissatisfaction: the higher the level of dissatisfaction, the higher the possibility that terrorist acts will be committed. Uyhgur society’s dissatisfaction with the Chinese state is described by K.L. Syroezhkin, but this description is not complete. Therefore I return again to what the Uyhgurs find unacceptable about China:

  • The growth of the Han population in the region, which not only changes the cultural space, but also limits space for Uyhgurs;
  • Discrimination against Uyhgurs in the labor market: enterprises hire mainly Hans, not only due to the Uyhgurs’ low qualifications, but also as a result of nationalistic preferences;
  • Large differences between the standard of living in the city and in rural areas, which takes on an ethnic character if we consider that the Han population is mainly city-dwelling and the Uyhgurs make up the majority of the rural population;
  • Limitations on religious practices (particularly since these limitations are strictly enforced, especially against the Uyhgurs);
  • Limitations in the area of culture (elimination of instruction in the Uyhgur language in higher education, the introduction of so-called dual-language education);
  • Ecological disasters caused by industrialization (lack of water);
  • The freeing of the largest state enterprises from paying taxes to the local government in Xinjiang, which means any advantage of their activity is felt only in the center;
  • The predominance of Hans in government structures.

In addition to this quite long list of Uyhgur dissatisfactions with Chinese policy, radicalization in Uyhgur society is facilitated by a policy of violence that the government is carrying out against the Uyhgurs – that is to say, governmental terror. Harsh measures taken by the government in relation to the Uyhgurs produce contrary results. Compared to the 1990s, religiosity has dramatically increased in Uyhgur society in Xinjiang. Obviously, the more religious activity is limited, the more religion fills people’s minds. Of course, it is canvaimpossible to discount the influence of the events happening on the world stage and in the Muslim world, primarily Afghanistan and the Middle East, on Uyhgur society.

It would be interesting to hear your opinion, as a specialist on China, of new approaches in Chinese foreign policy. There is a widespread opinion that today’s authorities in Beijing have already significantly changed the principles of the PRC’s foreign policy strategy. Some experts suggest that this is a natural process and Beijing is changing in accordance with the changes in its status as a global power. Other specialists are inclined to suggest that the new leaders that have come to power adhere to ideas of reform and that is reflected in both the domestic and the foreign policy of China. What are such transformations connected to, in your opinion?

To a significant degree, foreign policy reflects the domestic condition of the state. China not only has the domestic problems that we talked about earlier, but also huge successes in terms of economic development. A country that first became able to feed its own people only in the 1980s has, in a comparatively short period of time, become the leading world economy. Such a change in China’s global economic status could not help but be reflected in its role in international relations. China was once satisfied with the title of leader of the “third world,” but now it has obtained the status of a world power. All this could not help but lead to the formation of a “new” foreign policy. PRC president Xi Jinping announced China’s new foreign policy at the United Nations in the summer of 2015, pointing out that it reflects “the policy of a large state, with Chinese characteristics.” Xi Jinping called on the leaders of all countries to turn to a “new type” of international relations based on cooperation and mutual advantage.

The “new” foreign policy of China is connected not only to the new leadership of the country, but also to the appearance of new hotbeds of international tension and to events like the Ukrainian crisis, the annexation of Crimea and civil war in Ukraine, tensions between Russia and the West, and, finally, war in the Middle East with the participation of ISIS (Daesh).  It is not by accident, therefore, that Xi Jinping called for observance of the principle of equality and sovereignty in international relations and at the same time provided a rationale for a multipolar structure of world order (as opposed to Russia’s president Vladimir V. Putin, who endorsed bipolarity). He also supported the necessity of strengthening the role of the UN in peacekeeping. Behind these (by no means new) ideas is China’s desire to be one of the leading actors in international relations.

Some analysts think the values espoused by Communist China are reminiscent of a Confucian worldview. In other words, modern China is a kind of neo-Confucian country that uses communist rhetoric, but underneath this hide Confucian principles. I think that nearly the same thing can be said in relation to the foreign policy of modern China. Analysis of the main vectors of Chinese foreign policy can give a sense of its eclectic nature. China supports mutually advantageous relations with all international players. Already, the fact that China has taken a fairly flexible position in relation to the Russian–American standoff speaks to the fact that the Celestial Kingdom seeks change in international relations and is considering its own interests as it attempts to set the tone of this change.

In analyzing the role of China in the modern system of international relations, I am reminded of the practice of decision-making in Imperial China, when the emperor (the son of the Sky) submitted the most difficult questions about relations with neighboring countries and peoples to his palace advisors for consideration. They often expressed the opposite point of view to Chinese policy. And after this he would make a very carefully weighed decision that served the country’s interests. From ancient times, the Chinese have had a wide variety of methods in their arsenal for solving one situation or another, yet Chinese leaders have often bound their main priorities to the long-term interests of the Celestial Kingdom. China uses this same tactic today: in contrast to domestic policy, in foreign policy, China is a proponent of “soft power.”

Speaking of the policy of “soft power,” I would like to make a slight detour regarding one fact that is outwardly soft, but in essence a harsh reaction by the Chinese authorities to the activity of Western scholars working in Xinjiang. I have in mind the reaction of Chinese authorities to the publication in the USA in 2004 of Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland (edited by S. Frederick Starr). This book was the result of a research project in which leading American Xinjiang specialists participated (one Israeli and one Uyhgur emigrant from Xinjiang were also among the authors). In spite of the fact that the authors’ position on Xinjiang’s history and current situation  was strictly scholarly, and that they tried not to lean either to the Chinese or the Uyhgur side in discussing this very “Uyhgur problem,” the Chinese authorities nevertheless considered the publication very hostile, seeing in it a threat to Chinese security. The Chinese government’s reaction was surprising, however, in that it “dealt with” the authors of the book very softly, without emotion or tough talk: all of the scholars who participated in the writing of the book were named personae non gratae and they were no longer allowed entry into China. In the context of Western scholarly and university life, this measure was a harsh sentence for the authors of the book, since Western area studies specialists are expected not only to speak the language of the countries and peoples they study, but also to visit regularly and refresh their knowledge. As a result, the doors to China were closed to the most famous American experts on Xinjiang. As a result, at least one scholar lost their university post, and several were forced to change their specialization…

I will return to the question of new approaches in the foreign policy of China. I want to note again that these can hardly be seen as reforms. More likely, we are talking about changes brought about by China’s becoming a world power, and also modern challenges in the system of international relations.

To continue the topic of changes to Chinese policy, I would like to hear your opinion regarding China’s opening of a naval base in Djibouti. This is the PRC’s first military installation in Africa and in the world in as a whole. What is this saying? Does the growth of military might and political weight of Beijing on the world stage threaten the countries of Central Asia?

In 2015, China first opened a naval base in the far-off East African country of Djibouti. This event can be assessed in two ways. On the one hand, not only world powers but also regional powers like India and Pakistan already had their own military bases beyond their territory (though in a very limited way). In Djibouti, there are already Japanese, Pakistani, Italian, French and US facilities. According to the official Chinese explanation, their naval base in Djibouti is intended to secure maritime communication in the waters of the Indian Ocean where there are known to be pirates. In this sense, the opening of a Chinese base is not such a significant event.

On the other hand, the real interests of China, not the declared ones, in such a far-off part of Africa are so limited that the opening of the Chinese military base in Djibouti can be seen as a sign of China becoming a major maritime power, undertaking measures to protect its interests abroad not only by peaceful means, but also by use of military force. This becomes especially obvious in the context of the recently announced changes in the Chinese armed forces: China is reforming its military with the goal of professionalization along American lines. The new armed forces of China should be at the level of a world power’s.

Growth in China’s military might and political weight on the world stage is hardly a threat to the countries of Central Asia. On the contrary, the engagement of a powerful China in the “great game” in Central Asia facilitates the preservation of balance between the major world players. A threat to the national security of the countries of Central Asia could come from a flare-up in Chinese domestic issues, including problems in interethnic and interfaith relations. However, China’s domestic stability can be ensured not by suppressing the dissatisfaction of ethnic and religious minorities, but by providing them with equal rights to the Hans, helping them to achieve social equality with the Hans, offering them guaranteed constitutional freedoms and rejecting the policy of persecution of dissidents in the country.



Photo: Ancient Uyghur horsemen, Xinjiang Cultural Journal


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