NEW YORK--A four-day ride on the westbound express train out of Beijing takes you to China's Wild West. The massive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, hundreds of miles beyond an eroded mound that was once the Great Wall, lies southwest of Mongolia, east of Afghanistan and north of the Tibetan plateau. Full of dusty deserts, soaring mountains and eight million Muslims, Xinjiang is--like so many geopolitically sensitive places--the middle of nowhere. (Early 20th century British explorer Aurel Stein noted the region's "desolate wilderness, bearing everywhere the impress of death.") Today Chinese-occupied Central Asia is a case study in how American foreign policy turns pro-American Muslims into deadly enemies.
"From the premodern era until the mid-18th century, Xinjiang was either ruled from afar by Central Asian empires or not ruled at all," Joshua Kurlantzick writes in Foreign Affairs. Mao's Communist Party worked to consolidate power during the 1950s by centralizing Chinese culture and politics in Beijing. That meant suppressing cultures and religions out of step with the ruling majority Han Chinese, such as the Tibetans and Mongols. The jackboot came down hardest on Xinjiang, where in 1955 more than 90 percent of the population were Turkic Muslims--mostly Uyghurs along with smaller portions of such Central Asian tribes as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Tatars. The Uyghurs, whose rich pre-Muslim Buddhist culture gave their language (which can be written in Arabic and Roman script) to Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire, were a threat to national cohesion. After all, they had revolted against pre-communist China 42 times in 200 years.
"Thousands of mosques were shuttered, imams were jailed, Uyghurs who wore headscarves or other Muslim clothing were arrested, and during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party purposely defiled mosques with pigs," wrote Kurlantzick. "Many Muslim leaders were simply shot. The Uyghur language was purged from school curricula, and thousands of Uyghur writers were arrested for 'advocating separatism'--which often meant nothing more than writing in Uyghur."
The demographic manipulation has been even more devastating. The Chinese imposed forced birth control on the Uyghurs while shipping 300,000 Han settlers west every year. By 1997, the Uyghurs had become a minority in their own homeland. But Xinjiang was far from pacified when I visited the provincial capital of Urumqi that summer.
You could feel the tension in the hot stinking air of the most landlocked city on Earth. Uyghur separatists had set off bombs all across China, including three buses blown up in Urumqi a few months earlier. The Chinese dispatched hundreds of suspected Uyghur dissidents to reeducation camps. Scores were put on trial and summarily shot. Good jobs in government and private business were reserved for Han Chinese only, adding sky-high unemployment to cultural apartheid. Han policemen manning roadblocks surrounding the old Muslim quarter tried to discourage me from entering the quarantined zone. "There's nothing of interest there," a cop told me. I insisted. When I arrived at the square in front of a dilapidated mosque, Uyghur men wearing white skullcaps glared menacingly at Han colonists driving past in shiny new Volvos. Fortunately, they brightened up when they learned that I was American.
"We love the United States!" one man told me. "They will come help us kick out China." The largest Uyghur independence group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), seeks the recreation of the free Republic of East Turkestan declared by earlier Uyghur rebels.
"I listen to Radio Free Asia," knowingly added an older guy. Radio Free Asia aired broadcasts in the Uyghur language. "America is coming to give us our freedom, we know that, but when exactly?"
How could I tell these people that most Americans had never heard of Uyghurs, East Turkestan, or Xinjiang? That the cavalry wasn't coming? Even being on the back burner (like the Kurds) would be an improvement given their status as non-entities.
By the time of my 1999 trip to the Silk Road city of Kashgar in southern Xinjiang, what Western media call "a low level insurgency" had heated up. The Chinese had torn down all but a few blocks of the ancient old town to put up prefab apartment buildings. But the Uyghurs weren't taking it lying down. ETIM separatists, some of whom had trained at jihadi camps in Afghanistan, were blowing up a Chinese government office every few days. "Goodbye, Interior Ministry!" gloated my server at a sidewalk noodle joint after the sound of an explosion ricocheted down the boulevard. "We are fighting hard against China to show you Americans we are serious. The U.S. stands for freedom."
Then came 9/11. The Bush Administration, wanting to avert a Chinese veto of its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the U.N. security council, drafted China into the "war on terrorism" by granting it a free pass to beat up its Tibetans and Uyghurs. Citing the fact that ETIM members had received arms and training from the Taliban, but only to fight China, China convinced the U.S. State Department to declare the group a "terrorist organization" affiliated with al-Qaeda. In Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland, Graham Fuller and Jonathan Lippman write that this "U.S. declaration [was] catastrophic" for the Uyghurs. The United States had given Beijing "carte blanche to designate all Uyghur nationalist ... movements as 'terrorist.'"
Twenty-two Uyghurs have since joined the ranks of the "terrorists" incarcerated at Guantánanamo concentration camp. Two Uyghur men, 29 and 31, faced a U.S. military tribunal on November 19, charged only with membership in ETIM and attending a Taliban training camp for anti-Chinese fighters. Military insiders say most of the Uyghurs will eventually be released, but not to China--our ally in the "war on terrorism"--because they would probably be tortured and/or executed.
Martial law remains in force in Xinjiang. The post-9/11 crackdown began with hundreds of arrests and the executions of nine "religious extremists and terrorists." One of the dead, convicted of "contributing to disturbance by nationalist splittism forces," had been overheard joking that he hoped America would come to Xinjiang to free the Uyghurs from Chinese rule.