Beijing’s (and Washington’s) Policies toward the Uyghurs

Honolulu-based East-West Center has just issued a policy study that sounds two notes worth repeating.

Both Beijing and Washington are about to lose crucial political opportunities in this far-flung territory. Beijing’s new hard-line stance, which restricts even language and culture, has galled the many moderate Xinjiang citizens who once grudgingly accepted Chinese political restrictions as a price of regional economic development. The PRC government still has an opportunity to win back these people with a more pluralistic cultural policy that emphasizes support for Uyghur and other policy-relevant minority languages and that eases other cultural restrictions, particularly on religion. Without such a policy shift, as Beijing well knows, Xinjiang could become China’s Kashmir. Yet if current PRC policy stays on course, any change is likely to be even more restrictive, since the government considers its cultural accommodation of the 1980s and 1990s to be a cause of unrest, rather than a solution to it.

The United States, for its part, must make clear to Beijing that current U.S. political imperatives will not distract U.S. policy from supporting human rights, including cultural rights. The Uyghurs have been among the most pro-American citizens in China. They also happen to be Muslims. If the United States wants international partners in fighting terrorism, it should cultivate a cooperative partnership with China, including the Uyghurs. If the Xinjiang region is to be involved in an initiative against international terrorism, then the United States can urge China and its allies to cultivate the Uyghurs—with their knowledge of the language and cultures of Central Asia—as partners rather than as opponents. As Washington has begun to realize, its anti-Uyghur policies, even those targeted only at violent fringe groups, have already generated negative sentiment in Xinjiang towards the United States. Policies perceived as anti-Uyghur or anti-Muslim could well radicalize previously apolitical Uyghurs, pushing them into militant or radical Islamic groups.

SOURCE: The Xinjiang Conflict: Uyghur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse, by Arienne M. Dwyer (2005).

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