Saturday, October 22, 2005

East Turkestan

East Turkestan, renamed Xin-jiang or New Dominion by the Chinese, is of immense strategic value. October, 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of its political integration into the People's Republic of China. The province has an area of 635,800 square miles and a population of 19 million. While the ethnic Chinese have risen from 6% of the population in 1949 to more than 40% today, the indigenous Uighurs remain restive. They speak a Turkic language written in the Arabic script and are Muslims by religion.

The flow of information is limited due to censorship but occasional reports suggest localized riots, isolated clashes with police and bus bombs in recent years. Amnesty International reports that there were "tens of thousands" of political prisoners in East Turkestan with "thousands" executed for political reasons. There has been a resurgence of Muslim religious identity and the Chinese are currently preparing anti-terrorism legislation to deal with the region. The United States administration had warned China in 2001 not to cite the war on terror as "an excuse to persecute minorities".

East Turkestan did enjoy two periods of independence in the 20th century i.e. the First East Turkestan Republic in 1933 and the Second East Turkestan Republic in 1944. China is unlikely to lose control over this petroleum-rich province. But the region needs to be closely watched given the less than innocuous rumblings beneath the surface. The developments there directly impact on India's defence. China had annexed the Indian territory of Aksai Chin in 1957 to link East Turkestan and Tibet. The Karakoram highway links East Turkestan with Pakistan-held Kashmir.


Leela Navaratnam said...


Xinjiang's future in great part would depend on the future of the Communist Party in China. If Beijing can manage a smooth succession to a post-communist era, its control over Xinjiang might remain. Should there be chaos, Xinjiang will have its opportunity to secede - like the ex-Soviet republics.

Afzal said...

I was struck by your description that the Uighur still use the Arabic alphabet to write their Turkic language. This is interesting. The Turks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Malays had long given up the Arabic alphabet.

Jaffna said...

Afzal Saheb:

The Uighurs use both the Arabic and the Roman scripts. But the comparison you make with the Turks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Malays merits attention. There are three reasons why the Uighurs retained the Arabic alphabet.

First is Chinese policy. Stalinist Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan forcibly expunged the Arabic script replacing it with Cyrillic in the 1920s. Once the central Asian republics got their independence in the 1990s, they in turn jettisoned the Cyrillic script and adopted the Roman script used in Turkey instead. China, conversely, did allow the indigenous alphabets to be used in Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Uighur territory. Stalinist Mongolia had adopted the Cyrillic script. Once Mongolia threw Communism overboard, it had to send its academics to China to relearn the Mongolian script that continued to be used in Chinese-held Inner Mongolia. China needs to be recognized for this.

Second, the Uighurs are not independent. They did not have to make the decisions that independent peoples like those you allude to make. After the fall of the Ottoman empire, the Turkish intelligentsia made a conscious decision to align themselves with Europe. They abandoned the Arabic script and adopted Roman letters. The independent Central Asian republics likewise expunged Cyrillic and adopted the Roman alphabet to keep pace with Turkey. The Turkic languages are inter-related and having a common script would facilitate communication. Independent Malaysia adopted the Roman script to facilitate national integration in a land where just 50% of the population are ethnic Malays. The Uighurs, on the other hand, only have the Arabic script to distinguish themselves from the Han Chinese. This is the sole contemporary reminder they have of their past glory under their emirs.

Third, there is less contemporary literature in Uighur than in Turkish, Kazakh, Uzbek and Malay. Writers are not forced to debate issues of alphabet as a result.


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