It isn’t only Tibetans who have risen up against Chinese rule, but also Turkic Moslem Uighurs in China’s far western province of Xinjiang. The Chinese have reacted by arresting Uighur (pronounced WE-goor) activists in the Islamic center of Kashgar, and accusing Uighurs of ties to international terrorism. The Uighurs, in return, demand an independent state: that of East Turkestan. Even as China prepares to showcase its growing strength and dynamism at this year’s Olympics, the situation in Xinjiang, as much as the one in Tibet, demonstrates how it has yet to consolidate its border areas, with profound implications for China, the United States, and the world.
Geographically, Xinjiang, which means “New Dominion,” is separated from China by the expanse of the Gobi Desert. Though the Chinese state has existed for more than 3,500 years, Xinjiang became part of China only in the middle of the 18th century. Even thereafter, Xinjiang traded far more with czarist and Soviet Turkestan than with the rest of China, and a state of sustained rebellion continued right up to the 1940s–in 1935, for example, the Uighurs slaughtered most of Kashgar’s Han Chinese population. When I reported in the 1990s from Xinjiang, I found the hatred between the Uighurs and Han settlers to still be of a Balkan intensity.