23 June 2004

China's Unsettled West

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Joshua Kurlantzick reviews several books about China's "unsettled west":
After 1949, Beijing's brutal pacification of Xinjiang -- a vast province in western China -- was almost completely ignored in the West for the next 40 years. Unlike other groups persecuted by China (such as the Tibetans), Xinjiang's Muslim inhabitants, the Uighurs, have had no charismatic, English-speaking spokesperson or unified exile organization; the Uighurs' few prominent exiles lived in Turkey, and they spent most of their time squabbling among themselves. Xinjiang thus rarely made it onto the agenda of foreign governments, and with the region largely closed to foreigners, few academics or human rights groups could study it.

Within the past decade, however, news from Xinjiang has started to seep out. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was suddenly confronted with newly independent neighbors in Central Asia -- states with close ethnic ties to the Turkic Uighurs. Uighurs began traveling to these Central Asian states, Pakistan, the Middle East, and even the United States, often returning to Xinjiang more determined than ever to fight for independence. Worried about growing Uighur separatism, Beijing tightened its control of Xinjiang, turning the region into the death-penalty capital of the world....

The idea of Xinjiang as a contiguous entity is relatively new. As Tyler's book colorfully captures, from the premodern era until the mid-eighteenth century, Xinjiang was either ruled from afar by Central Asian empires or not ruled at all. Its vast, barren deserts made it difficult to conquer: in the early twentieth century, the well-traveled British archaeologist Aural Stein visited Xinjiang and was overwhelmed by its inhospitality, marveling at its "desolate wilderness, bearing everywhere the impress of death." When Chinese rulers did manage to conquer Xinjiang, they found maintaining large armies there nearly impossible. In 104 BC, Emperor Wudi sent 60,000 men to conquer the West; only 10,000 came back alive.

Tyler brings the region's premodern history to life, skillfully employing individual anecdotes to illustrate its wild past, including the introduction of Sufi Islam in the tenth century and the later development of the Silk Road trade route, which passed through Xinjiang. The other two books, which are drier but fact-filled, fill in Tyler's overly broad narrative with rich detail and more nuanced assessment.
via Asiapages via Peking Duck

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