A Necessary New Direction for Xinjiang

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Armed police soldiers in the street of Urumqi on September 4, 2009 (Andrew An/Flickr Creative Commons

In the spring of 763 CE, eight years of rebellion came to an unceremonious end. The An Lushan Rebellion, started by its namesake, a Chinese general of Turkic descent, sought to carve a new dynasty centered in the Chinese capital of Luoyang to replace the corrupt and decadent Tang Dynasty. Although An Lushan was motivated by personal ambition and not by what we would now classify as ethno-nationalism, the immediate consequences of the rebellion were clear: the Tang turned their backs on the Silk Road-based cosmopolitanism that once defined their glorious empire in favor of homogeneity. The days of rich Persian merchants parading the streets of Guangzhou, of Turkic generals patrolling the northern deserts and of Chinese citizens exploring new cultures in art and expression were long gone. In its place was a new era of mistrust, where Uyghurs (the exact relationship between Tang Dynasty’s Uyghurs and today’s Uyghurs is disputed) were forbidden from wearing their ethnic dress and anti-miscegenation laws were promulgated. The weakened dynasty never regained its glory, leading to a long decline as corruption and rebellions weakened its ranks before ultimately falling in 907.

Recent attacks in Xinjiang, China’s western-most province and home to a prominent Uyghur community, and elsewhere threaten to force a similar pivot to intolerance in contemporary China. The knife attack in Kunming that left 33 dead and the recent market bombing in Urumqi have been met with predictably harsh government reactions. In a spectacular display of political theatrics, the Chinese convicted 55 people of terrorism charges in a mass trial, sentencing three to death and the others to incarceration in front of an audience of 7000.

Though many in the West may label the trial as a typically oppressive action by an authoritarian government, these measures are understandable. The Han majority’s faith in the central government’s ability to protect its own turf from domestic terrorism is waning. The Kunming attack is especially disconcerting, as it took place in a multicultural province where Islam is not the majority religion. To the average Han, the subsequent bombing in volatile Han-majority Urumqi would leave little doubt in the eyes of many Han Chinese that a new era of separatist action was upon them: a new War on Terror must be waged to protect China.

But the mass trial is already a serious blunder on the part of the government. The Uyghurs see the trials as nothing more than the latest in a string of alienating and marginalizing policies. A Han Party Secretary, who takes precedence over a largely symbolic Uyghur governor, rules in the supposedly autonomous Uyghur Province. In everyday life, Uyghurs experience economic marginalization, denial of opportunity and the destruction of homes and old districts in the name of economic progress. And now, the Uyghur community is being blamed for attacks that many had nothing to do with, harassed by security and facing the ire of their neighbors.

Americans of Middle Eastern descent faced similar experiences in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Faced with paranoia and a blind hate towards all things Islamic, many Americans faced levels of discrimination from stares at airports to having their fundamental rights blatantly violated. The collapse of trust between citizens took years to recover. However, mistrust and intolerance continue to this day, exacerbated by America’s interventions throughout the Muslim world.

If intolerance spurred by acts of terrorism caused American progress to stumble, then it is sure to threaten geopolitical stability for China, a country with relatively little experience in maintaining a society that is just to citizens of all ethnicities. Ethnic tensions boiled over in 2009 with the Urumqi Riots and relations now between the Han and the Uyghurs can only sour after these attacks and show trials. In the interest of maintaining stability and of ultimately expanding the role Xinjiang can play in China’s domestic and international politics, the Chinese government must resist giving in to short-term interests and sentiments and adopt a longer-term vision for Xinjiang.

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People fill the streets during the 2009 Urumqi Riots. July 7, 2009 (David Vilder/Flickr Creative Commons)

Traditionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has relied on top-down control to preserve stability. During the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, the CCP re-emphasized the fact that national reforms must proceed at the hands and whims of the government. The autonomous ethnic provinces of Xinjiang, Tibet, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Guangxi are, contradictory to their name, tightly controlled by the Central state.

However, this approach is no longer viable in Xinjiang. As the world decentralizes and new forces are unleashed on the stage of global politics, non-state movements and actors become better organized and more powerful. East Turkestan is once again in the spotlight because many Turkic minorities do not feel “Chinese,” thanks to cultural, political and economic isolation. “Ethnic harmony,” as promoted by the top-down government, hardly soothes a people without a home.

The government must be prepared to accept that unless some bottom-up policies are allowed to flourish, minorities’ animosity towards the CCP will grow. This mistrust is the basis of the violence and independence movements that fuel those seeking East Turkestan today. The government must take extra care that in curbing terrorism they do not foster the next generation of anti-Han minorities.

In order to achieve a truly stable Xinjiang, China must allow the local population to represent their own localities. Although people’s elections for their own mayors are largely symbolic, since real power resides with the Party Secretary of a region, the Party can still exercise more sensitivity by cultivating talented Uyghurs and allowing them political leeway. Too often, the frontier is seen as a stepping-stone for power-hungry Han officials eager for promotion to the capital. They quickly set to work bulldozing buildings, displacing people and building apartments that no local person can afford, calling it economic progress.

In a broader perspective, as China seeks to reconstruct the Silk Road and once again extend its influence over the steppes, it cannot fully strengthen continental relations without a strong Xinjiang. A strong Xinjiang requires a strong citizenry of Uyghurs, Han, Kazakhs and other ethnicities free to express themselves and honor their heritages while also feeling included in the Chinese state and its destiny. A strong Uyghur citizenry will be eager to serve and represent the country and, since four out of the five Central Asian countries share Turkic cultural and linguistic backgrounds, can find themselves uniquely positioned to build strong ties between their home country and Central Asia. It only makes sense that the Chinese government should actively cultivate and develop the region and its people, to truly make Urumqi into a gateway to Central Asia rather than a slogan claiming it as such.

To truly bring Xinjiang into China’s fold and give the Uyghurs a home in a Chinese nation, “ethnic harmony” is not enough. Acceptance of heterogeneity is the ultimate solution. As radical an idea as it might sound considering the tense environment of contemporary China, it is an idea present even in the annals of Chinese history. Taizong (ruled 626 – 649 CE), the second Tang emperor, is still considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. Taizong himself was not fully Chinese, having been born a quarter Turkic and his wife, the Empress Zhangsun, fully Turkic. He understood the importance of a diverse China, and actively encouraged foreign trade and interaction, even going so far as to promote any man of talent, regardless of whether he was ethnically Chinese or not, thus ushering in an era in which Chinese ships and porcelain could be found as far west as the Horn of Africa and where the influence of the realm could be felt all across the vast steppes into Central Asia and the golden city of Samarkand.

Both the Uyghurs and Han yearn for a stable Xinjiang. For China to truly achieve a prosperous and flourishing society, Xinjiang and the Uyghur community must also be empowered. Reactions to terrorism mustn’t repeat the same mistake of the Tang after the An Lushan Rebellion. Diversity and openness, as in the Taizong years, must be favored over intolerance and marginalization.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

A New Grand Strategy for a Changing World

American political thinkers en masse have not engaged in meaningful debates on American grand strategy since George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of the ‘New World Order’ in the early 1990s. There have been sincere yet misinformed attempts to change America’s role, including the globalization prophets of the Clinton years, the Terror Warriors of the Bush years, and the liberal re-setters of the Obama years. However, no major faction of thinkers has articulated a practical and influential foreign policy capable of protecting America and the liberal international order in our changing world.

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The reverse side of The Great Seal of the United States. ‘Novus Ordo Seclorum’ is Latin for ‘New World Order,’ the main theme of George H. W. Bush’s successful foreign policy. This order has been called into question in recent years. September 20, 2009 (U.S. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Remodeling America’s grand strategy will be difficult. In the near future the necessary lights will return to the foreground and shape the debate towards the best possible ends. At the moment, though, it would be beneficial to examine what coming paradigm shifts may look like to prepare us for the shock.

First, the supposedly transcendent norms of democratization and liberalization that swept the globe and led to a new world order over the last two decades are, in fact, not false illusions, but rather social and political constructions whose dissemination has been made possible only by the geopolitical situation of the Post-Cold War world. American hegemony, an interconnected international economic order focused on the United States, Europe, and China, the political bankruptcy of Communism, and the lack of dominant powers in any of the non-North American regions of the world created an environment wherein general interstate peace, the deepening of trade flows between the world’s major economic hubs, the spread of Western-encouraged democratization and liberalization, and multilateralism as standard diplomacy seemed to be basic forces of history rather than historically-contingent phenomena. The success of internationalism and American ideals blinded American political players to some of the unfortunate realities of international political life.

The global geopolitical situation has certainly changed over the last two decades, particularly with the assertiveness of China and the adventurism of Russia over the last six years. The resurgence of other political and economic centers of power, particularly in Russia, China, and Iran, and to a lesser extent India and Japan, has threatened American hegemony. Economic troubles in the US, Europe, and Japan, coupled with resurgent economic nationalism, have stalled the progress of the global commercial and financial order, proving globalization to be a double-edged sword. The ugly offspring of ‘democracy’ in Egypt, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, and other developing nations, as well as the local mutation of American-style liberalism in East Asia, Latin America, and even Western Europe of all places, have threatened formerly ‘universalist’ liberal values. Russia’s forays into Georgia and Crimea, China’s posturing with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, and Iran’s manipulation of the situations in Syria and Iraq have brought the phantasmal ideals of perpetual peace, the triumph of multilateralism, and the end of interstate war to an ironic stalemate.

Moreover, innumerable trends in areas beyond the economy and politics are demanding a fundamental rethinking of how we manage foreign policy. Exponential technological advancement in fields as diverse as information technology, biotechnology, communications, energy, transportation, and manufacturing are restructuring societies, militaries, and economies. The ‘New Medievalism’ – a localization of many political units and the transition of duties formerly embraced by the state to various non-state actors such as corporations, non-governmental organizations, stateless nations, cartels, and insurgent groups – has resulted in a new anarchic political dynamic that cannot be managed by traditional statecraft alone. Environmental change, demographic shifts, and other unpredictable historical forces will continue to shape international and domestic politics in the coming decades.

How can the principles of liberal world order, American pre-eminence, and the balance of power be maintained in a world where increasingly assertive regional powers bolster their presence along their frontiers while developing societies crumble in the face of insurmountable domestic odds?

To start, the United States should determine whether or not maintaining the balance of power in every critical region of the world is feasible. Preventing the Russians from dominating Eastern Europe, the Iranians from intervening in the Greater Middle East, and the Chinese from bullying East Asia has certainly kept America the predominant power in those regions. At the same time, it has cost America blood and treasure, alienated three potential partners, and prevented those states from crafting local political orders that might be far more effective at stymying anarchy than the internationalist pretensions of the Western elite, who are proving to be far too incompetent at handling their own problems to be trusted with the affairs of others.

Balancing the Indians and Pakistanis, the Iranians and Israelis, the Japanese and the Chinese, and the Russians and the Europeans has perpetuated regional rivalries and conflicts and prevented the emergence of other hegemons. These rivalries serve America’s strategic interests in preventing the rise of challengers, but in light of present shifts in the balance of power, it is not clear whether the United States has the resources or will to perpetuate such situations and serve as the global lever. While allowing the emergence of regional hegemons is nowhere near ideal, it may be worthwhile to have go-to strongmen in the world’s critical regions who would be, if not dependable, at least predictable. Such a global concert system, populated by regional leaders as Germany, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Japan, and Brazil, and maintained by the United States, would certainly provide a more orderly international system than the vaguely law-based equality of all states existing on paper today.

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This geopolitical map of the South Russian frontier depicts some of strategic movements the Russians have been making in recent years. March 6, 2014 (Spiridon Ion Cepleanu/Wikimedia Commons)

Now, it may be worthwhile to stymie potential challengers. But if current political, economic, and demographic trends are to be trusted, it appears that this will ultimately be a futile endeavor, as developing nations transition into middle-class economies, their subsequent power may be too much for us to keep in check, and our attempts at policing will certainly invite contempt.

America would benefit from maintaining a liberal world order through control of the seas and dominance in military and economic might wherein fellow developed nations would come to the table, manage their own affairs, solve mutual problems, and generally strive to keep order around the world. American values could be promoted, but it would not be wise to export them and seek to impose them on our fellow states. And if the world trended towards war, it would be far easier to manage such a crisis in a world of developed states with mutual understandings, rather than a polarized world of the decadent West and the resurgent rest.

The international system is presently enmeshed in a period of great stress and tension, and a new method of thinking about politics will have to conquer the decadent contemporary orthodoxy. The statesmen of the future must engage in these discussions and seek dynamic and creative solutions – the fate of our nation demands nothing less.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Cold Turkey: The Gradual Freezing of Turkey’s EU Prospects

Protests again Turkey primeminister Ergonan on Trafalgar Square in London, spring 2013 (2)

Solidarity rally in London against Prime Minister Erdogan and in support of the Taksim Gezi Park protests. June 8, 2013 (Chmee2/Wikimedia Commons).

Gaining membership to the European Union (EU) has been a frustrating process for Turkey. The Near East nation began its campaign for EU membership nearly 30 years ago under the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community. In 2005, 18 years after beginning the application process, Turkey was finally invited to enter accession negotiations. The protracted delay was a result of unfavorable economic conditions in Turkey as well as Turkey’s tumultuous relationships with EU members Greece and Cyprus. Yet, the question remains: why hasn’t Turkey been granted membership to the EU?

The answers are many and complex. First, geographically, Turkey is located between the East and the West, yet only 3% of Turkish territory actually lies within Europe. The rest of the nation borders hostile neighbors such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. Second, Turkey is culturally aligned more with the East than with the West. The majority of the Turkish population is Muslim, whereas most EU nations are home to a Judeo-Christian cultural tradition. Third, EU leaders are wary that Turkey’s fragile economy could place a heavy financial strain on the EU. In recent months, Turkey’s inflation has reached 7%, the value of the lira is slipping, and foreign investors are fleeing. However, the most glaring explanation for Turkey’s delayed entry seems to be its increasingly autocratic government.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime has committed countless human rights violations, and thus jeopardized Turkey’s chances of joining the EU. Last summer, peaceful demonstrators staged a sit-in to show their disgust with the government’s encroachment on civil liberties. The government responded with violence, using water canons and tear gas to forcibly remove the protestors. The police killed four and injured thousands. Since a major criterion for admission to the EU is high human rights standards, the government’s brutality elicited a negative response from EU officials and prompted German leaders to question Turkey’s eligibility. Further, EU leaders voted to delay accession talks that had been months in progress. Presently, corruption is corroding the government and Prime Minister Erdogan’s reputation. Last month, the Turkish government blocked websites such as YouTube and Twitter. Yet, censorship of social media platforms is but a fraction of the abuses in Turkey – a nation where journalists are routinely arrested and incarcerated for criticizing the party.

While the EU is not ready to accept Turkey, the Turkish public is hesitant to join the EU. Recent polls have shown public frustration toward the accession movement. Additionally, Turkey has experienced spurts of economic growth in the last decade thanks to a customs agreement with the EU that has facilitated, among other things, the development of a sophisticated export trade. Turks might feel that the country doesn’t need the EU to be successful. Prime Minister Erdogan and other top Turkish officials have recently expressed disdain toward the EU, with one minister even being quoted as saying: “Turkey doesn’t need the EU, the EU needs Turkey. If we have to, we could tell them ‘Get lost, kid!’” Although Turkey has seen considerable economic growth in recent decades, the economy is still underdeveloped and could benefit greatly from EU accession. However, the rhetoric of Turkish leaders indicates a turn away from Europe. 

It is clear that Turkey’s gradual abandonment of democratic principles is likely to hinder the progress of their EU membership bid. Regardless of posturing by Turkish leaders, the economic benefits of EU membership are undeniable. Yet, it is clear that the Turks have a long way to go before they will be able to join the EU, if ever.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.