Ourview | Adventures on the Silk Route

Ourview | Adventures on the Silk Route

Every now and then, Xinjiang—a province tucked in the far north- western corner of China that borders Pakistan—is rocked by violence. Late last week something similar happened.

As reported by AFP on Monday, 19 persons were killed in Kashgar, one of the main towns of Xinjiang, in two separate incidents. The local government blamed “terrorists" for an assault on a restaurant on Sunday.

“The heads of the group had learned skills of making explosives and firearms in overseas camps of the terrorist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Pakistan before entering Xinjiang," the government statement said.

The issue is complicated. There is little doubt that the jihadist spillover in Xinjiang has more than flimsy links with what is happening in Pakistan. Ideas and terrorist activities, like much else, are fungible: it is only in the minds of spymasters and troublemakers that they can be neatly separated into “boys" and “terrorists". China, in that sense, is now sharing the price of what was originally designed for India and Afghanistan. These flames now threaten to engulf its north-western region.

At the same time, what is equally obvious is the total denial of basic freedoms— religious and political—in an area of China over which it has had historically tenuous claims. The Uighurs, a Turkic people, have little overlap with China’s main ethnic group. By itself, this is neither necessary nor sufficient for separatist tendencies. But in the 62-odd years since the 1949 revolution, the stranglehold of the Chinese state has created conditions— moral and political—for a secessionist movement.

Both problems feed into each other in a vicious cycle. China has known this for a long time now: 23 years have elapsed since Islamabad’s first Afghan adventure. This was bound to get exported along the Old Silk Route sooner or later.

The way out for China is not simple. Greater liberalization in Xinjiang is not on the cards as Beijing still feels that repression coupled with “demographic engineering" can deliver the goods. It would do well to read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Nationalism, it needs to realize, is never hostage to numbers. This process, once started, is difficult to halt. What it can do meanwhile, is to tell its friends in Pakistan that it stop such unwanted exports that no country relishes.

Trouble in Xinjiang: a case of terrorism or nationalism? Tell us at views@livemint.com