China’s Ethnic Tremors

NEW DELHI – In the face of spreading civil unrest among China’s Uighur population, the Chinese government’s love-fest with its all-weather ally, Pakistan, may be starting to sour. Indeed, the authorities in China’s Xinjiang province are charging that a prominent Uighur separatist that they captured had received terrorist training in Pakistan. No less embarrassing for Pakistan, the charge came while its intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was holding talks in Beijing on securing greater Chinese support to blunt the growing U.S. pressure on Islamabad.

No country has done more than China to prop up the Pakistani state – support that has included transfers of missiles and nuclear-weapons technology. By playing the Kashmir card against India in various ways – even deploying People’s Liberation Army units in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near the line of control with India – China has clearly signaled in recent years its desire to use its alliance with Pakistan to squeeze India. Given the level of China’s strategic investments in Pakistan, the bilateral relationship is unlikely to change.

Yet the charge of supporting Uighur terrorism, even if leveled only by local Chinese officials, reflects China’s irritation with Pakistan’s inability to contain the cross-border movement of some Uighur separatists. China, however, confronts not a proxy war or even foreign involvement in Xinjiang, but rather a rising backlash from its own Uighur citizens against their Han colonizers.

And the Uighurs are hardly alone. Even in Tibet – where resistance to Chinese rule remains largely nonviolent and there is no alleged terrorist group to blame – China is staring at the bitter harvest of policies that have sought to deny native minorities their identity, culture, language, and the benefits of their own natural resources.