Tibet v. Xinjiang: Models for Independence

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
By John W. Sinden, Jr.
The book Seven Years in Tibet, written by Heinrich Harrer, as well as the film adaptation, illustrates the conversion of the Tibetan independence movement from a Chinese domestic issue into a global household issue. Grossing $93,500,000 Worldwide, the film became a historical backdrop for awareness of Chinese control over Tibet within popular culture. I was only 11 when the film was released, but I became aware of Tibet and the larger issue through discussion, publicity and commercialized trailers without seeing the film. There are five autonomous regions within China, however Tibet is the most recognized of these autonomous regions with a population of nearly 3 million, compared to a population of nearly 20 million in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. With a population of nearly 17 million more than Tibet, why is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang independence movement relatively unknown?

Geography and Cultural and Religious Ties
One of the major differences between the Tibetan and Uyghur populations is religion. The Tibetans’ practice Tibetan Buddhism and the majority of Uyghurs within the Xinjiang Autonomous Region practice Islam. Due to religious similarities, the Islamic Uyghur population is culturally tied to the nations within Central Asia more so than China. The Uyghur population is also culturally tied to Central Asian nations because of a shared nomadic lifestyle. The role of Islam and the geographic location of Xinjiang present several problems for China. First if the Central Asian states attempt to support their Islamic Uyghur neighbors in an independence movement, China could be in for a larger conflict than expected. Also the pilgrimages of Uyghur populations between Central Asia and Xinjiang could result in shared knowledge of violent tactics and/or supplying of weaponry from extremist groups. A Chinese source has argued that over 50 terrorist organizations exist within Central Asia, mostly of extremist Islamic foundation, “…and that more than 500 Xinjiang insurgents had been trained in Afghanistan.”  In fact China may be holding on to Xinjiang simply because the region borders Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. China receives a certain amount of security by lengthening the borders between Mainland China and these nations. Therefore denying independence to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region is partly done for strategic and security purposes.

Leadership and Unity
Similar to any political party, independence movements require the leadership of an individual or a group to effectively mobilize and unite the members within the group. The Dalai Lama is the well-known leader of the Tibetan independence movement, and has been in exile since March 10, 1959 when his rebellion failed to gain independence. On the other hand the leadership of the Uyghur independence movement is not as internationally known and has not won any Nobel Peace Prizes. Rebiya Kadeer currently leads both the Uyghur American Association and the World Uyghur Congress, although these two organizations have been unable to successfully unite all Uyghur groups. Movements for Xinjiang independence are fractioned at best, with no unitary financial support or figurehead leading the movement. Several divisions of independence groups exist at the present time: the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, the World Uyghur Congress, and the Uyghur American Association. With no true leadership or unity, goals of independence are out of reach and not always created by common consensus.

Method of Protest
Different methods of protest between the Uyghur and Tibetan independence movements is also cause for the Tibetan movement being acknowledged relatively more. Unified, easily predictable non-violent protests allow Chinese law enforcement authorities to break up Tibetan protests with ease. However, unified peaceful protests matched with Chinese governmental aggression are effective tactics for building legitimacy and international sympathy. Uyghur protests of Chinese occupation of Xinjiang and the consequences of this occupation, larger Han population in the region, are sporadic, disjointed and violent in nature. Violence used as a method of protest by the Islamic population lead to the effective labeling of Uyghur independence movements as terrorist organizations, which perfectly matched the components of the U.S. War on Terror in the Central Asia region.

Due to the cultural, religious, and political differences existing between the Uyghur and Tibetan independence movements, the Tibetan independence movement has received more international recognition. Whether or not these groups can be accommodated within the PRC is unknown, as the Chinese government has only attempted to control and dilute these ethnic groups. However, in order to mobilize and create a legitimate Xinjiang independence movement, the Uyghur population must elect a leader within the Xinjiang population. Although the PRC will strongly oppose this leader, possessing a leader will illustrate a legitimate attempt for independence and will provide a face for the movement. Intentions should be clearly described after electing a leader, in order to avoid confusion and misconceptions, and non-violence methods of protest should be employed in order to avoid labels of terrorism. This leader must use the rich cultural distinctiveness of the Uyghur tradition in order to mobilize the masses to create a unified Xinjiang independence movement. Although the Tibetan independence movement has not arrived at complete success the group provides a strong model for international recognition that should be employed by Uyghur groups within the Xinjiang region.

[Photo courtesy of chinadigitaltimes]