Instability in Tibet and Its Repercussions for Xinjiang

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 10

Since March 10, unrest in the Tibet Autonomous Region—in spite of the Chinese government efforts at keeping it secret—punctured China’s Great Wall as news, pictures and videos flooded the internet, and each day there appears to be news about protests that emerge not only in Tibet but also in neighboring provinces in China and other countries. The root causes of these protests, as Tibet pundits argue, are the result of Beijing’s autocratic rule and forced Sinification policies in Tibet since 1959, while the Chinese government claims that it was a plan carefully orchestrated and instigated by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. This conflict has captured both the attention and imagination of international media due to the numinous presence of the Dalai Lama, and the coincidence of these demonstrations with the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Tibet, however, is by no means the only province in China where protests against Beijing’s rule might occur on ethnic and religious as well as social grounds. In fact, on April 2, protests occurred in Khotan, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which were directly related to the events in Tibet (New York Times, April 2). China blocked any reports of this protest for 10 days but evidently could not stop word of it from reaching the world. These events have profound implications for China and Central Asia relations.

Xinjiang is a potential if not more volatile threat to China than Tibet. Dr. Fang Jinying, a counter-terrorism expert at the government-affiliated think tank China Institute for Contemporary International Affairs (CICIR), said that after 9-11, Hizb-ut Tahrir al Islami is the most significant terrorist organization of the region and an emerging threat to Chinese security. “This clandestine, cadre-operated, radical Islamist political organization that operates in 40 countries around the world with headquarters in London proclaims that its goal is to establish a Caliphate, which will also include Xinjiang,” said Fang. She added that China would utilize cultural, diplomatic, economic and media means to combat terror, which she claims is a potential security threat to the Beijing Olympics (Dawn [Pakistan], August 30, 2005). China also claimed to have uncovered a threat from the East Ruekstabn Islamic Movement, an allegedly terrorist Muslim group from Xinjiang, to kidnap Olympic athletes (TIME, March 10).

Long before Dr. Fang’s comments, the authorities in Beijing have followed a similar approach for both Tibet and Xinjiang, through large-scale colonization by Han Chinese who enjoy the benefits of a superior position in the province’s stratification structure, repression of religion or efforts to subject it to state control, and large-scale investment in order to lift up the overall region and eliminate what the government in Beijing, acting as good Leninists, believe to be the main cause of unrest, namely economic discontent. But could Xinjiang follow the same course of events we have witnessed in Tibet?

There are several points of resemblance between the situations in both provinces. Like Tibet, Xinjiang has experienced generations of unrest going back to the 1950s; moreover, like Tibet, as one of China’s border provinces, Xinjiang has been historically regarded as a buffer that potential enemies covet in an attempt to weaken China or for Beijing to use to shield China proper. This factor adds to the already heightened sensitivity of the authorities in Beijing who regard protest movements demanding autonomy—as is now the case in Tibet—as demands for independence supported or encouraged by China’s foreign adversaries [1]. Similarly Chinese leaders insist with monotonous regularity that Tibet’s and Xinjiang’s problems are purely internal issues and that unrest is encouraged or even fomented by foreign enemies like the Dalai Lama or Muslim terrorists, even going to the point of publishing a White Paper in 2004 about Xinjiang [2]. However, the very shrillness of these claims is belied by the fact that China has had, in Xinjiang’s case, to publish a White Paper, and more recently take the foreign press to Tibet, albeit in a very orchestrated trip. Thus in both the Tibetan and Xinjiang examples the inflexibility of China’s insistence on indivisible sovereignty and negation of the Hong Kong example of one state with two governments make it very difficult for Beijing to respond nimbly to outbreaks of unrest in those provinces.

The force response in China’s initial retaliation to Tibet’s unrest is similar to the forces it would probably use if large-scale rioting broke out in Xinjiang. In Tibet, China relied at first almost exclusively on the People’s Armed Police (PAP), largely made up of ex-soldiers of the PLA, not the PLA itself. Beijing’s initial response was relatively restrained. Indeed, the PAP soon lost control of the situation, allowing the demonstrations to expand to the point where they extended beyond the provincial capital of Lhasa to the countryside (New York Times, March 24). The main security forces in Xinjiang are also mainly PAP, not the regular Army. Some analysts argue that Xinjiang, evidently like Tibet, is an economy of force theater even though it is a strategic border for China [3]. That is, the forces stationed there are to a large degree on their own and actually relatively small in number compared to their potentially troublesome missions, and China indeed has exaggerated the threats existing in or to Xinjiang for its own purposes, e.g. to gain more international support by posing as a state threatened by Muslim terrorism [4].

However, there are significant differences between these provinces that make the possibility of uprisings in Xinjiang even more serious for Beijing than the crisis in Tibet. First of all, Xinjiang is home to China’s nuclear testing site, Lop Nor, where it first detonated its nuclear weapon in 1964. Second, Xinjiang is China’s largest energy-producing province; Xinjiang produced 26.4 million tons of crude oil and 21.2 billion cubic meters of gas last year, or 43.3 million tons of oil equivalent, representing a rise of 13.6 percent from 2006. As a result, Xinjiang, with estimated reserves of 20.8 billion tons of oil and 10.8 trillion cu m of gas, has been designated as a strategic area to replace Heilongjiang in China’s oil industry. Indeed, three northwestern basins—Tarim, Junggar and Turpan-Hami—alone have 3.8 billion tons of proven geological petroleum reserves, plus 1.3 trillion cu m of proven natural gas reserves. These three northwestern bases are projected to produce 46.6 million tons of oil equivalent this year, or 7.6 percent more than in 2007 (BBC, January 4). Thus Beijing is exploiting Xinjiang and the northwest in general as much as possible to provide China with the oil and gas that it needs and covets more than anything else from the outside world. Moreover, Xinjiang will be a key strategic conduit for all the pipelines that are being built from Central Asia to China, which is central for China’s energy diversification strategy to reduce reliance on the bottlenecked Straits of Malacca. While the border issues with Central Asia are settled, this is not the case with the borders of Tibet and India. Xinjiang’s proximity to Central Asia means that if protracted uprisings break out there, there is a serious danger that they could either spill over to Central Asia or lead to serious foreign involvement by Central Asian states and even possibly Russia. In this context, it is noteworthy that Russia was the first to rush to defend China’s refusal to negotiate with the Tibetan protesters or the Dalai Lama and its insistence that this is purely China’s internal matter, lest Tibet’s example spread to Central Asia.

If the situation in Xinjiang gets out of control as it has in Tibet, that unrest would quickly involve the international community, in particular China’s fellow members in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). As Erica Marat, a research fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, has shown, SCO members have already come under enormous pressure to defend China’s policies and repression to demonstrate solidarity against separatists and extremists under the conditions of the SCO charter. Such a crisis could also place severe domestic strains upon them because there are sizable Uyghur Muslim communities-the main Muslim community in Xinjiang-in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, those communities may demand more support for their kinsmen and co-religionists. Alternatively such unrest could then attract support from Jihadist networks throughout the Muslim world that have tended to see Xinjiang as a peripheral theater of action. These factors make unrest in Xinjiang a much greater threat to China than is the current situation in Tibet.

Finally there is another series of significant differences between Tibet and Xinjiang. While in both places ethnic and religious oppression clearly plays a major role in inciting unrest, especially as China’s public reaction in Tibet has been very much chauvinist, if not racist; Tibet has a leadership cadre and hero figure who inspires its dissidents, i.e. the monks inside Tibet and the Dalai Lama in India (Newsweek, April 7, 2007). He is the only credible interlocutor between Tibetans and China if Beijing should see the wisdom of turning to him to help negotiate a peaceful solution to the unrest. For quite some time China refused to deal with him until global pressure forced Beijing to meet with his representatives. As of this writing six sessions have taken place between his delegates and Chinese negotiators and the reported atmosphere in those talks has been cordial and respectful. But there has been no progress on the major issues, e.g. the Dalai Lama’s demand that China release the political prisoners it took after the Lhasa demonstrations of March 14 and discuss autonomy for Tibet within the Chinese state and China’s demand that the Dalai Lama, in the words of Chinese President Hu Jintao, “stop splitting China, stop plotting and inciting violence, and stop disrupting and sabotaging the Beijing Olympics to create conditions for further talks.” China has also not ceased to conduct a shrill and vituperative press campaign against him and the demonstrators in Tibet. These demands on Beijing’s part reveal its fears and priorities but they are based on the misconception that the Dalai Lama can control the demonstrators and that Beijing does not have to change its policies in Tibet if it wants order and legitimacy. In any case the Olympics are already tarnished as is the benign picture of harmony that China wants to present to the outside world.

While the Dalai Lama and his team remain available for negotiations, the longer China refuses to bargain seriously, the possibility exists of the domestic Tibetan movement escaping from his control or influence and of becoming more insistent and violent. The same could apply to international public opinion, which could further turn against China on the very eve of the Olympics. These considerations should rationally lead China to realize that he is the only leader in Tibet who commands authority and legitimacy and who should therefore be negotiated with on a serious basis; otherwise the situation might escape form his control. In Xinjiang there is no such leader who commands a comparable international celebrity and legitimacy. Neither is there nearly as much international awareness of Chinese policy in Xinjiang as there is in Tibet, another consequence of the Dalai Lama’s accessibility to the international media.

Consequently, it may be harder for large-scale unrest to break out in Xinjiang, but if it did, there would be no immediately available figure to whom Beijing could turn to negotiate a solution to the problems there. So should large-scale unrest break out in Xinjiang, it is unlikely that Beijing would be able to defuse this crisis quickly. Certainly it has been unable to squelch unrest in Xinjiang for almost 30 years now, and that unrest is still taking place as a recent airline hijacking has made clear (Asia Times Online, March 14). On the other hand, given the stakes in Xinjiang and the relative lack of political resources that would be available to dissidents there as compared with Tibet, it is probably considerably less likely that the scale of the protests in Tibet and their duration would take place in Xinjiang.

Nonetheless, Beijing now knows that it cannot let its Tibetan policy drift. In addition, it should also understand as well that it cannot rule passively in Xinjiang. If economic reform and large-scale investment will not satisfy dissent, then only genuine political reform or massive repressions can do the job. The great desire to hold a successful Olympics probably rules out the latter alternative for the present. However, Beijing cannot be happy about the failure of the PAP to enforce order in Tibet and the need to bring in the PLA. If protests continue beyond the Olympics or spread to Xinjiang or to other provinces for that matter, then Beijing will indeed confront a real crisis for which it appears to have no viable solution.


1. Drew Thompson, “Inside Track: Tibetan Troubles,” The National Interest,, April 1, 2008

2. History and Development of Xinjiang, May 26, 2003,

3. Yitzhak Shichor, “The Great Wall of Steel: Military and Strategy in Xinjiang,” in: Frederick A. Starr (Ed.), Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004), pp. 120-160, 408-415;,Yitzhak Shichor “Fact and Fiction: A Chinese Documentary on Eastern Turkestan Terrorism,” The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, IV, NO. 2, 2006, pp. 89-108

4. Ibid.