Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 18

The Kyrgyz, the Uighurs, and Xinjiang

by David Nissman

On August 20, Chinese officials in Xinjiang warned that "hostileforces" within that non-Han region were cooperating withforces from abroad to engage in "sabotage and trouble-making"throughout the region. The officials told the Chinese news agencythat they would increase security in order to crack down on suchforces in the run-up to the October 1 commemoration of the 40thanniversary of the founding of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

From the perspective of Beijing, one of the most obvious sourcesof such external influences is Kyrgyzstan, the newly independentneighboring state, whose population includes many ethnic Uighurs.And the Chinese concerns will help to focus attention on yetanother problem arising from the lack of correspondence betweenpolitical and ethnic boundaries.

The Kyrgyz-Xinjiang relationship of today has a long history.During the late 1980s, relations between Soviet union republicsbordering China began to develop, not on a state-to-state basis,but on a region-to-region one. Where an ethnic group overlappedthe border, these relations grew especially quickly. Such hasbeen the case with regard to ties between Kyrgyzstan and the Xinjiang-UighurAutonomous Region of the Peoples Republic of China.

During the perestroika period, relations between Xinjiang andKyrgyzstan developed along three separate but equal paths:

–an ethnic one–between the Kyrgyz and the some 170,000 Kyrgyzliving in Xinjiang’s Kyzyl Suu Autonomous District;

–a cultural one–involving language and sports contacts; and

–an economic one, involving trade.

The 37,000 Uighurs of Kyrgyzstan pressed for similar ties withtheir seven million co-ethnics in Xinjiang. But precisely becausethis latter group has been the most restive of China’s minorities,Beijing made greater efforts to restrict these contacts.

The Ethnic Dimension: The Kyrgyz

In April 1989, a Chinese delegation, including ethnic Kyrgyzofficials from Xinjiang, visited Kyrgyzstan to discuss the statusof the Kyrgyz in China, something that had never been broachedin the Soviet Kyrgyz media except as a means for favorably comparingwhat the Soviets had done with what the Chinese were doing. Amonth later, a more senior delegation headed by Sulayman Neetkabyl,the chairman of the Kyzyl Suu Autonomous District, visited Bishkek(then Frunze), Osh, and Issyk Kul to discuss the same subject.It remains unclear just why China launched this effort at thattime, but it is certain that the groundwork for it had been laida year earlier when there was a terse report in the Kyrgyz communistparty daily noting the visit of a PRC sports delegation to Kyrgyzstanand that its members had discussed "the situation in theXinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region." Following that visit,the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences signed a mutual cooperation agreementwith the Xinjiang affiliate of the PRC Academy of Sciences.

More and more material on relations between the Kyrgyz in theUSSR and China began to be available to the Kyrgyz public. A lengthyinterview with a specialist from Xinjiang University on the Kyrgyzepic was featured in the Kyrgyz mass media. In October 1989, theeditor of the journal of the nationality language committee inXinjiang was interviewed on publishing activity among the XinjiangKyrgyz, and a week later, a letter from the chief of the Kyrgyzdepartment of the Xinjiang Peoples Radio Station described theirprogramming since 1981, when broadcasts began.

These visits were not all one-sided. A Soviet Kyrgyz fact-findingmission spent some time in Kyzyl Suu and published some of theirfindings in a three-part newspaper article in December 1989. Thistrend in Soviet Kyrgyzstan — to search out Kyrgyz co-nationalsthroughout the world and establish communications with them andreestablish traditional bonds, and communicate the results ofthese journeys to the Kyrgyz public — may also have led to somepolitical repercussions. A similar Kyrgyz fact-finding missionhad been in Uzbekistan that same year and found that the Kyrgyzminority there were basically deprived of their national rights.As ethnic identities began to take on more concrete and politically-chargedforms, ethnic animosities also began to mount. This Kyrgyz questmay have been one of the factors leading to the subsequent Kyrgyz-Uzbekclashes in Osh. In the eyes of observers, this added the politicaldimension to a hitherto harmless exercise in rapprochement ofpeoples. This could not have escaped policymakers in Beijing.

The Ethnic Dimension: The Uighurs

The basic difference between the Uighurs in Kyrgyzstan and theUighurs in Xinjiang is that there are so few of the former andso many of the latter. The Uighurs in the republics of the formerSoviet Union, moreover, were and are a minority, albeit a sometimesprivileged one, in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Not all of the slightlymore than 200,000 Uighurs registered in the 1989 census were borninside the Soviet Union. During the Chinese "communalizing"process in Xinjiang in the 1950s, many were subject to intenserepression. "Hundreds of thousands" died of starvationor were "subjected to repressions," one Central Asiancommentator has noted. And slightly more than 20,000 fled intothe Soviet Union. The same scholar suggested that these peopleshould be assisted in maintaining their language, with its Arabicscript and culture, particularly the group living in the Kyrgyzcapital city. Such apparently reasonable suggestions struck Sovietand Chinese officials as being part of a hidden nationalist oreven Islamic agenda. The Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz had revoltedin Xinjiang in 1959, 1962, and 1974, many of these groups hadfled to the USSR, and with such support from the local authorities,they might do so again.

The End of the USSR and the Beginning of Independence

As long as Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, it had relativefreedom of action with regard to ethnic ties with its co-nationalsabroad because it had none of the responsibilities of statehood.Ties that were formerly flavored by the relations between Moscowand Beijing are now conditioned by ties between Bishkek and Beijing.It is clear that in any difference of opinion between the twocapitals, Beijing’s would prevail. For China, Kyrgyzstan is amarket for Chinese goods, especially for items that cannot bedumped in more sophisticated or wealthier countries. For Kyrgyzstan,China is a benefactor and a potential investor. The ethnic tiesso emphasized during the Soviet period ceased to be a priorityto the newly independent Kyrgyz state.

Last month, for example, Kyrgyzstan set up a barter arrangementwith China in which it supplies Xinjiang with electricity in returnfor Xinjiang gas. This deal was made at the Xinjiang trade fairin Bishkek. The Khorgos free trade zone. established on paperat the intersection of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang, isbasically inactive–although the Kyrgyz have used it as a convenientjumping-off point for tourists. Two weeks ago, the Almaty newspaperAziya asked the deputy chairman of the Xinjiang-UighurAutonomous Region if steps were being taken to activate it: hereplied that high construction costs, associated with the HongKong turnover, had drained the Khorgos budget, and that Kazakhstanwas still trying to decide whether it was really needed. At present,Kazakhstan exports mineral fertilizers, wool and raw metal ores,and receives manufactured goods (which, he says, "are notof the highest quality") in return. At present, there isonly normal border traffic at Khorgos.

Contacts between Kyrgyz of Kyrgyzstan and their compatriots inXinjiang have basically gone unreported over the last year. Butwith the Uighurs, however, it is a different story. In 1993, theUighurs of Kyrgyzstan organized into an association called Ittipak("Union"). Uighur lobbying efforts have paid off: Kyrgyztelevision now carries regular Uighur-language broadcasts andan Uighur literature section has been opened in the KyrgyzstanWriters Union, on the pattern of a precedent set by the more numerousand politically powerful Uighurs in Kazakhstan. Arrangements werealso been made for Uighur students from Xinjiang and Istanbulto study at the Kyrgyz State University. The one thing impermissibleis Uighur political action, and the government of Kyrgyzstan isacting as Beijing’s enforcer: according to the Kyrgyz newspaperAsaba, in January 1995, the chairman of Ittipak and theleaders of the Uighur Freedom Organization have been warned bythe republic prosecutor’s office against any advocacy of "thesecession of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region from Chinaand the creation of a self-sufficient country." The prosecutorpointed out that such an action "will arouse doubts in thefriendly relations of the Kyrgyz and Chinese peoples."

Kyrgyzstan, as a part of the USSR, never had to listen to Chinesethreats, unless ordered to do so by Moscow. Now the governmentfeels it has to heed them for its own self-preservation. One wonderswhat the reaction of Kyrgyzstan’s government would be when thenext Xinjiang uprising occurs. In terms of ethnic politics, thefate of their own people may be at stake. Are their people, orpeoples, worth what they now receive from China?

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.