Xinjiang is the largest province in China. That, however, is its least important feature. It is, nominally, an autonomous region, much like Crimea in Ukraine. In theory, this means it has a semi-independent government of its own, one that sets its own domestic policy while following its parent nation’s foreign policy decisions and accepting its parent nation’s military protection. In theory.
The reality of autonomous regions has usually been less than full autonomy. Beyond efforts to preserve and promote the region’s Uyghur ethnic heritage, Xinjiang has never had much control over its internal affairs. Part of that has to do with the ever-growing number of ethnic Han Chinese immigrating to the province; where the Uyghurs once dominated the region, they now account for less than 50% of the total population. In a decade or two, they will be second to Hans, a minority in what they view as their homeland.
This isn’t simply a case of the Chinese government shipping Hans out from the east in the hope of reducing the stress of over-population. In a way, it’s quite the opposite. The Chinese, like the Russians and countless others, including the United States, moved in “their people” in an attempt to maintain control over local minorities. The Chinese have been doing much the same thing in “autonomous” Tibet, where Tibetans no longer hold the legal right, as seen by Beijing, to choose their own Lamas.
For Tibetans, there can be no greater insult. It is, in a very real sense, their greatest possession, and that is why the Chinese government has made ever effort, short of kidnapping the Dalai Lama, of possessing it for themselves, so they can control the people of Tibet and make them Chinese.
Possession of Xinjiang, however, isn’t just a matter of controlling people. The region produces both oil and natural gas, two things essential to China even before they began to make a mockery of the word “communism”. The more energy the Chinese consume, the more they need to control Xinjiang and the less autonomy the Uyghurs have.
It should have surprised no one, then, why Uyghur terrorists attacked the main train station in Kunming. Kunming is a city in southwestern China, at 6 million people a small one by current Chinese standards. It isn’t the frontier town it used to be. Just twenty years ago, it was a backwater, with trains and roads from almost a century earlier. Now, like so much of China, Kunming is modernized, with new buildings and highways stretching out into what used to be quiet, far less poluted countryside. The suddenness and ruthlessness of this change represent much of what many Uyghurs fear from Beijing. That the city contains a sizeable Uyghur population and the station remains one of the primary ways in and out of Yunnan province, particularly for foreign businesspeople and tourists, made it an inevitable target.
The Chinese government would like to play down the ethnic element of the attack - not the first and certainly not the last - but they’ve played the ethnic card often. "Overseas Chinese" has long referred to anyone living outside of China with any sort of ethnic connection to China. This did and does include generations-old Chinese in the United States, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, and even Taiwan. Why? Investment. Economic giant that China has become, much of its investment in the previous two decades came from Chinese communities in each of those countries and others. This meant that so long as Taiwan remained ones of mainland China’s principal investors, saber-rattling over who owns the island would remain just that. Needless to say, Taiwan’s investments in China remain strong.
There’s little doubt about the future of Xinjiang. Uyghur separatists may go on attacking train stations and worse, but China has too much at stake in the province ever to let it go, and no other country has the means or weapons to make taking the region and its oil and gas reserves away or preventing abuse of Uyghurs worth while.
It’s important to understand this not just for what happened in Kunming. It’s important for our understanding of what is happening and what will happen in Crimea. The Russian population there goes back generations, but they aren’t native to the region. They and their ancestors were encouraged to live there because of the peninsulas strategic importance. It isn’t just the extra shorefront on the Black Sea (so close to Sochi!), but the oil and gas reserves, and the proximity of the military bases to military and economic rivals.
Vladimir Putin has long pushed his own version of "overseas Russians" - the term he likes is "compatriots" - and for mostly the same reasons as the Chinese. He wants investment, and he wants Russians at home and abroad seeing themselves as part of something greater than themselves, with him and his party as the central authority figures. To help achieve this, Putin has authorized handing out Russian passports like Halloween candy.
Knowing how Putin has chosen to view Russian identity and knowing how central control of oil and natural gas is to that identity, his and his party’s response to Ukrainians’ desire to live independent of Russian meddling should have surprised no one. Putin and his friends have never stopped seeing Crimea as property, an extension of Russia, of its “sphere of influence”, and a possession used to control neighbors.
What this means for Ukraine and Crimea is clear. Russia possesses Crimea. Whether or not Europe, dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, or the United States, depleted militarily and diplomatically, muster up the nerve to assert themselves on Ukraine’s behalf isn’t even a factor. Whether or not Russia actually annexes Crimea isn’t a factor. Russia already possesses it, and it won’t be letting go.
What this means for other former Soviet Bloc countries with sizeable populations of Russian compatriots is also clear. Both Estonia and Latvia for instance, with valuable ports on the Baltic and bordering on Russia, may have to consider how safe they feel with large numbers of Russian passport holders within those borders.
Oh, and one more interesting parallel betwen Xinjiang and Ukraine: the names, in whole or in part, in the language of their once and future masters, both mean “frontier”.
- Daniel Ward