We badly need some context on Xinjiang

(Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne: “I have previously raised Australia’s strong concerns about reports of mass detentions of Uighurs in Xinjiang. These disturbing reports today reinforce Australia’s view and we reiterate those concerns.”) 

Australian politicians have traditionally had a hard time making up their minds over China’s distant Xinjiang province.

On October 28, 1964, an Australian foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, went all the way to Moscow to warn Soviet leaders about China’s  designs on what he said was Moscow’s Xinjiang territory.  It was part of his effort to warn the world about Chinese aggressive intentions, he explained.

 In that context, he said, he was seeking a promise of Soviet help against another Chinese ‘aggression’, this time in Vietnam. A rather stunned Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, replied that Xinjiang had long been Chinese territory,  that Moscow was happy with that and, by the way, that it would continue to do all it could to help the brave Vietnamese people in their struggle against US imperialism and he wished the Chinese would do more to help.

Soviet Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin, then asked Mr Hasluck if he could kindly focus on Australian – Soviet relations and explain what it was that had brought him all the way to Moscow asking for  an urgent meeting with Soviet leaders.

(If I know about these things it is because I was present, in the green baize Kremlin conference room, at the time.)

A chastened Hasluck returned to Australia insisting he had only gone to Moscow to welcome the new Soviet leadership installed two weeks before, after the fall of Nikita Khruschev on October 14 of that year.  

Fast forward to  July 1976 and we find an Australian prime minister, Malcolm Fraser,  traveling all the way to Xinjiang, this time to show support for China against alleged Soviet territorial designs on China’s border areas.

And now, today, with have an Australian foreign minister warning the world, and China, that events in Xinjiang – the reported suppression of the Uighur people there – were ‘disturbing’.

And the reality? 

Yes, China does face a problem in Xinjiang – some eight million people of Muslim faith in a large territory almost as far from Beijing as northern Australia is from southern China.   

For many years Beijing seemed to believe that despite the large inflow of Han Chinese into the area, the status of regional autonomy and inclusion as one of 55 China’s minority peoples,  would satisfy a region which historically had had links with the other Turkic Muslim peoples in central Asia, mainly Russia, and had enjoyed brief period free of outside control in the 1940’s  

After all, China has long provided a  home for other Muslim faith  peoples;  if you meet anyone from China called Ma (and there are a lot of them)  he/she probably had origins going back to those Turkic culture peoples. 

Then in 2009 Beijing suddenly had to face the reality. Lethal riots aimed specifically at Han Chinese left over 200 dead and many more injured. The unrest and killings continued. When a stabbing spree in distant Kunming in May 2014 left 29 killed, Beijing  seems to have realised it had a problem. 

The problem is similar to that faced by other powers that have tried to assert control over Muslim faith peoples. The Islamic religion  does not simply rely on the teachings of some deity telling people  what they should believe; it provides a complex and well-argued set of rulings on everything down to how they should conduct their daily lives. 

If only for that reason its binding attraction is very strong. Mere prosletising,  Beijing-style, is unlikely to shake those bonds. When combined with demands for independence they can be explosive, as we saw in Russia’s Chechnya.

So what is a regime facing such separatist pressures supposed to do?  Rely on military suppression with the ghastly results we saw in  Chechnya?

True,  the reports of Beijing’s alternative – destroying cemeteries and mosques, locking people up for months, years, of indoctrination – are not very attractive either,  especially when combined with the heavy-handed way Beijing authorities can behave when they face domestic problems. 

But can anyone seriously argue that Beijing should risk creating another Chechnya on its volatile central Asian frontiers?

Answer that question first, before criticising.