East Turkestan Remains a Distant Dream for Xinjiang’s Uighurs

China has made another bold statement that highlights its leaders’ determination to remain in control of the restive northwestern province of Xinjiang. Twenty separatists (or jihadists depending on your stance) have been given life sentences for threatening the security of the region. A large, resource-rich province, Xinjiang has a Muslim majority (43% of its population belongs to the Uighur ethnic group) and during the past few years, in particular, a battleground has developed here between forces loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and those keen for separate development.

Struggle and repression are not new to the people of Xinjiang. The Uighur have fought for centuries for an independent homeland, ever since the vast Uighur Khaganate (744-848) disintegrated. Since the 9th century, the Uighurs have been frustrated by first the Mongols and subsequently by the Chinese and Russians.

The Uighur Khaganate brought together disparate people's under the Uighur banner
The Uighur Khaganate brought together disparate people’s under the Uighur banner

The successors to the Mongol Empire, the Chagatai, Yuan and Dzunghar dynasties, kept the Uighur lands in vassalage. When the Qing Dynasty rose to power in the 17th century, a semi-independent fiefdom was established in the Uighur lands under the Khojas, who practiced Sufi beliefs. However, unrest and rebellion soon spread to the Khoja lands as full independence from the Qing was sought. The Qing rulers, knowledgeable to the fact that the Khoja lands were agriculturally rich, repressed successive rebellions and established direct military rule.

In the 19th century, Xinjiang became a battleground between Chinese and Russian forces, each seeking to extend their imperial mandate and have access to rich and vast lands. During such times, designs for independence were futile and the Uighur attempts to bargain with either side ultimately ended in frustration, repression and an indentured populace.

Despite successive occupations and a history of vassalage, the Uighurs maintained a distinct identity
Despite successive occupations and a history of vassalage, the Uighurs maintained a distinct identity

Of course, none of present day China was able to escape the tumult that the first part of the 20th century brought, with the curtain brought down on the Qing at last, only to be followed by the Warlord Era and the rise of the Kuomintang. Yet in 1933, the Uighurs made a statement as bold as it was foolhardy. They declared an independent republic, the East Turkestan Republic, which would last but a year. By 1934, having subdued other unruly swathes of the country, the Kuomintang turned on Xinjiang. During the Battle of Kashgar between January and February 1934 they laid waste to the fledgling republic and had the Uighur leaders executed.

Worse was to follow in 1934 when Soviet Russia invaded Xinjiang, leading to the dividing of the province in two between them and the Chinese. War would grip the province, like the rest of the world, until 1945. At this point, a Second East Turkestan Republic was created, although it did not have the aspirations of autonomy that the First Republic had inspired. A Soviet client state, the Second Republic would last only four years until in 1949 the red flood of communism swarmed over the province.

The CCP has maintained control over Xinjiang with characteristic relentlessness ever since. Having said that, the Uighur have never been cowed. Throughout history they have fought for independence and territorial integrity amidst foreign oppressors. Even today, when CCP assimilation tactics and the prospects of oil have seen massive Han migration to Xinjiang, the Uighur Muslims remain vocal in their protests. Too vocal for the CCP, as the police crackdown to the 2009 Ürümqi Riots and yesterday’s sentencing testify to.

The government crackdown to the Urumqi riots left over 1,000 Uighurs dead
The government crackdown to the Urumqi riots left over 1,000 Uighurs dead

Whilst there are no concrete links between the Uighur and Islamic extremist groups, the CCP has been keen to paint the picture that way. For a start, it legitimises the regime’s frequent crackdowns in Xinjiang but it is also a way of diluting foreign criticism. Whilst Uighur terrorism may not yet be a reality, the unscrupulous principles of radical Islamists worldwide means it may still become one. Harnessing a historic desire for freedom and independence is something terrorist organisations will not shy away from. For this reason, at least, we can be grateful for Chinese vigilance and forcefulness.

The Uighur look set to continue their struggle for identity and freedom within a territory dominated by the ‘outsider’. For some, this will be a silent struggle, for others an increasingly violent response to state-sponsored aggression. Whichever way, the people will be waiting sometime for their Third East Turkestan Republic.


Rebellion in the Old French Empire: Hollande’s commitments increase in Africa

The Central African Republic (CAR) has become the latest African country forced to confront a rebellion within its own borders. Following Ansar Dine’s romp through Mali in the past year and the seizure of Goma in DR Congo by the M23 Movement in November 2012, the Séléka Coalition has gone as far as seizing Bangui, the capital of CAR, and ousting President François Bozizé.

CAR is a former French colony which existed under the name Ubangi-Shari between 1903 and 1960. As in many African colonies in Europe, economic development was stifled amongst the indigenous population, divide-and-rule tactics strengthened European rule and weakened African unity, and CAR citizens were forced to fight for France during the World Wars.

A military camp in Ubangi Shari - a popular destination for indigenous Africans under French rule
A military camp in Ubangi Shari – a popular destination for indigenous Africans under French rule

France has retained close ties with many of its former colonies, nevertheless, initiating trade and institutional ties that have aided development in a way the colonial regime never did. However the legacy of colonialism has left the CAR unstable and successive administrations have resorted to authoritarianism, corruption and nepotism to maintain order and their own rule.

The rebellion that has resulted in the capture of Bangui began last December but was itself a continuation of the Central African Republic Bush War (2004-2007) during which rival factions sought to overthrow the corrupt Bozizé, who had taken power via a military coup. French forces have been deployed in Mali to great affect, with the radical Islamist rebels being forced to retreat to the northern wastelands of the country and away from the country’s urban areas. Nevertheless, I pointed out in an earlier post the inherent dangers of French involvement in Mali. Francois Hollande set a precedent that he has been forced to extend in CAR; namely, France will intervene militarily in its former colonies to protect its interests.

French military strength has proved successful in Mali - but bigger challenges may await
French military strength has proved successful in Mali – but bigger challenges may await

France has maintained a garrison of some 250 soldiers near Bangui Airport for some time. During the Bush War, the French government supported Bozizé against the rebels. However, Bozizé’s increasingly erratic and unstable rule, plus his pandering to China, has seemingly turned the French off him. When the latest rebellion began in December the French forces in the CAR did not respond, declaring the issue to be none of their business. However since Bozizé’s fall and exile they have backed the Séléka Coalition against the remaining army loyalists of the old regime, who are also thought to have close ties with China. Indeed, an additional 200 French troops have now been sent to the CAR.

French involvement in the CAR has already caused diplomatic friction with India, after two Indian nationals were killed in Bangui during a botched operation by French forces. Whilst the departure of Bozizé may not be mourned by the French, it does leave their own national interests vulnerable. The Séléka Coalition, which has already suspended the CAR’s constitution, needs to be won over to prevent Chinese influence in Africa from increasing further. European leaders’ dealings with Africa tend to be hindered by moral scruples that are not shared by the Chinese. The French will have to forgive any excesses the Coalition may engage in, something they proved unwilling to do with Bozizé.

Whilst the pro-government intervention in Mali resulted largely from a concern about the spread of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, French intentions in the CAR are undoubtedly more selfish. The CAR is a nation of extensive, unexploited natural resources, and France covets a lucrative economic partnership that could be eclipsed by canny Chinese negotiators.

Untapped diamond fields are just one of the prizes up for grabs in the CAR
Untapped diamond fields are just one of the prizes up for grabs in the CAR

Ensuring a government favourable to French interests is crucial. Imperialism lives on. But France faces the prospect of getting overstretched in Africa. Should more powerful rebel groups (particularly those supported by terrorists) gain ground in larger, more historically sensitive, countries such as Algeria, then the French will have a dilemma.

They could employ a consistent foreign policy of intervention that could have repercussions of a drawn out war, just as America has suffered in the Middle East. Or they could refrain from acting and be accused of hypocrisy, thus threatening their relations with other former French colonies or rebel groups alike who could feel deserted and thus take unfavourably to French interests. And there are many countries in which this dilemma could emerge.

The Ball Game in Latin America: a history of passion and symbolism

Archaeologists have discovered the outlines of several ancient Pelota courts at Tajin, the world heritage site in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz. Dating back some 1,000 years, they are testament to the historic ties between Latin America and the ball game.

Pelota involved the striking of a rubber ball with the hip in an attempt to score through a circular hole made of stone. Played by two opposing teams, the games were keenly contested.

A pelota goal
A pelota goal

Pelota courts have been found throughout Mexico and Central America, including as far south as Nicaragua. Whilst the significance of the game is disputed by historians, it is likely that it was both of symbolic and recreational importance. Spanish chroniclers arriving in Mexico shortly after Hernan Cortes’ conquest in 1521 identified an association between Pelota and human sacrifice, a common feature of Aztec life. In this case the game served as a ritual, an important part of a symbolic event designed to preserve the strength of Aztec rule through the appeasement of the Gods.

Pelota may have been a celebratory facet of Aztec sacrificial rituals. It may also have offered a massive incentive for avoiding defeat
Pelota may have been a celebratory facet of Aztec sacrificial rituals. It may also have offered a massive incentive for avoiding defeat

Another use for Pelota, stretching back far before the great Aztec and Mayan civilisations, may have been to settle disputes between different tribes. Whether these disputes were territorial or economic, the use of Pelota as a determinant of the victor precluded the need for conflict.

In addition, there are pictorial representations of children playing Pelota, suggesting it also served as a recreational pastime. Much like today’s ball games in Latin America, it was an easily accessible game capable of both pleasuring and developing the fitness and well-being of its participants.

Another documented pre-Columbian ball game in Latin America was Batey, played by the Taino Amerindians first encountered by the Spanish colonisers in 1492. As with Pelota, Batey was played in a central plaza, marking its significance in everyday life. Again, the game may have been used to settle disputes between rival entities without the need to make war. It differed to Pelota in that any part of the body (except the hands) could be used to strike the ball and that rather than aiming to score through a goal, opposing teams were required to return the ball to their opponents without it hitting the ground. Whilst Pelota is reminiscent of basketball, Batey is more closely associated with modern volleyball.

Batey was played in a central square used for other important community rituals
Batey was played in a central square used for other important community rituals

Something interesting that the Spanish chroniclers noted about Batey was its association with gambling. Chiefs would place wagers on the outcomes of games and this, in turn, may have been tied to the resolution of disputes. Just with modern sport, these ancient ball games offered a convenient opportunity for material gain.

Even the other facets of pre-Columbian ball games in the Americas resonate with modern society. The potential to enhance prestige amongst your peers, or within your community, by defeating rivals remains a prominent feature of the Latin American street. On a larger scale, it has the potential to unify a group of people, whether it be a suburb or a nation, and achieves a symbolic expression of community or national desire.

Whilst it is difficult to prove, it is also likely that Pelota and Batey inspired a spontaneity of action that football, baseball and basketball do in Latin America today. All that was required was a small rubber ball and an agreed space in which rules could be adapted for the convenience of the participants. Additionally, it provided an arena in which physical and mental capacities could be tested and honed as sporting participation provides today.

Whilst the principles of sport may have been corrupted at the elite level by its adoption as a form of mass entertainment, it is refreshing to know that its redeeming qualities and passionate following have been present for centuries past, as this Latin American example shows. The simplest activities remain imbued with meaning that has changed precious little since before the Europeans crossed the Atlantic.