Turpan's Flaming Mountains

By Matthew Brown
Staff Writer

Robed horsemen navigate craggy mountain paths, laden with soviet era weapons and explosives. Their furtive eyes watch the sky for the bright glint of a surveillance drone. The fiery blast of a suicide bomber unites a national landmark and a remote desert village in a shared moment of tragedy. Heavily armed security forces patrol impoverished towns, glittering cities, and meandering highways on the hunt for an elusive foe. Masked operators break down the doors of a family home; the males inside are taken away, never to be seen again. From atop a clay brick minaret, a muezzin calls out the Adhan in a mournful voice that echoes across desert sands.

You would be forgiven for reading this and imagining some conflict-scarred country in the Middle East. Images like those above have become familiar to Western audiences, long exposed to the sights and sounds of the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this land of mujahideen, secret police, ethnic conflict, and ambiguous morality is actually China, specifically the administrative division called Xinjiang. It is here that the forces of radical Islam, ethnic identity, and nationalism collide head on with Chinese hegemony. China is entrenched in a campaign here that is known to the West as the Xinjiang Conflict, at least to those few who know of its existence. The Xinjiang Conflict has had a long, troubled history and in recent years the conflict has increased significantly. Unsurprisingly, little news of China’s own shadow war makes it off of the mainland. In this two part series, I will introduce you to the conflict itself and the geopolitical interests which prolong it. To foster some sense of familiarity with the region, we will first cover the land, people, and prizes found in this restless territory, whose very name (Xinjiang: an old frontier which returns recently) acknowledges the tensions lying below the surface. Part two will then examine the secessionist forces operating in the territory, their motivations and sponsors, and conclude with China’s response to an enduring struggle which has brought the war on terror to the very heart of Beijing.

Muztagh Ata

A Desert in the Sky

First, let us sort out our geography. Xinjiang is the largest Chinese administrative division, the equivalent to a state or province. In an already immense country, Xinjiang dominates; the entire nation of Iran could fit into the territory with room to spare. Located in the most northwestern portion of China, you could imagine it taking the shape of two large bowls pushed together. Where the rims touch, the region is divided by the Tian Shan mountain range, an austerely beautiful locale typical of the territory as a whole. The depression of the northern bowl is called the Dzungarian Basin and the southern depression is the Tarim Basin. Rimming the northern bowl are the Altay and Tarbagatai mountains. The southern bowl’s rim consists of the Altun, Kunlun, and Karakoram mountains. Besides the impressive mountain ranges, the other major geographical feature is the Taklimakan Desert of the Tarim Basin. It was along the perimeters of this extensive desert that the Silk Road split into its two main western routes. Climatically, this elevated region is primarily semi-arid or desert. The harsh weather, terrain, and seasons have confined the population to narrow bands of foothills at the bases of mountain ranges or near desert oases.

Map of Xinjiang's Location in China

Xinjiang’s size and its location at the very edge of the People’s Republic of China has created a long, winding border. The nations of Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the Chinese administrative division of Tibet all share a mountainous border with Xinjiang. Details of just where China ends and another country begins are somewhat vague. China and India both stake claims to the Chinese held Aksai Chin region, while Pakistan, India, and China each claim the Chinese held Shaksgam Valley. Much like the Kashmir question between Pakistan and India, these border disputes are frozen conflicts where little progress towards reconciliation has been made. These locations often contain important mountain passes critical for future transit projects. For obvious reasons, control of these key land routes in and out of China are of central importance to all parties involved.

Native Sons

As noted before, the scarcity of water in the region has confined the major population centers to narrow belts at the base of the mountain ranges, where the yearly snow melt can be easily utilized. Extensive irrigation networks have transformed these settled areas into productive agricultural zones that stretch the entire length of each mountain range. These belts are home to the majority of the 21.8 million citizens of Xinjiang. Ürümqi, the capital, is the largest city with 3 million citizens residing in the rapidly modernizing metropolis. The nine other major cities, many of which have histories dating to before the adventures of Marco Polo, are home to a plurality of ethnic groups. Of these groups the Uyghur, the Han, and the Kazakhs are by far the largest.

Map of Xinjiang's Ethnic Groups

Uyghurs, the most numerous group, make up 43 percent of the population and have the longest history of settlement in the region. They are a Turkic speaking group with a unique mixture of Mediterranean and Asian genetic descent. Although their early history is disputed, mostly for political reasons, some form of Uyghur population has lived in the region for about 4,000 years and have attained and lost power over the region as history dictates. Historically, the southwestern Tarim Basin has been the region these people call home. Uyghurs are almost exclusively dedicated to the Sunni branch of Islam. Since completing their conversion in the 17th century, several famous mosques have been erected.

The next largest group consists of the Han people, who make up 40 percent of the population. Han history in the region is almost as complex as that of the Uyghurs; the two are linked by a long chain of violent conflicts. Major Han immigration to the region occurred following the Qing Dynasty’s 18th century conquests, and another large wave in recent years. These people share a common culture with the ethnic Hans who populate most of China. Mostly Buddhist, the Han retain strong economic and family ties with China’s heartland. Since the Qing Dynasty conquests and subsequent waves of immigration, the Han have mostly settled in the northern Dzungarian Basin, with the exception of a few cities in the Tarim Basin.

Lastly are the Kazakhs, who inhabit the most northern regions of Xinjiang. Forming approximately eight percent of the population, they are practicing Shi’a Muslims of the Ismaili sect. Significant cultural links between the Xinjiang Kazakhs and their brothers to the north in Kazakhstan make these people an island of eastern Turkic culture. Besides the Kazakhs, the Han, and the Uyghurs, 14 other ethnic populations, such as Tajiks and Russians, also share the land.

A PetroChina gas station in Xinjiang

Treasure, Trade and Transport

Natural gas extraction in Xinjiang is by far the most dominant feature of the economy and is of crucial importance to Chinese energy security. Over 25 percent of China’s natural gas is supplied by Xinjiang via the West-East Gas Pipeline, which spans 4,000 miles and terminates in the metropolis of Shanghai. A volume of 420 billion cubic feet of natural gas passes through this pipeline annually. Such monumental numbers has required the completion of equally titanic engineering projects in the Tarim and Dzungarian natural gas plays. The northern city of Karamay, which means ‘black oil’ in the Uyghur tongue, is the center of Dzungarian natural gas industry, while Aksu in the Tarim Basin is the southern counterpart. Ethnically, Aksu is split more or less equally between Uyghur and Han populations while Karamay is 80 percent Han.

Coal, Xinjiang’s next leading energy export, is of similar importance to natural gas for the region. Over 38 percent of China’s estimated coal reserves are deposited in near-surface level banks that make for easy extraction. Although the exploitation of these coal deposits lag behind the natural gas efforts, conservative estimates predict that 800 million tons of coal will be extracted from Xinjiang every year by 2020 C.E. These huge deposits are mostly located in the Dzungarian Basin, but a very large coal bank also exists in the Tarim Basin as well.

The natural wealth locked within the ground of Xinjiang includes valuable minerals as well. Iron, salt, beryllium, rare earth metals, and 48 other valuable ores have been discovered and exploited to varying degrees all across the region. Extraction of these minerals has a long history in the region and many current mines have expanded upon earlier exploitations from antiquity. Agriculture is surprisingly productive for such an arid region, thanks to centuries of irrigation projects. Large amounts of grain and fruit are grown in the region for distribution to the rest of China.

All of these economic efforts rely upon huge amounts of water, which is naturally the one scarce resource in Xinjiang. Competition for water rights is a divisive issue; local farmers, mining corporations, and neighboring countries all compete for access to the few reservoirs available. To mitigate this issue, neighboring Tibet has been pegged as a possible source of much needed water; several recent engineering projects have been proposed to divert water from the Yarlung Zangbo River of Tibet.

Of course, all of these goods must find a route to market. Exports leaving China through Xinjiang total $19.3 billion per year, while imports are approximately $5.9 billion per year. Many of the manufactured items and foodstuffs produced in China must pass through Xinjiang on their way to Eurasian consumers. The same Silk Road routes that generations of merchants used before have now grown to accommodate unprecedented traffic. A vast majority of these goods pass through the city of Horgos, located in the northwest portion of the Dzungarian Basin. A ‘land port’ that abuts Kazakhstan, the Chinese side has been the site of rapid modernization and expansion. Conversely, the Kazakh portion is positively anachronistic; remove the cars and telephone wires and you have a medieval village. Thanks to extensive investment, Horgos has become the most vital transit point for Chinese goods headed to Eurasia and beyond. All of this trade is facilitated by an extensive transportation network. Numerous highways, railways and several large airports have been constructed in a short period of time and many more are planned. As China continues to extensively invest in development of its neighbors economies, the needs of Eurasian consumers can only grow. So too will the roads into and out of China.

They Call It Peace

With this overview of Xinjiang’s geography, people, and resources now complete, we are now ready to delve into the Xinjiang conflict armed with knowledge of the greater context forthcoming events will take place in. The strategic location of Xinjiang, its extensive supply of vital natural resources, and its large ethnic Han population sum up to a prize that China simply cannot afford to lose. Necessity, as we will see, compels the Chinese government to retaliate swiftly and brutally to any threat to regional stability. Yet, as the United States has learned, ruthlessness and firepower often create more of the very enemies you hope to eliminate. Up next; diplomacy or jihad, democracy or autocracy, the battle for supremacy amongst secessionist groups pits them against each other almost as much as against China. Plus, clandestine operations and knife wielding maniacs.

Cover photo by Colegota

Authors of additional images linked here, in order of appearance: Muztagh Ata photo by Colegota; Map of Xinjiang’s location by TUBS; Map of Xinjiang ethnicities by QuartierLatin1968; Gas Station photo by Otebig


I’ve always considered Kunming one of my favorite cities in China. After all, many of my relatives live in the provincial capital of southwestern China’s Yunnan province. In the past, every thought of the city brought back memories of fresh air, clear skies, easy-going people and delicious food. They don’t call Kunming the City of Eternal Spring for no reason. But last Saturday, a horrid act tainted those memories. Last Saturday, the streets of Kunming ran red with blood. Last Saturday, its people cowered in fear behind locked doors. Last Saturday, a separatist struggle largely limited to China’s distant northwest came swooping down with a vengeance.

At 9:20 p.m. local time, six men and two women clad in black stormed the crowded ticket lobby of Kunming’s train station. Brandishing swords and cleavers, they began to hack indiscriminately at bystanders, slaughtering those who could not flee. Neither the old nor the young were spared. Many were impoverished migrant workers planning to spend the night in the waiting rooms. In less than twenty minutes, the assailants killed 29 people and wounded another 143. Those numbers are sure to increase by the time of publication. Images circulating around social media show bloodstained floors and abandoned baggage left by their terrified owners. In the chaos, police managed to kill four suspects and capture one injured female. On March 3, authorities arrested the remaining three suspects, bringing an end to China’s worst case yet of domestic terrorism in the 21st century.

Authorities quickly identified the attackers as separatists from northwest China’s restive Xinjiang region. The region is of vital importance to China. It borders Mongolia, Russia, several Central Asian republics, Pakistan and India, making it a useful springboard for projecting Chinese influence abroad. [1] At one-sixth of China’s landmass, it is the country’s largest administrative division, as well as a major population safety valve for resettling Han Chinese from central China. [2] In addition, Xinjiang possesses an abundance of natural resources critical to China’s economic growth. The region produces one-third of China’s cotton and possesses the country’s largest oil and gas reserves. [3] Most of China’s uranium, significant coal deposits, as well as its nuclear weapons testing site are also located in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority. Like their Tibetan counterparts to the south, Uighurs have long called for autonomy from the rest of China. I am no stranger to Xinjiang, its people and its issues. My grandparents taught chemistry at the university in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital. My father went to school and grew up alongside Uighurs. But those were different times. The last few decades have seen a surge of Han migrants to Xinjiang. Their numbers rose from 300,000 in 1953 to six million in 1990. By 2000, Han Chinese accounted for 41 percent of Xinjiang’s the population. [4] The influx of Han settlers placed massive strains on Xinjiang’s Uighurs, who view the Han as a threat to their culture and well-being. Though they benefit from affirmative action policies, the majority of Xinjiang’s Uighurs fare badly relative to their Han counterparts. There is a clear disparity between Han and Uighurs. Coupled with heavy-handed government policies, discrimination and the rise of radical Islam, calls for independence and instances of violence have steadily increased in number and scope in the last few years.

What separates the bloodshed in Kunming from previous incidents is the location. In the past, most incidents, such as the deadly 2009 Urumqi riots, took place within Xinjiang’s boundaries and far away from the rest of China. The Kunming massacre represents an escalation in the struggle for Uighur autonomy. Previous attacks outside of Xinjiang such as last year’s incident at Tiananmen Square were nowhere close to the Kunming massacre in terms of scope and magnitude.

It is unclear, however, if these attacks are the product of small cells or a larger organization. Chinese authorities have long referred to the existence of terrorist organizations such as the East Turkestan Liberation Organization and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. In 2002, the U.S. State Department placed the latter on its list of terrorist organizations for alleged connections with Al-Qaeda. But the true extent of these organizations’ capabilities is unknown. For all we know, the government may have overstated their capabilities to shield itself from criticism of its human rights abuses.

While the Kunming massacre won’t warrant a response on par with that of the United States after 9/11, China must prepare itself for future attacks. At the same time, the government and its people must find better ways to address the grievances of the Uighurs. But all of that can come at a later time. Now is the time to grieve for the dead and pray for the wounded.

1. Chung, Chien-peng. “China’s ‘War on Terror’: September 11 and Uighur Separatism.” Foreign Affairs 81.4 (2002): 8-12. JSTOR. Web. 11 October 2012.

2. Dwyer, Arienne. The Xinjiang Conflict: Uighur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse. Washington: East-West Center Washington, 2005. Print. Policy Studies 15.

3. Chung, Chien-peng. “China’s ‘War on Terror’: September 11 and Uighur Separatism.” Foreign Affairs 81.4 (2002): 8-12. JSTOR. Web. 11 October 2012.

4. Dwyer, Arienne. The Xinjiang Conflict: Uighur Identity, Language Policy, and Political Discourse. Washington: East-West Center Washington, 2005. Print. Policy Studies 15.


Sochi at Night

By Aarushi Gupta
Staff Writer

The Olympic Games symbolize nations of the world putting aside political and economic differences and coming together in the spirit of athletics and sportsmanship. However, four weeks before the course of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, a string of terrorist attacks, close to the resort town where the Olympics will be held, threatens the existence of a global tradition that brings glory to the best athletes in the world. A series of attacks beginning in October have taken place in Volgograd, a city 600 miles away from Sochi; while the distance seems far enough to be trivial, the concern lies with the potential for future attack on this event, as well as the fact that transportation is a huge factor with respect to the Olympics. Athletes and spectators will be attending from all over Russia and the world, and if any path into Sochi is put in harm’s way, there could be catastrophic consequences. But bombings have proved to be just the beginning, as a slew of Internet attacks and hijacked planes threaten the security of these games.

There have been several terrorist attacks near Sochi in the weeks preceding the Winter Games; arguably the most concerning fact is that these attacks have been carried out by several terrorist organizations, ranging from Chechen separatist groups to Islamic militants in several cities located relatively close to the Olympic Village in Sochi. The most prominent is the double attack at the Volgograd railway station on December 29 and 30, 2013, which together killed 34 civilians. Now, more than a month later, an Islamist group has taken responsibility for the attacks claiming, “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” The two men who organized the attack, Suleiman and Abdul Rahman, were from the Dagestan province in Russia, which is also where the terrorists who planted the bomb at the Boston Marathon were from. Various other suicide bombers, including many women, responsible for several incidents in Russia, have claimed ties to Dagestan, which indicates a serious potential threat to the Olympics. Chechen separatist groups have threatened to disrupt the games with ‘maximum force’, simply to use the games as an international platform for their anti-Moscow sentiments and garner international support for their separationist movement. There is no guarantee of safety at these Olympics, and with serious threats being made towards the Olympic institution, international travel agencies have been issuing serious advisories. The U.S. government has promised its full intelligence support to pursue and capture the offenders, going so far as to send Janet Napolitano, former head of Homeland Security and current chancellor of the UC Regents, with the Olympic Delegation to ensure its safety.

The various attacks have not gone unnoticed by the international community or by Russia’s own president, Vladimir Putin. In trying to reassure the public, Putin took a small ski trip to Sochi and was photographed on the slopes. Seeming to ooze confidence in the security of Sochi, Putin looked cavalier on the slopes. Since then, Sochi has been put under high security, with a “special exclusion zone […] where only Sochi-marked vehicles, emergency, or specially accredited intelligence service cars will be allowed into the wider Sochi area.” However, it is important for officials at Sochi to realize that since Sochi does not have a commercial air hangar, most visitors and athletes will be flying into Russia via Moscow or through St. Petersburg. Travel centers and train stations will be key for those trying to get to the Games, and the terrorist attack at the Volgograd train station has already proven that these will most definitely be targets. Georgetown scholar Christopher Swift has said that, “anybody traveling by ground to the Olympics likely will have to go through Volgograd.” The U.S. government has sent out an advisory to all U.S. citizens hinting that travelers should get “private medical evacuation and repatriation insurance,” despite all reassurances from Russian officials that the terrorist situation is being handled. It is true that the presence of Cossacks (the Russian police) has been increased to 400 personnel, evoking memories of the Tsarist era in Russia with their large fur hats and coats, but they are only stationed around the immediate Olympic vicinity. What experts call “soft targets,” locations such as restaurants, hotels, and other civilian-occupied, unfortified destinations are outside of the protection of the Russian government, and the security of these sites is significantly less than that of the Olympic venue.

Bomb threats on the ground by several groups were not alone; during the opening of the Olympics, a flight to Istanbul was hijacked by a drunken Ukrainian passenger who tried to commandeer the plane to Sochi. While this turned out to be a harmless attempt to secure the aircraft, it showed the real potential of something much worse. The man who was detained on the aircraft, an F-16 fighter, reportedly had “requests concerning his own country [Ukraine]” and wanted to relay “a message concerning sporting activities in Sochi.” The Ukrainian Security Service says that the man was acting alone, but it will be upsetting if the man’s sentiments are shared amongst other individuals who feel the same about the former Soviet Union hosting these games.

Of course, external threats are not the only concerns for these controversial games. Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation has also presented a threat to many visitors as well as competitors. Some, like Jose Coira of Houston, have chosen to forgo the Olympics, despite losing their down payment on several reservations, including airfare, hotels and tickets to the events themselves. He and his partner simply did not feel safe going to Russia amid the controversy over homosexual rights, as well as the violence occurring there. The global community has not been discrete in its protestation of the homophobic legislation passed in Russia; from Germany’s rainbow colored Olympic uniforms to Team Canada’s direct and amusing jibe that has gone viral, it seems that the international community is reminding Putin that diversity and inclusion is a major factor of these games.

But threats to these Olympics refuse to stop at physical terror; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on the eve of the games that hackers are targeting “any company that finances or supports the Olympic Games.” These cyber attacks are being launched mainly by a group named Anonymous Caucasus, who claim that “the Sochi games infrastructure was built on the graves of 1 million innocent Caucasians who were murdered by the Russians in 1864.” They are believed to be responsible for the malfunctioning website for the Russian National Olympic Committee, which was down earlier this month, along with training sites for Olympic volunteers, the Sochi Airport website and several sponsoring sites. Homeland Security will be monitoring communications and transactions in Sochi, and attendees are warned to be wary of phishing and malware scams from unidentifiable persons at the games.

Contrary to the terrorist attacks, physical and viral, which suggests that athletes would be worried to compete in Sochi, statements from the President of the IOC in Russia suggest that athletes are very excited to stay and compete in Russia. The Chief of IOC for the Sochi Olympics, Thomas Bach, sidestepped questions about security and safety, laughing them off and reminding press that threats have been an inherent part of the Olympics. Bach also said that 40,000 security forces protect city of Sochi, and that “these games will be the safest in history.” This is the same man who said earlier this week that the “the Olympic stage is ready for the best winter athletes of the world.” After his statement, a hilarious spew of Sochi hotel malfunctions emerged on Twitter from journalists covering the event. Thomas Bach might be optimistic about the security and the hotel accommodations (which are reportedly still giving athletes trouble), but at this point when threats are still emerging, it is fitting to be cautious at best.

Image by United Nations Photo