THE FALSE NARRATIVE ON THE DALAI LAMA AND TIBET

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by Omkar Mahajan
Editor in Chief

Several weeks ago, it was announced that Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, would be the commencement speaker for UCSD’s graduation. Many celebrated this news and applauded such a decision since the Dalai Lama is seen as a beacon of hope and nonviolent struggle in addition to being a champion and defender of human rights. Gyatso even received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts against China in 1989. However, a large number of international students from China were angered by this decision and voiced their disapproval on Facebook and other forms of social media and claimed that it was disrespectful and culturally insensitive to select such a person. Some of these students even labeled the Dalai Lama as a rapist, a terrorist, and a separatist among other labels. Others claimed that slavery and tyranny were rampant in Tibet prior to the arrival of the Chinese. Regardless of how one looks at these claims, it is important to examine them in order to discover if there is any semblance of truth to these claims. In this essay, I will disprove all of these claims and show how China is unjustifiably occupying Tibet and is in violation of numerous human rights.

Who is the Dalai Lama?
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people and has been living in exile for more than 50 years in Dharmsala, India. His branch of Buddhism that he practices is Yellow Hat Buddhism, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism that combines elements of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. In the 1950s, China delivered military troops to occupy Tibet forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Since then, the Dalai Lama resisted Chinese occupation through nonviolent struggles and continued to advocate for awareness about the ongoing situation. In the 1960s, Robert Thurman, the first American to be ordained as a Buddhist monk in Tibet and currently a professor at Columbia with a degree in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University, introduced the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism to the west. Following this debut, Hollywood, politicians, the media and plentiful celebrities lionized the Dalai Lama bestowing upon him a cult-like following that only a few have. Despite the popular appeal and the positive connotation the Dalai Lama brings, there are many who do not have a sympathetic sentiment regarding him. The Chinese government views the Dalai Lama as a controversial figure.

Is the Dalai Lama a separatist?
First, a large number of the Chinese population view the Dalai Lama as a separatist. Chinese media sources claim that the spiritual leader intends to balkanize and fragment China into several smaller disunited regions. Most of these claims rest on the actions of Gyatso seeking Tibetan independence and demilitarization of Chinese occupation of Tibet, and the revisionist historical notion that Tibet was never demarcated from China. However, a brief glance at past events and an analysis of the Dalai Lama’s stance on Chinese militarization of the region reveal otherwise.

In 1950, at the age of 15, Gyatso assumed power and became the political head of Tibet after succeeding the regents before him. Prior to this, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party gained control of the government in China and proceeded to absorb Tibet into China. Chinese propaganda governmental sources claim that Tibet is an integral part of China and falls within its borders. Yet, for thousands of years, Tibet was an independent state. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Tibet was incorporated into the empire but was largely autonomous and de jure independent. In other words, China claimed Tibet was within its boundaries but in reality, Tibet was essentially autonomous and practically followed its own laws. During the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Tibet sought to maintain its autonomy and culture and continue its practices and laws. Gyatso himself was initially supportive of the idea of Tibet being a part of the new China but immediately balked out of the concession once he learned that his people might not have full rights and their practices and cultures might be encroached. Furthermore, Tibetan nationalists opposed the idea of Tibet incorporated in China and rebelled at this notion. The Dalai Lama’s refusal to hand over Tibet to China and the actions of zealous Tibetans led China to launch a full scale military invasion into Tibet.

The Chinese government claims that the Dalai Lama is a separatist because of his efforts to secure an independent Tibet. Since Gyatso is only resolving to return Tibet’s original autonomy rather than break apart China, it does not make much sense to call him a separatist. To further disprove the claim, Gyatso has changed his rhetoric since the 1990s from one of advocating complete independence for Tibet to a stance of just simply preaching the demilitarization of Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Possible links to terrorism?
Next, CCTV and other Chinese media outlets indoctrinate their citizens that the Dalai Lama is a terrorist. Many scholars postulate that the perception of how Americans view Osama bin Laden is comparable to how the Chinese view the Dalai Lama. While bin Laden is seen as the face of evil and did great harm to the United States, perhaps a better comparison would be how Americans view Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq. Indeed, many Americans hold a negative opinion of Hussein erroneously believing that he harbored weapons of mass destruction. Yet, many are ignorant that Hussein also protected religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and led a secular governmental administration in addition to killing terrorists who were against the United States. Of course, I am not endorsing nor praising Hussein. He was a dictator after all.

The Chinese government claims that the Dalai Lama sponsored a series of terrorist attacks on the Chinese causing mass disarray and ataxia. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In the 1950s, Gyatso accepted help from the CIA to combat the Chinese. The program the CIA was implementing in Tibet was similar to other later CIA-funded missions that helped the Contras in Nicaragua and the Taliban in Afghanistan which complemented US efforts to fight the Soviets in a quest against Communism. The Tibetans accepted millions of dollars from the CIA and created CIA-trained guerrilla groups which the CIA continued to fund until 1970 when the Nixon administration decided to formally establish relations with China and therefore canceled the program in Tibet. Thus, China claims that these donations from the CIA led to the Tibetan rebels committing terrorist attacks on the Chinese. However, the activities these guerrilla groups committed were simply attacks on Chinese soldiers who already were part of the military occupying Tibet. Moreover, the Tibetan rebel groups also demolished telegraph and power lines in order to disrupt Chinese communications. Thus, claims that the Dalai Lama is a sponsor of terrorism and a murderer are unfounded.

Dictatorial Rule and Oppression in Tibet before Chinese involvement
Moreover, the Chinese government presents a narrative that the Dalai Lama was a dictator who ruled Tibet as a tyrant and that 95 percent of the Tibetans were slaves. China then elaborates that the people were beaten and that many young children were forcibly removed from their homes and tortured to serve monks and that some were even raped and sexually abused. The narrative that China presents includes notions that the people were oppressed and were tied to the land and that mutilations were common forms of punishment. Indeed, several scholars on Tibet classified the society in Tibet as a feudalistic serfdom. Thus, China presents a narrative of liberating the Tibetan people from the Dalai Lama. However, this narrative is false for several reasons.

First, the idea of Tibet as a literal oppressive state that China liberated is a viewpoint from China that is based on no legitimate evidence. In fact, as Robert Barnett, a professor at Columbia University and the founder of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia states, “China made no claims at the time of its invasion or liberation of Tibet to be freeing Tibetans from social injustice…the issue of freeing Tibetans from feudalism appeared in Chinese rhetoric only after around 1954 in eastern Tibet and 1959 in Central Tibet.” This begs the question of why the Chinese government explained their reasons for occupying Tibet after they invaded it.

Second, a quick search into sexual abuse allegations and rape from Tibetan monks leads one to this video discussion from Stephen Molyneux, an Irish-Canadian Conservative social critic who elaborates on numerous cases of maltreatment of young children in the monasteries. Despite sounding so glib and professional, it is shocking to realize that Molyneux is a leading individual in the alt-right movement and has stated such bold claims that Islam is against the west and that women should stay in the home rather than have careers. Molyneux also happens to espouse views that are considered white supremacist. But even if we were to discount Molyneux’s background and listen to the points he articulates, we realize that his arguments fall apart. For instance, he cites one particular example of Tenzin Osel Hita, the boy born to Spanish disciples of Tibetan Buddhism in Dharmsala who was later discovered to be the reincarnation of a lama, Thubten Yeshe, and raised in the monasteries. He lists Hita’s act of leaving the monastery and complaints of the lifestyle and distress as evidence of abuse taking place within the monasteries.

However, Hita elaborated in a later interview that his quotes had been taken out of context and that he is still supportive of Tibetan Buddhism. “That experience was really good and I so appreciate it. However, certain media find ways to sensationalize and exaggerate an unusual story. So I hope that what appears in news print is not read and taken too literally. Don’t believe everything that is written! Experience shows that however hard one tries in interviews to sincerely and honestly convey key information, the printed result can tend towards sensationalism to get the most attention. FPMT is doing a great job and Lama Zopa is an immensely special person – very inspiring and a great yogi. […] There is no separation between myself and FPMT,” Hita said. FPMT is a Buddhist Organization that is the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.

Melvyn Goldstein
Molyneux does frequently cite Melvyn Goldstein throughout his video, which leads to a discussion of whether Tibet was a feudalistic serfdom society. Goldstein was one of the first Tibetan scholars to classify pre-Chinese occupation of Tibet as a feudalistic serfdom society with the majority of people having little rights and being forced to work for lords and landowners. He also argues that the people were tied to the land and unable to move and that the rich took advantage of the poor. His claim that Tibet was a serfdom society first appeared in his writings as early as 1968. However, since then, many academic scholars have now disputed his views stating that terms like serfdom and feudalism carry a Eurocentric bias and do not accurately describe the society in Tibet. Scandinavian anthropologist from the University of Oslo, Heidi Fjeld, argued against Goldstein’s views in the early 2000’s and claimed that instead of a feudalistic serfdom, a more accurate depiction of the society in Tibet would be a caste-like hierarchy similar to the one in Ancient India. Furthermore, numerous scholars and academics have discredited Goldstein’s views and have stated that it is an inaccurate reflection of the society of Tibet. The leading Buddhist scholar in the west and a professor at Columbia University, Thurman, pictured Tibet as “a mandala of the peaceful, perfected universe.” Additionally, Hugh Edward Richardson, the British Trade Envoy to Tibet and one of the last Europeans to know Tibet before the Chinese invasion, characterized Tibet as extremely poor and that differences between the rich and poor were largely nonexistent (Powers 22). Also, in a 1998 article, journalist Barbara Crossette articulated that “scholars of Tibet mostly agree that there has been no systematic serfdom in Tibet in centuries.” Thus, the number of scholars who argue against Goldstein casts doubt on his views.

From an academic viewpoint, many of Goldstein’s contentions fall apart when scrutinized. In a series of academic debates between anthropologist Beatrice Miller and Goldstein in the 1980s, Miller pointed out that Goldstein uses economic historian Stanley L. Engerman’s definition of serfdom which is that serfs lacked property rights and were bound to the land unable to move yet Goldstein admits that people were able to move and were not entirely tied to the land. Although Goldstein is quick to distance himself from Chinese narratives and doesn’t agree with the Chinese occupation of Tibet, his viewpoints and arguments fit the Chinese narrative.

Alleged mutilation and torture
Next, there is also the idea of Tibetan mutilation, torture and abuse. Liberal political scholar Michael Parenti elaborates on this issue in his book Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth where he describes torture and mutilation as commonplace prior to Chinese arrival. Parenti also describes Tibet as a feudalistic society with serfs who had little to no rights and were bound to their land lords. This argument is illogical. First, the predecessor to the 14th Dalai Lama, the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso, outlawed mutilation in the early 1900s and Tibet was one of the first countries to outlaw the death penalty. In 1925, there was a case of mutilation and the officials who carried out the punishment were quickly admonished (Barnett 83). In 1934, there was a case of eye gouging which is exceptional for its time since no one would know how to administrate it (Barnett 83). It is important to remember that these are anecdotal examples that happened before the current Dalai Lama was born. But, even if mutilation occurred in large numbers as Parenti claims, it contradicts the idea that people were bound to the land as forced laborers serving their lords. This would be against the interests of the serfs since if the people were tortured and mutilated, then their ability to produce goods for their lord would be either reduced or removed. Goldstein even states that “extreme maltreatment [of serfs] was unlikely since it would have been against the interests of landowners, who needed peasants to provide labor” (Barnett 83).

Human Rights Abuses Committed by China
Finally, the idea of Tibet under a feudalistic serfdom society with people living in slave-like conditions pales in comparison to the current human rights abuses enacted by China on Tibet. For instance, there are over hundreds of reports of Tibetans being tortured and held as prisoners by the Chinese government as well as over 90 suspicious deaths of Tibetan political activists at the hands of the government since the 1990s that have yet to be investigated (Barnett 83). There is also the significant number of Tibetans who were murdered by the Chinese government since the 1950s. The Committee to Support Tibet, a Madrid-based group fighting for the Tibetan independence, claims that over 1.2 million Tibetan people have been murdered by China in an act of genocide. However, British historian Patrick French disputes these numbers and claims that it is actually around 500,000 Tibetan people that perished from Chinese occupation since the 1950s, which is still a large number. Finally, John Oliver, a political talk show host, claimed that the number of Tibetans who have died from Chinese occupying forces is closer to around 100,000. Regardless of what the actual number is, one cannot deny that a large number of Tibetans were massacred by the Chinese government. While many Tibetan groups claim that China’s actions constitute genocide, the International Commission of Jurists argued in 1960 that there is no “sufficient proof of the destruction of Tibetans as a race, nation or ethnic group as such by methods that can be regarded as genocide in international law.” However, the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide found sufficient evidence to claim that China was committing genocide in Tibet.

In addition to the large number of Tibetans being killed, there are a variety of human rights abuses committed in Tibet ranging from arbitrary arrest, denial of freedom of speech, censorship, disappearances, torture, denial of a fair trial, poor prison conditions, religious repression, sterilization, infanticide, and even deprivation of life. A leaked document from the People’s Liberation Army of China revealed that there were around 87,000 deaths of Tibetans in Lhasa from 1959 to 1960. Choekyi Gyaltsen, the 10th Panchen Lama, even voiced his outrage at the Chinese atrocities being committed in Tibet and stated that “[i]f there was a film made on all the atrocities perpetrated in Qinghai Province, it would shock the viewers. In Golok area, many people were killed and their dead bodies rolled down the hill into a big ditch. The soldiers told the family members and relatives of the dead people that they should celebrate since the rebels have been wiped out. They were forced to dance on the dead bodies. Soon after, they were also massacred with machine guns…In Amdo and Kham, people were subjected to unspeakable atrocities. People were shot in groups of ten or twenty… Such actions have left deep wounds in the minds of the people.” There are also documented cases of extreme torture and brutality involving electric shock and cattle prodding on Tibetans. Several thousand Tibetans have already disappeared in the past few years. Moreover, there are even infringements on the religion of Tibetan Buddhism itself with bans on public prayers for the Dalai Lama. The Chinese state authorities later promoted active efforts to not only suppress the religion, but also coerce Tibetan Buddhists into adopting a religious doctrine that fits government policies and positions. Finally, Chinese government officials kidnapped the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, in 1995 when he was only 6 years old and he hasn’t been seen since. In a further bizarre twist of events, China appointed their own person as the Panchen Lama to fit their version of events and propaganda.

Conclusion
After a careful review of these factors, it is clear that the Chinese occupation of Tibet is unjustified. Tibet was always de jure independent being largely autonomous. China wrongfully invaded Tibet in the 1950s with the intent to incorporate it into its own territory. It was only after this series of events that the Chinese media illustrated a narrative of oppression and torture being commonplace in Tibet and painting the Dalai Lama as a terrorist and separatist to justify their own invasion. Moreover, portraying the Dalai Lama as a figure of notoriety and Tibet as a literal netherworld serves another agenda: it distracts viewers from the ongoing human rights abuses that China currently practices in Tibet that have happened since the 1950s. Not only are there contradictions in this false narrative of serfdom and oppression that China portrays, but most scholars have soundly rejected it and are moving away from this idea. It is only a matter of time until China will have to reevaluate its role as a geopolitical spoiler and regional hegemon in Tibet. After all, the growing attention surrounding these events only smears the Chinese government with a greater negative image.

Works Cited
Barnett, Robert. “Human Rights in Tibet before 1959.” Authenticating Tibet: Answers to China’s 100 Questions. Ed. Anne-Marie Blondeau, Katia Buffetrille, and Donald S. Lopez. Berkeley: U of California, 2008. N. pag. 81-84 Print.

Powers, John. History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People’s Republic of China. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Photo by দেবর্ষি রায়

THE 15th DALAI LAMA: AN ANALYSIS ON TIBETAN AND CHINESE RELATIONS


Bruce Fan
Staff Writer

In the coming months, the Dalai Lama will turn 80 years old and will be celebrating in Orange County. Exiled from Tibet since 1959, the Dalai Lama and his exiled government are still trying to resolve tensions with the Chinese government. Furthermore as the 14th Dalai Lama gets older, talks of his successor—or reincarnation—have grown more prominent. This is specifically so because his successor could either promote Chinese occupation of Tibet or further the 14th Dalai Lama’s cause for Tibetan autonomy. As recently as March of this year, comments from the 14th Dalai Lama and the Chinese government have again reflected such contestations over the autonomy and even the independence of Tibet from China, particularly focusing on the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

The back-and-forth between the two sides began when the 14th Dalai Lama—Tenzin Gyatso—stated that China doesn’t have the right to name his successor or reincarnation and added that he might not even be reborn at all. In response, the Chinese government and its appointed governor of Tibet, Padma Choling, accused the Dalai Lama of blasphemy and attempted to reaffirm China’s right to choose his successor. In response, allies of the Dalai Lama stated that China choosing the 15th Dalai Lama would be “akin to Cuban leader Fidel Castro choosing the Pope.” Responses flew back and forth between the two sides and left each side further polarized with no resolution.

The successor of Tenzin Gyatso is important to the two sides because the Dalai Lama is the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism who is respected by the Tibetan people and will play an important role in shaping how Tibet views itself in relation to China. Specifically, if China selects a successor that favors Chinese occupation and presence in Tibet, it is likely that China will be able to effectively remove the influence the exiled the Tibetan government has and further consolidate its control of Tibet.

To give some context, the Dalai Lama is defined in Buddhism to be “a reincarnation of a past lama who decided to be reborn again to continue his important work, instead of moving on from the wheel of life.” The Dalai Lama traditionally has been responsible for governing Tibet; in the case of the 14th Dalai Lama, he was in charge of Tibet until the Chinese government took control and exiled him and his government in 1959.

As a result, relations with Tibet and China have always been rocky. Tibet has been under Chinese occupation since the arrival of Chinese troops in 1951 and since then, many Tibetans have called for Tibet to have its own autonomy. It should be noted that by autonomy, the Dalai Lama and his followers do not mean independence from China but rather that China respect the Tibet’s individual culture, language, religion, traditions, and more. Indeed, Dalai Lama has called for Tibetan autonomy through an approach he calls the “Middle Way”. Through the “Middle Way,” Tibet would remain a part of China but be allowed to keep and freely practice its ancient cultural heritage. Furthermore, China would benefit from Tibet’s natural resources while Tibet would benefit from China’s help in its modernization and economic development. Despite this, the Chinese government has remained doubtful, insisting that Tenzin is still calling for independence.

Among the many issues between China and Tibet, an important issue is that of religion since the Chinese Communist government believes in atheism. In detail, the Chinese Communist Party’s disregard for Tibetan Buddhism—by way of destroying monasteries, forcing monks to marry, and more—led to a popular Tibetan uprising that failed and resulted in the exile of the Tibetan government as well as the 14th Dalai Lama. Despite many attempts at negotiations between Dalai Lama and the Beijing government between 2000 and 2006, negotiations have been stalled. Many exiled-Tibetans say that they believe that the Chinese government has quit such talks because it is waiting for the Dalai Lama pass away and with it his ideas for a more autonomous Tibet. On the other hand, the Chinese government denies such claims, stating that the Dalai Lama is a separatist who is insistent on driving a wedge between Tibet and China—something that the Chinese government will never allow. Specifically, China—in its white papers on Tibet—demanded that Dalai Lama make “a public statement acknowledging that Tibet has been an integral part of China since antiquity, and abandons his stance on independence and his attempts to divide China, can he improve his relationship with the central government in any meaningful sense.” All in all, it seems that negotiations—let alone a resolution—are unlikely with both sides so adamant on their stances.

Furthermore this is not the first time that China and the 14th Dalai Lama have had contestations in regards to the reincarnations of Tibetan Buddhism. For example in 1995 when the Dalai Lama named a 6 year-old boy as the reincarnation of Panchen Lama, the second holiest monk in Tibetan Buddhism, the Chinese government hid away that child and instead selected another child. By refusing to recognize Tenzin’s choice and selecting its own, it seems that China is attempting to exert and maintain its influence on Tibet. By choosing the next Panchen Lama, again China can manipulate this figure to promote Chinese occupation and control of Tibet.

From this, one may question why China has even any say to intervene and take part in the traditional succession rituals of the Tibetan people. However, China claims that it does have a say in such rituals by pointing to history. Specifically during the Qing Dynasty when the Manchu emperors ruled China, they held a limited role in the succession of the Dalai Lama and other important Tibetan Buddhist leaders. However, it seems that with such actions the “Communist Party has demanded an increasingly hands-on role in intricate rituals of succession.” From this, one can see perhaps how China is using reincarnations as a way to generate support for its presence in Tibet.

In spite of this, the Dalai Lama states that it’s up to the Tibetan people “whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue…there is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace him or herself.” By this the Dalai Lama also means that the Tibetan people must decide whether they agree to remain part of China.

This decision is critical not only in defining Tibetan and Chinese relations but also the international community. As China continues to rise, it has already and will continue to assert its presence along its borders with India. Before, Tibet had always been the historical buffer between China and India; however after China’s annexation of Tibet, China has begun to lay claim to Indian territories “on the basis of purported Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links.” Specifically, China is seeking “to advance its strategic interests in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction…[a] narrow neck of land that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country.” Furthermore water disputes have occurred with the China’s hydro-engineering projects. Thus such a decision will play a great role in defining not only Tibet and China relations but Sino-Indian relations as well.

Photo By: Kris Krüg

TERROR COMES TO CHINA: PART ONE

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