Chinese efforts to woo Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community highlight the People’s Republic’s effort to divert criticism from the Muslim world of its crackdown in the north-western province of Xinjiang and strengthen relations with the Saudi kingdom and with other Middle Eastern nations.
The efforts to woo a community—a significant part of which is of Turkic origin, identifies itself as Turkestani, and long supported greater rights, if not independence for Xinjiang’s Uyghur population—are part of a larger, long-standing global Chinese effort to ensure the support of a mushrooming Chinese diaspora, not only for its policy in Xinjiang, but also for its anti-Taiwanese “One China” policy and growing economic and geopolitical influence.
According to Muhammed Al-Sudairi, a Saudi scholar of Chinese issues and author of a recent report on China efforts in Saudi Arabia, “Turkestanis…do not identify as ‘Chinese’ in the ethnic, cultural or even geographic sense. Parts of this cluster perceive themselves…as being part of an oppressed group whose homeland is currently under Han occupation.”
In wooing Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community, China is targeting a group that historically supported the Uyghurs and also maintained close ties to Taiwan. Mr. Al-Sudairi estimated the Saudi Chinese community to number at least 210,000, of whom 150,000 have lived in the kingdom for decades.
It is a community that played a significant role in Saudi Arabia’s propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in China, part of a four- decade-long global campaign to counter post-1979 Iranian post-revolutionary zeal that with the recent rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being curbed and given a more moderate makeover.
Within recent weeks China has sought to tighten relations with the Arab world by allocating US$106 million in aid to troubled nations, including Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon and by creating a US$3 billion joint Chinese-Arab fund that would invest in transportation infrastructure, oil and gas, finance, digital economy, and artificial intelligence.
China announced the financial initiatives just when it was putting the brakes on funds it pumps into its infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative, which aims to connect Eurasia to the People’s Republic. The slowdown was designed to ensure that the initiative does not become a drag on the Chinese economy.
China’s Xinhua news agency meanwhile reported a visit by President Xi Jinping to the United Arab Emirates on his way to a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in Johannesburg. Mr. Xi visited Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt in 2016, the first visit to the Middle East by a Chinese head of state in seven years.
Chinese concern about Uyghur sentiment is compounded by the revival in post-Soviet Central Asian nations of pan-Turkism, a movement that emerged in the late 1900s that aims to unite Asia’s Turkic people. Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev sees pan-Turkism as a pillar of his country’s national identity.
Mr. Nazarbayev told a gathering in Ankara in 2012 that “the time will come when all the Turks will unite. Therefore I want to greet all the Turkic-speaking brothers. Between Altai and the Mediterranean Sea, over 200 million brothers live. If we all unite, then we will be a very effective force in the world.”
Pan-Turkism’s appeal in Central Asia, boosted by what Russia’s annexation of Crimea could mean for other post-Soviet states, does not stop at the borders of Xinjiang. The Altai mountains to which Mr. Nazarbayev referred is where Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia meet.
Mr. Nazarbayev last month took several steps to popularize pan-Turkic notions. The president sent a congratulatory message to a gathering celebrating the 125th anniversary of Magzhan Zhumabayev, a Soviet pan-Turkist poet whose works were banned by Joseph Stalin.
Days earlier, Mr. Nazarbayev signed a decree renaming the southern region of Shymkent as Turkestan, a reference to what pan-Turkists see as their spiritual homeland.
The rise of pan-Turkism puts China’s recent focus on Saudi Arabia’s Chinese Turkic community in a class of its own. China sought to boost its efforts in 2013 by appointing Anwar Habibullah, one of China’s few Uyghur diplomats, as consul general in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Since Mr. Habibullah’s appointment the consulate conducts events, not only in Mandarin and Arabic, but also Uyghur, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi.
Mr. Al-Sudairi attributes the focus on the Saudi Uyghurs, one of the largest and most prosperous Chinese Turkic diaspora communities, “to the role of this community as a stronghold for anti-Chinse and anti-CPC (Communist Party of China) sentiment in Saudi Arabia, and one that has had some influence in shaping Saudi elite and popular perceptions toward the People’s Republic of China and CPC.”
The Chinese focus is also fed by the country’s determination to stem the influence of what it terms “extremist thought,” including Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism. This was promoted by Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese through their contact with Uyghur pilgrims and the distribution of literature and audio-visual materials in Xinjiang, often through organizations like the Muslim World League, a major vehicle in Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.
Mr. Al-Sudairi’s portrayal of Saudi Turkic sentiment and its impact on perceptions of China in Saudi Arabia is unusual, for the kingdom, like almost all Muslim states, has turned a blind eye to China’s crackdown in Xinjiang and its systematic attempts to force the Uyghurs to assimilate.
Muhammad Amin Islam Turkestani, a strident Uyghur advocate of Xinjiang independence, helped shape Saudi perceptions and propagate nationalism in his homeland after settling in the kingdom in the mid-1950s. Mr. Turkestani served as a translator for Uyghurs performing the haj and hosted a one-hour Uyghur-language show on Saudi radio in the 1980s.
Funded by the Saudi Turkic community, Mr. Turkestani published a book, A Message to the Islamic World … Facts about Muslim Turkestan, which criticized Han supremacism and denounced communist rule. The book was published in the kingdom and distributed locally as well as internationally as part of Saudi Arabia’s global propagation of ultra-conservatism.
Mr. Turkestani’s book, according to Mr. Al-Sudairi, influenced Saudi discussions and perceptions and complicated the kingdom’s relations with China before and after Saudi Arabia in 1990 became the last Arab state to officially establish diplomatic relations.
Saudi Arabia, however, while at times critical of Chinese policy in Xinjiang, ensured that the plight of the Uyghurs did not fundamentally affect official relations.
The country’s controlled media were at times allowed to raise the issues and senior religious scholars called for support of the Uyghurs. However, Mr. Turkestani’s effort to get the Muslim World League to recognize East Turkestan went unheeded.
Moreover, no senior Saudi scholar has issued a fatwa or religious opinion on the issue. “Uyghur persecution by China will not stop the Saudis’ engagement with China, nor even slow it down,” said prominent China scholar Yitzhak Shichor.
The Chinese effort to woo Saudi ethnic Turkic Chinese is being spearheaded by the United Front Work Department, the main Communist Party unit tasked with reaching out to key non-party groups in China and across the globe, including Saudi Arabia. In a recent speech, Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat and chairman of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, said,
“In January 2018…Politburo member and former Foreign Minister and State Counsellor Yang Jiechi told the National Overseas Chinese Conference that the government should expand and strengthen ‘Overseas Chinese Patriotic Friendly Forces’ in the service of the ‘Great Rejuvenation’ of the Chinese nation. In plain language, what this means is that overseas Chinese should be persuaded, induced, or in extremis, coerced, into accepting allegiance to China as at least part of their identity.”
Noting that the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office was incorporated two months after Mr. Yang’s remarks into the United Front Work Department, Mr. Kausikan added, “This is leading China into very complex, indeed dangerous, territory. China’s navigation of the complexities has in many cases been clumsy.” The policy, he said, had led Chinese diplomats to interfere openly in domestic politics, for example, in Malaysia.
“Since my retirement, I have travelled extensively in Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Complaints about similar behavior by Chinese diplomats and officials are all too common in all these regions; in fact, so common that it is becoming somewhat tiresome to listen to them,” Mr Kausikan said.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.