Written by Yitzhak Shichor.

Before 1990, Chinese academic journals rarely published articles on Pan-Turkism – usually once a year or less. However, from 1991 through 2014, some 1,332 articles on Pan-Turkism were published in China, reaching 109 in 2012 – an average of two publications every week. This dramatic upsurge is intriguing, given that since long before the beginning of the 21st century, Pan-Turkism had been practically dead as a politically active movement, and it was by no means a security risk or threat to any country, let alone China. Motivated by the Russian expansion into the Caucasus, Pan-Turkism had emerged in the second half of the 19th century as an attempt to unite all Turkic people along the Silk Road – from the Mediterranean in the west to China in the east. Though not originally an Ottoman idea, it was soon adopted by the Ottoman Empire, not only as a tool against Russian colonialism but also as an excuse for its own expansion.

Short-lived, Pan-Turkism was undermined by the emergence of Turkish nationalism following the 1908 revolution, by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following its defeat in World War I, and by the consolidation of Soviet rule over Central Asia. No longer an active political movement, Pan-Turkism survived as a vision, a memory, and an ideology among Turkish intellectuals and right-wing radicals. Even at its peak, in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Pan-Turkism had a modest impact on China, although for a while, it penetrated Xinjiang – populated overwhelmingly by Turkic-Muslim nationalities. Ottoman archives reflect the extensive correspondence between the Sultan and local Central Asian leaders, in particular Yaqub Beg, who had rebelled against China, set up an ‘independent’ kingdom in Kashgar in the 1860s and 1870s, received military and financial aid from the Sultan and recognised his ultimate authority and sovereignty over Kashgar, an integral part of China’s Qing Empire.

Following the suppression of Yaqub Beg’s rebellion, the influence of Pan-Turkism in northwest China – which had been marginal in any case – declined further, and practically ended when the Chinese Communists occupied Xinjiang in October 1949. Exchanges between China and Central Asia continued through the 1950s during the Sino-Soviet alliance, but the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations afterwards sealed the borders. Whatever had remained of Pan-Turkism was now cut off from China for thirty years, from around 1960 to around 1990. In fact, Chinese scholars wrote that Pan-Turkism had “stayed basically in a state of hibernation” [zhefu zhuangtai] since World War II. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent independence achieved by the Central Asian states led to the resurgence of Pan-Turkism, although still more as a vision than a political agenda. While a few Turkish right-wingers revived the issue of Pan-Turkism and efforts were made to restore Turkey’s dominant role in Central Asia and along China’s western borders, these attempts have failed. Turkey was too weak to compete politically, economically and militarily with other claimants such as Iran, Russia, and China. Objectively, Pan-Turkism is by no means a threat to China, yet subjectively, Beijing behaves as if it is.

These developments, exacerbated by the newly opened borders between China and its Central Asian neighbours, coincided with, or triggered, a series of violent confrontations between Xinjiang’s Turkic minorities (primarily the Uyghurs) and Chinese authorities. It was these incidents that led to the wave of publications (published since the early 1990s) not only on ‘separatist tendencies’ in Xinjiang and among the Uyghurs, but also on Pan-Turkism. These studies, almost without exception, underline the linkage between Pan-Turkism (and Pan-Islam) and instability in Xinjiang and Central Asia since the 1990s – primarily in terms of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism. Associated with Pan-Turkism, these ‘three evils’ have become the primary target of the Shanghai Five – organised by Beijing in 1996 and expanded and renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001 – and reflect much of China’s perceptions of Pan-Turkism, to this very day.

Beijing’s concern about the perceived revival of Pan-Turkism originates primarily in the end of the Cold War, which weakened the superpowers’ ability, or willingness, to restrain regional conflicts and external disruptive influences. Consequently, Turkey, mainly under Turgut Özal (prime minister 1983-1989, president 1989-1993), began to promote Pan-Turkism in Central Asia by increasing investments, providing loans and aid, expanding trade, funding the establishment of schools and, very effectively, using its media services. While Beijing is careful not to associate Turkey with Pan-Turkism directly (the Chinese term, fantojuezhuyi, derives from Tujue, an ancient Central Asia tribe, and not from the name Turkey, Tuerqi), there is little doubt that it holds Turkey responsible for promoting Pan-Turkism. “The Chinese Government showed its utmost discontent (jida buman) towards Turkey’s promotion of Pan-Turkism in the regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus.”

In fact, Turkey, with its cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious and geographical links to Central Asia, is regarded by Beijing as a proxy of the Western countries headed by the United States, which offer “secret support” for spreading Pan-Turkism in Central Asia. This support aims at seizing control over Central Asia and its strategic resources (oil, gas, uranium) and at undermining the interests of Russia, Iran and China. A principal cause for Beijing’s concern about the threat of Pan-Turkism is the long border (over 3,300km) it shares with Central Asia that serves as a corridor – a new Silk Road – to West Asia and Europe, and whose stability is vital for China’s security and economic growth; not to mention that more than half of Xinjiang’s population consists of Turkic ethnicities with extensive cultural, economic and religious connections to their kin across the border.

Despite all of these concerns, Beijing believes that Pan-Turkism has no future because it threatens the regional and international order and, therefore, will be rejected by most states. Thus, Central Asia’s countries themselves have become disillusioned about the fanaticism (kuangre) of Pan-Turkism and would by no means trade their newly gained independence for a “Turkic Union” – having experienced the Soviet Union. Moreover, Uyghurs, and other Turkic nationalities, have not always seen eye to eye with Turkey – and necessarily so. They are concerned about being assimilated into the Turkish nation, which is occasionally perceived as undermining their particular identity. Also, Beijing assumes that Russia would block the spread of Pan-Turkism which erodes its stability and territorial integrity as well as its trade and economic interests in Central Asia. Iran is also perceived as “strongly opposing” Pan-Turkism because it “threatens the existence of Iran as a country and a nation” (a quarter of whose population is Turkic) and whose leaders “detest Pan-Turkism and spare no efforts to resist it”.

Most Chinese analyses agree that Pan-Turkism is doomed to failure and is an episode in the progress of world history that provides no solution to ethnic conflicts. If this is the case, why are the Chinese so preoccupied by Pan-Turkism? Some answers are provided by the Chinese themselves. For one, they admit that Pan-Turkism will not disappear in the near future and that it will look for a chance to use international crises and downturns to strike again. For another, while political Pan-Turkism may not be realised, cultural Pan-Turkism will continue to develop so as to exploit emerging opportunities in order to infiltrate those marginal regions where ideological and legal systems are weak and cannot be controlled by governments. But there are other explanations for China’s so-called concern about Pan-Turkism. One has to do with Beijing’s response to potential rather than actual crises and its tendency to inflate threats – domestic, regional and global – and act in proportion to their perceived future and potential implications, not to their real and actual ones. The other explanation is that it is convenient for China to inflate the threat of Pan-Turkism and separatism in order to justify and legitimise its pressure on Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, and to continue its crackdown and suppression policies. Given its prospering relations with Turkey (considered China’s strategic partner) it is hardly conceivable that Beijing regards Pan-Turkism as a threat, now or, much less likely, in the future. It is, however, being manipulated to promote China’s domestic, regional and international interests; it has been used as a pretext – yet, an out of context one.

Yitzhak Shichor is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Asian Studies, University of Haifa. Image credit CC by Yunsheng/Flickr