After 1949, Beijing's brutal pacification of Xinjiang -- a vast province in western China -- was almost completely ignored in the West for the next 40 years. Unlike other groups persecuted by China (such as the Tibetans), Xinjiang's Muslim inhabitants, the Uighurs, have had no charismatic, English-speaking spokesperson or unified exile organization; the Uighurs' few prominent exiles lived in Turkey, and they spent most of their time squabbling among themselves. Xinjiang thus rarely made it onto the agenda of foreign governments, and with the region largely closed to foreigners, few academics or human rights groups could study it.
Within the past decade, however, news from Xinjiang has started to seep out. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was suddenly confronted with newly independent neighbors in Central Asia -- states with close ethnic ties to the Turkic Uighurs. Uighurs began traveling to these Central Asian states, Pakistan, the Middle East, and even the United States, often returning to Xinjiang more determined than ever to fight for independence. Worried about growing Uighur separatism, Beijing tightened its control of Xinjiang, turning the region into the death-penalty capital of the world.
But unlike during past repressions, this time foreign governments and human rights organizations began to take notice -- partly because of China's greater openness, and partly because Central Asia had suddenly become an important energy producer. Massive oil deposits were found in the region -- Xinjiang itself is now known to have China's biggest petroleum reserves -- and foreign oil companies, with the backing of their respective
nations, arrived in Central Asia en masse. Germany, Iran, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and other new players began to increase their involvement in the region. Beijing, worried about losing its influence there, ramped up its own plans to develop western China as a bridge to Central Asia;
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