March 1, 2014, was China’s 9/11. That was the day Islamic Uighur terrorists slashed their way into the collective consciousness of the country’s ethnic Han majority.
That fateful day, a group of eight militants launched an attack at the main railway station in Kunming, Yunnan Province. Armed with long-bladed knives, they killed 29 people and wounded 143; four of the assailants were killed while the same number were arrested. The savage assault was attributed to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur group that supports the establishment of an East Turkestan state and has alleged ties to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. East Turkestan is the name many Uighurs prefer to use for their home province of Xinjiang referring to a short-lived state that existed in the 1940s before being incorporated by China in 1949.
In the aftermath of the Kunming massacre, Beijing ramped up its “war on terror” by escalating the same repressive policies that have been largely ineffective before the assault. Since then, there have been further deadly attacks in Xinjiang. Recent reports suggest the violence is spreading, not abating, and the Chinese government asserts that hundreds of Uighurs have joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (though experts believe the numbers are inflated).
The spate of Uighur attacks over the past 12 months suggests that Beijing’s hardline approach has been counterproductive, but authorities appear to be pinning their hopes on more of the same. The Kunming attack followed an October 2013 incident in which a car driven by a Uighur family careened into a crowded sidewalk adjacent to Tiananmen Square in Beijing before crashing and bursting into flames. State authorities believe these attacks signal that Uighur extremists are taking their fight outside their own region and organizing terrorist attacks in the Han heartland. Such brazen challenges to state authority have lead to stepped-up crackdowns that radicalize more Uighurs, generating a cycle of violence, but Beijing dismisses such criticisms as abetting the terrorists.
Since the early 2000s, China has been conducting what amounts to a Uighur counterinsurgency strategy under the pretext of supporting the war on terrorism launched by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In 2009, for example, violent clashes in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, left at least 200 — possibly 800 — dead, and 1,600 injured, most of them ethnic Han. In response, the security forces stepped up draconian measures that continue to feed local grievances and anti-Han sentiment among the Uighur population.
Beijing responds to criticism of its antiterrorist measures as typical of Western double standards, ignoring how ineffective this strategy has been: If harsh security measures are the answer to Islamic extremism, then Xinjiang should already be a peaceful place. The roots of unrest lie in flawed ethnic policies, not too few police, and in the massive surge of ethnic Han migrants into this beautiful wild-west region of deserts and mountains due to Xinjiang’s vast oil and gas potential.
Chinese officials explain that, by any measure, the Uighurs are far better off now than they were 20 years ago and they can’t quite understand why the people are angry and ungrateful. Xinjiang’s urban annual income doubled between 2000 and 2009, while rural incomes have tripled in the same time period. However, Uighur unemployment is high and Han now constitute 40 percent of Xinjiang’s population. Understandably, Uighurs resent that Han get the best jobs, best salaries and live relatively good lives.
In a country that has lost its moorings while experiencing tremendous socio-economic convulsions, nationalism is a reassuring and expedient ideology that creates a sense of unity among a people experiencing yawning disparities, environmental devastation, corruption and other abuses of power. The Communist Party has discovered a lifeline in nationalism, appealing to Han chauvinism to assert a dubious legitimacy. In such a context, non-Han Chinese face an accelerating threat to their way of life and identity.
Minority policies have done little to nurture inter-ethnic trust or address disparities in income, education and employment. Denigrating and condescending Han stereotypes about the Uighur are suffused with fear and betoken discrimination.
Thus, the Han have inadvertently reinforced little nationalisms, stoking antagonism through acts of cultural arrogance, ignorance and harsh oppression. The expansion of transport and communication networks has brought the fringes of China under ever-increasing Sinic sway, generating social frictions and cultural clashes that have become the new norm. Once-isolated minority groups have increasingly lost the protection of remoteness.
The crux of the problem involves increasing encroachment on the Uighurs’ cultural and religious practices and local desire to preserve a way of life threatened by Beijing’s Sinification policies. The way forward depends on reaching a political accommodation leading to meaningful autonomy, but the signs are not encouraging: Ilham Tohti, an economics professor and prominent advocate of nonviolence and moderate reform, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for inciting separatism. One Chinese dissident writer dubbed him the Uighurs’ Nelson Mandela.
With moderates such as Tohti ending up behind bars, it is no wonder that militancy is on the rise as more Uighurs give up hope. Beijing focuses on suppressing a small group of extremists, but they represent a symptom of the underlying problem of pent-up grievances related to the broader desire for self-rule and religious freedom. The reliance on harsh methods only radicalizes the situation and makes it a more extensive security problem as militants seek support and find inspiration in the Islamic State group, Central Asia, Pakistan and Turkey. As a result, both sides are cutting off options as they retreat into a cycle of escalating state and terrorist violence.
China’s problems in Xinjiang result from the absence of a strategy for wooing Uighurs, relying instead on a big stick and scrawny carrots. Locking Tohti away is the equivalent of shooting the messenger, but authorities are wrong to ignore his unwelcome message. The 46-year-old professor told the international media that the root cause of problems in Xinjiang is not separatism, arguing that suppression of everyday religious practice is spreading discontent and an upsurge in religious militancy. Islam is a touchstone of Uighur identity so banning students from fasting during Ramadan, wearing Muslim garb or growing beards — in addition to restrictions on religious teaching to children — antagonizes Uighurs who also resent limited Uighur-language education. These policies are seen as representing China’s efforts to extinguish Uighur culture and identity.
Contemporary Xinjiang thus presents a volatile mix of ethno-nationalism, heightened religious mobilization and escalating repression. Tohti’s fate is collateral damage from the Kunming tragedy. Alas, silencing his moderate voice only plays into the hands of those inclined to violence.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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