On Saturday, March 1, more than 10 assailants slashed scores of people with knives at the Kunming train station in Yunnan province in southern China in what state media said Sunday was a terrorist assault by ethnic Uyghur (also spelled as Uighur) separatists from the far west. Twenty-nine slash victims and four attackers were killed and 143 people wounded.
Most attacks blamed on Uyghur (a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people) separatists take place in China’s oil-rich and ethnically sensitive far-western Chinese province of Xinjiang (formerly known as East Turkestan), where clashes between ethnic Uyghurs and members of China’s ethnic Han majority are frequent. But Saturday’s assault happened more than 1,000 kilometers to the southeast in Yunnan, which has not had a history of such unrest.
In July 2009, Xinjiang experienced violence between Uyghurs and Han Chinese (China’s ethno-national majority). Media reported that more than 100 people were killed and 800 injured from the disturbance which broke out in the provincial capital, Urumqi. The disturbances occurred after a year of rising tensions between the dominant Han Chinese authorities and the Uyghur ethnic minority – the historical ethnic majority in Xinjiang – who say they have been socially and economically marginalized by Beijing’s policies that introduce ‘domestication’ – or more properly Hanification (Sinicization) – of the region.
On August 4, 2008, four days before the start of the Beijing Olympics, two ethnic Uyghurs drove a stolen dump truck into a group of some 70 Chinese border police – accused of brutally repressing the indigenous people – in the town of Kashi in Xinjiang, killing at least 16 of the officers. The attackers carried knives and home-made explosive devices.
In recent months, more than 100 Uyghurs have been shot and killed by armed police officers or soldiers. Exile groups attribute much of the bloodshed to security forces who they say have been given a green light to use excessive force, including against unarmed protesters.
The violence in Kunming came at a sensitive time as political leaders in Beijing prepared for Wednesday’s opening of the annual legislature where the government of President Xi Jinping will deliver its first one-year work report.
Learning the truth about such incidents is difficult. Except for the government version of events, the subject is off limits to the domestic news media. Foreign journalists cannot freely report in the region.
The Saturday’s violence, if it is truly done by Uyghur separatists, show that they could be changing tactics and aiming to strike at soft targets elsewhere in China. The use of rudimentary weaponry also shows that such attacks do not appear linked to any global terrorist network.
Ethnic riots do not occur in vacuum. So the questions are what is fueling the separatist movement in Xinjiang, a region which until recently had appeared like a black hole in the Asian landmass? Why have some young Uyghurs, a minority group comprising roughly half the population of Xinjiang province, lost trust in the state and its institutions? What causes have contributed to the anti-Chinese campaign – both violent and non-violent – by young Uyghurs? Has the Uyghur unrest anything to do with radicalization along religious line, the al-Qaeda variety that we have noticed in some parts of the Muslim world in the post-9/11 era?
To understand the reason, the history of the region can be our starting point. Just as Soviet Union had been formed from the heterogeneous territories of the Russian Czarist Empire, what we call People’s Republic of China (PRC) today is similarly inherited lands conquered by the Manchu Qing dynasty before its collapse in 1911. Only in the 1760s the Qing generals were able to conquer East Turkestan incorporating it as Xinjiang (meaning: New Dominion), reflecting the imperial perspective; but their rule was repeatedly broken. They lost the region to Ya’qub Beg (Bek) in the 19th century. General Zou’s re-conquest did not survive the collapse of the imperial court at the beginning of the 20th century, and full control passed on to the Chinese only in 1949.
Despite a harsh landscape and climate, “Xinjiang has a rich past: sand-buried cities, painted cave shrines, rare creatures, and wonderfully preserved mummies of European appearance. Their descendants, the Uyghurs, still farm the tranquil oases that ring the dreaded Taklamakan, the world’s second largest sand desert, and the Kazakh and Kirghiz herdsmen still roam the mountains,” writes Christian Tyler.
The PRC calls it Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) because of its Uyghur population. Mao tried to sell the Marxist-Leninist thought to the ethnic problem. Not only did the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) fail but Mao’s social engineering of the Turkis (Uyghurs) was highly destructive and led to the widespread discrimination and segregation prevalent today. The Communists developed it as a penal colony, as a nuclear testing ground and dumping ground for radioactive wastes (that is responsible for unusually high birth defects and mortality rate amongst the inhabitants) and as a buffer against invasion, and as a supplier of raw materials and living space for an overpopulated country.
Determined to end the push and pull of centuries, Mao’s successors have resorted to Sinicization (i.e., Hanification) of the region. They have changed the demography of the region by settling Han Chinese from other parts. They have curtailed the region’s millennium-plus-years old rich Muslim culture and are practicing widespread religious repression against the ethnic Uyghurs. They have conducted forced abortion on Uyghur women. They have closed down Qur’anic and Uyghur language schools to cut down their Islamic and cultural ties with other Muslims. Because of the Mandarin-based educational policy of the state, the Uyghurs can’t pass and find jobs in their own land. The party-state has institutionalized discrimination based on Uyghur’s distinct religion, habitus, physiognomy, language culture and socioeconomic status. In so doing, they have only widened the gap between the settlers and the indigenous inhabitants.
Consequently, what the PRC sees as its property, the Uyghurs regard as theft by an alien occupier. In its revisionist attempt, the Chinese government has tried to falsify history and portray the Uyghurs as part of the great family of the Chinese nations and asserts that Xinjiang has been an integral part of Chinese national territory since the ancient times. Uyghurs reject such a mischaracterization of both their people and their homeland maintaining that they are a distinct ethnic group with its distinct history, geography, language, culture and tradition. They have neither accepted Chinese occupation nor their incorporation into the Chinese nation-state.
Uyghurs have no political representation in the PRC government. Top CCP party officials at all levels in Xinjiang have been overwhelmingly Han Chinese. The text books present a very slanted history of the region. Recorded expressions of dissent, criticism or discontent are thwarted. All mass media, including electronic, are censored. Every poem, song, short story, essay and novel must pass through a battery of censors before being published, which can be banned later if deemed ‘harmful’ to the state. Uyghur intellectuals face constant surveillance and imprisonment. On January 15 of this year Professor Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur scholar who has taught at Beijing’s Minzu University was taken away by police on unspecified charges. He was one of the few Chinese citizens willing to openly criticize the government policies he said were alienating young Uyghurs: religious restrictions, education policies that favor Mandarin over the Uyghur language and economic development that disproportionately benefits newly arrived Han migrants. In 2009 Professor Tohti was held for around six weeks without charge during a flare-up of violence in Xinjiang. Last year, he was barred from boarding a plane in Beijing to accept a teaching position at Indiana University in an episode that was criticized by the U.S. government and others.
In the last few decades Beijing’s concerted Hanification efforts (i.e., to Sinicize Xinjiang) have only planted unfathomed mistrust and widened the animosity between the Uyghurs and the Han settlers. Tension has led to violence and brutal reprisals.
The result is further militarization of the Xinjiang region and establishment of aggressive global network against the Uyghur separatists. In the mid-1990s, there were frequent security searches and low-level operations named as the “Strike Hard” campaigns by the Chinese security forces, aiming at arresting known, suspected or potential violent separatists- a pattern that would be repeated well into the next decade. Many of the Uyghurs were caught up in these security campaigns. These operations did not make life easier for many innocent Uyghurs, and instead radicalized them to vent their anger against the Han Chinese settlers. Chinese intelligence agents are also suspected in the mysterious death of many exiled Uyghurs.
In the post-9/11 period, the CCP leadership tried to (1) associate the Uyghur separatist struggle for self-determination as terrorism both to its Chinese people and global audience, and (2) pressure the US to view the movement as an al-Qaeda linked terrorist organization in its global war on terror. It was able to fool some but not all.
In his well-researched book – The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land – Gardner Bovingdon has shown that Uyghur resistance to Chinese rule is prompted by nationalism and not Islam. China’s Nation-building experiment has succeeded in her core province but not in peripheral regions that were annexed and had very little in common with China. Simply put: in spite of decades of programming, China’s nation-building project has miserably failed in China’s far west – Xinjiang and Tibet. As much as the Chinese government is trying to construct its aggressive nation-building the Uyghurs and Tibetans are trying to deconstruct that myth through their resistance movement and in so doing raising new claims of nationhood of their peoples.
Uyghurs will not be satisfied with anything less than a substantial expansion of autonomy in Xinjiang, which allows them to get educated in their own language and find jobs that are meaningful to support their families, and allows them a bigger share of the regional administration and economy. Sadly, China’s leaders show no sign of compromise, and in fact, appear to do just the opposite further marginalizing the Uyghurs in their own land in every respect. This Chinese policy is suicidal and absurd.
The world recognizes that if the people of one nation do not want to co-habit in the same polity because of widespread persecution, repression and discrimination, then partition should not be automatically neglected as a viable solution. This might be one way to manage the Uyghurs’ (who are a nation by any definition) legitimate demands for political space. But the road is still wide open for a political solution: either separation or consociation. The latter can be a good model for China, if the Chinese leadership has the wisdom, sincerity of intent and purpose.
Xinjiang desperately needs inter-ethnic peace because there has already been too much blood shedding. The longer the global community keeps silent on the question of the Uyghurs without adopting any measures to seek justice for them, the stronger the polarizations would happen along ethnic and religious fault-lines, particularly among the poor Uyghurs – who already find them relegated in all aspects, and the nastier may be the consequences for global peace and regional security, because such a global indifference and/or impotence may persuade some Uyghurs to further radicalize along powerful Islamic symbols, further swelling the links, which have hitherto been weak, with transnational Muslim radicals who are not afraid of death.
The Uyghurs currently lack military or organizational resources that would facilitate their legitimate struggles for self-determination. The Chinese control appears complete and has succeeded in denying all those tools and resources to reaching the Uyghur separatists. They are also trying to strip Uyghurs of rhetorical weapons. Such an all-out policy to squelching dissidence completely may prove imprudent and inane in our time when nationalistic feelings are proving to be important.
Only time would tell how long China’s coercion policy will succeed to stem nationalistic feelings of the Uyghur people. If PRC is serious about nation-building it must change its failed strategy, which relies on strong arm tactics of coercion and not on integration where Uyghurs and other nationalities feel equal and welcome in this multi-national, -religious, -ethnic country that refuses to learn from the Soviet and Balkan experience.
About the authors: Dr. Siddiqui is an author of 13 books and a human rights and peace activist. Dr. Imtiyaz teaches Chinese politics and ethnic conflict in the Asian Studies/Political Science Department at Temple University, Philadelphia, USA.