What's behind China's Xinjiang problem?

Graph for What's behind China's Xinjiang problem?

A worker helps a man at the scene of a deadly terrorist attack at Kunming railway station last Saturday night. EPA/SUI

Kunming in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan is known as the city of eternal spring. Its tranquillity was shattered last Saturday night when Islamic militants from the restive Xinjiang province hacked 29 people to death and maimed a further 143 people.

Assailants reportedly wore black robes with imprints of the crescent and star, a symbol of Eastern Turkestan, the Uighur name for the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The attack was organised and took place just a day before the formal opening of the Chinese parliament and three months after a suicide attack in Beijing at the heart of Tiananmen Square which killed two tourists.

Let’s be clear about it: this was an act of terrorism. The senseless violence against innocent civilians including women and children could not be described as anything but an act of terror. Bloodied images of victims have been circulated widely on websites as well as TV and they have provoked both outrage as well as fear.

Sporadic outbursts of violence in Xinjiang have become ever more frequent and deadly since the 2009 riot in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang which saw 197 civilians dead. The city has become the Belfast of China, where Han Chinese and Uighur have retreated to their quarters and sectarian hatred will take years, if not generations, to heal.

Now the violence has spilled over beyond Xinjiang. Experts regard the suicide attack in Beijing last November as the turning point of the battle against terrorism in China.

The bigger question we need to ask is why there is an escalation of violence emanating from Xinjiang, the home to more than 10 million Turkic-speaking Muslims who have long agitated for more autonomy and even independence from Beijing. 

Answers, as you may expect, are complicated. Historically speaking, Xinjiang, which means New Dominion, has always been a restive place plagued with rebellions against Chinese emperors. The region was finally subdued by the collective effort of three eighteenth century Manchu emperors -- Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong -- and was made an imperial province a century later.

Their campaigns are meticulously discussed in American historian Peter Perdue’s masterpiece “China marches west: The Qing conquest of Central Eurasia.” When the Qing Empire was in its terminal decline, Yaqub Beg successfully staged a rebellion and created an independent khanate in Kashgar that lasted 13 years.

More recently, two “Eastern Turkistan Republics” arose in the 1930s and 1940s to challenge their Han Chinese overlords. Both movements were short-lived and were either quashed through military means or surrendered after pressure from Moscow, which supported the second Republic in the 1940s, according to Frederick Starr’s seminal book on Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland.

Though Xinjiang has the highest per capita GDP of any province outside the booming coast thanks to the region’s rich endowments in resources such as coal and petroleum, economic benefits are spread unevenly. While the capital city Urumqi is an example of a glittering modern city (think of it as the Houston or Perth of China), the southern part of the region is populated by Uighur who still live in abject poverty.

Infant mortality, HIV epidemics, crime and unemployment plague the local Uighur population as they watch their Han Chinese neighbours grow rich. Language barriers, lack of education and discrimination from Han Chinese employers all contribute to the Uighur’s difficulty of integrating into China’s booming economy.

The marginalisation of the Uighur people in China’s national economic life is a major contributing factor to the local population’s discontent with Beijing. It is understandable that Uighur feel the benefits of Xinjiang’s rich resources have been denied to them.

Unemployment has driven many idle young Uighur to Chinese cities in search of better opportunities and many of them have turned to petty crime. This has further exacerbated the tension between Han Chinese and Uighur. Chinese tabloid press is filled with stories about thieves from Xinjiang.

Last but not least, the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Central Asia and Xinjiang’s neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan is visibly changing the more moderate brand of Islam practiced in Xinjiang. Many Uighur men and women are ditching their traditional costumes in favour of hijab, burqa and thobe.

There are reports that Uighur men have travelled to Syria and Afghanistan to join the jihad. A group of Uighur was captured by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and detained in Guantanamo Bay for nearly a decade before being released. Kyrgyz border guards also recently killed 11 Uighur militants after an intense gun battle.

The religious tension in the region is further exacerbated by Beijing’s heavy-handed religious policy. In order to stamp out radical Islam, poorly-educated and ignorant local cadres are trying to root out normal religious activities such as reading the Koran at home. As a result, many cultural muslims are turning to more fundamentalist wahhabism as a form of protest and asserting their own identity.

These acts of terror will test Beijing’s policy towards Xinjiang, a restive province that is one sixth of its land area and home to more than 10 million Turkic speaking and agitated Muslims who have long fought for their own homeland.  

Follow Peter Cai on Twitter: @peteryuancai
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