Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Terrorism in China?

Last Thursday, a man on a motorized tricycle threw an explosive into a group of people gathered on the street in Aksu, China, killing seven. The Chinese government says all of the victims were local residents and of differing ethnicities — an important detail. Aksu is located in China’s west, a province known as Xinjiang. Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, an ethnicity that has chafed, sometimes violently, against Beijing’s rule — and Beijing has sometimes manipulated the threat of terrorism to impose brutal crackdowns on the population.

The summer before the Beijing Olympic Games, the Chinese press was flooded with stories about the Chinese security services thwarting all these terrorist plots to attack the peaceful sports fans gathering to watch the games. In reality, much of the activity they oppressed that year wasn’t terrorism per se, but the workings of a separatist movement with legitimate grievances. Many Uighurs feel the Han Chinese in Beijing rule them unjustly and often describe Beijing impositions as “imperialism” because of a massive, government-subsidized influx of Han Chinese from the East. As a result, the eastern half of the province is now majority Han, when 50 years ago it was majority Uighur, much the same way Tibetans are now a slight minority in the Tibet Autonomous Region (as the Chinese call it). The Uighurs consider such moves “internal colonization.”

The Uighurs also accuse the Han of trying to suppress their culture: a 2005 paper by the East West Center details how China has used language instruction in school to undermine the foundations of Uighur culture and identity, and has painted all attempts to maintain or reestablish a Uighur culture in Xinjiang as terrorism. The Chinese are also officially opposed to non-approved religious expression, and monitor and harass the mosques and non-government religious clerics in the region. In such a setting, where the Han Chinese attack the Uighur language, culture, and religion, a violent clash is almost unavoidable.

Are they, or not?

In fairness to China, there are legitimate terrorist groups with ties to Xinjiang. One group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, is based in Waziristan, in Northwest Pakistan, and has stated its goal is the independence of East Turkestan (the Uighur name for Xinjiang), as well as the conversion of all of China to Islam. While the ETIM has been accused repeatedly of terrorism — and has been designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the UN and U.S. State Department, it is unclear how much terrorism they actually do. Dru Gladney, an expert on Uighur politics at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, has said few experts “had ever heard of” ETIM before China declared them a threat; similarly, Gladney noted that most information available on the group was traced back to Chinese sources, making “a real credibility gap” for gauging what threat they may pose.

China doesn’t help its case, either: they tar all Uighur-oriented groups with separatism and terrorism. One, the World Uighur Congress, is an international group of Uighur exiles and expatriates who advocate for non-violent opposition to Chinese rule (they allege Mao Zedong reneged on his promise to allow self-determination in the region when he formed the People’s Republic of China in 1950). China added the WUC to its list of known terrorist organizations in 2003 and accused its leadership of terrorism even though the government didn’t accuse them of doing anything besides protesting until 2009.

Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent Uighur businesswoman and political activist and president of the WUC, is in exile in the U.S. for having spoken out in favor of Uighur independence (Ms. Kadeer spent the majority of her life, coincidentally, in Aksu, the city where this most recent bombing took place). She became opposed to Han Chinese rule after several days of demonstrations and riots in Ghulja, a city in the extreme northwest of Xinjiang, near Kazakhstan. The Chinese authorities responded by executing 30 protesters, and instituted a campaign to repress Uighur culture, which they viewed as disunifying. Ms. Kadeer openly criticized the Chinese government, and was arrested, then eventually sent to the U.S. after international protests over her treatment.

Real troubles

Xinjiang is a restive place. In July last year, in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, protesters flooded the streets over the “Shaoguan incident,” a bar fight in Southeastern Guandong province that resulted in two dead Uighurs. Within 24 hours, the protest in Ürümqi turned into a riot, with crowds of angry people attacking Han Chinese people. The police responded with stunning brutality, killing hundreds of people in the process. Human Rights Watch documented at least 40 cases of Uighur men being “disappeared” from the city, whisked away by the police without charge or trial. During the international outcry over the Chinese government’s handling of the riots and aftermath, the Chinese government turned off the Internet in Xinjiang, refusing to restore it until May of this year.

This latest bombing in Aksu is, in many ways, another symptom of China’s dysfunctional relationship with Xinjiang and the Uighurs who live there. According to Chinese sources, the attack targeted a man leading a group of public security officials into an inspection of a majority Uighur area of the city. It’s possible that this was a terrorist attack, in the sense of being violence against civilians meant to affect some political change. It bears a striking resemblance to a similar attack on Chinese policemen in 2008 in the city of Kashgar, near the border with Afghanistan, which could mean there is a a growing pattern of violence against Chinese police officers in Xinjiang. But it’s equally likely that this was, in effect, the killing of a “snitch” (or maybe a race traitor) in retaliation for cooperating with the Chinese authorities.

Parsing motivations

Chinese intentions for Xinjiang are unclear. We do know they inflate the terrorist threat posed by Uighur organizations to justify their harsh treatment of Uighurs in general and people active in the independence movement in particular. At the same time, there is a legitimate fear of violence considering how often anger at Han Chinese rule in the area has exploded into attacks on civilian and government officials.

China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities, especially when that treatment seems to inspire terrorism as a coping mechanism, carries international implications. In May, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced his forces had killed Abdul Haq, a leader in the ETIM accused of working with al-Qaida, at the behest of the Chinese authorities, who generously fund Pakistan’s police forces. Malik asserted that the Uighurs had formed a “syndicate” with the militants in Pakistan’s northwest, who attack Pakistani cities and U.S. troops in Eastern Afghanistan. The Uighur detainees at Guantanamo, who were detained because Chinese authorities accused them of having ties to terrorist groups but were later cleared, could not be returned to China because of fears of their persecution, torture, even summary execution — creating an awkward situation for the U.S.

At the same time, the Uighurs are not some Borg-like unified political class. The various Uighur groups in Xinjiang clash with each other routinely over policies, positions and activities, and sometimes do so violently. Some are violently opposed to Han Chinese rule, it is true, but others, such as Ms. Kadeer, are nonviolently opposed, and advocate nonviolent solutions to the issue.

Nevertheless, until China recognizes legitimate Uighur grievances against their Xinjiang policies, it is unlikely the situation will shift much. Beijing continues to manipulate fears of terrorism — sometimes with American support — to justify its brutal repression of Uighur identity. As a result, many Uighurs feel they have no options left to them, since they feel that from inside Xinjiang, non-violence hasn’t worked. The social and political conditions have not fundamentally changed in either direction, in other words, so we can expect little beyond more reciprocal violence.

 

Comments

  • Weeger

    I don’t think the police patrolmen killed and injured in the Aksu attack were targeted because they were “race traitors”, but because they were seen as representative of the government. The victims of the Kashgar attack 2 years ago were all (or almost all) ethnic Chinese border police. And I do not in any way intend to justify this deadly attack, but it was very likely sparked by deep resentment in Aksu to intense religious restrictions put in place recently in the city (and the attack took place during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month).

    Rebiya Kadeer did not specifically advocate for the independence of Xinjiang while living there- as much as she could within the framework of the Communist Party system and the representative body she was a delegate in, she advocated for the end of political repression, economic discrimination, religious restrictions, and other inequalities in the region. Her public concern on these issues predates the unrest that took place in Ghulja in 1997, although this event and the way in which authorities treated her at this time certainly appears to have been a turning point in her efforts to change the system from within. She subsequently angered Chinese authorities by delivering a speech about the above-mentioned inequalities in front of the National People’s Congress, and it was not long after she delivered this speech that she was arrested (in 1999) and sentenced to prison.

    The “Shaoguan incident” was by no means a “bar fight”- it was a large-scale clash at a factory in the city involving large numbers of both Chinese workers and residents of the city from outside of the factory. Although the Chinese government said that only two Uyghurs were killed, and many more injured, independent sources, including Western media accounts, cast doubt on this figure and suggest that the number of Uyghurs killed was much higher than two. Uyghurs in Xinjiang were angered at what they perceived to be government inaction to condemn the attack and take action to punish the perpetrators.

    There really is no room for Uyghurs in Xinjiang to have any type of “independence movement”, and there is simply no forum for Uyghurs to clash with each other over policies and positions within the region- Uyghurs simply have no representative voice and are not allowed to build a civil society. In the wake of July 2009, even Uyghur webmasters are being given lengthy prison sentences.

    It is certainly true that the Chinese government should be doing more to “recognize legitimate Uighur grievances against … Xinjiang policies”. When Uyghurs are not even allowed to engage in dialogue on the Internet, or pray in their own homes, the Chinese government risks stifling moderate Uyghur voices and encouraging radicalization.

  • CaomengDe

    “Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, an ethnicity that has chafed, sometimes violently, against Beijing’s rule”

    I didn’t know that an entire ethnicity could chafe. Shows how little I know. Kinda like 1992 LA riot demonstrated that Blacks, an minority that has chafed, sometimes violently, against Washington’s rule. Hmm… I wonder if I could get a job writing for People’s Daily.

    Finally, I really love this gem

    “At the same time, the Uighurs are not some Borg-like unified political class.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SUOZNF3RPUFZDDCJDGFBYK6N2Y Manoj

    UN SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTIONS 38-40, AND PARTICULARLY THE RESOLUTION OF AUGUST 13, 1948, SAID THAT PAKISTAN HAD ATTACKED KASHMIR, AND ORDERED PAKISTAN TO WITHDRAW ITS FORCES AND ITS TRIBALS’. PAKISTAN HAS YET TO OBEY UN SECURITY COUNCIL AND WITHDRAW FROM LANDS (NOW CALLED POK, PAK-OCCUPIED-KASHMIR) CONTROLLED ILLEGALLY. PAKISTAN GAVE AWAY LARGE PART OF THE POK TO CHINA, WHICH NOW CLAIMS THOSE LANDS AS ITS OWN & THE CHINESE RAPE THEM LIKE XINGJIAN PROVINCE.

    True Record of Chinese atrocities in Tibet ””’
    Over 1.2 million Tibetans died as a direct result of Chinese atrocities.
    Over 6000 monasteries and institutes of learning have been destroyed.
    Precious Tibetan artifacts were vandalized and sold in Hong Kong markets.
    Over 7000 Tibetan religious and historical literature have been destroyed.
    Tibetans in Tibet are second class citizen without any basic Human Rights.
    Tibetan women (even KIDs) are subjected to gang RAPEs; forced abortion and sterilization by the chinese. 70% of Tibetans living in Tibet now are illiterate.
    Arbitrary arrests, torture, intimidation and imprisonment without trial for Tibetans in their country by the chinese. Tibet has been divided into different parts and incorporated with Chinese provinces, thereby removing the existing Tibetan identity.Thousands of Tibetans are still in prisons in China. Tibet’s natural resources and fragile ecology are irreversibly destroyed. 6 Million Tibetans have been outnumbered by 7.5 Million Han Chinese inducted into Tibet, causing Tibetans to be minorities in their own country. The above ways are also used against the Xinjiang Uyghurs’ by the Han Chinese.

    Xinjiang & Tibet are the two place where the Chinese make / develop nuclear weapons because if any nuclear accident occur, Uyghurs’ & Tibetans’ are the people who will suffer it all.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SUOZNF3RPUFZDDCJDGFBYK6N2Y Manoj

    Songs of protest—–
    IN A POPULAR TIBETAN SONG, TASHI DHONDUP SINGS OF BROKEN FAMILIES, CHINESE OCCUPATION, AND THE STERILIZATION OF THE TIBETAN RACE. THE ALBUM, “TORTURE WITHOUT TRACE,” WAS RELEASED AFTER RARE ANTI-CHINA PROTESTS SWEPT TIBET TWO YEARS AGO, LEAVING AS MANY AS 200 PEOPLE DEAD.
    DECHEN PEMBA, A BRITISH-BORN TIBETAN WHO PUBLISHES ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF TASHI DHONDUP’S SONGS ON THE BLOG HIGH PEAKS PURE EARTH, SAYS THE ALBUM BECAME AN INSTANT HIT.
    “TASHI DHONDUP’S SONGS WERE REALLY POPULAR AMONGST TIBETANS BECAUSE EVERYBODY HAD BEEN FEELING SO TRAUMATIZED AFTER THE EVENTS OF 2008 AND THE PROTESTS AND THE CRACKDOWN,” PEMBA SAYS. “THE SONG WAS PASSED AROUND THROUGH THE INTERNET. PEOPLE WERE USING THEIR MOBILE PHONES AND PLAYING THEM TO EACH OTHER AND PASSING THEM AROUND.”