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.
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.
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.