The Trouble in Xinjiang: What Can We Learn from the Chinese “War on Terror”?

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In a land dominated by the second largest desert in the world, an almost alien landscape ringed by mountains whose glaciers run-off, creating temporary oases and underground flows, is the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The area is called East Turkestan by many of the Uighur people who call this part of the ancient Silk Road their home. It borders on eight countries, many of whom, like nearby Tajikstan, have significant ethnic and cultural ties to the Turkic Uighurs and are often minority populations themselves in the Autonomous Region.

If you had to use one word to describe traditional Uighur culture it would probably be colorful. From the knit caps worn by men and women alike to raucous dance music and the figurative representations often found on their world famous carpets, the everyday life of the Uighurs seems far from the austere Wahabbism of the nearby Afghan Taliban. Many are Sufis, practitioners of the mystical school of Islam, and the crib-like shrines to their saints dot the desert landscape, some of the most famous of which are now officially under the protection of the Chinese government.

Despite this, the central government in Beijing has long claimed that their country is a victim of terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda inspired Uighur militants.  One attack, more widely reported on in the west than others, took place on October 28th, 2013. A Uighur man crashed his car in Tiananmen Square and set the vehicle on fire, killing 5 people. His wife and mother in law died alongside him in the flames.

Incidents like these, including a series of knife attacks in which the attackers used traditional Uighur daggers to massacre dozens of people, have been used by the Chinese government to create a fear in the population that should be familiar to many in the west. This is not to deny the tragedy that killers like these leave in their wake, but reports of relatives (including children) of attackers being targeted for reprisal by the state are both counterproductive and worrying in the extreme. That policies advocated by the Chinese government with its less than stellar human rights record are so close to those of the frontrunner for the Republican Party nomination for President should probably worry Americans of all political stripes.

There is obviously precedent for governments around the world using the perceived threat of terrorism to pursue other agendas. Whether it is the GW Bush administration pushing a war against Al Qaeda in secular Iraq or Russia decimating Chechnya, there is plenty of blame to go around. In the case of Chechnya, the similarities to Xinjiang are striking and should give authorities pause; what started as a call for independence there became more and more Islamist in character as Russian repression increased

In terms of Xinjiang, it isn’t as if the People’s Republic hasn’t been clear for decades about what it perceives to be its territory and how it feels about separatists, just ask the people of Tibet  As Dilxat Rexit, a spokesman for The World Uighur Congress told the UK Independent, “China is opportunistically using its wealth to advance their repression of human rights globally… China is also using the recent attacks in Paris and California to get western countries to turn its back on human rights.”

Critics like this also contend that the Chinese government employs a double standard in regard to terrorism and it does appear that the term is used almost exclusively to describe Uighur violence but not that of Han Chinese (including a mail bomber who killed 10 people and a series of suicide bomb attacks in Shandong) which are usually blamed on mental illness. This has parallels with the way mainstream media portrays similar violence in the west: just look at the coverage given in the American press to the San Bernadino shooters as opposed Robert Dear, who attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado the week before.

In the latter case, the media generally portrayed the gunman as mentally ill, he was even described in the New York Times as a “gentle loner“. In the San Bernardino case, many in the American media, in their eagerness to tie the degenerates who killed 14 people to ISIS, insisted that social media posts proved a non-existent connection. Unfortunately, the retractions came after the Republican candidates for President hammered home the theme in a GOP Presidential debate, ramping up their base’s feelings of being under siege.

One major problem with news reports from Xinjiang (and China generally) is that there are often different sets of biases at play whether the story comes from Chinese or foreign media. Another is that many of the groups that target the Chinese government for their ongoing rights abuses receive their funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an organization mostly funded by the US government and known as much for being a Trojan horse for the country’s foreign policy goals as a promoter of human rights.

On the other hand, it is telling that Chinese media often use the terms “separatist” and “terrorist” interchangeably. This framing denies the legitimate grievances of the Uighur people who, when not portrayed as terrorists, are often seen as some kind of quaint relic to be exploited for tourism. The Chinese government showed further contempt for their religious sensitivities by banning fasting during Ramadan in the region last year.

This restriction followed years of Uighurs being denied education in their own language and looked over in terms of job opportunities in favor of Han Chinese. A new wave of Han migrants have been drawn to Xinjiang, a place that has become even more strategically important to the central government as oil, gas and coal have been found there in recent years. These more recent migrants have changed the region’s demographics, making the Uighurs a minority in what they have long considered their homeland.

Along the same lines, Beijing also seems to be encouraging Hui Muslims, the largest Muslim group in China, who are ethnically Han, to emigrate to the Tibetan Autonomous Region, another part of the country torn by what the central government calls “splitists”. This policy has increased violence in that area much as in Xinjiang, if in different ways and for different reasons.

A Turkish Connection

One doesn’t have to look very far to see other groups who have fought or are fighting similar battles for recognition. Consider Turkey’s Kurds,.who were denied not only language rights but even the right to claim a distinct culture for most of the 20th century (and oppressed in similar ways in Syria, Iraq and Iran as well). These kinds of policies will inevitably radicalize some people and a smaller fraction of these can become committed to using violence, whether the motive is independence or simple revenge.

The initial struggle of the Uighurs may have been more nationalist than religious in nature but outside actors in Pakistan and Afghanistan have no doubt spread the Islamist message to this disenfranchised community. It’s not hard to imagine Chinese officials lying awake at night contemplating the nightmare of an ISIS affiliate appearing in northwestern China. If it is true that many Uighur militants are appearing in Syria, this becomes a more distinct possibility.

Among the many revelations provided by the great investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in a recent article in the London Review of Books was that Turkey, a NATO country, is facilitating the migration of Uighurs to the battlefields of Syria. As one analyst explained to the reporter, “Erdogan has been bringing Uighurs into Syria by special transport while his government has been agitating in favor of their struggle in China. Uighur and Burmese Muslim terrorists who escape into Thailand somehow get Turkish passports and are then flown to Turkey for transit into Syria.”

It’s possible that Turkey’s use of these Uighur refugees is not wholly directed at the Chinese. It could be part of an effort to resettle ethnic Turkic people to act as a buffer against the Syrian Kurdish YPG, especially along the two countries’ shared border which has provided vital supply lines to forces opposed to Syria’s government, including ISIS, since the civil war began in 2011. Although there are stories of these immigrants over-running whole villages in Syria the single report I found when researching this story is not enough to prove these suspicions.

It is an oft noted irony of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that, as the world becomes more globalized in the economic sense, the struggles of smaller nationalities for autonomy or outright separation from larger states has become more pronounced. This is not only true in places like Xinjiang where these dreams are extinguished with cries of terrorism followed by further repression, but also in places like Catalonia and Scotland, where historical injustices have simmered for centuries. In almost every case these dreams for local control can be deferred, history will show if they can be denied and, in the case of China’s Uighurs, at what cost.

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