China shaken by Muslim revolt in Xinjiang

By Ameen Izzadeen
On Thursday, May 22, China was shaken by a twin suicide bombs. At least 31 people were killed and some 100 injured when Uighur separatists threw explosives and ploughed two off-road vehicles through a crowd in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region where its policy of creating a ‘harmonious society’ is going awfully off road. Last Thursday’s attacks were China’s deadliest in memory and probably a harbinger for worse to come.
As China takes giant strides in world politics with phenomenal economic growth that has helped the once sleeping giant to stand up and be counted as a rising military power, the troubles in Xinjiang, once a Muslim majority region, threaten to retard its forward march. With China flexing its muscles to annex disputed islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, turning almost all its neighbours into virtual enemies, Xinjiang could become a venue to settle scores – like Iraq and Syria have become. Like flies to the honey pot, China’s enemies could perch on the troubled region, if they have not already done so. Last Thursday’s twin suicide attacks, the suicide attack a week before on Urumqi’s railway station, a series of knife attacks in public places in recent weeks and months, and a car bomb blast in Beijing in October last year indicate a possible link between Uighur separatists and al-Qaeda type groups or foreign intelligence agencies who use such terror groups to achieve political goals.
But China instead of addressing the grievances of the Uighur people who number more than 10.2 million, has adopted a military-cum-developmental approach to deal with the situation. But the policy has only backfired. According to AFP, even China’s Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling party and normally takes a nationalistic tone, acknowledged in an editorial last Friday that “policy errors in the course of history partly contributed to the current plight”.
The way forward for China is reconciliation and peace.
Reconciliation, unlike war, does not kill. As many wars end with calls for reconciliation, should not China think it prudent to start reconciliation and avoid war’s horrors which, apart from causing deaths, make those who survive living dead? But reconciliation should not be a strategy or the continuation of power politics by other means — as Carl Von Clausewitz would describe war — to suppress the weak, in this case the Uighur people. It should produce a win-win situation for the Uighurs, who seek more autonomy, and for the mighty Chinese government, which seeks to browbeat the Uighurs into submission, by stepping up its demographic engineering process that has drastically reduced the Uighur population strength from 60 per cent some 20 years ago in Xinjiang to 45 per cent today.
Reconciliation efforts have a better chance to succeed if confidence-building measures aimed at winning the trust of the other side precede and continue throughout the process. But often calls for reconciliation ahead of a conflict or even in the nascent stages of a conflict are scornfully dismissed by the powerful as dreams of idealist fools.
Reconciliation efforts accompanied by a threat of violence if the weak do not comply produce only the peace of the graveyard, for reconciliation is built on cooperation — not coercion.
But China sees coercion as the way to deal with the unrest in Xinjiang, which is a vital strategic link in China’s plans to strengthen its economic ties with oil-and-gas rich Central and West Asia and markets in Europe. China has built a pipeline that brings Kazakhstan’s oil from Caspian shore to Xinjiang. Pipelines are also being built to bring oil and gas from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to Xinjiang, which borders eight countries — Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. A key region even during the heydays of Silk Road trade two millennia ago, Xinjiang assumes more strategic value as it is to be the hub of China’s network of highways that are being planned or built to link up with key ports such as Gwadar in Pakistan and markets in Europe. Last week as China was rocked by the suicide bomb attacks, Beijing and Moscow signed a US$ 400 billion deal that will bring Russia’s gas to China probably via Xinjiang. Moreover, India has also shown interest in buying more Russian oil and gas and has drawn up plans for a joint project with Russia to build a pipeline via the troubled Chinese province.
With Xinjiang being such a strategically important region, China cannot afford to let it be engulfed in war flames with foreign elements likely to fuel and use the troubles in the region to check China’s growth.
Just as many militaries that are tasked to bring internal separatist struggles to an early end resort to harsh measures, China’s military, too, has opted for a disproportionate response to teach the Uighurs a lesson never to be forgotten. On Monday, Beijing announced the launch of a year-long anti-terror offensive in Xinjiang which it describes as a “major battleground”.
China believes that military repression together with economic development that promises to improve the living standards of the province’s people would end the troubles — with Uighurs agreeing to co-exist with the Han Chinese who are being settled in Xinjiang in large numbers with state patronage. Like China many nations that have faced cries for more political autonomy from regions have resorted to such tactics but have achieved only limited success. This is no reconciliation. In China’s Xinjiang, previous military crackdowns have only exacerbated the problem despite the massive economic projects.
Analysts say China’s military response and authoritarian rule without a political will towards reconciliation have radicalised the Uighur people. The Uighurs say their Islamic culture and Turkik language are under threat and complain that the Han Chinese are taking their jobs, and that their farmland has been confiscated on the pretext of development. Human rights groups say Muslim schoolgirls and women in Xinjiang have come under attack for wearing hijab. They are denied government jobs. Those who protest harassment to Muslim women are arrested on charges of anti-government activities or promoting separatism or terrorism.
Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson says that apart from restrictions on hijab, there are restrictions about who can say prayers at weddings, who can fast during Ramadan and who can grow beards. But China denies such allegations and accuses exiled Uigher leaders like Rebiya Kadeer of spreading false reports about China. Kadeer in a statement condemned last week’s terror attacks. She said: “Violence against civilians is unacceptable and my heartfelt condolences reach out to the victims’ families…. In spite of the Chinese government’s policy of repressing all kinds of dissent in East Turkestan by brute force, the vast majority of Uighur people still believe in achieving their freedom, democracy and human rights by peaceful means.”
Often Uighurs arrested for even calling for more cultural freedom or political autonomy, instead of separation, are brought before public trials in stadiums where relatives of the suspects are forced to applaud when they are found guilty. Among those arrested was Ilham Tohti, an internationally known Uighur academic. Regarded as a voice of moderation, Tohti is facing treason charges for calling for more political autonomy short of independence.
The Uighurs ran an independent state during the early part of the 20th century. When China came under Communist rule in 1949, it was forcibly annexed as part of China, just as Tibet was.
Since the takeover, the Uighurs have been demanding more political autonomy and resisting the Chinese government’s policy of encouraging large scale migration by the Han Chinese. With Islamic groups in newly independent Central Asian countries launching armed campaigns to gain power after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Uighur campaign for autonomy took a turn towards militancy. Several Uighur fighters were among those arrested in Afghanistan by the invading Americans in 2001.
In 2009, some 200 people died when ethnic riots broke out in Xinjiang, which Uighur activists call East Turkestan. Since then Uighur separatists who operate from bases in mountainous regions in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have killed scores of Chinese officials. But last week’s suicide bombs sent a message to Beijing: Brace for mass scale and indiscriminate terror attacks. In March, a suspected Uighur terrorist stabbed to death 29 people and caused serious injuries to 143 at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming in what Uighur activists called a response to ‘state terrorism’ in Xinjiang.
Despite the simmering crisis in Xinjiang, China was largely seen as a peaceful country. But the recent events show that terrorism which is devastating countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan may visit China also and engulf the whole country in a great wall of terror. Instead of flaunting military might, China should make amends and stop its policy of demographic engineering in Xinjiang.
A year ago, China’s president Xi Jinping, still new in office, expressed his willingness to appease the Uighurs. But today he believes that stability in the resource-rich region, one of China’s key economic arteries, needs to be established at any cost. Without respecting the Uighur culture and their genuine concern over state-sponsored demographic change, no stability can be achieved. Reconciliation is the way forward – and the way to avert Iraq-like terror in China.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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