Last week a suicide bomber drove his car into the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, wounding three members of staff. Pundits searching for a culprit have instinctively argued that the mandate for this attack is likely to originate from insurgents of the Uighur ethnic minority. Members of this minority have been coordinating a low-intensity war in the Chinese region of Xinjiang for many decades in an attempt to gain their independence from China. Together with Taiwan and Tibet, the region of Xinjiang is one of the main sources of unease for China’s Communist Party.
The recent attack in Bishkek is only the most recent data point in a lengthy list of brutalities related to the Uighur reprisal against China’s rule. In 2009, 200 people were killed in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, during a series of racial confrontations. Uighur terrorist groups have also plotted large-scale knife attacks in Kunming and Urumqi, which led to 33 and 43 deaths respectively in 2014. In 2014, a particularly vicious year in Xinjiang, the Chinese police killed 100 Uighur protesters near Kashgar, a town on the Western edge of the Taklamakan desert. These cases have managed to overcome China’s renowned censorship of journalism in the region. One may safely assume that many other cases have remained unreported.
A Separatist Conflict
The region of Xinjiang was slowly colonized by China during the 18th century. Culturally though, the region’s inhabitants differ greatly from those of the rest of China. Members of the Uighur ethnic group, which predominate in the area, resemble more closely their Central Asian counterparts relative to their Chinese ones. Contrary to the population of the rest of China, Uighurs are in fact Muslim.
Uighurs have enjoyed two brief periods of independence in 1933 and 1944 by creating the so-called State of East Turkestan. Nonetheless, in 1949 China’s Communist Party abruptly terminated Uighurs’ nationalist ambitions by occupying the region, and subsequently re-baptizing it as a quasi-autonomous province. Xinjiang is a valuable province due to its strategic location as a nexus between Central Asia and China, and due to its ability to offer a vast array of natural resources such as coal, gold and copper.
Following the Communist Party’s occupation of Xinjiang, the government’s centrepiece policy in the region has been to assimilate the Uighur minority with China’s predominant ethnic group: the Han Chinese. During the 1990s, for instance, the party encouraged the resettlement of Han Chinese in Xinjiang by constructing a railway line from mainland China to Kashgar, while also providing cheap land for sale in the region. Nonetheless, while China has combined this large-scale resettlement plan with a series of important investment projects, unemployment and poverty have remained two central challenges for the members of the local population. In turn, this has fuelled a large degree of resentment towards Han Chinese, which according to the Uighurs, have had a privileged position in the competition for the few jobs available.
Resentment has repeatedly morphed into violence. In turn, China has adopted a heavy-handed, if not Orwellian, approach to deal with the uprisings. The policy of assimilating Uighurs and Han Chinese has repeatedly been asymmetrical by encouraging a complete annihilation of the formers’ culture. Ancient cities like Urumqi and Kashgar have been demolished, and reconstructed; with the intent of cancelling an essential testimony of the Uighurs’ distinct Islamic culture (next week’s article will cover the demolition of Kashgar). Additionally schools have slowly moved away from teaching Uighurs’ Turkic language to pupils, and have instead favoured Mandarin as the predominant language.
More dramatically, the Communist Party has forfeited any form of respect of Uighurs’ traditions by banning locals’ adherence to Ramadan and by strictly limiting pilgrimages to the Mecca. Until recently, Uighurs’ mobility was also severely constrained by the existence of an internal passport, or so-called “bianmin”, which permitted Chinese authorities to monitor their displacements. While these passports have been abolished, Uighurs remain under strict surveillance as their neighbourhoods are often fenced and surrounded by checkpoints in ways that may remind one of Palestinians’ current situation. Chinese police officers have also reaped the fruits of technological innovation to enhance their surveillance techniques. Uighurs’ front doors are in fact mandatorily labelled with QR codes that allow police officers to identify the authorised and non-authorised residents in a house.
When Separatism turns into Jihadism
One should not be surprised if the oppression that aims to constrain the consequences of Uighurs’ resentment is likely to favour a vicious circle characterized by even higher levels of resentment. In turn, resentment may alter the very nature of Uighurs’ current techniques. In the past few decades, Uighurs’ terrorist attacks have usually been amateurish, while their goals have generally been associated with anti-colonialism rather than a globally minded Jihadist intent. Furthermore, the Uighur movement has also been guided by peaceful strands, such as the one lead by the human right activist Rebiya Kadeer, whose efforts have been recognized by a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. However, Kadeer’s efforts have usually remained insufficient in the face of feeble international support. The international arena has in fact distanced itself from opinionating on the dire conditions of the Uighur minority to avoid the possibility of antagonising this powerful country.
Nonetheless, as The Economist explains, a separatist movement can easily transform itself into a jihadist one. In Chechnya, for instance, following Russia’s brutal clampdown of separatist movements in the 1990s, many groups have welcomed jihadism as an alternative ideology. The rise of jihadism has condemned the country into becoming a renowned training camp for extremists from across the globe. The first signs of this transformation have already materialized in Xinjiang where the terrorist organization named Turkistan Islamic Party is thought to have links with other international Jihadi groups. Reports have in fact revealed that the organization may have its own regiment fighting alongside other Jihadists in the Syrian Civil War.