As the Asia-Pacific region continues to focus on the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, Chinese and Malaysian officials have examined the possibility of Uyghur terrorist involvement. While the evidence linking the Uyghurs to the flight’s disappearance is tenuous, this is undoubtedly in light of the March 1st stabbings at the Kunming Railway Station, which the Chinese government has labeled the “Chinese 9/11”. This is in line with the government identifying Uyghur separatism as a terrorist movement. This identification, however, is only partly true; more exists to the Uyghur conflict and the government response than the terrorism paradigm.The Uyghurs have long been a thorn in the side of the government, and there is more at stake than Uyghur independence.
Xinjiang is China’s westernmost region. It is about the size of Iran and underneath its soil and sand exists the oil and gas which fuels 60% of the province’s GDP. Xinjiang shares more in common with Central Asia than with the rest of China as the majority Uyghur population which call it home are a Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim population. This group have long chafed under Chinese rule, and the Chinese Communist Party is no exception. It was incorporated into the People’s Republic in 1949 after minor clashes, and was designated as an autonomous region in 1955. This designation is given to provinces with large non-Han ethnic populations that affords their local governments more legislative rights than other provinces. These regions include Tibet and Inner Mongolia.
In an effort to develop the economy of the region, the government reopened the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in 1981. The quasi-governmental corporation is charged with the administration of several settlements and has facilitated the migration to Xinjiang of thousands of Han Chinese, who now comprise 40% of the region’s population. This frames the issue of ethnic tension, which is only a recent development in the conflict. The XPCC’s workforce remains 88% Han, and its employment notices have a clear Han bias, reserving positions for those with Han ethnicity. Institutional discrimination extends beyond the XPCC and into the private sector, where native Mandarin speakers are preferred over Uyghurs. Areas of Xinjiang with a Han majority tend to indicate a higher per capita income, and travellers to Xinjiang are warned about Uyghur thieves and pickpockets. The Han believe that the Uyghurs receive preferential treatment from the government, such as an exemption from the one-child policy and freedom of religion.
These claims are unfounded, however. The government restricts travel as well religious practice, and brutally punishes crime. These restrictions increase during crackdowns that follow riots or attacks. The Uyghur response to the restrictions is fragmented as evidenced by the three major separatist movements. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement supports a Pan-Islamic vision; this movement lost its designation as a terrorist group by the State Department, but is still recognized as one by the UN, EU, and China. The group has links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and is responsible for the attacks that preceded the Summer Olympics and the 2008 bus bombings in Kunming. The East Turkestan Liberation Organization advocates a Pan-Turkic position, and its violence, while on a smaller scale, is political rather than religious. Lastly, the East Turkestan independence movement is a broad group that backs the creation of an independent state.
The motives of the Kunming killers have not yet been identified, which is why the government was quick to identify them as a terrorists. By declaring Kunming a “Chinese 9/11”, the government receives free reign to crackdown on the Uyghurs as they please, without international repercussions. More significantly, the government was quick to blame the attack on terrorists with links to foreign groups, as opposed to linking the attacks to ethnicity or religion. By doing so they direct attention away from existing ethnic tensions and delegitimize the involvement of a separatist movement.
China’s worry is not terrorist violence, but rather, the social instability it stems from and creates. The CCP’s biggest problem is legitimacy. The only thing preventing the CCP from being overthrown by a nationwide movement, as it almost was in 1989, is its own capacity to prevent that movement from happening. For most of China’s provinces, that means maintaining economic growth, keeping unemployment low, and quelling unrest before it happens; in Xinjiang and Tibet, the government follows an additional “strike hard” policy of cracking down on crime and unauthorized religious practices. Uyghur and Tibetan claims to self-rule and their capacity to organize serve as examples to opposition movements — unhappiness about discrimination and restrictions can snowball into unhappiness about the government as a whole, an issue that extends beyond Xinjiang and Tibet.
This justifies the “strike hard” campaigns to Beijing. By affording the Uighurs more rights and autonomy, they risk setting a precedent that could apply to Tibet or other provinces. This would be the first step towards Chinese territorial fragmentation. Further, Xinjiang is home to the West-East Gas Pipeline, a critical conduit of the Central Asian oil that fuels the Chinese economy. The crackdownm, however, is a double-edged sword, as citizens of other provinces have started to question why Xinjiang is the source of so much trouble. The crackdown also inspires separatists to become more violent. Attacks by the Uyghur separatist movements have become more frequent and lethal in the past seven years. Using government crackdowns to rationalize violence is a phenomenon not exclusive to Uyghur, or even Islamic, terrorism.
The government’s policy towards Xinjiang is to maintain social stability. This was part of the XPCC’s mission, but it puts to question why the enterprise continues to almost exclusively hire Han Chinese, a policy out of line with keeping unemployment low. The government has also failed to stop institutional discrimination or end its restrictions on travel and religious practice which spark discontent. Doing so legitimizes the claims of the Uyghur separatists. For the Chinese government, the violence of terrorism and its resulting crackdown is more manageable than the instability created by political freedom.
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