Shaun Randol: China’s Chechnya (part 1 of 2)

Things are heating up in China’s westernmost province. In response to a number of violent incidents in Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR), Beijing has ratcheted up its security presence. Tit-for-tat clashes between pro-independence groups and police forces threaten stability and may portend a vicious cycle of killings.

Ninety-two percent of China’s population is ethnic Han; the remaining 8 percent is constituted by a mix of 55 officially recognized minority groups, including the increasingly vociferous Uighurs in Xinjiang and Tibetans. Yunnan Province, home to at least 26 different minority populations, lies south of Tibet in China’s far southwest, a cool 1300 miles away (as the crow flies) from Beijing.

Most unrest affiliated with minority populations occurs outside of Beijing’s immediate geographical area, making suppression burdensome for the central government; still, Beijing maintains tight control over the media and internet ensuring that uprisings and subsequent crackdowns in these relatively sparsely populated regions remain largely invisible to most outsiders. Currently Beijing has control over separatist (or as officials prefer, “splittist”) movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, but for how long?

Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking population of over 8 million, form the dominant, non-Han ethnic group in XAR. Many Uighurs (pronounced WEE-guhrs) seek independence—but not an Islamic state—from China. Yet Beijing continues to press thousands of Han Chinese into the region in a move to simultaneously dilute Uighur culture and mute separatist sympathies. Economic development in the region (especially in a burgeoning oil and natural gas boom) attracts more Chinese migrants, further adding strain to a stressful situation; for most Uighurs, Mandarin Chinese is a second language, if they know it at all, making communication with the influx of migrants and business near impossible.

This year, pro-independence activity in XAR has been prevalent. In August, prior to the Olympic Games, there were at least three attacks attributed to Uighur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) (though ETIM has not claimed responsibility); most of the victims were rank and file Chinese police and security. Pre-Olympic bus bombings in Kunming (the capital of Yunnan Province) and Shanghai were also thought to be the work of ETIM. In one bloody incident, militants plowed a dump truck into a line of jogging policemen before jumping out, knives drawn, and lobbing handmade grenades. Sixteen police officers were killed and other 16 injured. In another attack, about 30 explosions were counted in the oasis town of Kucha. More recently, an attack on August 27 in a small village in Jiashi County left two police officers dead and seven more injured—the first post-Olympic attack. In this latest incident, the policemen were ethnic Uighurs, thus blurring claims of a strictly ethnic issue. In all, nearly 40 people were killed in Xinjiang in August alone.

China has taken major steps to beef up security in XAR. Party leaders have called for “steely” measures to wipe out the “three evil forces” of “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.” Thousands of troops are now stationed in XAR in an attempt to snuff out separatist movements, war games have been staged, and checkpoints, roadblocks, and security patrols have increased. Moreover, the government has expanded the size and scope of the Xinjiang Antiterrorist Special Reconnaissance Force: an apparent “1 and 10” rule has been enacted, meaning that for every Uighur offender found guilty, members of ten other families will be implicated and punished. The Washington Post also notes Beijing is requiring affirmations of political loyalty, and is closely monitoring telephone calls and internet traffic.

Meanwhile, the German-based Society for Threatened People (GfbV) reports “about 150 children have been held for days in the Ba Jia Hu prison” in XAR’s capital “because they took part in instruction on Islam.” A further 1,000 Uighurs have reportedly been detained since the Olympic Games.

It is not without reason that China has stepped up security. Even before the August attacks, a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) posted several videos on the web threatening to strike Olympic targets and urged disaffected Uighurs to attack police and government officials. The group’s relation to ETIM, if any, remains unclear. Furthermore, according to a Reuters report, officials early in the year forced an emergency landing of a flight en route from Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, to Beijing because explosives were discovered in the lavatory. As a result, security on domestic flights has tightened.



[Read the second part of this post tomorrow…]

Shaun Randol, a former intern at the World Policy Institute, is an independent research consultant, and a research assistant at the India-China Institute at the New School.

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