It’s not really China’s Chechnya yet, but the insurgency in the Xinjiang autonomous region is growing fast.
Incidents of anti-Chinese violence are getting bigger and much more frequent. Since March, 176 people have been killed in six separate attacks on Chinese police and government officials, local collaborators and ordinary Chinese residents of Xinjiang, in northwestern China, and the authorities don’t seem to have a clue what to do about it.
The attackers are Uighur, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people. They have mostly used knives or explosives in their attacks (guns are hard to get in China), but nobody has suggested that they are so technologically backward that their bombs come with long, trailing fuses that have to be lit by hand. Yet Chinese police in Xinjiang last month seized tens of thousands of boxes of matches.
“The confiscation has enabled us to strengthen controls over important elements of public security and thus eliminate potential security threats,” said the Kashgar police. The police website in the city of Changji declared that they had acted “to ensure matches would not be used by terrorist groups and extremist individuals to conduct criminal activities.” No disrespect intended (well, maybe a little), but these are not serious people.
The rebels, on the other hand, are very serious people. Like most independence movements of the colonial era, they believe that you have to take the war to the homeland of the “oppressor” if you can.
One of those recent attacks was not in Xinjiang but in Kunming in southwestern China, where a band of eight knife-wielding Uighurs killed 29 ordinary Chinese citizens and wounded 143 in the main railway station.
Another standard tactic in this sort of war is the use of violence to deter one’s own people from collaborating with the colonial power.
On July 30, Jume Tahir, the imam of China’s largest mosque, in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, was stabbed to death just after leading early morning prayers.
His crime? Praising Communist Party policies and blaming the rising tide of violence on Uighur separatists and extremists.
The Uighurs are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, and the official Chinese line blames the separatist violence on foreign Islamists who are stirring up the local people.
The separatists themselves say it is a legitimate response to Chinese oppression, and in particular to the Chinese government’s policy of flooding Xinjiang with Han Chinese immigrants in an attempt to change the territory’s demographic balance.
The truth, as usual, is more complicated.
Xinjiang (literally “New Territory”) was conquered by Chinese troops in the 1750s, but the population mix did not change for many years. In the early 19th century, a census reported the population as 30% Han Chinese (almost all living north of the Tian Shan mountains) and 60% Uighurs, who were farmers who accounted for almost the entire population south of the mountains. The rest were Kazakhs, Huis, Mongols and others.
The Uighurs had grown to 75% of the total population by the 1953 census, with many by then living north of the mountains. The Han Chinese had fallen to only 6%.
But now, thanks to large-scale migration, the Chinese are up to 40% of Xinjiang’s population, while the 10 million Uighurs are down to 45%.
In other words, the numbers will support almost any argument you want to make, if you choose your census dates carefully. But it is certainly not true that Han Chinese people are newcomers to Xinjiang, and it is probably not true that the Chinese government has a policy of encouraging Han migration to reduce the Uighurs to a marginal minority.
Chinese officials themselves say they are trying to develop the Xinjiang economy and raise local living standards, with the (unstated) goal of making people so prosperous and content that they will not even think of “betraying the motherland” by seeking independence. It’s just that a developed economy requires job skills that are not plentiful among the Uighurs, so large numbers of Han Chinese are drawn in to do those jobs.
Beijing’s officials make the same argument about Tibet, and they are probably being sincere about their intentions there, too.
They just have a huge cultural blind spot that makes it almost impossible for them to imagine how all this feels to the average Uighur, who sees more and more Chinese coming in and getting all the good jobs.
Add in all the resentment about the brutal assaults on the Uighurs’ culture and religion that happened during the Cultural Revolution — and continue in a minor key even today, thanks mainly to ignorant government officials who have never before lived outside an exclusively Chinese cultural context.
And now there is also a radical Islamist ideology available, for those who are thinking about rebellion.
So it’s getting really serious in Xinjiang: the last big incident, on July 28, saw hundreds of Uighurs storm a police station and government offices armed with knives and axes.
Fifty-nine of the attackers were killed and 215 arrested, while 37 (presumably Chinese) civilians were murdered. When you have organised groups doing violence on this scale, you are already in a low-level war.
Dyer is a London-based freelance journalist.