In Western media reports, the Western province of Xinjiang is always prefaced with the world “restive”. The region is roughly the same size as Western Europe, with a population of 22 million inhabitants, nine million of whom are members of the Turkic speaking Uighur ethnicity. Xinjiang literally translates as “new borders” and briefly achieved partial independence as a sovereign East Turkestan state between 1943-1949, before being reclaimed by CCP forces. In the subsequent decades heavily state encouraged migration of Han Chinese has made the native Uighur population a minority in their own land.
It is this tension, between the incoming Han who are seen as reaping vast economic rewards from plundering Xinjiang’s abundant resources, and the stagnating fortunes of the Uighurs themselves, that has precipitated the violence that has characterized the region for the past two decades. These issues have been compounded by long-standing impediments to religious freedom, a particularly abrasive policy for the predominately Muslim Uighur population. There has consequently been persistent underlying violence; attacks on government buildings, police stations, and the occasional murders of Han workers. There have also been much larger-scale incidents, such as the 2009 riots, the most violent in China since the Cultural Revolution, which saw hundreds dead.
This type of violence has since 9/11 been classed as terrorism by the Chinese government. Using the broadest possible definition they have securitized the issue in such a way as to lend credence to their harsh response. What is unique of the current surge in Uighur violence is that for the first time in modern Chinese history the attacks have been aimed at non-combatant targets with a purpose to spread fear and gain notoriety for a separatist cause. What this means is that for the first time China has an objective problem with terrorism.
The reasons why Uighur’s have switched tactics and have begun targeting civilians are as yet unclear. The Chinese government has been careful to not release any information on the motives of the terrorists, and no group has claimed responsibility. It is thus unclear whether the recent spate of violence at train stations and recently at a market in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, have been coordinated by a central hierarchy, or whether they are networked terrorism. It is likely that the violence has been socialized; i.e. undertaken by a dispersed set of groups feeding from the successes of others.
Amongst the many reasons put forth, the most compelling is the rise of the Chinese Internet, of micro blogs such as Weibo and Weixin, which while censored are still porous and allow information to spread quickly. In a world in which the medium is the message, terrorism only functions to the extent that the “propaganda of the deed” is allowed airtime. In years past, when the CCP was in full control of the narrative, this was not possible. Today, while the CCP can shape the flow of information it cannot dam the torrent.
How therefore should the government respond? Retrenching on freedoms should never be an option. It is a cliché that those who trade security for freedom deserve neither, but only because it holds so starkly true. The CCP is terrified of alternative concentration of power within its system, which is why it so vehemently clamps down on religious freedoms, deeply censors the Internet, and bans any non-sanctioned political organizations. The problem in Xinjiang, with a strong Islamic community that looks to Central Asia for inspiration, is that these policies are not working. Subjugating a moderate Islamic population only serves to radicalise them, not to bring them closer to Beijing.
As the saying goes, “when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything”. The CCP cannot closet Islam and enact a War on Terror that will affect an entire community, just for the sake of a tiny minority of fringe extremists. In doing so they will not cause people to forget their God and believe in the CCP. Rather, they will merely push the more moderate Uighur community towards the extremist fringes, and they risk creating an existential threat where none existed before. Terrorist’s fight the war of the flea – it is by provoking an overreaction that they win. If China scratches hard enough it risks breaking the skin and causing an infection which could prove fatal.
Barclay Bram Shoemaker is a postgraduate student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.