China’s West Bank: the alienation of the Uyghur

China’s West Bank: the alienation of the Uyghur

A mass stabbing attack on bystanders at a train station in China in March has again focused attention on the troubled Xinjiang province, writes MICHAEL CLARKE.

Dru C. Gladney argued over a decade ago that China faced the prospect of Xinjiang becoming its West Bank if it failed to address the problems stemming from its forceful attempts to integrate the region. In a neat summation of the problem, he argued that, ‘if China does not explore other options besides repression, restriction and investment, millions of Uyghur Muslims might become disenfranchised, encouraging some to look to the intifada, the Taliban or al Qaeda for inspiration’.1

The record of Chinese policy toward the Uyghur and Xinjiang in the intervening years suggests, sadly, that Gladney’s prediction may well prove to be correct due to the inability of Beijing to envisage that its own policies may play a role in alienating Uyghurs from the Chinese state.

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing has been focused on achieving the territorial, political, economic and cultural integration of Xinjiang and its non-Han ethnic groups into the ‘unitary and multi-ethnic’ Chinese state. Since the institution of ‘reform and opening’ under Deng Xiaoping the core assumption of Chinese policy has been that the delivery of economic development and modernisation will ultimately buy the loyalty of such ethnic groups as the Uyghur.

This approach has been embodied since the early 1990s in state-led mega-projects such as massive oil and natural gas pipelines and infrastructure developments linking Xinjiang Central and South Asia. While bringing economic development, such projects have also destroyed Uyghur communities (for example, the destruction of much of the old city of Kashgar through the $500 million Kashgar Dangerous House Reform program), displaced thousands, and brought an influx of Han migrants to the region. Such dynamics ultimately contribute to perceptions amongst Uyghurs of demographic dilution and economic disenfranchisement.

‘Strike hard’ campaigns

In parallel with this state-led modernisation strategy, the authorities have also implemented yearly ‘strike hard’ campaigns against those that it defines as splittists and, since 9/11, terrorists and extremists. Prior to 9/11 these campaigns led to accelerated trials and sentencing of alleged ‘splittists’, while in the post-9/11 climate has seen an expansion in the actions that the state criminalises as terrorist with punitive measures increased.2 This approach continues with, Nur Berki, chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, for example, stating in January this year that the government would ‘constantly strike hard against violent terrorism, showing no mercy, in accordance with the law, and maintaining a high-handed posture’.

The state’s continued desire to monitor and control elements of ethnic minority cultural and religious expression has also continued to contribute to Uyghur disaffection with Chinese rule. Since the 1990s the regional government has been especially vigilant with respect to ‘illegal religious activities’—i.e. all religious or cultural activities that take place outside of state-sanctioned parameters. Significantly, the government’s continued anti-religious campaigns played a role in stimulating some of the major episodes of unrest throughout the region in 2013, such as the violence in Luqkun township near Turpan on 26 June. Characteristic of the state’s heavy-handed approach has been the ‘Project Beauty’ campaign that is aimed at discouraging mostly Uyghur women from wearing traditional headscarves or veils.

On 1 March a group of eight masked assailants unleashed a mass stabbing attack on bystanders at Kunming train station leaving 29 people dead and over 140 injured. The Chinese government was quick to identify it as a terrorist attack by extremists from Xinjiang, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang asserting that ‘some Eastern Turkestan flags were found at the scene’. Chinese authorities subsequently reported that four of the assailants (three men and one woman) had been shot dead and a second female attacker detained by police at the scene while the remaining three attackers (all male) were captured days after. Authorities also identified the ‘mastermind’ of the attack as Abdurehim Kurban, indicating the likely Uyghur ethnicity of the attackers.

Beijing’s response to what Chinese media has dubbed ‘China’s 9/11’ has focused on three major fronts: strengthening of security and counter-terrorism preparedness; renewed exhortations regarding the importance of stability and ethnic unity; and a renewed effort to demonstrate the links between Uyghur terrorism and hostile external forces. With respect to the first issue, Beijing has rapidly increased Xinjiang’s internal security budget for 2014 to some $1 billion and President Xi Xinping now heads a specially formed committee on China’s new National Security Council to deal with security and counter-terror strategies in Xinjiang.

Ethnic unity myth

Meanwhile President Xi, in an effort to ensure his pet ideological project of the ‘China Dream’ would not be derailed by such an obvious baring of China’s ethnic problems, reminded Chinese citizens in the aftermath of the attack that, ‘Unity and stability are blessings, while secession and turmoil are disasters. People of all ethnic groups of the country should cherish ethnic unity’. However, as James Leibold has noted, the Kunming attack clearly reveals that the China Dream is not one shared by all of China’s ethnic groups and that ethnic unity’ is largely a myth.

Beijing’s current rhetoric is a continuation of a campaign launched after 9/11 to portray its struggle against Uyghur separatists as part of the US-led ‘War on Terror’.

Finally, Beijing has made a concerted effort to draw links between the Kunming attack and radical Islamists beyond China’s borders in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the wider Middle East. Chinese government spokesmen have linked the Kunming attackers to the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), based in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which it claims is a successor organisation to the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIM), a group it has previously held to be responsible for various attacks in Xinjiang.

Despite the limited evidence available as to the effectiveness of groups such as the TIP, Beijing’s current rhetoric is a continuation of a campaign launched after 9/11 to portray its struggle against Uyghur separatists as part of the US-led ‘War on Terror’. Although many have noted the diplomatic benefits that Beijing has achieved by aligning with the global anti-terrorist campaign, what has tended to pass unremarked upon is that China’s Uyghur terrorism narrative is arguably a reflection of Beijing’s inability to conceive that its policies in Xinjiang have played a role in generating violence and disaffection.3

Xinjiang Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian revealed the continuation of this mindset when asked by reporters on 6 March about whether or not government policy had contributed to terrorism in Xinjiang. Zhang replied with his own question and answer arguing, ‘Will it [terrorism] not take place if you don’t strike hard?…Terrorism is not something that happens because you fight it; it is a malignant tumour that is borne from society’.

In an important respect Zhang is correct; terrorism in Xinjiang is indeed borne from society, but from an increasingly disenfranchised segment of Chinese society—the Uyghur. In light of the history of Chinese policy in Xinjiang and recent developments such as the Kunming attack it would seem that Beijing, in formulating a response to continued Uyghur opposition and violence, could do well to take heed of late Nelson Mandela’s reflection that, ‘it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor’.4


  1. Dru C. Gladney, ‘Xinjiang: China’s future West Bank?’ Current History,(Sept. 2002), p. 267.
  2. For an examination of China’s anti-terror laws and their effect in Xinjiang see Michael Clarke, ‘Widening the net: China’s anti-terror laws and human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’, International Journal of Human Rights, 14 (4), (2010), pp. 542–558.
  3. For a critical examination of Chinese claims regarding Uyghur terrorism see Michael Clarke, ‘China’s “War on Terror” in Xinjiang: human security and the causes of violent Uighur separatism’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 20 (2), (2008), pp. 271-301; and Sean Roberts, ‘Imaginary terrorism? The global war on terror and the narrative of the Uyghur terrorist threat’, PONARS Eurasia Working Paper, (Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, March 2012).
  4. Nelson Mandela, Long walk tofreedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Little, Brown & Co. 1995.

Uyghur man at Kashgar’s Sunday market (Flickr).

Dr Michael Clarke is currently a senior research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His research interests and expertise include the history and politics of Xinjiang, ethnic separatism and terrorism, Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia, and nuclear proliferation and non-proliferation.

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