Fear spreads in China of Uigher insurrection

March 14, 2014

The first thought in many minds when Malaysia Airways’ flight MH370 disappeared a week ago was that the plane had been bombed or hijacked by Uigher separatists from the Chinese-occupied Xinjiang region of Central Asia.

It was a natural speculation. The disappearance of the plane came only days after eight Uighers attacked crowds in the main railway station in Kunming, capital of China’s far south-western Yunnan province, killed 29 and wounded another 143 before they themselves were shot or captured by police.

The majority of the 239 people on the Malaysian Boeing 777 airliner en-route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing were homeward bound Chinese. They seemed a natural target for the Muslim Uigher militants, whose terrorist campaign, aimed at independence for the homeland they call East Turkmenistan, has intensified in recent years under the influence of Islamic radicalism.

The same link leapt immediately to the forefront today when a man attacked passers-by with a knife in the central market in Changsha, the capital of China’s central Hunan province, which has the largest Uigher population outside Xinjiang. The man, a market stall owner, killed five people before being shot dead by police.

Within hours, as more information became available about both the missing Malaysian airliner and the Changsha attack, the finger of blame moved firmly away of the Uighers. But the rush to judgement on the Uighers is drawing attention to what is becoming a sustained insurrection against Chinese rule in Xinjiang.

In the last year there have been at least 200 violent incidents in Xinjiang itself and several high-profile attacks in China, such as the Kunming bloodbath, and including a car bomb attack last October in Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square.

In the worst recent incident, about 200 people were killed in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi in 2009 when inter-ethnic riots turned into a Uigher uprising.

Across China, fear of Uigher terrorism is stoking anxiety among ethnic Han, who make up 92 per cent of China’s population. Since the Kunming attack on March 1, there have been countless messages on China’s microblogging site, Weibo, calling on people to report the presence of Uighers to the local authorities.

At the same time, there are some vague and unconfirmed reports that the authorities are rounding up Uighers across the country and deporting them back to Xinjiang. The Hong Kong-based and widely respected Chinese language newspaper, Ming Pao, today reported that since the March 1 attack, about 900 Uighers in Yunnan province have been detained and forcibly sent back to Xinjiang.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government-controlled English daily newspaper Global Times today reported that racial and ethnic tensions in Xinjiang are so great that Han Chinese settler families are either fleeing the region or gathering for protection in exclusive ethnic enclaves.

The apparently brutally honest Global Times story is interesting because it sits in sharp contrast with the usual picture Chinese authorities paint of their occupation of Xinjiang, whose value to Beijing lies not only in territory for its burgeoning population, but its substantial reserves of oil and natural gas.

Most official Chinese propaganda would not be out of place beside the writings of 19th century European colonialists. The Uighers are portrayed as a simple and uncultured people, never happier than when performing their native songs and dances.

The reality of the situation is a good deal more grim as, for more than a decade, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement has used political platforms to argue for genuine autonomy for Xinjiang, while militant groups like the Turkestan Islamic Party have taken up arms.

Beijing’s propaganda arms have been left trying to square the circle of merry Uighers delighted to receive China’s paternal attentions and guidance, while blaming all violence on “foreign influences.”

The Uighers are a Turkic people of Indo-European origin whose arrival in the vast, arid region of what is now Xinjiang was part of the ebb and flow of various peoples across the expanse of Central Asia in the last 2,000 years and more.

China’s claim to Xinjiang, like its claim to Tibet and various other disputed territories, is based on its relationship with neighbouring states during the imperial Qing dynasty from the mid-1600s to its collapse in 1911. China’s neighbours often paid tribute to the Qing emperors, asked their advice, and in return were usually treated benevolently as vassal states.

In the 19th century, China took direct control of eastern Xinjiang – the name means New Territory, which emphasises its colonial status. But in the chaos of the collapse of the Qing dynasty, control of the region was taken over in 1912, by a warlord, Yang Zengxin. After his assassination in 1928, Xinjiang became briefly independent until it was again carved up by Chinese warlords and Soviet Russians.

With Moscow’s acceptance, Mao Zedong’s victorious Communists marched into Xinjiang in 1949. Since then Beijing has pursued a policy of repression of any aspects of Uigher culture seen as a threat to Chinese rule, especially religion, in tandem with economic development, based on encouraging and subsidizing Han Chinese settlers.

Uighers now make up only 45 per cent of Xinjiang’s 22 million people. It is this influx of economically privileged Chinese and their overwhelming of the Uighers in their own country which, as much as the cultural repression, has inspired the violence that started in the 1990s.

Xinjiang borders eight countries, five of them – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – predominantly Muslim. Political activism in Xinjiang has thus inevitably been influenced by the rise of militant Islam stemming from Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

As Chinese repression in Xinjiang has increased, hundreds of Uighers have fled across the borders into Afghanistan and the lawless north-western tribal areas of Pakistan. Here they have been welcomed and become closely allied with both the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban groups as well as with what remains of al-Qaida in the region.

The Reuters news agency reported today that Pakistan intelligence officers say they believe there are about 400 Uigher fighters in the North Waziristan district, while Afghan Taliban sources say there are 250 Uigher militants in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces.

Beijing continues to urge its ally, Pakistan, to hand over Uigher militants, and Islamabad has done so when possible, but it does not control the area where most of the fighters are hiding out.

The Chinese government’s policy toward Xinjiang, which it also applies to Tibet, of intense security deployment tempered by massive economic investment, can keep the situation under control for a while. But as China’s economy enters a downturn, restricting the government’s ability to give subsidies, and as repression breeds growing Uigher militancy, this approach will become more and more difficult to sustain.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com


Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from non-journalism foundations or causes. Help F&O publish great work: sign up for email notices with the subscribe form on Frontlines, where we post small stories and announce new work. Please spread the word by sharing Frontlines posts directly, and “liking” our Facebook page.