Incidents of violence in Xinjiang at the end of July have once again brought attention to the ethnic unrest in one of China’s largest provinces, where the Muslim Uighur ethnic group forms 41.5 per cent of the total population. The latest incident took place in Kashgar, the province’s second largest city where Uighurs make up 80 per cent of the population. On July 31 a group of persons set fire to a restaurant in the city and attacked bystanders with knives, killing 8 persons and injuring over a dozen others. City police shot dead five suspects at the scene, while two others for whom arrest warrants had been issued were reportedly killed in pursuit two days later.
The incident comes on the heels of violence that took place on July 30 in Kashgar where two men hijacked a truck after killing its owner and proceeded to mow down pedestrians before attacking passersby with knives. Six people were killed in the incident and at least 15 seriously injured. One suspect was killed at the scene and another apprehended.
The occurrence of such violent incidents in quick succession in a single city is indeed alarming, even in a region that is no stranger to violence and acts of terrorism. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that although local authorities emphasised that both incidents were well planned, they stopped short of saying that the two were linked. While the names of some suspects connected to the violence on July 31 indicate that they belonged to the Uighur community, the names of the two suspects involved in the July 30 incident have not been released.
China has termed the July 31 incident an act of terrorism and held responsible members of the banned terrorist outfit East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) for perpetrating the violence. A Xinhua news report on the incident stated that members of ETIM based in Pakistan were involved. Numerous Chinese commentators have also referred to the likelihood of cross-border linkages enjoyed by perpetrators; Kashgar’s proximity to the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan lends a measure of credence to such speculation.
However, this is by no means the first time that Chinese news reports have hinted at the role of Pakistan-based training camps in enabling terrorism in Xinjiang. Weeks prior to the incident in Kashgar, on July 18 in Hotan, violence erupted in the form of bomb blasts and knife attacks targeting police personnel. In what the Chinese government termed “an act of coordinated terrorism”, 18 Uighur “rioters” attacked a government building and took hostages. Fourteen rioters were killed in cross-fire and four others apprehended. Two Uighur hostages reportedly died in the attack as did a police officer. Subsequent news reports quoted security experts as deeming the involvement of terrorist organizations based abroad as extremely likely. Amid the speculation of Pakistan-based ETIM’s involvement in the attack, a Hotan government spokesperson categorically stated that there was no sign of linkages between the incident and Pakistan-based terrorist groups.
With regard to the latest spate of violence in Kashgar, what is of note is that such a denial has not been made. Although the Chinese government has applauded the cooperation between Pakistan and China on the issue of anti-terrorism in the wake of the violence in Kashgar, the official news agency, Xinhua, continues to refer to the possibility of links between the perpetrators of the incident and Pakistan-based groups.
Could this possibly indicate a measure of critical self-reflection on the part of the Chinese? A realization that refusing to deal with “state-sponsored” terrorism in the region may have its drawbacks? Perhaps an acknowledgement that though ‘leverage’ in Pakistan has had its benefits, it may not be able to deliver in the long term? Or perhaps, the Xinhua news report is simply indicative of the freedom enjoyed by the Chinese press.
The history of ethnic tension in Xinjiang is well known and the July 2009 riots of Urumqi that resulted in almost 200 deaths were a wake-up call of sorts for the Chinese authorities. Many scholars in China have held low economic growth in the region as being responsible for the dissatisfaction of the minorities. In fact, most of those who participated in the 2009 riots were believed to be young unemployed persons who were not residents of the capital. A solution may be found in China’s Western Development Programme, which is aimed not only towards promoting balanced development between the industrialized eastern seaboard and the provinces of the western hinterland, but also at ensuring that the minorities in the west, Tibetan and Uighur in particular, have a stake in national development. The designation of Kashgar as a Special Economic Zone in March 2010 and the building of the Kashgar-Hotan Railway line, which opened in December 2010, can be viewed as steps in this direction.
Despite these efforts, the Chinese government cannot be said to have succeeded. The violence in Kashgar and Hotan (which have received special economic attention) is evidence of this. One reason for continued ethnic tension is the perceived assault on traditional local culture and customs. For instance, the violence in Hotan was allegedly precipitated by a government campaign against the use of full-face Islamic veils, which were being used by miscreants in criminal activities. The redevelopment of Uighur residential areas in Urumqi and Kashgar is another issue that has fomented local resentment. The curtailing of religious activities in the aftermath of violent incidents has become a common precaution. Whether this has aided a quicker return to normalcy is debatable, but what is certain is that there is a perception of prejudice against Uighur customs in a province where the Muslim Uighurs are the largest ethnic group. This has in no small measure assisted the growth of more militant clerics in parts of Xinjiang, such as Kashgar. Participation by residents of Kashgar in incidents of violence elsewhere in the province has been noted, the Urumqi riots and the Hotan incident both attest to this.
The government’s response has been the creation of ‘social-security teams’ that provide an avenue to voice complaints, facilitate mediation and address grievances. Often, these very teams also function as the eyes and ears of security agencies. On August 2, a new social management project was launched in Xinjiang aimed at developing a national model for the training and selection of minority cadres. By increasing the numbers of minority cadres in these special teams and providing them with better training it is hoped that links between the minority community and the government will improve.
It is clear that the Chinese government is cognizant of the challenges that lie ahead. Even as the country’s top police official called for a crackdown on terrorism, Xinjiang’s governor noted that the battle against separatist activities would be tough and go on for a long time. It now remains to be seen how far China is able to manage the challenges of providing space for religious and cultural freedom while enabling equitable economic development for all ethnic groups.