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China’s Problem in Xinjiang

May 28 , 2014

China has recently witnessed a spike in high-profile attacks. The most recent attack in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, killed at least 39 people. On March 1 2014, 29 people were killed and 130 injured at a train station in Kunming in southwestern China; on April 30 suicide bombs at a train station in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, killed 3 and injured 79 men and women; the most recent knife attack on May 6 in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangzhou province, injured 6 people – all of the mentioned attacks were attributed to ethnic Uighur “terrorists”. Chinese authorities have specifically accused the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) of carrying out the April 30 bombing and have initiated an international manhunt for the ETIM member allegedly responsible for planning the attack. 

The separatist struggle in Xinjiang province – home to 21 million people, large natural gas and oil reserves, and a third of China’s cotton production – has more glaringly re-emerged in the 1990s as the Uighur ethnic minority, predominantly practitioners of Sufi Islam, inspired by the example of the province’s neighbors, who established separate states in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, demanded more autonomy. Since 1990 there have been hundreds of separatist attacks with hundreds of victims according to Chinese officials. There is no clear unifying political agenda behind most of the attacks; statements made by various groups, influenced by Pan-Turkism, Uyghur nationalism or Islamist rhetoric, oscillate between more political decentralization and cultural autonomy within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or outright independence (“East Turkestan”). 

While Chinese authorities often callously equate any expression of separatism in Xinjiang province with terrorism (since 2001 around 7000 Chinese citizens have been convicted on vague terrorism charges), the recent attacks show that China has a genuine and ongoing security problem that she needs to address more aggressively. This, however, is easier said than done. China analysts state that the political inflexibility and the dogged centralist tendencies of the communist party substantially fuel the instability in Xinjiang province and have vicariously influenced the rise in the number of terrorist attacks. According to one expert: “The problem in China is that there’s no mechanism for people who think they are victims of discrimination to seek redress.” 

With the 25th anniversary of the violent suppression of the student-led demonstrations on Tiananmen Square around the corner, China is especially prone to crack down on any hint of subversion. Yet, even without the anniversary, China has maneuvered herself into a corner with few options to regain the “hearts and minds” of the ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. China will not be able to make any substantial political or cultural concessions, since this would create a dangerous precedence in Tibet and also impact the PRC’s stance vis-à-vis Taiwan. The only option available to senior Chinese leadership is a tough “coercion and enforcement” approach. According to China’s President Xi Jinping authorities must “make terrorists like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting ‘beat them!” Xinhua News Agency recently reported that 39 people have been sentenced for “inciting violence” in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the last two months. 

In addition, Beijing is concerned about the ongoing Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and the precarious political situation in Pakistan due to the fact that Chinese counterterrorism efforts are predominantly (according to experts misguidedly) focused on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which allegedly is using both countries as safe havens to plan their operations on Chinese soil. In Afghanistan, China for a long time has been seen as a “free rider” – gaining economic benefits by exploiting the country’s natural resources while not contributing to the political and military solution of the conflict. However, China has recently stepped up its political engagement with Kabul. In August 2014, the Chinese Foreign Ministry will host a conference on the future of Afghanistan and has also stepped up its engagement with other regional players in the region. Nonetheless, critics have stated that the influence of Islamic radical groups has been exaggerated and that the inflexibility of the communist leadership on the question of cultural autonomy is the principal problem. 

With regard to China-US relations the recent attacks will in all likelihood not lead to increased cooperation in the field of counterterrorism. As the Country Report on Terrorism 2013 states: “China’s cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism issues remained marginal, with little reciprocity in information exchanges.” The report states that China has stepped up cooperation with Belarus, Belarus, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia – not however with the United States: “China has criticized the U.S. response to acts China characterizes as terrorism, alleging that U.S. expressions of concern over the treatment of China’s ethnic minorities and deficiencies in rule of law represent a ‘double standard’ on terrorism.” 

Thus, to conclude China is unilaterally pursuing an inflexible strategy in dealing with unrests in Xinjiang province and in pursuing its counterterrorism campaign. To use a nautical metaphor: Instead of plugging the leak on the sinking boat, China is merely pouring out water with a bucket. This inflexibility will guarantee that the security issues in Xinjiang province will not go away in the immediate future. 

Franz-Stefan Gady is a Senior Fellow at the EastWest Institute.

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