Recent Western and Chinese media focus on terrorism in Xinjiang has diverted attention away from the greater threat that Beijing faces from its ethnic Uighur population: namely a repeat of the large-scale rioting that hit the regional capital of Urumqi in 2009.
There is something innately attention-grabbing about the recent convergence between two of the most important global trends of this century – the spread of Islamic extremism and the rise of China. If we are to believe the account of the Chinese government, both trends collided in Kunming in early March, as a group of alleged Islamist Uighur militants stabbed a mass of innocent civilians in the city’s railway station, killing twenty-nine.
A video released on 19 March by the leader of the rebel Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), Abdullah Mansour, praised the Kunming attack and described it as an ‘expensive offer’ to China to reconsider its Xinjiang policy. While Mansour did not claim responsibility for the attack, his statement is sure to add to the ongoing debate between Western and Chinese commentators on whether China faces a genuine terrorist threat, and whether Uighur militants in China maintain links to overseas groups such as the TIP – which is thought to operate from northern Pakistan.
The attack in Kunming is worrying as it demonstrates a level of organisation and willingness by militant groups to perpetrate atrocities rarely seen outside Xinjiang. Beginning in November 2013 with a Uighur-led attack in Tiananmen Square, China appears to face an escalating threat that is no longer confined to its troubled far-west. Yet media focus on terrorism is obscuring a more important threat that the Chinese government faces: namely a recurrence of the deadly inter-ethnic violence that hit the regional capital of Urumqi in July 2009. The circumstances of that incident are worth bearing in mind, as they almost certainly preoccupy the thoughts of China’s leaders in Beijing.
Official statements on the Kunming incident have predictably focused on the need for swift retribution and punishment of the perpetrators. Yet interestingly, China’s leaders have also shown awareness of the divisive effect that this rhetoric has on ethnic relations. In a speech delivered in mid-March, Yu Zhengsheng, the official in charge of China’s Xinjiang policy, reportedly criticised certain local governments for harassing ordinary Uighurs during the nationwide crackdown that has followed the Kunming incident. According to Mr Yu, such behaviour is ‘contrary to policy, foolish and plays into the hands of terrorists’.
In past years, a sense of injustice against the government – among Han Chinese and Uighur alike – has been a far deadlier driver of violence in Xinjiang than terrorism. The Urumqi riot in 2009 began after news surfaced on the Internet of a Han-Uighur factory brawl in Guangdong. The death of two Uighur workers, coupled with a widely held belief that authorities were covering up the incident, resulted in street protests in Urumqi that escalated out of control. Three days of rioting saw Han Chinese civilians slaughtered by Uighur mobs, before the Han Chinese community retaliated in kind and held their own protests against the government’s incompetent handling of the incident. Approximately 200 people were killed.
The echoes of Urumqi are still heard five years on. On 14 March, a fight between two Uighur market vendors in Changsha, Hunan, resulted in the death of one of the antagonists and the murder of small number of Han Chinese bystanders, who were cut down as the killer turned his attention elsewhere. Coming so soon after Kunming, the attack has added to a groundswell of popular anger that China’s Uighur problem has gone largely unaddressed by a government desperate to avoid inflaming inter-ethnic conflict.
An editorial in the party-affiliated Global Times tried to channel this grievance into a conciliatory line: ‘Although media reports have downplayed the ethnic aspect in Friday's incident in Changsha, many people still cannot resist thinking or talking about it. It is hard to give up such thoughts, but we must try harder.’ Another editorial a week later highlighted the problem more directly, headlining with ‘As violence rises in Xinjiang, Han residents no longer feel at home.’
Of course, this is to say nothing of China’s Uighur population, who are the target of police harassment, employment discrimination and an array of restrictions on their culture and religion. Another fatal stabbing of a policeman by a Uighur assailant in Urumqi on 18 March passed largely without comment, but demonstrated the dangerous level of instability that simmers beneath a lid of ironhanded social control.
The Xi administration has taken some steps to improve China’s ability to react to large-scale unrest, such as the creation of a National Security Committee – which might have facilitated the government’s rapid response to the incident in Kunming. Reports from 2009 suggest that Hu Jintao’s absence from Beijing during the 2009 incident in Urumqi (he was attending a G-8 meeting in Italy) temporarily paralysed government decision making, and made the deployment of PLA troops impossible until his return a day later.
Yet the underlying ethnic tensions that occasionally spark massive social unrest remain, and the government appears lost on to address them. This long running problem is still the largest threat facing the government in Xinjiang, and one that trumps the emerging threat from Uighur terrorism.
Research Fellow, Asia Studies