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Beijing Finds Neither ‘Iron-Fisted Rule’ Nor Development Bring Order to Xinjiang

Friday, March 28, 2014

On March 1, a group of Uighurs from Xinjiang attacked the Kunming train station in southwest China using foot-long knives, killing 29 and injuring 143. The terror attack, popularly referred to as “China’s 9/11,” is a spillover from Xinjiang’s internal conflict. Since being “liberated” by Chinese Communists in 1949, the region has experienced sporadic episodes of significant violence between Uighurs, the dominant ethnic group in the region, and Han Chinese. The source of conflict is disputed—the Chinese narrative emphasizes external, separatist and jihadist influences, whereas Western analysts tend to focus on Uighur grievances toward discriminatory government policies.

China’s narrative regarding the conflict changed abruptly and considerably following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on New York and Washington. Ten days before, the Xinjiang party chief and government leader had declared that Xinjiang was “not a place of terror.” Soon after Sept. 11, however, Chinese officials began claiming that Uighur separatists had ties with international terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is the jihadist group most often claimed to be involved in Xinjiang, with alleged ties to al-Qaida, though ETIM’s very existence is disputed. Chinese authorities have aggressively restricted religious freedom and launched “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang to crack down on separatists. ...

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