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

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

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.

In addition to maintaining iron-fisted rule for much of the decade after 2001, Beijing has encouraged Han immigration to Xinjiang, importing to the region both skillsets and loyalty. Immigration is designed to fuel development and thereby create stability. Currently, Xinjiang is home to more than 8 million Han immigrants, representing about 39 percent of its population. Ironically, many Han Chinese in Xinjiang feel that the government commits reverse discrimination in the form of state policies that favor Uighurs in family planning and affirmative action, which creates friction between the Han and Uighur communities. While Uighurs do receive government-sponsored benefits, they consider their religion—Islam—and language to be under threat. The government places restrictions on religious freedom by setting minimum ages for mosque attendance, prohibiting the learning of Arabic and pressuring Uighurs not to fast during Ramadan. Uighurs learn Mandarin Chinese to participate in the economy, but the necessity of doing so is also viewed as an attack on the transmission of Uighur culture to the next generation. Despite Xinjiang’s economic growth, Uighurs are still disproportionately represented among the low-income stratum, with most jobs going to Han.

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