Foreign Policy Blogs

More Violence in Xinjiang

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A group of Uighurs in Urumqi. Picture: AP

When will the unrest in Xinjiang cease?  The latest attack in a long series of aggressions was recently reported by Radio Free Asia, when at least 17 assailants, armed with knives, set upon innocent Han Chinese coal miners sleeping in their dormitory beds in Baicheng on September 18.  Before the morning came, more than 50 people had been killed and dozens wounded.  The attackers, which Xinjiang authorities suspect to be ethnic Uighurs, all escaped into Tianshan Mountains near the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Radio Free Asia cited a Baicheng official as suggesting the attackers were seeking vengeance for their families having been punished for violating strict regulations on the practice of Islam.  The regulations, such as barring women from veiling their faces or barring men from sporting long beards, were implemented by local authorities in an effort to combat religious extremism in a region with a significant Muslim population.

The Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur population, which at one point represented 85% of Xinjiang’s population some 65 years ago to less than 50% today, have been blamed for recent violence throughout the region and in other areas of China. Beijing argues the attacks by Uighurs are being orchestrated by foreigners who seek to establish an independent state in Xinjiang called “East Turkestan,” or a replica of “Uyghuristan” (932–1450) modeled after neighboring Central Asian nations.  Previously, two “Eastern Turkestan Republics” survived between 1931–34 and 1944–49, and Chairman Mao Zedong at one point promised “self-determination” and the right to secede from the Communist state, before eventually withdrawing the full offer of independence and instead conceding the title “Xinjiang Autonomous Region” in 1955.

Despite living in a so-called “autonomous region”, the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang have long been persecuted.  Back in May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan U.S. federal government body, reported “unprecedented violations” against Muslims in China—urging the U.S. Department of State to re-designate China’s government as a top-tier violator, along with 16 other countries, including Myanmar, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

China denies the allegations, maintaining it guarantees religious freedom while recognizing five official religions—Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism.  Yet those who worship must do so under the watchful eye of patriotic religious associations, who impose strict government controls on the practice of their faith, to include the removal of crosses and the crackdown on underground churches.  It is these strict government controls on Islam, along with dwindling economic opportunities for Uighurs, which are put forth by analysts, exiles and activists for the increase in social unrest and violence.  

While other factors are certainly in play, the strict regulation of Islam is only exacerbating social unrest and contributing to more violence and is contrary to Beijing’s edicts on religious freedom.  In a speech in May 2014, President Xi Jinping stated that while teachings by religious leaders need to be grounded in patriotism, “law-abiding” worshippers must be protected as the ruling Communist Party cracks down on extremists. But these law-abiding worshipers deserve not only protection, but freedom to practice their religion, including the right as Muslims to wear veils, head scarves, jilbabs, clothing with the crescent moon and star, and to wear long beards.

Following Xi’s speech in May, China’s highest court, highest prosecution office and the Ministry of Public Security issued instructions in September 2014 urging court officials, prosecutors and police to distinguish between the illegal acts of religious extremists and ordinary religious activities.  According to the instructions, officials should avoid discriminating against any religion or ethnic minority, and should not interfere with citizens’ freedom to practice their religion.

Yet with reporting out of Xinjiang restricted and shoddy,outside observers have difficulty ascertaining the scope and scale of discrimination taking place.  We may also never know whether or not these latest terrorists were radicalized by inhumane treatment, trained abroad or motivated by economic factors.  If Beijing really wants to garnish international support for its crackdown on Islamic extremism (and truly has nothing to hide), allowing foreign journalists to operate freely in the region would go along way toward courting international condemnation and support for its efforts.  The alternative course of further restrictions will only result in more attacks, greater radicalization, and further criticism by international human rights groups.  With this latest failure, a new approach is clearly needed.




Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666