The HEAT IS on in Xinjiang. A string of deadly killings, blamed on Islamist separatists, have rocked China’s restive far western province and prompted authorities into an unprecedented show of force – and a social clampdown experts say has been imported from Tibet (西藏).
Huge military parades have taken place in Hotan (和田地區), Kashgar (喀什地區) and Urumqi (烏魯木齊) featuring thousands of servicemen, signalling the authorities’ intent to “relentlessly beat, and strike hard against terrorism”, in the words of the local Communist Party deputy chief Zhu Hailun.
The show of force comes after a knife attack in February that killed eight people and a car bomb in December that killed five. In January, three suspected terrorists were shot dead in Hotan while resisting arrest.
Those attacks are just the latest grisly episodes in the region’s years-long struggle against terrorism that has claimed hundreds of lives. Authorities blame the attacks on ethnic Uygur militants belonging to the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), though some critics doubt whether ETIM exists as a cohesive group, claiming the attacks are more a reaction to repressive government policies that target the Uygurs’ way of life.
The spate of violence coincides with the release this month of a half-hour video by Islamic State that features Uygurs issuing the terror group’s first threat against Chinese targets. The event has added credibility to warnings by Beijing of the potential for Xinjiang militants to link up with global jihadist groups. Chinese President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) told Xinjiang’s delegation at the National People’s Congress in Beijing this month that the area required a “great wall of iron” to keep out Islamic separatists. He also underscored the need for “ethnic unity”.
The government has responded to the growing threat by bringing in new hardline security restrictions on Xinjiang (新疆) residents – restrictions some experts say have been imported from neighbouring Tibet by Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s Communist Party leader, who previously held the same office in Tibet.
Those measures include the recall of passports and a ban on foreign travel for local residents that covers both Han and Uygurs; a prohibition on praying – even privately – other than in official places of worship, applied not only to mosques but also Christian churches; and a crackdown on “underground” Islamic schools.
They also include a bounty of 100 million yuan (HK$112 million) in rewards for anti-terror tips.
“Every single measure you saw in Tibet is magnified in Xinjiang. The mechanism is similar but the application is different,” Robbie Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, told This Week in Asia.
Darren Byler, a University of Washington expert on Northwest China who cited local sources, said the situation had never been as tense as it was now.
“Most counties from Aksu to Hotan are on complete lockdown. Uygurs with residence permits in those counties are not permitted to leave without justified permission. In some cases bus services between cities have been stopped. In many places life is now centred around daily political education and red-song singing meetings. Every household has to send a representative to such meetings or their family will be labelled suspicious.”
Uygurs were traditionally the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang, but development of the resource-rich territory has bought an influx of Han Chinese, who now account for nearer half the population. This has caused tension, with many Uygurs – most of whom are Muslim – fearing their way of life is being whittled away.
Xinjiang is a hub in China’s “One Belt, One Road” development project that seeks to revive the ancient Silk Road by linking regional economies into a China-centred trading network. The initiative is key to the geopolitical ambitions of Beijing, which has responded to recent unrest by drafting in the hardliner Chen as Xinjiang’s party leader in August 2016. Chen was the creator of Tibet’s so-called “grid management system” – a pervasive surveillance network built to inform on Dalai Lama sympathisers that relies largely on local Han residents to manage the society “without gaps, without blind spots, without blanks”, according to state media. China regards the Dalai Lama as a separatist, although he says he merely seeks genuine autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.
Chen had pushed security to the top of his agenda since arriving in Xinjiang, said James Leibold, an expert on China’s ethnic issues at Australia’s La Trobe University.
“With Wang Lequan (王樂泉) as party leader in Xinjiang from 1994 to 2010, a hard-handed approach led to the Urumqi violence in 2009,” said Leibold, referring to several days of rioting that involved at least 1,000 Uygurs and, according to Chinese officials, led to 197 deaths, most of them Han Chinese.
“Then Zhang Chunxian ( 張春賢 ) came in and developed a softer approach based not only on security but also on economic development.”
Leibold said that after attacks in 2013-2014 – 35 people were killed in knife assaults at Kunming Railway station in March 2014, while two months later suicide bombers killed 43 people at a street market in Urumqi – Zhang was recalled to Beijing “in a largely ceremonial position because his approach was considered ineffective”.
“Then Chen [was made Xinjiang party chief] and he probably saw this as a great opportunity to reach a high position in the Politburo. He went back to Wang Lequan’s approach.”
Leibold said that many Uygurs saw the latest security measures as targeting Muslim practices.
“It would be naive to claim that China does not have a problem with radical Islam both domestically and internationally,” said Leibold. “Yet its show of force is disproportional to the actual threat posed. Like swatting flies with a machine gun, it is counterproductive, as repressive policies in Xinjiang reinforce the perception that the Xi Jinping leadership is anti-Islam. This not only undermines the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project but also threatens to make China’s problem with terror far more serious and complex in the future.”
The release of the Islamic State video appears to be an effort by the terror group to capitalise on the situation in Xinjiang. It shows Uygur fighters who threaten to “shed rivers of blood and avenge the oppressed” in China.
Experts say the video marks a shift from years past when China rarely figured in statements by global jihadist groups.
But prominent Uygurs have denounced the video.
Dolkun Isa, general secretary of the Munich based World Uygur Congress – an organisation in exile, said the militants who appeared in the video did not represent the Uygur people. “No one who joins Islamic State can say he is a Uygur,” he said. ■