Xinjiang’s April 23 Clash the Worst in Province since July 2009

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in China Brief May 23, 2013

On April 24, reports emerged from Xinjiang that 21 people had been killed in what was reported as a “terrorist clash” in Bachu County, Kashgar Prefecture (Xinhua, April 24). The incident came as U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke was undertaking the first visit to the province by a senior U.S. delegation in 20 years as part of Beijing’s push to attract foreign investment to the province (Xinjiang Daily, April 25). The juxtaposition of the two events highlighted Beijing’s persistent difficulties in taming the province’s tensions. They call into question Beijing’s economics-based strategy while illustrating the ongoing questions about the drivers of radicalization in the province.

Initial descriptions about the events in Selibuya village in Bachu County (also known as Maralbexi) just outside Kashgar, suggested the incident was the product of a “violent clash between suspected terrorists and authorities” (Xinhua, April 24). Three community workers were described as entering a property and finding suspicious individuals with knives. They managed to alert others, but were killed before help could arrive. This lead to a larger clash in which a total of 15 police and community workers were killed while six so-called “mobsters” were shot to death (Xinjiang Daily, April 24;Shanghai Daily, April 24). The 15 dead were heralded later as “martyrs” and identified by their ethnicities as 10 Uighur, three Han and two Mongolians (Xinhua, April 29). Grim pictures released in the days after the funerals seemed to show females identified as cadres with their throats slit (CCTV13, April 30).

Xinjiang government spokeswoman Hou Hanmin quickly blamed the incident as being the work of terrorists (Reuters, April 24). Two days later after U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell refused to call it terrorism, an editorial lashed out at U.S. “double standards,” something felt all the more keenly in the wake of the Boston bombings in which a Chinese student was killed (Xinhua, April 26). A few days later, security forces announced they had arrested a further 11 suspects for involvement in the incident, bringing the total number of captured individuals to 19 (Xinhua, April 29). In making this announcement, the government laid out its claim that they had disrupted a terrorist cell headed by Qasim Muhammat (also spelt Kasmu Memet) that had been founded in September 2012 and was in the process of planning “something big” this summer in Kashgar (Xinhua, April 29). The group allegedly would gather at cell member Muhanmetemin Barat’s house where they would do physical training, watch extremist videos, read the Koran and practice making explosives (Xinhua, April 29). The group was in the process of making explosives at the house when the three community workers came visiting leading to the incident (Xinhua, April 29).

According to an official timeline released by the government, one of the members of the cell, Musar Aisanjon, had first come to security officials’ attention in July 2007 when he was questioned by authorities linked to unspecified charges. Three years later, he is alleged to have met Qasim Muhammat, who subsequently went on to recruit the other members of the cell (China Daily, April 30). By September 2012, the group was formed and under Qasim’s lead were gathering regularly to train, listen and watch radical material and make knives. By the time of the incident, they allegedly had tested explosives five times. When authorities subsequently raided the properties, they uncovered knives, combat training equipment, illegal religious material and three jihadist flags along with at least one identified as being an “East Turkestan” banner (Xinhua, April 29; China Daily, April 30). Nevertheless, a few days later spokeswoman Huo Hanmin went on record saying that the incident and individuals involved “had no connection with foreign forces” in contrast to many previous incidents where external influences were blamed (China Daily, May 2).

This official version of events was disputed remotely by dissident groups through Radio Free Asia, where they called for independent coverage of the story (RFA, May 3). A BBC crew was able to get to Selibuya and spoke to locals who said a family that was at the center of the clash had “a long-standing dispute with officials.” Apparently very religious, the family was under pressure to shave their beards and for their women to unveil themselves—something that was apparently in accordance with local laws. The family refused and something snapped on April 23 leading to the brutal incident (BBC, April 26). Little of this account beyond the end result was corroborated by official Chinese reports, leaving observers in the usual frustrating state of confusion when observing such incidents in Xinjiang.

Waters were further muddied when RFA—citing Uighur websites, local sources and dissident groups—reported that there had been a further incident in Hotan, Xinjiang during which two more community workers were killed and three cars burned in an incident sparked off by clampdowns in the wake of the Selibuya deaths (RFA, April 26). No further information has emerged about this incident. Other incidents reported by RFA in subsequent days (and not corroborated elsewhere) showed tensions between Uighur and Han across the country. One report indicated there had been a clash between Uighur and Han students at Beijing’s Minorities University leading to the authorities separating the two communities on campus (RFA, April 29). Meanwhile in Shanghai, a group of Uighur women protesting their being banned from selling products outside the Changde Lu Mosque, reportedly were moved along violently by local authorities (RFA, May 3). It is unclear if there is any connection between all of these events and whether these are anything more than usual intra-ethnic tensions. They do, however, highlight a persistent issue.

A contact in Kashgar at around the time of the incident reported no particular local coverage of events, with locals suggesting they return to Urumqi rather than press on toward the borders near Kashgar. Another report indicated that the government had re-issued laws regulating possession of SIM cards in the region (RFA, April 30). Such laws had been issued previously in conjunction with other rioting when it was believed that dissemination of pictures of Han or Uighur brutality against each other had exacerbated tensions. By having people registering SIM cards against ID cards, the belief was that individuals could be tracked.

While possibly sensible from a security surveillance perspective, such measures are impediments to rapid transfer of information. Something that when taken in conjunction with the confusion that permeates the official accounts of the events in Selibuya suggests that the government is going to continue to have a difficult time in attracting the external investment that it is looking for to develop the province. External investors will be both alarmed by the security situation, but also the heavily watched environment and the impediments to obtain SIM cards.

According to 2012 trade figures, during the first 11 months of 2012, Xinjiang attracted some $396 million in foreign direct investment (FDI)—a figure up 30.8 percent year-on-year—but still paltry when put in the context of the $100.02 billion that China overall attracted during the same period (Xinhua, December 21, 2012). Eager to attract foreign firms, the Xinjiang government has been proactive in bringing foreign companies out to the province. It has signed a cooperation agreement with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI); Volkswagen has established a joint venture car factory outside Urumqi; French waste management firm Veolia is taking on the modernization of Urumqi’s wastewater infrastructure; Coca-Cola is opening a plant in the province with its bottling partner Cofco; IBM is working with authorities in Karamay to develop a “smart city”; Danish wind power manufacturer LM Glasfiber setting up a factory in the Urumqi Economic and Technological Development Zone; and Turkey signed an agreement in 2011 to develop a Sino-Turkish Development Park outside Urumqi (www.cbi.org.uk, January 28; China Daily, November 14, 2012; South China Morning Post, April 3, 2012; China Daily, August 16, 2011; www.finance.veolia.com, September 1, 2005). More recently, the U.S. delegation visiting with Ambassador Locke had representatives from GE, the Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa), DuPont, Cummins and Peabody Energy Corporation (Xinjiang Daily, April 25).

All of this activity, however, does not seem to be translating into a huge pay-off on the ground as external investment remains relatively low. Foreign firms wonder about the prospects in the wake of incidents like that in Selibuya as well as practical concerns like the province’s still underdeveloped infrastructure and its distance from any bodies of water or markets. The annual China-Eurasia Expo held in Urumqi in September, for example, is intended as a further FDI booster, but most of the deals done are between Chinese firms. During the 2011 Expo, $29.14 billion in deals were signed with Chinese firms versus $5.5 billion in foreign trade contracts (Xinhua, September 3, 2012).

What does seem to have changed, however, is the government’s willingness to blame incidents like that in Selibuya on outside actors (something attested to by Huo Hanmin’s earlier clarifications). In a number of discussions over the past year, the author has heard Chinese scholars suggest that incidents in Xinjiang are at root domestic problems rather than external ones [2]. Xinjiang Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian published an article in Seeking Truth following the wake of the Bachu incident in which he laid out the current context and strategy for developing Xinjiang. Hinting at a slight adjustment in the degree to which authorities are eager to blame outside forces, Zhang described the security problems in terms of social stability and development rather than blaming foreign elements (Qiushi, May 16). In keeping with the reported paranoia of the security services, an anonymous Xinjiang security official, however, said “The ‘three evil forces’ of separatism, extremism and terrorism have long been using mobile phones and the Internet to incite terrorist attacks in China” (Xinhua, May 17). The party secretary’s article stands in contrast to statements in response to previous incidents where outside groups were accused of directing plotters and infiltrating operatives.

Further confusing matters, at around the time of the incident, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) released its latest batch of videos through Islam Awazi, including one in which a now believed dead senior al Qaeda ideologue, Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti provides “advice for the Muslims of East Turkestan” (jihadology.net, May 4). At no point in these videos is there any mention of recent incidents in Xinjiang or of any specific direct threats against targets in China. Something suggestive of a disconnect between what Uighur groups operate in Waziristan and their ethnic brethren in Xinjiang. The narrative of this incident further emphases this discontent, pointing in the direction of being a domestic clash with no external instigation.

The fact that government has chosen to release such detailed information about this incident would suggest an effort to get their side out with as much detail and openness as possible. This reflects the growing desire of propagandists to have official government bureaus be the most authoritative source on breaking events (Study Times, May 6). This public relations approach seems to be part of a broader effort to shift the messaging about who is to blame for such incidents. Who this is directed at, however, is unclear: the international community, Chinese residents elsewhere in the country or residents of Xinjiang? Whichever the case, given their previous history of opacity and conflicting views from the ground, much more still needs to be done for Beijing’s views on events in Xinjiang to be taken at face value.

Notes:

  1. Author’s Communication with Foreign Visitor in Kashgar, April 24, 2013.
  2. This is a perspective the author has heard at conferences at official think tanks in Beijing and Shanghai and has been corroborated by other foreign scholars in discussions with Chinese experts looking at terrorism questions and South Asia.

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