By Raffaello Pantucci
The attack in Xinjiang comes as President Xi Jinping completes a visit to the province in which he spoke of it being ‘the front line in anti-terrorism and maintaining social stability.’ Coming after a year in which violence in the province has been increasing, the incident at Urumqi train station highlights once again how the problems in the province are escalating.
While not all the details around the incident are available at the moment, official reports indicate that a pair of attackers armed with knives detonated explosives outside the exit of Urumqi South train station. One of the attackers was identified as an ethnic Uighur called Sedierding Shawuti from Aksu, a part of the province that has seen a number of incidents take place this year. Three people have been reported killed, two assailants and a third bystander. The style of attack, involving explosives and individuals using knives is something that has been seen before in the province, though usually it seems to be more targeted at symbols of state authority and it does not take place in Urumqi. The fact that the attack comes as Xi Jinping is concluding his trip to the province only increases the impact and highlights how the very problems he had come to speak about continue to be a major issue.
In Xinjiang over the past year problems have been escalating. Be this in terms of attacks against state authority in Xinjiang, incidents linked to the province in Beijing and Kunming or increasing reports of ethnic Uighurs (a Turkic minority mostly resident in Xinjiang) trying to flee the country into Central Asia or Southeast Asia. The escalation now of an attack involving individuals who according to local reports were using bombs strapped to their persons is new, though in previous attacks it has certainly seemed as though individuals were expecting to die in pursuit of their act. This determination atop the previous incidents demonstrates a level of dedication by the individuals involved that is clearly founded in a sense of their message not getting through.
The key problem at the heart of China’s issues in Xinjiang is a sense of alienation and disenfranchisement amongst the Uighur community. Go around the province and you will find individuals who do not feel they benefit from the Chinese state and complain about in-flows to the province of ethnically Han Chinese who are perceived as being the primary beneficiaries of the province’s wealth. People complain about the state destroying their culture and point to the destruction of the old city of Kashgar as evidence.
The Chinese government’s response so far has been a dual track: heavy economic investment and a hardline security crackdown. Messages that resonated throughout President Xi’s visit, with him pictured talking to police officers in Kashgar and visiting fruit factories. Since President Xi came into power he has spoken repeatedly about terrorism as an issue, and also introduced a new National Security Council – a central security organ that seems to have terrorism as one of the issues it will focus on. Beyond China’s borders, he has spoken of the New Silk Road Economic belt, an economic and trade corridor that flows from the province into Central Asia and is in part about trying to improve the economic situation in the province.
The current strategic approach echoes previous efforts in the province, but was brought into clearer focus in the wake of a strategy that was introduced in 2010 in the wake of rioting in July 2009 in Urumqi that led to more than 200 deaths. There was a substantial change-over in leadership in the province, and a renewed economic focus in particular. But while the government is clearly very focused on the issue, it is not totally clear that what it has been doing has been paying off. Rather, violence in the province has continued, developed further and started to spread around the country.
The prognosis for Xinjiang at the moment is not positive. The level and tenor of incidents is getting worse and any economic strategy will not bear fruit for some time. Furthermore, public anger and concern around the problems in Xinjiang and terrorism emanating from the province is getting worse. The answer for the Chinese government is a complicated one that is founded in continuing to try to find ways to make Uighurs feel like they have a stake in modern China. At the same time, Beijing has to find ways of addressing the growing tenor and increasing random nature of terrorism attacks in China.