By Raffaello Pantucci
First published by www.rusi.org, July 23, 2014
The 2009 Urumqi riots marked a watershed for Beijing’s policy towards the region. Largely ignored by the capital as a backwater that was ruled over by strongman governor Wang Lequan, the scale of the riots in Xinjiang obliged then President Hu Jintao into the embarrassing situation of having to leave a G8 Summit in Italy to come and take charge of the situation. In the wake of the rioting, numerous senior security officials in the province were sacked and a year later the 15-year provincial head Wang Lequan moved back to Beijing. At around the same time in 2010, the government announced a new strategy towards Xinjiang, focused heavily on economic investment and developing the province’s trade links with Central Asia.
Four years on from launch of this strategy, the violence and problems in the region continue. Once largely contained in the southern part of the region (the part that is still predominantly Uighur, the Turkic ethnic minority resident in Xinjiang who chafe under Beijing’s rule) and mostly focused on attacking symbols of the state, anger from Xinjiang is now expressing itself in brutal attacks on civilians in Beijing, Kunming and Guangzhou. In April and May incidents took place in the provincial capital Urumqi involving bombs and targeting of random crowds at a market and train station.
It is unclear the degree that the violence in the province is being orchestrated from outside China. So far the evidence offered by the Chinese government seems to suggest that the connection with outside groups is focused on people within the province consuming radical online material produced by extremists outside the country.
Beyond this, the strongest tangible evidence of connections between outside China and the trouble in Xinjiang seems to be focused around the repeated incidents of Uighurs reportedly trying to flee the country and coming into trouble either at the border or once outside. In late January, eleven were killed in Kyrgyzstan in a mysterious clash in which a group of Uighurs confronted border guards. In March a group of some 200 Uighurs were found in Thailand. Claiming to be Turkish, they demanded repatriation to Turkey, only to be discovered to be Uighur and claimed by the Chinese authorities. Then in mid-April a group of Uighurs were caught crossing into Vietnam, only to attack the Vietnamese border guards trying to repatriate them.
Heavy Security and Investment
China’s security forces are clearly uncertain as to how to deal with this problem. The security focus is on hardening public security, with armed police being deployed in major cities, vigilance being increased among public workers at sensitive sites and heavier security checks on public transport. In Urumqi, there is a pervasive security presence and reports from the south of the province suggest an even more robust display of strength and counter-clashes there. The government has focused heavily on curbing radical material online and persuaded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral regional body linking China to Central Asia, to focus its efforts on countering online radicalisation and the dissemination of extremist material.
At a more strategic level, in June the government held a second major work conference on Xinjiang, with a major conclusion that the current approach of heavy economic investment was not ample to resolve the problems. President Xi has spoken of increasing regional ethnic integration and improving educational attainment in the province. He also highlighted the importance of religious tolerance, of focusing on economic benefits reaching minorities in the province and other messages that seemed to suggest a desire to push beyond the traditional dual track approach of economic investment paired with the heavy hand of state security. Whether these messages are getting through on the ground is not always clear, however, with stories circulating of authorities in the province telling officials they could not fast during Ramadan – something that seems at odds with a tolerant approach to religion. It is also not clear that the approaches towards affirmative action in terms of companies in the region hiring minorities is new, with similar proclamations having been made before.
Rather, indications from the ground (in terms of attacks or reports of people trying to flee) and discussions with locals in the capital Urumqi suggest that many Uighurs continue to feel alienated from modern China. None of this excuses the sort of actions like the savage attack in Kunming, but it does show a deep disenfranchisement clearly exists among China’s minority Uighur community.
There is a need for China to offer an appealing alternative to its Uighur community and to develop a strategy that gives people a sense of belonging within the modern Chinese state. Doing this is not an easy prospect, but it is clear that the current approach is not bearing fruit. The Chinese leadership in Beijing is clearly starting to think in this direction: something highlighted by the President’s comments in June, but this has not translated into effective action on the ground.
Five years on from the most violent rioting to face China in years, Beijing is still seeking a solution to its problems in Xinjiang. Other countries with similar problems have faced them for decades before they are able to manage them into a less menacing form and for China a negative outcome is not an option. It seems likely that China is going to face an equally challenging struggle to resolve Xinjiang’s troubles.