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Q&A: What is Driving Violent Attacks in China’s Xinjiang?


Paramilitary policemen stand guard near the exit of the South Railway Station, where three people were killed and 79 wounded in a bomb and knife attack on Wednesday, in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, May 1, 2014.

Paramilitary policemen stand guard near the exit of the South Railway Station, where three people were killed and 79 wounded in a bomb and knife attack on Wednesday, in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, May 1, 2014.

Three people died and 79 were left wounded this week after a bombing near the main train station in Urumqi, the capital of China's restive region Xinjiang. The attack occurred shortly after China's president Xi Jinping completed a rare tour of the autonomous province, home to the ethnic Uighur minority.

China blames violence on extremists who want to separate Xinjiang from China through acts of terror. But Uighur rights groups say discrimination and religious suppression are driving Uighur people into committing extreme acts.

Rebecca Valli spoke with Barry Sautman, a professor who studies China's ethnic policies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.


Q: Why we are seeing increasing violence in and outside Xinjiang?

A: “Over the course of the last three or four years there have been more than one hundred attacks in Xinjiang and that means that scores of people have been killed and many others injured.

“This appears to be not something that is a response to particular events happening in Xinjiang, but rather a fairly concerted campaign, the problem is because of the non-transparency of Chinese government security operations we don’t really know who is the campaign by, we know that Chinese government always attributes it to the East Turkestan Independence Movement but this is a kind of vague conception of probably an amalgam of groups with different positions and different connections internationally.

Xinjiang province, China

Xinjiang province, China

“But it does seem that this continuous series of attacks is the reflection of the fact that internationally there are a larger number of attacks by various kinds of Islamist groups, and that what's happening in Xinjiang is part of that international upsurge. One could find connections between what happened in Xinjiang and what's happened elsewhere in the Muslim work in terms of this upsurge of Islamists violence. It reflects the growth I think of Salafist currents within the Islamic world.”

Q: In Xinjiang, China's President Xi Jinping met with government officials, schoolchildren and security troops. He compared terrorists to rats, but also spoke about the need for more integration between Han and Uighur people. What was the significance of Xi's visit, and what is the new leadership's policy in Xinjiang?

A: “I think that the most important aspect of Xi Jinping's visit to Xinjiang is the fact that it took place at all. It's not often that the very top leaders of China pay a visit to Xinjiang and particularly that they pay a visit to Nanjiang, that is the South part of Xinjiang which is of course the place where most of the trouble occurs and is also the poor part of Xinjiang.

“It seems to me that one of the reasons why this visit took place was precisely to set a tone for two kinds of increased activity in the near future. One of course would be to step up the fight against terrorism. And of course by coming to Xinjiang and meeting with people in the security apparatus this is a way in which the highest levels of the central government pledge to devote whatever resources are necessary to expand the fight against the terrorists.

“But on the other hand there's the prong of trying to do more to develop Xinjiang especially Southern Xinjiang which is the area of maximum concentration of poor Uighurs. I think Xi Jinping's visit indicates that more resources will be channeled not just to development in general, as often has been the case with Xinjiang, but rather specifically to raise the level of incomes of poor Uighurs and diminish the gap that exists between Ethnic groups in Xinjiang, particularly between Han and Uighur in terms of standard of living, the access to resources etcetera.”

Q: There were reports in the past few days of local authorities in Xinjiang asking residents to inform on neighbors who wore long beards on the grounds they could be connected with the most recent attack in Urumqi. What impact does this type of profiling have in Xinjiang?

A: “I do think that it's almost inevitable when there is an effort to root out group of people engaged in violent activity against the states that security forces are going to engage in some sort of profiling. In the context of Xinjiang of course they suspect that people involved in terrorism are first of all Uighur, second that they are Uighur with a particular orientation and that orientation may be toward for example Wahhabi Islam or maybe toward some other form of what they consider to be religious extremism and therefore they want to spot that people who may have that inclination.

“Having a long beard for example may be a sign of wanting to confirm to the stereotype of people who are especially devout. But of course whenever there is profiling of this kind inevitably lots of people who are not engaged in any kind of illegal activities are singled out for scrutiny and this causes resentment. In fact there have been efforts on the part of the Chinese state to try to force people to not dress in a certain way, or be involved in certain kinds of legal activity that has some relationship to religious devoutness, for example telling students to not fast during Ramadan or government employees to not fast, telling them to not grow beards. For women not to veil their faces etcetera, the whole idea is to try to divorce them from the pattern of living that is connected with religious devoutness in order to try to separate them from so called religious extremists elements.

“But this often has had the opposite effect from what was intended, that is people resent this kind of suppression and it may in fact make them more willing to take the path that authority doesn't want them to take.”

Q: Recently we have seen reports of Uighur travelling illegally to countries in South East Asia. Are we witnessing a new trend in the way Uighur people leave China, is it an exodus?

A: “It is probable that there is tightened security between Xinjiang and Central Asia, that border actually has been fairly open until recently. But obviously in the increase of the number of violent incidents occurring in Xinjiang that means that the border police and others have been more vigilant than in the past and it probably is more difficult therefore to leave Xinjiang if you don't have permission to leave than it has been in the past that is crossing over for example to Kazakhstan.

“So that may be one reason why people leave to go to South East Asia rather than leaving the way they were leaving before. It is also possible that if you go to South East Asia that may be the gateway to going to destinations that were not traditional destinations for people who were entering the Uighur diaspora, they may be for example make their way to Australia or go to parts of South Asia, but we really do not know for sure."

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