This morning, Xinjiang made it into the news again with another violent clash (AP, AFP, Australian, Reuters, VOA, NYT). In Lukqun township, outside the city of Turpan, protesters attacked a police station, government offices, and a construction site. The mob apparently carried knives in the attack and set police cars on fire, which caused the death of nine security personnel and eight civilians. Police responded by firing on the crowd, leaving 10 dead. Pictures have surfaced on the Chinese Internet (here and here).
Information about violent incidents in Xinjiang is always difficult to ascertain. The news is strictly controlled by the Chinese government and foreign media coverage usually consists of summarizing state media reports and a few comments from the World Uyghur Congress. This June 26 incident is no different. While the actual sequence of events is often elusive, state media reports are even more careful when it comes to framing motivation and ethnicity. At the time of this writing, state media has not released any information on motivation or the ethnicity of the mob.
This is similar to the April 23 incident (soon after Boston Bombings) where ethnicity was not initially released, though later it turned out to be Uyghurs as expected. The Chinese government insinuated early on that it was a terror attack and later released information about the terror group to back up its claim. On April 23, when a confrontation outside of Kashgar left 25 people dead (21 was the initial count and most often cited, but 25 was another number released later on). The state’s narrative of events and motivations were aggressively questioned by the World Uyghur Congress. State media claimed that local officials accidentally stumbled upon these suspicious characters in a residence, leading people in the house to take them hostage. Police backup arrived soon thereafter, leading to the violent clash.
Six of the assailants (ethnic Uyghurs) and 19 police were killed in the violence, which included knives and arson. Hou Hanmin, the spokeswoman for the Xinjiang government, was quoted as saying, “They had been training in their own house for several months. They were affected by extremism and hoped to commit themselves to Jihad.” Police allegedly found flags with jihadist slogans and extremist religious literature. Eventually, a man named Kasmu Memet was described as the host of this terror group, leading Qur’an studies and preparing for a major attack.
Motivation and Ethnicity
We see in the current crisis as well as the April 23 incident that the Chinese government, when it comes to violence in Xinjiang, always has to deal with two factors: motivation and ethnicity. Motivation is important because China has weaved the unrest in Xinjiang into the U.S. global war on terror. A group known as “East Turkistan Islamic Movement” allegedly has trained for jihad in neighboring countries, particularly Afghanistan, and is engaged in a crusade to overthrow the Chinese government’s control of Xinjiang.
AFP reports that, “[a] verfiied Twitter account run by state-broadcaster CCTV called the violence a ‘riot,’ saying it was correcting an earlier message which described it as an ‘insurgent attack’.” It’s unlikely that the June 26 incident will go down in the books as a terror attack, but at the same time it is fascinating to see that it the gut reaction is to label the violence an act of terror. This gut reaction hints at something terribly wrong with China’s security policy in Xinjiang–it is blinded to the larger problems (e.g., economic discrimination, land grabs for development, religious restrictions) due to a myopic focus on terrorism.
The second factor, ethnicity, frequently overlaps with the motivation question. Without denying the existence of jihadists in Xinjiang, ethnicity, rather than religious extremism, is arguably the root cause of most violent clashes. We witnessed this in the July 2009 ethnic riots in Urumqi, which left almost 200 people dead according to state media. The riot remains the deadliest clash in the region. The appeal of Salafi-jihadism to Uyghur Islam (usually Hanafi like their fellow Turkic nationalities, with leanings toward Sufism) is slight and, by the admission of Chinese scholars, these “separatists” comprise a very small percentage of the total Uyghur population.
Ethnicity is as sensitive a topic as motivation because China’s policy toward religious freedom in Xinjiang is inherently a policy toward Uyghur ethnicity (being majority Muslim), even if the Chinese government wants to separate the two. For example, the government regulates how old a child must be before he can enter a mosque. Private Islamic education is forbidden, including the learning of Arabic. Though the ethnicity of the mob has not been released, it is more than likely to be Uyghur since the Uyghurs are the overwhelming majority of the Turpan population.
The Chinese government withholds ethnicity information because it recognizes the deteriorating effects of Han-Uyghur tensions (caused by alleged “Han chauvinism”) on Xinjiang stability. By keeping ethnicity out of the news and keeping the spotlight on security issues, Beijing hopes to frame Xinjiang’s unrest as religious extremism that should be combated by Han and Uyghur, united as brothers in the multi-national People’s Republic of China.
Just as the April 23 incident’s story evolved over time, we can expect this June 26 incident to do likewise. The two are very different. April 23 was part of the terrorism narrative, whereas June 26 looks like it will need to find another narrative. One can hope the Xinjiang government will use this incident to reconsider its current public policies in the region.