China's Uighur Dilemma After Tiananmen

November 15, 2013 Topic: TerrorismSecurity Region: ChinaAsia

China's Uighur Dilemma After Tiananmen

A deadly fire in Beijing, and China's worries about Xinjiang's stability.

Her words serve as an important reminder to not only the media, but also to authorities and average citizens alike. Soon after the attack occurred, the World Uighur Congress (WUC) received information that Chinese police in Ghulja, Xinjiang “set up more than 700 checkpoints in the city, mostly in residential areas where there is a dense population of Uighurs.” Ghulja is located close to the border of Kazakhstan, and is situated west of Kizilsu Kirshiz Autonomous Prefecture, where Usmen Hensen and his family lived. There are also reports of a crackdown in the southern city of Hotan. Back in Beijing, Uighurs are reporting increased scrutiny. Police are checking their identity papers and residency documents, even visiting Uighur homes late at night. Families worry about losing work or their homes as prejudice rises in the capital.

Professor Ilham Tohti posted his thoughts on Twitter on November 1. He argued that when the authorities investigate the Tiananmen attack, they should not only simply explain what occurred, but also reflect upon their own failings. No matter the nature of the situation, the government must first assume responsibility. Tohti suggested that although authorities publicly revealed a great many conclusions, they publicized this information without providing any evidence.

Professor Tohti further asserted that in recent years, Xinjiang authorities have undertaken oppressive policies, which continuously increased pressure on Uighurs. As a scholar who has observed and researched Uighur society for many years, he hopes that the government will alter these types of methods.

He urged the government to avoid assigning labels or drawing conclusions regarding any possible involvement of the East Turkestan Independence Movement before putting forward reliable evidence. If the ETIM is indeed behind the attack, asks Tohti, what is the organization's relationship with the accused? The government should explain the details and provide evidence.

Professor Tohti adamantly expresses his right and responsibility to speak out publicly on Uighur issues, and his fame abroad has helped protect him at home. His outspokenness has nevertheless unnerved Chinese officials, who earlier this year forbade him from taking up a fellowship at Indiana University. Plainclothes public security agents intentionally rammed his car—with his mother, wife, and two young children inside—on November 2nd. When confronted, the agent warned Tohti not to speak with foreign reporters and repeatedly threatened to kill his entire family.

The Beijing and Taiyuan Attacks in Comparative Perspective

The Chinese government's response to the Beijing attack contrasted sharply to the subsequent Taiyuan attack, where a former convict bombed the CCP provincial headquarters. When a Chinese netizen facetiously asked how the official media would report on the bombing, Chinese human-rights activist Wen Yunchao remarked, "[Han] Chinese terrorists. (How strange to hear! How come nobody came out this time and denounced this as a terrorist attack...?)"

China’s Global Times published an op-ed that urged the public against “
extremism. “It takes time to carry out further inquiries. No matter what the conclusion is, there is no need to exaggerate the influence of the explosions. We should avoid creating illusions that the bomb-planters carried out an earth-shattering event.” The call for the public to remain calm and avoid rushing to judgement stood in sharp contrast with the recent attacks in Beijing, when the government was quick to dub the Uighurs involved as tools of ETIM. Wang Zhanyang, a political scientist working at the CCP’s Central Institute of Socialism, even posted online that "There is a difference between 'taking revenge against society' and 'terrorist attacks,' even though both target regular people. If investigations reveal it's the work of Xinjiang separatists, then it's a terrorist attack.”="#.uooduceo7vi">

In discussing the Taiyuan and Beijing incidents, University of Glasgow scholar David Tobin argues that "Discontent among Han is framed as a less severe threat and is rightly seen within its social and individual context. However, Uighur discontent can be de-legitimised and presented as a national security threat by activating the discourse of ‘the Three Evils’.” He frames this discussion within the context of ongoing debates in China regarding the future of ethnic minority policies. “The authors of China’s ethnic minority policies in the inter-generational debate," Tobin states, "frame a common Chinese national identity as a prerequisite to China’s international strength. Ethnic minority identities are frequently framed by the CCP and Chinese intellectuals as a source of backwardness and insecurity for the Chinese nation."

“First generation” scholars “wish to maintain China as a multi-ethnic state of 56 different minzu groups and the ‘second generation’...[scholars] seek to transform China into a mono-ethnic race-state (guozu).” As for Xinjiang itself, its “position in China is articulated through internal boundaries which mark the region as economically and culturally inferior to the East of China. Both generations agree that ‘fusion’ is needed to make China wealthier and more powerful. The ‘first generation’ thinks this should left to the anonymous inevitability of Marxist dialectics where the ‘second generation’ believe they can socially engineer a shared Chinese identity.” If the second generation eventually gains ground and directly shapes public policy, then ethnic minorities may find it even more difficult to protect their cultural, linguistic, and religious heritage. Rather than creating a closely knit, monoethnic race-state, it might strain interethnic relations to the point whereby communities believe that direct confrontation with the Chinese state is their only remaining option.

Scholars, experts, and journalists must therefore ask themselves, what does the Chinese government seek to gain by shaping political narratives on terrorism in a way that reflects its own ethnic and religious agenda as well as geopolitical and geostrategic agenda? Which mechanisms can the government employ to empower ethnic and religious minorities to effectively and openly express their concerns regarding the implementation of minority policy, without subsequently branding them "terrorists," "separatists," or "extremists?" How can the government alleviate ethnic tensions in the long term while still providing space for ethnic and religious minorities to protect and preserve their unique cultures? The answers to these pressing questions can be achieved only through frank and open dialogue. Individual and collective actions motivated solely by fear and an impending sense of crisis will ultimately cause nothing but mutual harm and acrimony.

Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

Image: Flickr/Malcolm Brown. CC BY-SA 2.0.