On 15 January, authorities in Beijing arrested the outspoken critic of government policies in Xinjiang, Ilham Tohti. Tohti, an Uyghur scholar, has called into question the dominant government narratives on aggressive economic development for the Uyghur and the extent of Uyghur ‘terrorism’.
Just days after Tohti’s arrest the Xinjiang regional government announced that it would double the public security bureau’s ‘counter-terrorism’ budget for 2014 in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks and curb religious extremism.
But this is only the latest incident. Inter-ethnic violence in the regional capital, Urumqi, captured international headlines in July 2009. Since then, numerous incidents of violence have rocked the region — including anti-government protests, attacks on police stations and inter-ethnic clashes. Last year alone was punctuated by at least five such incidents in Kashgar and surrounding areas, as well as in Turpan and Khotan. The regional authorities have claimed that these incidents have been the handiwork of extremist and terrorist gangs bent on ‘jihad’ with links to hostile external forces. In their attempts to link unrest in Xinjiang with such forces the authorities have also made the expansive claim that up to 100 Uyghurs have travelled to Syria to ‘sharpen their terrorist skills’.
Although it may be difficult to either confirm or refute this claim, it is not difficult to pinpoint the three aspects of long-term Chinese policy that are contributing to unrest in Xinjiang.
The first is the state’s commitment to fully integrate Xinjiang and the Uyghur politically, economically and culturally with China. While this has been the overarching goal of state policy in the region since its ‘peaceful liberation’ by the PLA in 1949, it is one that has been embodied since the 1990s in ‘state-led mega-projects’ — such as massive oil and natural gas pipelines linking Xinjiang to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. While bringing economic development, these projects have also destroyed Uyghur communities (such as the destruction of much of the old city of Kashgar through the $500 million ‘Kashgar Dangerous House Reform’ program), displaced thousands, and brought an influx of Han migrants to the region.
Second, alongside this state-led modernization strategy, the authorities have implemented yearly ‘strike hard’ campaigns. These are against ‘splittists’ and, since 9/11, ‘terrorists and extremists’. Before 2001 these campaigns led to accelerated trials of alleged ‘splittists’. But in the post-9/11 climate the actions that are now criminalized as ‘terrorist’ acts have been expanded and punitive measures increased. This approach continues with Xinjiang governor Nur Berki. When announcing the increase to the counter-terrorism budget, Berki stated that the government would ‘constantly strike hard against violent terrorism, showing no mercy, in accordance with the law, and maintaining a high-handed posture’.
This leads to the third major issue contributing to unrest: the state’s continued desire to monitor and control ethnic minorities’ cultural and religious expression. Since the 1990s the regional government has been especially vigilant with respect to what it terms ‘illegal religious activities’ — that is, all religious or cultural activities that take place outside of state-sanctioned parameters. Significantly, the government’s continued anti-religious campaigns played a role in stimulating some of last year’s unrest in Turpan. Characteristic of the state’s heavy-handed approach has been the ‘Project Beauty’ campaign that is aimed at discouraging mostly Uyghur women from wearing traditional headscarves or veils.
In the aftermath of the 2009 Urumqi events, long-serving Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan was removed by Beijing in favor of the reportedly reform-minded Zhang Chuxian. This raised hopes that Zhang’s lighter touch would moderate tensions in the region. But Zhang’s return to old strategies and political slogans — such as his 2011 call for the CCP to institute ‘flexible iron-fisted rule’ — quickly dispelled hopes.
The most noteworthy ‘innovation’ in Chinese policy toward Xinjiang and the Uyghur since 2009 concerns Ilham Tohti. His arrest signals that Xi Jinping is determined to take the ideological fight to those advocating greater autonomy for Xinjiang’s Uyghurs.
Three days after Tohti’s arrest the Global Times excoriated the scholar. In an editorial it described him as someone who had abused his position to advocate for greater autonomy for Xinjiang. Tohti’s questioning of government claims regarding the extent of ‘terrorist’ acts amounted to an attempt to ‘find a moral excuse for terrorists’. The editorial concluded that without ‘brains’ like Tohti behind the ‘terrorists’ they would be a clueless mob.
This reveals the motive behind Tohti’s arrest: his criticism of the CCP’s line on the Uyghur and Xinjiang are perceived by Beijing as providing moral and intellectual succor to disaffected Uyghurs in Xinjiang. But if the CCP does not address the fact that its policies in Xinjiang play a role in stimulating such disaffection, the region will be doomed to repeat its cycle of unrest and violence.
Michael Clarke is a senior research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University.
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