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The recent violence in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, sparked by a race riot in distant Guangdong province’s industrial heartland ignited deep ethnic tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese. The Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement now threatens to supplant the Tibetan independence movement as China’s greatest threat to internal stability.
By Alexander Neill, Head, Asia Programme RUSI
Nearly one year after a spate of attacks against Chinese security forces in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region on the approach of the Beijing Olympics, violence has returned to the streets of the region’s capital, Urumqi, leaving hundreds dead and injured. Ethnic Uighurs rampaged through parts of Urumqi on Sunday, burning and looting vehicles and shops. Many Han Chinese residents of the city became the victims of indiscriminate attacks by Uighur rioters, resulting in high levels of Chinese civilian casualties. In response, Chinese authorities under the direction of Chinese politburo member and Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan have introduced martial law in the city and are establishing a well-rehearsed regional cordon sanitaire in anticipation of reprisals by Uighur militant groups. Further civil unrest can also be expected, particularly since Han Chinese residents of the city have now taken to the streets seeking revenge against the city’s Uighur community. It is estimated that at least 30,000 Chinese soldiers and paramilitary officers have been deployed to restive areas of Xinjiang, primarily in Uighur majority cities and townships. The international media has been quick to draw comparison with the Tibetan riots of 2008, and the Chinese authorities have pointed the finger of blame at the ‘Uighur Dalai Lama’ Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of the World Uyghur Congress.
A Turkic race whose genetic roots are entwined with the development of the early Silk Road, Uighurs share little in common with their Han Chinese overlords. The Uighur population, numbering approximately 10 million, is Muslim. Like Tibet, in the last fifteen years, Xinjiang, occupying a similarly vast expanse of wilderness, has experienced an enormous influx of Han settlers and capital, acting as an overflow valve for China’s burgeoning migrant population. Unlike Tibet however, Xinjiang occupies the oil and gas rich Tarim basin, and Urumqi is China’s commercial gateway to Central Asia. The arteries that have fed the growth of Xinjiang in recent years follow the same path as the old Silk Road but the flow of Chinese outward investment is pointed in the direction of Central Asia while Xinjiang’s energy resources flow eastwards into China. Most of Xinjiang’s new found wealth rests in the coffers of Han Chinese, with Uighurs finding themselves outnumbered by the Han and largely disenfranchised in their own homeland. Urumqi city best represents this disparity and for this reason bore witness to the outbreak of violence against Chinese interests. The violence in Urumqi is a major thorn in the side of China’s ‘develop the west campaign’ and its strategic aim of investing in Xinjiang as an economic hub on the ‘new silk road’ in central Asia. As recently as 30 June Turkish President Abdullah Gul gave a speech at Xinjiang University in Urumqi, heralding the city as a pivotal transition point along the Silk Road, which started in Xian, passed through Xinjiang and ended at Istanbul.
Curiously, this spill over of ethnic tension was sparked by an incident thousands of miles away in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, precipitating the riots in Urumqi. According to Chinese authorities, on 26 June a false rumour by a disgruntled Chinese worker accusing Uighur migrant workers at a toy factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, of the rape of two Chinese girls sparked an attack that killed two Uighurs and left more than 100 injured. 400 police had to be deployed to contain the fighting which broke out at the site of a migrant workers dormitory occupied by 800 Uighur workers hired by the factory in June. Very soon the brutal beatings of Uighur workers fleeing the site were posted on the internet, fuelling Uighur anger both abroad and on the streets of Urumqi, culminating in the deadly events of 6 July.
The international media have tended to ignore this smouldering flash point on China’s door step to Central Asia. The Xinjiang problem poses a far more troubling dilemma for the Chinese leadership than the irritant posed by the Dalai Lama, not least because of Xinjiang is home to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and its affiliates, who call for independence from Chinese Communist Party rule and the establishment of a republic of ‘East Turkestan’. China’s greatest fear is that with greater economic freedom in Xinjiang, Uighur secessionists will seek to emulate the recent colour revolutions in neighbouring Central Asian States. The Uighur independence movement was born during the days of the ‘great game’ played out by the British Raj in Afghanistan, and to the north by Tsarist Russia. The area occupied by modern-day Xinjiang (‘new frontier’ in Chinese) was squabbled over by Tsarist Russia and the Qing dynasty for decades. In 1997, an estimated 200 Uighur protesters were shot dead and thousands imprisoned by Chinese authorities following rioting in Yining, a hotbed of Uighur dissent close to the border with Kazakhstan. At this point Uighur separatists launched a campaign which, over the past decade, has waged a campaign of violence against Beijing and Han interests.
While until now, the biggest threat to China’s international image was embodied by the Tibet independence movement, organised militant separatism in Xinjiang represents a greater real threat for Beijing, compounded by the new ethnic rivalry evident both in Shaoguan riots and the atrocities committed in Urumqi. The Uighurs have been historically enterprising throughout China with minority communities existing in most large Chinese cities. The ETIM allegedly operates networks throughout Central Asia and as far south as Pakistan and enjoys the support of Turkish nationalists in Istanbul. With active cells operating within Xinjiang and elsewhere in Central Asia, ETIM has waged a violent campaign against Han interests for three decades across China’s western periphery, occasionally infiltrating the Chinese hinterland. Whether or not ETIM is linked to Al-Qa’ida and its campaign of global jihad against Western interests is less clear, although US authorities during the Bush administration maintained that this was the case. The ETIM suffered a blow when, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US State Department placed the organisation on its official list of terrorist organisations, in what some analysts argue was a trade-off with Beijing for Chinese support in the ‘coalition of the willing’.
Some Uighur separatists from China have been attracted to Islamic militancy elsewhere in Central Asia and subsequently found themselves confronting coalition forces in Afghanistan. The East Turkestan cause was weakened upon the discovery that Uighurs were allegedly found to be associated with Osama Bin Laden’s entourage, some of whom ended up in Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay. The end game in this extraordinary journey in exile by the Guantanamo Uighurs was reported recently in the Western media. Having been released without trial by the US military and unable to return to China, these individuals have been granted residency by the governments of Albania, Bermuda and Palao.
Chronology of violence
According to Chinese reports in January 2007, Chinese police destroyed a terrorist training camp in the Pamir plateau, killing eighteen terrorists and capturing seventeen. The police also seized twenty-two hand grenades and more than 1,500 half-finished grenades, and some home-made explosives. One Chinese officer was killed and another injured in the raid.
One year later, prior to the riots in Tibet last year, Chinese authorities reported a number of attacks by Uighur separatists. Chinese police disrupted a terrorist cell on 27 January 2008 in Urumqi, killing two and arresting fifteen others. Five police were injured during the raid when three homemade grenades were thrown at them.
On 7 March 2008 a Uighur couple attempted to ignite liquid explosive devices contained in soda cans with the intention of bringing down China Southern flight CZ6901 en route to Beijing from Urumqi. The couple were subdued and the aircraft made an emergency landing in the north-western city of Lanzhou. Reports of arrests in the town of Yining after the discovery of bomb making equipment there were followed by rumours of a similar sting operation in Urumqi following a bus bombing there.
On 4 August 2008 two terrorists, armed with guns, explosives, knives and axes, drove a heavy truck onto a team of more than seventy police in a regular morning exercise in Kashgar. Seventeen people were killed and fifteen injured in the attack four days before the Beijing Olympics. A week later co-ordinated explosions occurred in the early hours in certain supermarkets, hotels and government buildings in Kuqa County, killing a security guard and injuring two policemen. Eight terrorists were shot dead by police while two others killed blew themselves up.
More recently, two spheres of militancy within the Turkestan independence movement have emerged in China. The first strand is the purely separatist threat which has caused so much trouble for Chinese authorities over the last two decades, relating to the broader East Turkestan independence movement which seeks to establish a republic in the XUAR. The second and newer strand is the Islamic extremist threat from radicalised Uighur separatist groups.
Following bus bombings on 21 July in Kunming, the provincial capital of China’s south western Yunnan province, a group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) issued a video claiming responsibility for the bus attack and other incidents elsewhere in China, including attacks in Shanghai. The video has all the trappings of Islamic militant zeal and threatened violence in Beijing during the Olympic Games.
In the wake of a crack-down by Chinese authorities on militant cells throughout Xinjiang last year, for the first time the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Liberation Party) has demonstrated the extent of its network in Xinjiang and possibly beyond. From 22 to 23 March, HT staged protests in Xinjiang's Hetian County, Kashgar Prefecture, Urumqi City and in the Kizilsu Kyrghyz Autonomous Prefecture, distributing reactionary leaflets and posters and organising street protests. Three demonstrations took place in Hetian city on 23 March but they were suppressed by Chinese authorities. Very little further information has emerged; suffice to say that a logical link could be made between the burgeoning influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Xinjiang and the militant Islam of the TIP.
Underlining the gravity of the state of emergency in Xinjiang, Chinese President Hu Jintao has returned early from G8 discussions to handle the crisis at home. Despite China’s best efforts to bring prosperity to Xinjiang, the lingering hatred between Uighurs and the Han epitomised by ETIM’s militant activities has now boiled over onto the streets. China not only has to tackle the inevitable threat of reprisal attacks by ETIM, but also growing Islamic extremism throughout Xinjiang and widespread ethnic tension between Han and Uighur communities. In a new development however, the Chinese government now faces a public relations test as world media attention focuses on this far-flung corner of central Asia.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.