On March 1st eight Uyghurs, an ethnic minority located predominantly in Xinjiang province in northwest China, attacked a railway station in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan province in the southwest, with knives and machetes. Ultimately 29 were killed, over a hundred wounded, and four of the assailants shot dead. This is the largest terrorist attack in recent Chinese history and the most prominent attack carried out by Uyghurs outside of Xinjiang. Who are the Uyghurs exactly and what would inspire such a violent attack in a place like Kunming, far from the coastal centers of power? Having lived in China for the last few months I have seen periodic references to the Uyghurs and their independence struggle against China, but for a better view I turned to Gardner Bovingdon’s 2010 book The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. It is a good primer on the Uyghurs, their grievances against China, and the form their struggle has taken. I want to highlight below some of the interesting facts I garnered from this book and how they shed light on the Kunming attack.
To summarize some of the main history, the province of Xinjiang was conquered in the late 18th century by the Qing empire, though full territorial control was always spotty up until 1949, with two briefly independent states also existing in the area in the 1940’s. When the Communist Party came to power in 1949 it also assumed control of Xinjiang, despite the majority of the residents being Uyghurs and resistant to being part of the Chinese state. Hardliners in the CCP saw Xinjiang as an integral part of China for material and ideological reasons that will be covered below, and as a buffer against the Soviet Union. Since 1949 the Party has officially adopted a roughly multiculturalist stance in Xinjiang, proclaiming that Uyghurs are an ethnic minority in China that has the right to its own culture and that China itself is made up of many peoples working together. This rhetoric, however, has covered up the actual colonialist policies that China has carried out in Xinjiang. Even more so than the rest of China, especially during the current reform era, the Party has been repressive in Xinjiang. Uyghurs are often excluded from positions of power in the Party except for token leaders, and thus de facto rule of what many Uyghurs consider their homeland is denied to them. Uyghurs are excluded from the most economically profitable industries in Xinjiang. Uyghur cultural and religious practices – most Uyghurs are Muslim – are also often prohibited or discouraged by the state, such as religious gatherings or Uyghur language learning. Finally, the Party has policies that encourage Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang, both to carry out economic tasks prohibited to Uyghurs and to dilute the Uyghur, eventually making them a minority in their own land. Various details of this picture have changed over the years, but often not for the better for Uyghurs, and the state has often gotten more oppressive since prominent Uyghur uprisings in 1990, 1997, and 2009.
As I stated above, there are material and ideological reasons for China’s continued hold on Xinjiang, or East Turkestan as it is called by Uyghur independence activists, and claims that it is an inviolable part of Chinese territory. Materially the area is home to enormous natural gas and oil reserves, important for fueling China’s economy and maintaining energy security. Xinjiang also opens up natural trade routes to the economies, and again energy supplies, of Central Asia. The area has also been ideal for nuclear testing in the past, which Uyghurs have often protested against. Ideologically the Party refuses to give up any territory, whether that is Xinjiang, Tibet, claims to Taiwan or the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. One reason is due to the lingering history of China’s “century of humiliation” from the First Opium War in the mid-nineteenth century until the founding of the PRC in 1949. The weakened Qing and Republican governments were often forced to give territorial concessions to foreign governments like the British, the French, Germans, and probably most insultingly the Japanese. The loss of any Chinese territory would be a terrible blow to the Party’s ideological legitimization of freeing China from colonial rule, even if that ironically warrants China acting as an imperial aggressor in Xinjiang and Tibet. From more recent history, many Party leaders are convinced that the loss of any territory would presage the collapse of the Party itself. This comes from the Chinese view of the dissolution of the USSR, where the breakaway countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia are seen as part of Gorbachev’s reformist policies and one cause for the soviet’s own destruction.
These ideological factors make Chinese state actors particularly hard line and the Party has consistently refused to acknowledge any legitimacy to Uyghur claims for independence or greater autonomy, and a refusal to negotiate with Uyghur transnational groups. Both China and Uyghurs contest the actual history of Xinjiang/East Turkestan; the Chinese claim there has been a Han presence in the area going back a couple thousands years, while Uyghurs claim there have been several independent nations in the area in the past. The truth is kind of in-between; there was a Chinese presence briefly during the Han and Tang dynasties but mostly different Central Asian states. The truth isn’t really useful here though, as modern claims to a nation-state often hinge on the idea of a single people who have lived in an area in perpetuity, a historically very modern idea that is linked to the origins of territory in 16th century Europe, as Stuart Elden excellently shows in his recent The Birth of Territory.
Since 1949 there have been several prominent waves of transnational organizing by Uyghurs living outside of China. In the fifties through the eighties much of this activity was located in Turkey with the permission of sympathetic Pan-Turkists in the government. Uyghur activists often had a difficult time calling attention to their cause, however, as China enjoyed a lot of leeway as an anti-colonial icon in Africa and Asia. The breakup of the USSR and the emerging Central Asian Turkic states created a lot of hope among Uyghurs that the time was ready for independence, an idea that China also feared. Early on Central Asian states, with large populations of Uyghurs having lived in these countries for years, were sympathetic and allowed Uyghur groups to organize. Unfortunately these Uyghur groups still relied on the benevolence of their host states. As time went on in the 90’s and these states had more pressing concerns in starting up their economies, leaders were more than willing to make sweet deals with Beijing in return for kicking out or pulling the plug on Uyghur groups and activists. The center of Uyghur organizing then moved to the developed West in Europe and America, as groups like the World Uyghur Congress emerged to try and claim one voice and legitimate representation of the Uyghur Diaspora.
Another interesting reason for this turn to the West was a perception in the 90’s, that feels like a faint memory now, that humanitarian intervention on the side of minority peoples was a legitimate action. When Uyghurs viewed the cases in Bosnia, East Timor, and Kosovo they saw examples of the West willing to act and both they and Party leaders did not think it unlikely that NATO or the UN would find reason to intervene on the side of the Uyghurs. Of course, as in many things, 9/11 changed the international calculus. Beijing quickly moved to highlight any violence in Xinjiang, not as separatist, but as Islamic terrorism. The Bush administration, in exchange for China’s assistance in the War on Terror, was willing to accept this interpretation, but not to the degree China wanted. In 2002 the US State Department placed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) on its terrorist watch list, despite the group’s rather insignificant existence up to that date. This move did not fully satisfy China, who wanted all Uyghur groups listed as terrorists, but this did not stop them from proclaiming to domestic audiences that all Uyghur groups were also terrorist groups. This dynamic has continued in the last decade with any anti-state activities by Uyghurs in Xinjiang being labeled as inspired by Islamic terrorism and outside agitators, regardless of the political, economic, and cultural grievances and motivations behind Uyghur actions.
This brings us to the Kunming attack of March 1st. Early reports followed this pattern of labeling the attack as jihadist and inspired by Islamic terrorism, with potential linkages to violent Uyghur groups, though no official group has claimed responsibility. Beijing has an interest in portraying the attack as not only terrorist, which in its execution it was, but as also Islamic and part of a nefarious conspiracy by “separatist leaders” that deligitmizes any claims to independence or autonomy by actual Uyghurs in Xinjiang/East Turkestan. Further reports have complicated this picture however. Other evidence suggests that the eight Uyghurs involved in the attack had fled from Xinjiang to Yunnan with the intention of crossing the border to Laos as refugees. When the Chinese police crack downed on Uyghur activity and closed this route, however, these eight Uyghurs became trapped in Kunming. Furthermore, the police then arrested some of the family members and spouses connected to the eight Uyghurs, and placed them on a most wanted list even before the March 1st attack. Their precarious position may have inspired the eight Uyghurs to carry out a last desperate attack and would explain the crudeness of the knives and tactics involved. Far from being part of an organized jihadist cabal, the eight Uyghurs may have been the perverse outcome of China’s own harsh security measures.
This account is also more consistent with the lack of widespread Islamic jihadist influence in Xinjiang. There certainly does seem to be a rise in recent years of jihadist-influenced rhetoric but nothing on the level of Islamic movements like Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda. One reason for this lack of widespread jihadist influence may be the success of China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang. It is incredibly hard for information to get into the region with China invested in blocking radio waves and the internet. There is also little history of locally-inspired Islamist organizing or participation in Pan-Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the case of Pre-Revolutionary Iran. The most popular and successful transnational Uyghur organizations, such as the World Uyghur Congress, are also secular in outlook and work to actively counter China’s professed links between Uyghur violence and Islamic terrorism. Any increase in the influence of Islamist views in Xinjiang are probably linked to the severe crackdown on civil society, which leaves only religious spaces and groups as sites for Uyghurs to gather and articulate their political grievances.
Much of the rhetoric of Uyghur organizing seems to have followed the language of anti-colonial nationalist movements, when it sought support from Non-aligned states like Turkey and the immediately post-Soviet states of Central Asia, or the international human rights rhetoric of the UN and minority peoples. As such efforts have continually failed to improve the situation on the ground, and as China has become even more intransigent, it is not unsurprising if the language of jihadist and Islamist inspired terrorism becomes more prominent, though it is unlikely such actions would do more than inspire even more repressive measures in Xinjiang/East Turkestan. As I hope I have shown the “Xinjiang Question” is intimately tied up in Chinese domestic and international politics, and only dramatic changes in the Party and its policies, or intense international pressure that sees through China’s distortions of Uyghur demands, are likely to bring any betterment to Uyghurs in the near future. Even more so than the Tibetans, who at least have an internationally recognized charismatic leader in the Dalai Llama, the future for the Uyghurs does not look like a very hopeful.