The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is doubling down on their year-long assault on ‘violent terrorist activities’, but what does this really mean? Independent journalist Tim Robertson reports from Urumqi, the capital of the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Any self-respecting journalist worth reading ought to have an almost visceral reaction to reading the phrase ‘officials said’ passed off as news. Yet that is exactly how the Chinese government’s assault on Xinjiang is being reported around the world.
Access to different parts of the region is severely restricted or blocked, which allows the CCP to control the flow of information. Internet and telephones have been cut in the past, making contact with anyone outside the immediate region very difficult. That the lack of transparency should raise concerns in itself seems – to me – self-evident, but one wouldn’t know that from reading most of the reports of the recent violence, in which almost 100 people have been killed (according to officials).
The CCP likes the straightforwardness of the good/evil, friend/enemy dichotomy for its effectiveness in massing collective support. Shades of grey complicate matters, so its convenient for the CCP that the recent attacks can be so easily elucidated.
In the past twelve months the CCP has leveled a lot of charges against the Uyghur Muslim minority; they have been labeled ‘terrorists’ and Beijing, never one to shy away from exploiting underlying ethnic tensions, has intensified its campaign of vilification.
In China, where government officials scoff at the idea of the rule of law, there still hasn’t been any evidence made public to support these allegations; instead, the hardly-reliable-or-credible word of the CCP is presented by the state media as all the evidence that’s required. It’s not that the charges are without merit, but even if they are true, the Communist Party’s wanton administering of summary justice has and will continue to inevitably ensnare innocent people who don’t deserve the harsh punishments handed down to them.
In May, in scenes reminiscent of Soviet-era show trials, the CCP paraded ‘terrorists’ to a crowd of 7,000 onlookers at a football stadium in Yining, a city in northern Xinjiang, before pronouncing them guilty and sentencing them at the mass rally. And in June there were further reports from state media that 133 ‘terrorists’ had been hastily convicted and sentenced in the Kashgar. In all, the CCP claimed it had arrested 380 suspects in the first month of the crackdown.
The government’s primary grievance with the Uygur people is their call for independence. Many want a new state, East Turkestan, to replace the current Chinese province. In every way the distance between Beijing and the western region is monumental; culturally, linguistically, ethnically and traditionally the Uyghur’s share far more in common with their central Asian neighbours than they do with their rulers in Beijing.
Most thinking people today see colonialism for the shamefully and sordid experiment that it was and, following the Second World War, colonised land was handed back to its native people. This didn’t happen in China, however. Most of what’s now Xinjiang came under Chinese rule in the early period of the Manchu-controlled Qing dynasty (from 1644 until the late eighteenth century). The Qing conquest of the region was brutal; they used widespread and wanton force to subdue the local population. (The Zunghars, who once occupied much of this land, were exterminated.)
But from Beijing’s perspective this is irrelevant; in the eyes of the CCP ‘separatism’ is an unacceptable crime that must be dealt with unambiguously and absolutely. Their preferred method these days is to flood the region with money and people and essentially strip it of its cultural uniqueness by way of Hanisation. And this is what’s happening in Xinjiang: it is one of China’s fastest growing regions; housing and infrastructure are being upgraded, universities are being built, services are being improved and millions of jobs are being created. And to fill these jobs the CCP provides incentives and subsidies for Han Chinese to move there.
When the Uyghur people protest the destruction of their culture, the CCP points to the economic improvements and praises itself for rescuing the region from the backwardness it couldn’t lift itself from (the same tactics are being used against the Tibetans). That the ethnic minorities rarely share in the economic benefits is left unsaid; it’s the Han migrants who are shipped in from other parts of the country who take the jobs and make the money.
And as a show of strength, the streets are filled with police and military to ensure the local population doesn’t step out of line. In Urumqi, particularly around the Grand Bazaar and mosque, soldiers and security officers armed with automatic weapons and riot gear stand on street corners and ride around in imposing armoured vehicles watching over the Muslim population, their presence a not-so-subtle reminder of who’s in charge.
Still unsatisfied with this level of repression, the ever spiteful and rigid Communist Party decided to further restrict the already limited religious freedom of the Uyghur’s by imposing a nationwide ban on state officials and school children fasting during Ramadan. (The custom is further complicated in Xinjiang by the CCP’s ridiculous insistence that the whole of China be on Beijing time, which means the sun rises at 6:30 and doesn’t set until 10:00.) There have also been moves to have men cut their beards and restrict women wearing veils.
During the week that I spent there I saw dozens of people stopped in the street or pulled over by police conducting ‘random’ ID checks; but there’s nothing random about them, every single person was a Uyghur. This kind of ethnic profiling has become part of everyday life in Xinjiang (and in many other parts of China too), and the CCP simply expects people to accept it.
But in refusing to compromise or even consider alternative arrangements with the Uyghur community, the CCP may well drive a mostly moderate and reasonable people to more extreme measures in order to further their struggle and have their grievances heard.
If the United States’ experience in the Middle East over the past decade has proven anything it’s that the fastest way to create extremists is to bring in an outside power to occupy and rule oppressively. The CCP may not be an ‘outside power’ in the same sense as the US, but the effect will likely be the same.
In most cities throughout Xinjiang the Uyghur community is reasonably tight-knit and as more and more people are shot in the streets and rounded up and hauled off to jail or to be executed, the number of people with personal connections to those who’ve been treated unjustly is going to increase. And rather than be alleviated, the constant harassment and lack of religious freedom is only going to intensify their animosity towards a government that many already feel is deliberately marginalising and victimising them.
It’s a fight in which the Uyghur minority is infinitely out-gunned; with few options and scant resources, it’s easy to understand why many feel terrorism is all they’re left with. And with every act of terrorism, the repression becomes more far-reaching and oppressive.
The CCP seems to be banking on the fact that they can end the violence by ramping up their own state-sanctioned violence. There inevitably comes a point at which too many have died, too many have been tortured and too many lay in prisons. Clearly Beijing hopes to bring about an end to the recent spate of terror by bringing forward this tipping point; but if one takes a look at the current conflicts around the globe, one fears that China is still a long way from reaching that point.