China’s Wild West: A Cautionary Tale of Ethnic Conflict and Development

China’s Wild West: A Cautionary Tale of Ethnic Conflict and Development


While the international media has extensively analyzed the demonstrations and street clashes in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt over the last several weeks, there has been very little coverage of the street violence happening in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (aka East Turkistan). The Xinjiang violence has not been as impressive in terms of numbers of protestors and certainly offers less photographic and video documentation to make its story compelling than these other, sexier street battles of this summer of discontent, but what is happening in China’s northwest may be no less significant to future geopolitics.

On the surface, the latest outbreaks of violence in Xinjiang do not appear remarkable. The first incident on June 27 involved “sixteen knife-wielding religious extremists” attacking a police station and a construction site near the northern city of Turpan. A second incident occurred on June 29 near the southern city of Hotan, and allegedly involved more than 100 motorcyclists – also armed with knives – storming a police station.

While there is still little information about casualties in Hotan, official reports claim that the violence near Turpan resulted in 35 deaths. This is the highest death toll of any instance of civil unrest in Xinjiang in the last four years, but on its own this number of casualties in the most populous country on Earth is only marginally newsworthy.

However, the heavy-handed state response to this recent violence suggests that it is much more significant than is readily apparent. It has triggered a mass mobilization of military and security forces in the region and a variety of new restrictions on ethnic Uyghurs.

Part of the significance of these recent acts of violence is that they reflect a continuation and potential expansion of ongoing ethnic tension in the region that China has struggled to mitigate. Similar acts of violence have occurred periodically in Xinjiang over the last two decades and increasingly so in the four years since the events of July 5, 2009, when brutal ethnic violence engulfed the region’s capital city of Urumqi.

The 2009 events left close to 200 dead and resulted in extensive property damage, hundreds of arrests and missing persons. It also led to the discontinuation of Internet service to the region for an entire year and increased surveillance and restrictions on ethnic Uyghurs. In this context, the recent violence suggests that the People’s Republic has serious problems in a region where it intends to base much of its future economic growth.

Beijing portrays this ongoing violence as a widespread terrorist threat fueled by external support from Islamic jihadists. In fact, the state claims Uyghur terrorists who have trained and fought in Syria’s civil war carried out the most recent violence near Turpan and Hotan. The level of sophistication in the attacks we have seen in Xinjiang does not, however, resemble the work of groups with international jihadist support. Others view the violence happening in Xinjiang as a local response to human rights abuses, which are undoubtedly rampant in the region.

Ece Sirkcei
August 1, 2013 at 11:54

Their main identity is not Islam but Uyghur. It is an ethnical group who were Shaman before the Arabs made them Muslim. This is not related with Islam. They are Turkish speaking nation. They are not Chinese. As an atheist, I support Uyghur's freedom fight because their lands are under invasion. China invaded those lands to make a colony. Same situation that Great Britain invaded India to  exploit the wealth. This is imperialism with the name of communism.

Ece Sirkcei
August 1, 2013 at 11:47

China invaded Uyghur lands. These people have nothing common with Chinese people. Their nationality,  language, religion culture and everything is different. This is like Germany ruled by China. So ridiculous. Look at the flag, It is a classical Turkic flag.  China must give their lands back to Uyghurs again. The name XinJiang means "New Land" in Chinese, which is a good indicator that those lands have never belong to China. Chinese government has the same invasion plans also for Mongolia and Kirghizistan. Those lands belong to Turan, not to China. I support my brave, Uyghur friends. I hope that they will be free soon. 

Brigadier Chitranjan Sawant,VSM
July 24, 2013 at 20:08

AUM.   While I appreciate the painstaking effort that produced the current article, I must point out that the psyche of Yughur Muslims has not been dissected. Believe me when I say that my experience in dealing with Muslims at various levels has shwn that MUSLIMS ARE SEPARATISTS BY NATURE AND BY BRAINWASHING IN THE MOSQUES DONE BY ANTI-PROGRESS MULLAS AND CLERICS.

It is imperative to train the Muslim clerics in national events so that they join the mega projects launched in Xinjiang. Unless Muslims swim with the current of national life and stop hating the majority community, be it HINDUS in India or the HAN chinese in China,their aloofish behaviour will lead to suspicion and a divide between the majoritu and minority communities.

Violence, arson, loot and rape have been the handiwork of those who have cut off all communications with the rest of the countrymen, EDUCATION FOR MUSLIMS – IS THE MANTRA TO HELP THEM GEL WITH  THE NATION AND PARTAKE OF THE FRUITS OF DEVELOPMENT.

July 21, 2013 at 01:50

They wanted  to rule not only China, but also the whole world. But one thing is for sure, the Mongols & Mongolia have never wanted to be called Chinese or be part of Han China!

Lauren Garza
July 19, 2013 at 01:44

Eventually they're going to bump up against these people called the Russians. And at that point it gets interesting. Considering that tens of billions of barrels of oil lie within lands that are a lot closer than the Persian Gulf.

July 18, 2013 at 19:02

Gott in Himmel! Thank God I’m an American! This article really puts into perspective the problems of government and dissenting citizens. Even the countrymen of the U.S. that have next to nothing have a palace of freedom in my land which is everything. China and Pakistan working together, now it makes sense why I see clothing tags with labels from Pakistan and Turkmenistan at retail giants. China is so envious of the US they will run roughshod over any and all. Maybe we need to just rotate troops instead of pulling out of Afghanistan. Pakistani’s are the leading bomb makers right? Forget nightmares, this article implies night terrors for many. All for things! Lets hope nature gets rid of what is unnatural and spares many torturous days and nights.

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