After a brutal attack on a police station in Lukqun left 35 people dead, Xinjiang and the Uyghurs have once again made the headlines. This massive chunk of land (one-sixth of China’s total territory) and this regionally, linguistically, and religiously complex minzu (ethno-national) group are back in the spotlight following an explosive episode of violence. And both Chinese and Western news outlets, respectively framing the event as an “act of terror” or as part of a continuous struggle against an oppressive regime, have once again oversimplified their narratives.
Perhaps because Lukqun, unlike Kashgar, Hotan, and Turpan, was never a major post on the famed Silk Road or perhaps owing to its sheer remoteness, analyses of the event have overlooked some critical “local” details.
What do we know about the June 26 violence in Lukqun? Reports circulated by Chinese and US news agencies agree on the basics. Just before 6 AM, a group of Uyghur men armed with knives attacked a local police station killing 24 individuals. Police then opened fire on the attackers, killing 11.
Predictably, the similarities in reporting end here.
News outlets operating within China’s massive state-run media quickly labeled the event a “terrorist” attack. An article posted by The Global Times that has caught the eye of several foreign observers claims that nearly 100 Uyghurs have received crash courses in military techniques in remote areas of Syria and some have even fought alongside Syrian rebels. The connection drawn between the Uyghurs and Syrian rebels implies a direct link between the acts of violence committed in Xinjiang and global terror networks – specifically Al-Qaeda.
A report from Xinhua’s Chinese language website makes similar use of the “global terrorism” theme. According to Xinhua’s account of the events leading up to the June 26 violence, Ahmetniyaz Sidiq (Ch. Aihemaitineyazi Sidike) and Ali Ahmetniyaz (Ch. Aili Aihemaitineyazi), began convening an illegal religious organization in Lukqun in January. The seventeen members of this organization regularly viewed and listened to “jihadist” (Ch. shengzhan) propaganda distributed by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group the U.S. has identified as an international terrorist organization, and “other” terrorists groups. These activities, the article asserts, “gradually engendered religious extremism” among the group’s followers.
The two reports stick closely to almost every official explanation of any violence in Xinjiang. That is, malicious foreign groups have infiltrated Xinjiang and have influenced a very small (and misguided) segment of Uyghur society to commit heinous acts of violence (or terrorism) in an attempt to disrupt social order. In other words, the problem originates from the outside and in no way reflects broader grievances the Uyghurs hold against the government.
Western observers have meanwhile clung to their own scripts. After the most recent episodes of violence, Western commentaries have once again reminded readers that Uyghurs have yet to benefit from China’s economic boom; they cannot compete with the growing number Han Chinese who are flooding the job market in Xinjiang; and they are victims of religious repression. While these issues are prevalent in many regions of Xinjiang and can certainly breed mistrust between some Uyghurs and the CCP, this narrative may not adequately explain the violence in Lukqun.