The indigenous Muslim minority group in China’s western region, Xinjiang, may have a new champion in Beijing. During President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the troubled region, he spoke favorably about policies that would integrate the Turkic-speaking Uyghur into mainstream China, while reaffirming that Beijing would not tolerate any more separatist violence from them.
Since taking office in November 2012, Xi has cast himself as a leader who is fighting for the underrepresented populations of his country while also reemphasizing the importance and strength of the one party system. These dual missions were in evidence during his Xinjiang visit.
Xi’s visit to Xinjiang may well mark a turning point in the economically expanding region. However, if like his predecessors he continues to ascribe the region’s violence to the Uyghur minority and thereby religious separatism – as opposed to economic oppression – he is bound to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Standing taller – literally – than China’s native Han population, the Uyghur do not look ethnically Chinese. Their thick eyebrows, dark facial hair, and generally darker and slightly more olive toned complexion immediately mark them as physically different from their neighbors. The fact that they speak their own Turkic-based language, Uyghur, which is written in an Arabic script, does not help their image of being “the other” in China’s nationalist narrative.
Moderate Sunni Muslims who practice a form of Islam heavily influenced by Sufi brotherhoods, Buddhism, and East Asian ideologies, the presence of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region can be traced back to the eighth century. Like many peoples of Central Asia, their experience was shaped by war and conquest. Now, more than half a century after Xinjiang officially became a part of greater China, the Uyghur, who account for slightly fewer than 50 percent of Xinjiang’s overall population, are still treated like strangers. They remain oppressed.
China maintains strict religious policies across the country, and Islam is not exempt. For example, children under the age of 18 are forbidden from practicing religion. According to Greg Fay, Project Manager at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), these laws are more lax in other regions, but are enforced with an iron fist against the Uyghur in Xinjiang.
Though Islam in China has enjoyed a robust revival in recent years, the Uyghur are facing growing oppression. More people are being arrested for online religious activities, such as watching religious classes online or searching for religious texts, in Xinjiang than ever before. “The policy in Xinjiang has become more and more rigid,” Fay reflected.
Uyghurs complain of religious, cultural and economic persecution by China’s Han-dominated government in Beijing and, much as Tibetans do, struggle to preserve their culture. Ostensibly to prevent the spread of Islamic extremism, China restricts the ability of Uyghurs to travel.
The government’s efforts to crack down on Islamic violence began in 1998 with the “strike hard” campaign. Although this campaign was national in scale, in Xinjiang, it was solely focused on the Uyghur population. These security measures still result in hundreds of Uyghur arrests annually.
Later, in the post 9/11 era, Beijing took advantage of the global culture of fear surrounding Muslims, and branded the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uyghur terrorist group that some experts doubt even exists, as a terrorist organization. In August 2002, during a period of increased U.S.-Chinese cooperation, the U.S. State Department added the virtually unknown ETIM group to its list of terrorist groups. It was removed soon thereafter, presumably because of a lack of evidence.
Yitzhak Shichor, the Michael William Lipson Chair Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the “Xinjiang 13” who are still banned from China, is one of those who is skeptical of the existence of the ETIM. “Most Uyghurs in Xinjiang aren’t looking for independence. Even the expat Uyghur community isn’t.” Rather, what they seek is equality and opportunity. Thus, even the stated mission of what is currently referred to by the Chinese government as ETIM comes into question
Shichor added, “I’m not sure that it exists today, certainly not inside China.” If the ETIM exists at all, he contended, it must be somewhere on the Internet.
The first mention of the ETIM appears to have been in 2000. Its Uyghur leader, Hasan Mahsum, was killed in 2003, and many claim that since his death, the ETIM has ceased to exist. Despite a number of videos allegedly produced by the group, according to Gardner Bovingdon, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University and another one of the Xinjiang 13, “it doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
“They’re amateurish and small scale,” Bovingdon stated. Though the people in the videos speak in Uyghur, “There’s no compelling evidence that they represent a movement that presents substantial military threats to China.”
There is no question that Islamic radicalism exists in Xinjiang, but its dimensions and impact remain unclear. China created a correlation between Uyghur violence and religion because the Uyghur are religious. But perhaps that’s not the motivation at all.
Take three of the major alleged Uyghur separatist attacks that have happened in the last few years: the Urumqi riots in 2009, the Tiananmen Square attack in October 2013, and the Kunming knife attacks in early March this year. The first two were economic protests turned violent, in which the initial protests didn’t necessarily have radical Islamic elements but were expressions of mainline frustration with the government.
The knife attack was different. Not only did it lack Islamic undertones, is didn’t even take place in Xinjiang – Kunming is more than 2,500 miles from Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.
These three events were violent and tragic, “but there is no evidence that it was a Uyghur separatist movement, other than [China’s] word,” Bovingdon contended. He adds that a violent separatist group would normally be expected to be more active. Drawing an analogy to another frustrated stateless people, he draws a broad comparison with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: “There is no comparison between the number of episodes, their scope, and degree of plausibility if you compare these [alleged ETIM attacks] with the Intifada.”
Xinjiang holds many untapped natural resources such as gas and cotton. In 2000, the Chinese began an aggressive campaign to develop and modernize its west, focused on Xinjiang, both as a way to expand the nation’s wealth and as a way to acquire more resources. As part of this project, the government has poured millions into Xinjiang.
While Xinjiang has become significantly more prosperous and modern in the last decade, the development programs have only widened the divide between Han Chinese and the Uyghur. The jobs created from this new economic boom have been filled by Han Chinese immigrants from the east looking for opportunity. These immigrants have reaped much of the benefit from the development, fostering Uyghur resentment against the state.
With this context in mind, the Urumqi riots of 2009 cannot, by any means, be attributed to Islam. The Urumqi Uyghur gathered to protest authorities’ inadequate response to a reported attack on Uyghur factory workers carried out by Han Chinese workers. The protest quickly became a call for equal economic opportunity. No manifestation of Islamic extremism, the riots were the cry of an oppressed, destitute people.
Xi’s platform of creating a unified China with equal economic opportunity could solve the violence in Xinjiang. If he manages to foster inclusion in Xinjiang to help the Uyghur transcend their current economic reality, he might well be on his way to ushering in a new era of Chinese leadership.
Rachel Benaim is a freelance journalist based in New York.