Xinjiang: Reassessing the Recent Violence

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Xinjiang: Reassessing the Recent Violence

Western and Chinese media have their own narratives in reporting on the unrest. Both may be wrong.

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.

Upon closer examination (since 2006, your correspondent has made several trips to Lukqun, most recently in 2012), Lukqun looks very different from other regions in Xinjiang making the news. Unlike Urumqi, Kashgar or even neighboring Turpan, Lukqun has not seen a huge influx of Han migrants. In fact, according to recent statistics, nearly 90% of Lukqun’s population remains Uyghur, the vast majority engaged in agriculture. To be sure, as farmers, Lukqun’s Uyghurs earn considerably less money than urbanites. Nonetheless, they have benefited from producing grapes, raisins and melons and, on average, earn more than farmers elsewhere in Xinjiang. In 2007, the government provided residents of Lukqun and its surrounding villages with materials to build winter greenhouses, which has allowed many families an opportunity to increase their annual incomes. Indeed, many of the individuals in Lukqun I have spoken to (mostly Uyghur men from their early 20s to their 50s) were satisfied with their (slowly) improving material lives.

Their religious lives, too, have largely been left alone, at least until now. I saw middle-aged and elderly men walking to the small mosque located near my temporary residence. On one visit during the holy month of Ramadan, some people were observing the fast despite the physical demands of the harvesting season – the group of young men I mostly socialized with, though, appeared to favor cell phones and chasing girls over religious piety. And unlike in Hotan, where restrictions on certain styles of head coverings have been blamed for sparking large public demonstrations, Uyghur women in Lukqun, who routinely spend long hours engaged in domestic and agricultural labor, favor a simple scarf over more modest veils.

Of course, this does not mean that religious activities go unmonitored in Lukqun. It did, however, appear to me that local government had an understanding with residents on what was allowed and what was not.

With these considerations in mind, how do we make sense of the violence in Lukqun?

A reasonable starting point may be an isolated event largely overlooked in the current discussion on Lukqun, in which a young Uyghur boy was stabbed to death by a middle-aged Han man, who mistakenly thought the boy was trying to steal from his factory. Immediately after the murder, authorities in Lukqun pledged to severely punish the perpetrator. To the dismay of local residents, an investigation conducted by local police concluded that the Han man was suffering a mental illness and that was to blame for the murder. Religious leaders in Lukqun’s Uyghur community warned that residents felt authorities were diminishing the severity of the crime.

Of course, two brief articles does not prove a definite link between the attack on the police station and the March murder. Without a more thorough investigation, we cannot know with certainty if the two events are connected. Nor does the perceived inaction of the local government in Lukqun over the boy’s murder condone the June 26 violence. Still, on March 21, the seeds for retaliation against local authorities had been sown in a region that had seen no large-scale violence in the recent past.

Prematurely weaving the recent violence in Xinjiang into broader narratives about global terrorism or systematic mistreatment of the Uyghurs, as has been the common practice among most Chinese and Western observers, does little beyond attempting to advance the respective side’s political motives. While it is possible the violence in Lukqun is part of a larger movement, personal experience in the region suggests that the violence was an unfortunate response to the local government’s unwillingness or inability to address local concerns.