On March 1, 2014, in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, a group of eight assailants dressed in black and armed with cleavers, daggers and other knives brutally ended the lives of 29 civilians and maimed 143 others at the city’s railway station. Xinhua News Agency announced within hours of the incident that it was “a terrorist attack carried out by Xinjiang separatist force,” authorities and witnesses said the attackers were Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic minority Muslim group from northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Uyghurs have long resented China’s Xinjiang policies of coercion, natural resources exploitation, and marginalization of their linguistic and religious tradition. Between 1990 to 2001, Xinjiang experienced more than 200 attacks, killing more than 160 people. The most terrifying incident took place more recently, on July 5, 2009, and left 184 dead and 1,680 injured. The Kunming attack is thus expected to enflame tensions between the Han Chinese and Uyghur ethnic groups, and signals that the conflict has spread from Xinjiang to the rest of China.
After the Kunming incident, my colleague Ding Xuejie at Oxford University and I conducted a survey of Mainland China civilians, aiming at understanding opinions and attitudes towards ethnic conflicts and government policies regarding Xinjiang and its Uyghur minorities. We sent out around 2,000 questionnaires via the Internet and within one week had received 1151 responses. Our respondents were from 30 provinces across the country. Their ages ranged from 17 to 72, with an average age of 33. If the respondents, 51 percent are male, 96.3 percent are Han Chinese, and 78.5 percent have received at least a college education.
Attitudes of Chinese civilians (especially Han Chinese) toward Xinjiang Uyghur after Kunming?
Partly because of widespread media reports, 99.5 percent of respondents answered yes to the question “Are you familiar with the Kunming incident?” In answering the question “Do you think similar incidents will also occur in the city where you live?” only 34 percent of the respondents chose “unlikely” or “impossible,” while approximately 50 percent thought it was “likely” or “very likely.” This result indicates that the spread of violence from Xinjiang to other parts of China has fostered an atmosphere of insecurity among Chinese; ordinary citizens have begun to fear for their safety.
But does this sense of insecurity provoke negative intergroup attitudes, especially prejudice regarding Uyghur minorities? Our results show that Chinese people do not equate Xinjiang separatists with Xinjiang civilians, even after Kunming. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed with the statement “Those who support terrorism in Xinjiang are only a small minority among Xinjiang civilians.” Among people who agree with this statement, the proportion of women is significantly higher than men, and the proportion of people who had college education or above is significantly higher than people who never went to college. No significant difference was observed between ethnic groups.
However, we found that the Kunming attack will likely have an economic cost for Xinjiang. Sixty-seven percent of respondents suggest that they would not work in or travel to Xinjiang. Significant differences were observed across genders, ethnic groups, and educational attainments. Women, Han and people without college degrees were more likely to report an unwillingness to work or travel in Xinjiang, compared with their counterparts.
How do Chinese people evaluate government policies towards the Xinjiang Uyghur minority?
Our questionnaire explores opinions on the sources of Uyghur discontent and ethnic conflict, and on Chinese economic, political, cultural, religion and language policies in Xinjiang. In terms of the sources of the unrest, it was common in the past to blame poverty as the root cause of insurgencies. People believed that ethnic conflict could be solved if only Uyghurs were offered greater economic benefits. However, substantial fiscal transfers to Xinjiang have not prevented ethnic discontent. The results of our data show that 66 percent of respondents do not agree with the statement that “Poverty is the source of Xinjiang terrorist violent attack.” More than 85 percent think foreign separatist forces and religious extremist forces are the main sources of Xinjiang terrorism. In addition, 96 percent of respondents think the government should step up its fight against terrorism, and 69 percent think that the current ethnic policies need to be modified.
In addition to questions on the sources of Xinjiang terrorism, we also asked how to solve ethnic conflicts in the short and long terms. We framed the questions in terms of economic development, language and cultural policy reform, religious policy reform, coercion, and negotiation. In both short-term and long-term solutions to the problem of Xinjiang terrorism, economic development has been considered by the majority respondents as the most important policy. This result apparently contradicts the answers to our previous question on the sources of unrest. On the one hand, 66 percent of respondents do not think economic backwardness is the source of ethnic conflict, while on the other respondents consider economic development an effective way of solving ethnic tensions in Xinjiang (50 percent in the short term and 67 percent in the long term).
As for whether the government should use force to suppress the unrest in the short run, opinion is polarized. In the short term, 28 percent of the respondents “strongly agree” with this measurement, while 40 percent “strongly disagree”; in the long term, 72 percent of respondents disagree with suppression by force. Negotiation (53 percent) has been considered the most effective way of solving the Xinjiang problem, in terms of both short- and long-term policy. This result suggests that most people understand that suppression cannot eliminate the root cause of the ethnic conflict.
Most respondents do not think that language and religious reform can solve the ethnic problem in Xinjiang. This suggests that Chinese people lack a comprehensive understanding of the problems in Xinjiang. Language is central to ethnic identity, and official language policies are often overlooked as critical factors in the conflict over ethnic nationalism. Han culture and Han Chinese is the mainstream culture of China, and Han people have an absolute advantage with their language and culture compared to the Uyghur minority. Thus, Uyghur minorities are at an absolute disadvantage in the labor market. This inequality in language and culture is thus a significant contributor to the ethnic conflict. Ignoring cultural and linguistic inequality only marginalizes more of Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities, and intensifies ethnic discontent. Religious factors, on the other hand, are the root of the conflict. Islam became the main religion in Xinjiang in the early 16th century. Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism, ideologies based on supranational, religious and ethnic identities, arrived in Xinjiang in the early 20th century. Under the influence of the pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism, the Xinjiang separatists and religious extremists started a movement to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party. Many scholars consequently see Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism as the religious and cultural origin of Xinjiang separatism. Current religious policy intensifies the ethnic conflict. Yet most Chinese overlook the importance of religious policy, while overestimating the effect of economic development.
To conclude, we explored Chinese opinions and attitudes towards the Kunming attack, and their ideas for solving ethnic conflicts in China. We found that with the violence spreading from Xinjiang to other Chinese regions, Chinese people have begun to fear for their safety, something that could affect social stability. On the other hand, after the incident, Han prejudice towards Uyghur has not grown, and thus Uyghur should not be further marginalized or isolated because of this attack. In terms of ethnic policies, respondents tend to overestimate the impact of economic development as a solution to ethnic conflict while placing less emphasis on religious, linguistic, and cultural policy combined with properly allocating resources between the Han majority and the Uyghur minority.
Dingding Chen is Assistant Professor of Government and Public Administration at The University of Macau. Ding Xuejie is a MA student in Sociology at Oxford University.