The decision by Uighur separatists to target Chinese rail stations is both symbolic and strategic. It is because of this latter reason that the Chinese Communist Party is likely to launch a war on terror.
As The Diplomat has been covering, terrorists that China’s government says are Uighur separatists have attacked train stations on three occasions this year. Back in March, terrorists wielding knives attacked a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming, killing 29 people and wounding scores of others. Then, late last month, three people were killed and 79 were injured in a combination bomb and knife assault on a train station in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang province. Then, earlier this week, four terrorists wielding knives attacked Guangzhou Railway Station, injuring six individuals.
These attacks and other recent ones linked to Uighur militants and Xinjiang province underscore a change in tactics. Whereas Uighur terrorists had usually targeted government and military officials and buildings, they are now targeting civilians and soft targets.
The attack on the railways is particularly telling given Xinjiang’s place in China’s economic rebalance. China has hopes of exploiting the provinces rich natural resources to power some of the second and third-tier cities in the interior that the CCP is looking to build up as part of its new urbanization push. In addition, Beijing is hoping to use Xinjiang to more deeply integrate the Chinese economies with those in South and Central Asia, as well as Europe and possible the Middle East.
Building up better infrastructure, particularly railways, is a crucial element in this plan. Xinjiang has historically suffered from exceptionally poor infrastructure. However, in recent years the CCP has stepped up efforts to rectify this problem. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2011, “The central government plans to invest 2 trillion yuan ($300 billion) on infrastructure in Xinjiang between 2010 and 2015, including six airports, 8,400 kilometers (about 5,200 miles) of railways and 7,155 kilometers of highways.”
Some of these infrastructure projects aim to better integrate Xinjiang with other areas of China. An example of this type of project is the new Xinjiang-Lanzhou railway line, which is expected to be operational sometime this year. China already has a major railway tying these two areas together. While the original one will continue to operate, the new one will use high speed rail to connect Lanzhou City in northwestern Gansu Province to Urumqi, Xinjiang Province. This will help better integrate Xinjiang with inner Chinese cities that the CCP hopes to develop in the coming years.
Many of the other railways running through Xinjiang aim to connect China to Europe via Central Asian nations, notably Kazakhstan. These railways are a major component of China’s new Silk Road Economic Belt. Nonetheless, they also have the fortunate side effect of also helping to better connect Xinjiang to more prosperous cities in China.
One example of this type of project is the 11,000 km Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe line (Yuxinou International Railway), which connects the mega-city of Chongqing to Xinjiang and onwards to Central Asia, Russia and eventually Europe. “The railway (goes) through Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany and builds a new route for transportation,” Dr. Mu Huaping of the Chongqing Commission of Economy and Information Technology told CNN last year.
Another similar project is the new second Eurasian Land Bridge, which begins in the port city of Lianyungang in Jiangsu province on China’s eastern cost, and crosses almost 12 thousand kilometers through Kazakhstan and Russia, before ending in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Another important line is the Wuhan-Xijiang-Europe rail route, which connects the city where the Foxconn factory makes cheap electronics for companies like Apple and Sony to important consumer markets in Europe.
Other projects aim to reduce China’s reliance on sea-borne energy trade with the Middle East, which is potentially vulnerable to possible blockades by the U.S. and Indian navies. Creating overland routes in energy-rich Central Asia and Russia will help alleviate China’s heavy reliance on sea lines of communication. Nonetheless, the bulk of China’s oil will continue to come from the Persian Gulf and Africa for the foreseeable.
In light of this, China is hoping to create new routes that aren’t so reliant on sea-borne trade. Much of this effort is focused on creating overland routes connecting Pakistan’s Gwadar port (which China helped build) to Xinjiang province and onwards to coastal cities in China. One part of this Pakistan-China economic corridor is a plan to connect Gwadar to Kashgar in Xinjiang province through rail link. The Karakoram Highway is a road-based route essentially connecting the same areas. These projects, once completed, will give China the ability to import Middle Eastern oil and natural gas without going through the Strait of Malacca. While the economics of this alternative route won’t significantly impact sea-borne trade during times of peace, this route could be activated in times of war.
China expects that the rapid economic development of Xinjiang will alleviate ethnic tensions in Xinjiang province. It will do this largely be transforming the province. Economic opportunity and greater connectivity are luring Han Chinese to the province, diluting the influence of Uighur. Meanwhile, Beijing hopes that economic opportunity for the Uighurs themselves will transform their social identities– including reduce their religiosity–and better assimilate them with the rest of the country.
Of course, the Uighur separatists and other traditional Uighurs view these intentions as hostile to their cherished way of life. The symbolic reason they are targeting train stations is because railways are largely what are bringing Han Chinese and modernization to Xinjiang province, and hold the potential to change it.
At the same time, there is a strategic element to this. First, if the terrorists can create fear about the safety of rail travel, they can slowdown the exodus of Han Chinese into Xinjiang province. More importantly, by targeting the railways they can increase concern about the economic viability of the rail lines themselves, especially in the minds of foreign partners.
The railways connecting China to Europe, for instance, allow goods to be shipped much more quickly than is possible by sea. However, the tradeoff is that this shipping route is also much more expensive than sea-borne trade. If Uighur separatists can sufficiently interrupt railway travel in China, they can make the use of these new rail lines by foreign entities much less attractive. By doing so, they can fend off the challenge of modernization.
The Chinese government realizes this, of course, and has placed too much importance in the new Silk Road Economic Belt and urbanizing second and third-tier cities to allow terrorists to disrupt its plans. That is why Beijing is cracking down with an iron fist before the militant groups grow powerful enough to cause significant problems to China’s major infrastructure projects.