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China needs rethink on Uighurs before more blood is spilt

The bloody clash between ethnic Uighurs and the Chinese police that took place on December 15 in Xinjiang reflects a reality that rising China faces today. It was the fourth outbreak of such violence in Xinjiang since April, leaving at least 84 killed and 25 others injured. Then, on Monday, Chinese security forces killed eight people who allegedly attacked a police station in the region.

As usual, Beijing called both incidents "terrorist" attacks, blaming a "violent terrorist gang" in Xinjiang, and scaled up security measures. However, enhanced security measures alone will not curb violence in the region, especially when the social and economic discontent of its Uighur minority remains unresolved.

China often claims the attacks in Xinjiang, its Muslim-dominated western province, are the work of terrorists and tends to associate such violence, with few exceptions, with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). However, it has not shown any conclusive evidence to substantiate these claims. A number of factors challenge China's claim on this significant development.

There are reports that numbers of Uighur radicals have travelled to Syria to participate in anti-Assad "jihad" since 2012. However, any fighting experience alongside battle-hardened groups has not been reflected in the recent attacks in Xinjiang. There were no sophisticated explosives used in the attacks - the assailants did not even possess guns. Instead, the attacks were carried out with knives, axes and other primitive weapons. The attacks have targeted police, government installations, and local Han workers, all symbols of Beijing's authority. Target assessment shows that Uighurs have specific grievances against Beijing's policies.

Social and economic grievances

Xinjiang's crisis is a result of growing Uighur discontent fuelled by China's domestic policy in the region. Many Uighurs have grievances driven by ethnic, religious and cultural factors.

Over decades, government-sponsored immigration of Hans into the province has been a central part of China's policy in Xinjiang. Beijing portrays this policy as intended to stimulate economic development and forge social cohesion but it has also been found to be counter-productive. The policy has altered the demographic make-up of the province, reducing Uighurs to a minority. In 1940 Uighurs comprised over 80 per cent of the population; today, that figure has dropped to 46 per cent, or about nine million ethnic Uighurs. Of the remaining 54 per cent, most (39 per cent) are Han Chinese.

To improve infrastructure and win over Uighurs with promises of economic prosperity, Beijing announced a "balanced approach policy" for Xinjiang. The policy aims to modernise the region by 2015 with enormous economic development projects, including the building of schools, hospitals and the construction of earthquake-proof houses.

However, economic development without a comprehensive political and social approach to allay Uighur fears has proved counter-productive. The local Han population has benefited from these economic projects but the Uighurs feel left out. Private employers in Xinjiang are more inclined to hire Han Chinese workers than local Uighurs who are disadvantaged in terms of language and technical skills. These measures have increased socio-economic imbalance between Uighurs and Hans and aggravated the discontent among local Uighurs.

Uighur leaders exiled in the West blame Beijing for crackdowns on religious freedom. For example, Muslim public officials are said to be prohibited from fasting during Ramadan. Uighurs regard their religion as a key foundation of their distinct cultural identity.

That the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) poses a significant threat to China's stability is incontestable. The ETIM, based in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), has managed to survive even during the US-led coalition forces anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan since October 2001. However, it is hard for Uighur militants outside China to slip into the mainland to trigger unrest at home due to strong security along its borders since 2009.

Since the July 2009 inter-ethnic clashes between local Uighur and Han that left nearly 197 (mostly Han) dead and 1,700 injured, China has increased its security presence in the province. The police have conducted widespread house-to-house searches and made hundreds of arrests as part of the counter-measures against what it projects as "three evils" - terrorism, extremism and separatism. Currently, there are more than 40,000 closed-circuit television cameras, roughly 600 police boxes and 756 traffic police checkpoints that operate round the clock in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

In a bid to ensure security in key areas, China has also suppressed peaceful protests, causing a significant portion of the Uighur youth to turn to militancy. Militant groups such as the ETIM will easily exploit the grievances of the Uighurs. October's suicide attack in Beijing's Tiananmen Square is an example. The ETIM recruited local Uighurs - a 33-year-old man, his wife and 70-year-old mother who were not battle-trained militants - to carry out the attack. The suicide attack killed two passers-by along with the three assailants and injured at least 38 others.

For lasting peace and stability China needs to take a more enlightened approach to address the root causes of ethnic tensions in Xinjiang. Violence here has often been in protest against Beijing's policy towards the Uighurs and in defence of their ancestral lands from the massive influx of outsiders. Ethnic Uighurs conceive of themselves as a diminishing population. They insist on preservation of the cultural and social distinctiveness of their society. The core demand of Uighurs has been demographic and cultural "non-interference".

For Uighurs, safeguarding their ethnic identity is much more important than any promised economic development. To reduce persistent discontent among local Uighur people, China needs to think out of the box and address these issues.

Nodirbek Soliyev is a research analyst at Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.


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