China’s War On Terror

Details of the brutal bombing in Urumqui last week:

Jiayang Fan maintains that “it has become clear that terrorism is no longer a foreign phenomenon”:

It was the deadliest massacre in recent memory, and the fourth in the past month—another sign of the increasingly volatile relations between Uighurs, the culturally distinct minority native to northwest China, and the Han majority, who constitute ninety-five per cent of the country’s population. Unlike many of the previous attacks, which took aim at state entities like police stations or security offices, the Urumqi bombing deliberately targeted civilians. If the assailants intended to maximize casualties, generate publicity, and radicalize Uighurs and Hans who had previously been ambivalent about this conflict, they succeeded spectacularly. …

Thirteen years ago, terrorism seemed almost exotic to the Chinese, entirely confined to a world outside their borders. Today, citizens are clamoring for recognition of its grave implications in their own nation. Yet the inherently political nature of the crime—particularly when it is framed as a violent protest against state injustice—makes its handling problematic. Especially in a country known for its imperious style of one-party rule, and censorship of opinions that run contrary to the official script.

It’s hard to pinpoint who is responsible for these acts of violence:

The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is the group whose name is bandied about the most — though it’s sometimes referred to as the Turkestan Islamic Party. ETIM is thought to have links with terror groups elsewhere, particularly in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Chinese authorities say ETIM has ties to al-Qaeda and training camps in the tribal area along the Pakistani-Afghan border. Uighurs were among the hundreds of supposed foreign fighters swept up and detained by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay following the 2001 U.S.  invasion of Afghanistan.

But all this doesn’t amount to a direct causal link between organized transnational terror networks and the current epidemic of violence in Xinjiang. China blamed a bombing at a train station a month ago that killed three people on ETIM, but has now been more circumspect in pointing the finger at specific groups. It’s unclear what kind of real operational capacity ETIM and other like-minded outfits have inside China and to what degree attacks like Thursday’s are far more local actions.

James Millward discusses China’s problems with its Uighur population in depth, exploring how grievances over civil rights intersect with the rise of extremist ideologies:

Chinese policies and never-ending crackdowns, especially since the 2009 riots, have created a climate in which some Uyghurs are more likely to heed twisted, pseudo-religious ideologies that advocate killing innocents to send a political message. But even if we accept the Chinese position that religious extremism, leading to terrorism, is mainly an exogenous force, why then campaign domestically against features of Uyghur culture, nonreligious as well as religious, that have been part of Uyghur life and Xinjiang’s social landscape since long before the Taliban and al-Qaeda emerged elsewhere? Why then the repeated gratuitous insults against Uyghur culture — false claims that Uyghur is a primitive language, thoughtless dismantling of Uyghur-language education, suspicion and persecution of private Uyghur-language instruction, compulsion of government workers to eat during Ramadan, prohibition of doppa caps and scarves?

I suspect that the Chinese leadership and some Chinese scholars who advise them are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. They increasingly feel that this distinctiveness is itself a source of the problem.

Rachel Lu observes that Beijing is resurrecting its Mao-era reliance on volunteer patrols and informants in response to the threat of Uighur extremists:

“People’s war” is one of the core components of former Chairman Mao Zedong’s strategic theory and a tried-and-true tactic for the party, which used it to win China’s gruesome civil war in 1949. But in the ensuing decades under Mao, the rhetoric of a people’s war was often used against the so-called “class enemies” or “counterrevolutionaries” who had upset the party in one way or another. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the phrase was often invoked by so-called red guards, mostly young Chinese then empowered to perpetrate massive destruction and strife. After subsequent leader Deng Xiaoping instituted market-oriented reforms in 1979, the mention of a people’s war became increasingly rare.

Now that the Chinese government is facing a new threat, it seems ready dust off the old trope. In a May 24 editorial, the Hong Kong-based pro-party Wen Wei Po newspaper called for the use of a people’s war to defeat terrorism by “mobilizing the masses to uncover the terrorists and their behind-the-scene puppet masters.” The minister of public security, Guo Shengkun, also vowed to use the power of the masses to avert terrorism in a May 22 speech in Xinjiang.

The Dish covered a previous attack attributed to Uighur separatists in March here and here.