Patrolling police officers and an armored police vehicle were part of the stepped-up security in Urumqi, in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang, after the knife and bomb attack Wednesday evening.
Q & A: Nicholas Bequelin on Why Tensions Are Rising in Xinjiang and Beyond
  • Fri, 05/02/2014 - 20:41

By MICHAEL FORSYTHE
May 2, 2014, 9:07 am

Wednesday evening, at least two assailants armed with knives attacked a crowd of people outside a train station in Urumqi, the capital of the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang. At least 79 people were wounded and three died, two of them believed to have been the attackers, who also set off an explosive device. The one suspect the police identified, a 39-year-old man, has a name that suggests he belonged to the Uighur ethnic group, once the dominant people in Xinjiang, who after decades of migration by ethnic Han Chinese are now a minority.

Some Uighurs, a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking people, yearn to establish an independent East Turkestan. Many more are increasingly alienated from the larger Chinese society and see the Han majority extracting oil from Xinjiang’s earth, growing cotton in its fields and razing the centuries-old city of Kashgar in the name of development. Confrontation between Uighurs and Han has been on the rise and is spilling outside of Xinjiang’s borders, with deadly attacks carried out by Uighurs in recent months in Beijing, near Tiananmen Square, and in Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan.

Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher in the Asia division of the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch, believes the surge in violence can be traced to deadly riots in 2009 in Urumqi, which killed about 200 people, both Uighurs and Han. The government’s response to that event — increased repression and increasing economic dominance by Han — has only raised tensions. In an interview, Mr. Bequelin said there’s now no room for moderate Uighurs such as the scholar Ilham Tohti, who was arrested in January and charged with separatism, to express disagreement. Excerpts follow:

Q.

Attacks by Uighurs are moving beyond Xinjiang’s borders, to Yunnan, even to Tiananmen Square. Why?

A.

This is the fallout of 2009. There hasn’t been enough attention paid to how brutal and indiscriminate the repression has been after 2009, and that’s why I think you have on the one hand the radicalization of some fringe of Uighur society.

After 2009 you had the first national work conference on Xinjiang that decided on basically doubling down on the economic policies that are creating political tensions in Xinjiang. Their response was to even accelerate further things that alienate Uighurs such as rehousing and resettlement, and even more invasive economic activities in the region. As a result you have more people on the fringes of Uighur society that become very radical. You also have a very large number of people who try to flee Xinjiang.

Q.

So the government policies are only increasing opposition?

A.

All these policies are bound to create resistance and opposition from the indigenous population. Therefore, you can only roll out these policies if you ensure that political repression goes hand in hand with it. There’s no way you can destroy 80 percent of the ancient city of Kashgar without having sufficient policing on the site to prevent anyone from opposing it and things from becoming a political turmoil and people organizing and so on.

That is the problem. The problem is that Xinjiang is in essence a colonial setting. At least that is how the Uighurs are perceiving it. The relationship between the Uighurs and the Han are best described as a relationship between the colonized and the colonizer. This kind of setting can only function if you have sufficient amount of repression to prevent the indigenous population from rebelling against this process. Repression is always inbuilt into Xinjiang policy.

Q.

How is this going to play out? Where are things going?

A.

Unless Beijing recognizes that there is a political issue at stake and, therefore, that there needs to be a political solution in respect to autonomy and religious rights and some Uighur agency of resources and the economy and so on, I think that you are going to see more of the same. You are going to see on the one hand an increased integration of Xinjiang into China proper, so a higher degree of control by the Chinese state including in areas that were overwhelmingly Uighur until now.

At the same time, you’ll see a multiplication of violent incidents; you will also see, I think, more and more jihadi-inspired incidents. There is no middle ground.

There is no way to couch criticism of state policies in Xinjiang in sort of loyal dissent. Tohti tried that and other people have tried that, and we know what the response is. So there is no way to express disagreement with party policies in Xinjiang for Uighur people. The only tolerated political attitude is unqualified loyalty to the party and state, because the yardstick for the party is ethnic unity.

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