PROVOCATIVE MEASURES: Paramilitary police patrol near the central square in Hotan, Xinjiang. Photo: Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Is China Facing a Xinjiang Insurgency?
  • Fri, 06/26/2015 - 18:53

By Michael Clarke
June 25, 2015 1:12 p.m. ET

Up to 28 people were killed in an attack Tuesday by suspected Uighur militants on a police check-point in Kashgar, in the southwest of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. According a Radio Free Asia report, the attack began when a car sped through the checkpoint, injuring a traffic policeman. Two suspects leapt out of the vehicle and killed two other police officers with knives. The fighting continued until People’s Armed Police arrived at the scene and shot and killed not only the suspected militants but also numerous bystanders.

Major international media outlets carried the RFA report, but the Chinese media has remained largely silent. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang would not confirm it when questioned by reporters about the incident, but simply noted that if it in fact did take place, “the Chinese government has the responsibility to take resolute steps to stop these kinds of violent terror acts, to maintain peace and stability in Xinjiang.”

While the exact circumstances surrounding this incident remain unclear, Beijing is facing escalating unrest in Xinjiang. In March, the Xinjiang regional government claimed that law enforcement agencies had “busted” more than “180 terrorist gangs” in Xinjiang during the previous year. According to data compiled by Marc Julienne and Moritz Rudolf of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, terrorist attacks either in Xinjiang or linked to the region (such as the Kunming mass stabbing of March 1, 2014) have claimed the lives of 468 people and injured 548 between 2010 and 2014. The Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research in its annual Global Conflict Barometer report also categorized the situation in Xinjiang as one of “limited war.”

Is China thus facing an insurgency by Uighur militants in Xinjiang? According to RAND counterterrorism analyst Seth Jones, insurgency is “a protracted political-military activity directed toward subverting or displacing the legitimacy of a constituted government and completely or partially controlling the resources of a country through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations.” Within those parameters the situation in Xinjiang arguably does not constitute an insurgency, as there is little evidence of a politically or ideologically coherent organization behind the escalating violence, or that attackers are seeking to control territory.

However, an analysis of Beijing’s measures in response to the escalating violence suggests that it is guided by a judgment that it faces the potential for an insurgency. Beijing’s response to date has focused on three fronts: strengthening of security and counterterrorism measures; renewed attempts to strengthen “stability” and “ethnic unity;” and a renewed effort to demonstrate the links between Uighur “terrorism” and “hostile external forces.”

On the first issue, Beijing rapidly increased Xinjiang’s internal security budget to some $1 billion at the beginning of 2014, while President Xi Xinping has instituted a special committee on China’s new National Security Council to specifically deal with security and counterterrorism strategies in Xinjiang.

The authorities have also ramped up repressive measures in the region, with Xinjiang CCP Chairman Zhang Chuxian calling for a “people’s war” in which the state will “exterminate” the “savage and evil separatists” who are influenced and directed by foreign “extremists.”

This has entailed not only accelerated arrests and trials of suspected “terrorists”—including public, mass sentencing rallies of Uighur suspects—but also continued sweeps of Uighur neighborhoods and mosques in search of potential militants and their weapons. Furthermore, there is continued suspicion, and control of, outward signs of religiosity such as mosque attendance and wearing of veils.

Along with using such “hard” measures, authorities in Xinjiang have embarked upon less repressive ones to explicitly weaken Islam. There are reports of county-level regulations in southern Xinjiang that compel shop owners to stock both alcohol and cigarettes and advertise them through “eye-catching displays.” Authorities have also attempted to elicit the assistance of ordinary Uighurs in apprehending suspected militants through the offer of financial rewards for “tip-offs” to police regarding suspicious individuals and activities.

Such strategies, however, miss a central element of an effective counterinsurgency strategy. As Mr. Jones notes, “Popular support is a common goal for all actors in an insurgency. Both winning support and preventing insurgents from gaining support are critical components of any counterinsurgency.” Beijing’s focus on hard repressive measures and its antireligious campaigns seems destined to generate greater disaffection amongst Uighurs and increase the number of individuals who could potentially be coaxed into undertaking violent actions against the state.

Mr. Clarke is associate professor at the National Security College, Australian National University.