Pounding on the Detonator: How China Is Radicalizing Its Own Uyghur Population

By: Julia McClenon

"The most rebellious territory in the Qing Empire" is how historian Joseph Fletcher once described the land known today as Xinjiang Province, in northwestern China.1 While China's Qing Empire lasted until only 1911, the rebelliousness has continued unceasingly into the twenty-first century. Today, we are seeing an unprecedented increase in violent rebellionamong the discontented Uyghur population from whom Xinjiang's historical unrest originates. So far in 2014, there have been violent attacks perpetrated by Uyghur ethno-nationalists every single month, with two attacks occurring in May alone. 

On 22 May 2014, two SUVs exploded in a crowded market area of Ürümqi in northern Xinjiang after explosives were thrown out of the two vehicles and into the crowd: at least 31 people died and more than 90 were wounded. Two weeks earlier, a knife attack in the metropolis of Guangzhou—a southern city near Hong Kong previously known as Canton and home to over 14 million people—killed six people and terrified thousands at one of the world's busiest train stations. In April, Ürümqi saw a combination knife-and-bomb attack that was less fatal but left nearly 80 people injured. In March, an attack at a train station in China's southwestern Yunnan Province, bordering Myanmar, left 33 dead, including the attackers after they rampaged through the train station stabbing and slashing bystanders. Less than a month prior, another explosives-and-vehicle attack in Xinjiang Province left all 11 attackers dead. 

Over the past 100 years, Uyghur ethno-nationalists have executed bombings both inside and outside of Xinjiang Province, and even outside of China, attacking police convoys, shopping centers, government buildings, public transportation, factories, private residences, and other targets. These attacks have caused injuries and casualties among civilians, military personnel, and government employees. Uyghur militants have targeted both Han (the majority Chinese ethnicity in China) and Uyghur police officers, and have launched attacks on other People's Republic of China (PRC) security forces as well. They have even assassinated their own Muslim clerics for being too accepting of government restrictions. While incisive attacks and assassinations were more commonplace during the 1990s, ethno-nationalist Uyghur extremists have shifted their tactics to include more bombings and wider-scale, more-public attacks. Suicide bombings also began to increase markedly in 2008 and have continued, including the most recent suicide attacks at Tiananmen in 2013 and nearly every attack so far in 2014. Knife attacks abound, and knives are frequently used in one-off attacks by disgruntled peasants, factory workers, and average laobaixin2 involved in civil disputes throughout the country, in addition to extremist Uyghurs. Data clearly indicate a steady rise in Xinjiang-based and -focused violence since the late 1980s generally, and in the past few years particularly.

China's constantly transforming and ever-repressive tactics and strategies for dealing with this dissatisfied group appear only to be enraging and, in effect, radicalizing the very population authorities fear empowering. But before we uncover the excessive, clever, and sometimes hidden policies of Beijing, we must first provide a caveat concerning two important terms: terrorism and Uyghur. 

This Article Is Terrorism, Says China 

The PRC's definition of terrorism is problematic, and at best, transparently self-serving; at worst, it falls critically short of the international norms of human rights.3 For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the regional security organization whose member states include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, defines a terrorist act as

any act connected with intimidating the population, endangering human life and well-being, and intended to cause significant property damage, ecological disaster or other grave consequences in order to achieve political, religious, ideological or other ends by exerting influence on the decision-making of governments or international organizations, or the threat of committing such acts.4

In sum, as American journalist Joshua Kurlantzick has put it, "Beijing's definition of terrorism includes any group or individual it perceives to be a threat to the regime."5 Period. Beijing's open-ended phrases leave dangerous room for the regime to apply the label wherever it deems useful and convenient. As governments test the limits of their countries' new anti-terror laws, pressure from the international community to very carefully define terrorism should not let up. Indeed, under China's definition, purely peaceful activism can easily be described as terrorism, an absurdity that no self-respecting democracy or republic should tolerate. 

Consequently, in this paper, I avoid the labels of terrorist and terrorism in discussing the violence perpetrated by the troubled, and troublesome, Uyghur ethnic group, mostly so as not to legitimize the loose manner with which China and its counterterrorism partners define and apply these terms. Additionally, some instances of ethnic violence over the past two decades show signs of simple opportunism, and weak or one-off affiliation and coordination between the individuals involved. While undoubtedly some of the violence suffered by China at the hands of angry Uyghurs may accurately be labeled as terrorism—particularly incidents within the past 10 years—it is not the aim here to make those determinations, nor, might I argue, is it even necessarily helpful to do so. 

"We Now Face Our Deepest Winter"6

The Uyghurs have much to be angry about. Their grievances can be identified as economic inequality, perceived foreign occupation of their lands, lack of religious and political freedom, and lack of political autonomy. The greater, macro-level context informing their struggle is one of historical injustice and spoiled nationhood. 

The term Uyghur in this paper refers to an ethno-linguistic Turkic people who have been residing for millennia in and around the Tarim and Dzungarian Basins, the oases of the Taklamakan Desert, and the surrounding and intervening mountain ranges of present-day northwestern China.7 Today's definition of Uyghur is actually rather nebulous, owing to the complex historical background of those peoples it attempts to label.8 Uyghur may actually refer to a variety of overlapping and intermixing ethnic groups who have undergone several mass religious conversions, the most recent being to Islam in the fifteenth century. The term is used here with a conscious awareness of the modernity of this identity formulation.9

Economic inequality is pervasive and severe between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Although Czech researcher Jitka Malečková and American economist Alan B. Krueger both argue against the correlation between disparities in living standards and violent crime such as terrorism, economic hardship and inequality are nonetheless grievances of Xinjiang's violent perpetrators that are repeatedly cited by both Eastern and Western scholars and journalists who cover China.10 The numbers speak for themselves. In a mini-census in 2005, just over twenty-two thousand Uyghurs and Han were surveyed in Xinjiang, and from this sample population, it was found that Uyghurs earn, on average, less than half of what Han Chinese earn. The data also directly revealed that around 50 percent of all Uyghurs surveyed had only attained primary (elementary) education or lower, inhibiting them from even being eligible for many higher-paying jobs. These findings are supported by a more recent Al Jazeera report by Raymond Lee covering the socioeconomic hardships that are affecting Xinjiang Uyghurs as well.11 According to Lee's analysis, the population is dealing with ongoing land expropriation, government corruption, and social exclusion, which cause "accrued anger [to be] translated into enormous social grievance against the government."12

Xinjiang's natural resources are being tapped at great profit to the Chinese government, while little or none of this profit flows to the local people.13 Uyghurs in Xinjiang know these resources are valuable and that their community is being helplessly exploited by the Han Chinese: during his lengthy field studies in the region, anthropologist Justin Rudelson heard the locals joke that the train from eastern China comes into Xinjiang "making the sound ‘ach, ach, ach' (I'm hungry)," and leaves "making the sound ‘toq, toq, toq' (I'm full)."14 Uyghurs also know that the Lop Nor nuclear test site in southern Xinjiang has polluted their soil and groundwater with heavy metals to the point that locals are experiencing birth defects and other health problems. 

Uyghur ethno-nationalists may also resent what is perceived by some to be outright occupation of their lands by the Chinese. American political scientist Gregory Gause asserts that "terrorists are driven … by their opposition to what they see as foreign domination."15 They also desire more political representation. As Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, testified before Congress, "Uyghurs are still excluded from the decisions about the future of their homeland," and one reason is because Han continue to dominate party and local government positions.16 The few Uyghurs who do make it into government positions are generally understood to have been handpicked and carefully appointed by Beijing. 

As is often the case with religion throughout the PRC, despite Beijing's promises, Uyghurs are also restricted from practicing their religion as they choose. As just a handful of myriad examples: They may attend only legally sanctioned and certified mosques; preached material must be approved beforehand; they must apply for permission to leave the country years in advance for hajj but may still be arbitrarily denied; and their Han neighbors are employed by the government to watch their activities and report anything suspicious.17 Mosques may be shut down and imams removed or defrocked without notice. Community organizations receive similar treatment: in 1997, the shutdown of at-risk youth shelters and removal of their leaders in Yining led to peaceful demonstrations that deteriorated into violent riots. James Millward speculates that mosque grounds were even turned into pig pens during the Cultural Revolution.18

Fueling Uyghurs' anger further, the government treats Han and Han-dominant areas of Xinjiang differently from Uyghurs and their neighborhoods. For example, Han neighborhoods are developed and receive government investments, and according to Hong Kong–based political scientist Chien- Peng Chung, Han typically live in the newer neighborhoods, likely as compensation for their willingness to migrate to the region at the government's request.19 This is in contrast to Uyghur neighborhoods, which may be completely razed even when they are inhabited, such as has been done in Kashgar.20 The more tractable northern areas encounter relatively lax enforcement of religious restrictions, whereas in the south, policies are enforced to—and beyond—the precise letter of the law. There is also the direct, daily humiliation of racism and discrimination, through comment and action, in public and in the workplace, especially where more Han Chinese are present.21

These factors combine to form an "emotional thrust,"22 which leads Uyghurs to use violence as a way to communicate their plight and resist the Chinese state and its policies. While the examples of grievances outlined here are by no means the full story, they serve to outline why Uyghurs are discontented to the point of becoming susceptible to radicalization. The next section describes how and why radicalism is increasing in direct response to Beijing's policies and actions against Uyghurs and their identity.

History, History, History Repeats 

It was just before Communism's victorious rise in the mid-twentieth century that the two East Turkestan uprisings came about. These two movements and their short-lived republics—the Turkish Islamic Republic of East Turkestan and the Second East Turkestan Republic—have been written about extensively in historical briefs of the region; however, a critical detail is often left undiscussed, despite its effects on today's tense reality. This detail is one of geography: thefirst republic was established in the southwestern oasis regions of Kashgar in 1933, at the same time that a separate anti-Chinese khanate was also established in the southern city of Khotan; the second republic was established in 1944 in the northwestern areas of Ili, following a series of rebellions against the Chinese state. Modern anti-Han sentiments in Xinjiang are historically rooted in the geographic areas of the province that correspond to these historical uprisings. 

Even before the more familiar twentieth-century incidents, about one hundred years after the Qing dynasty attempted in 1759 to annex what is now Xinjiang, a military commander of Tajik ancestry named Yaqub Beg led a successful mass rebellion against Qing rule, and established an emirate in the southern Xinjiang city of Kashgar.23 Like the later East Turkestan movements, this uprising was also ethnically motivated, pitting the Uyghur and Hui (a separate and distinct ethnic group of Muslim Chinese) populations of the region against the Han Chinese. In contrast, the Uyghur dwellers of the Turpan region to the north have a track record of amiable cross-cultural relations with the Han Chinese dating back centuries. Not coincidentally, it is in the north that the Chinese government set up the new regional capital of Ürümqi.

Friendly Neighborhood Insurgents 

The southwestern rebel strongholds of Kashgar and Khotan are the closest cities to a little-known section of the Chinese border that abuts Afghanistan and leads into the Wakhan Corridor: a nearly two-hundred-mile-long stretch of Afghan territory sandwiched between Tajikistan and Pakistan that directly connects Afghanistan to China. The approximately 50 miles of border is so unheard of that even seasoned experts and academics in the field are unaware of it. Historically, the Wakhan Corridor was used to travel between the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang and the historic region of Badakhshan—today's northeastern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan—and was a critical feature of the ancient Silk Road. This is a perfectly, and frighteningly, ungoverned channel through which to funnel goods and ideas to an increasingly beleaguered and desperate Uyghur populace. Rounding off this volatile frontier just as it connects with China is the disputed Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where uprisings against the government in New Delhi have been boiling over for decades. The provinces that converge on this border area thus are home to generations of veterans of armed conflict against states.

As effectively as the Cultural Revolution erased local histories throughout China, the independent streak running through the non-Turpan Uyghur areas across Xinjiang did not fade. While China has purposefully used these local geographic histories to its advantage, such as investing resources primarily in northern Ürümqi, the Uyghurs may themselves begin to harness geography in their struggle by reaching across the border. Their not-so-distant insurgent neighbors may be more than happy to help out, and are certainly already equipped to do so. 

Call and Response: Fighting Violence with Violence? 

China's responses to dissident attacks, and to the threat of East Turkestan separatism, are causing an unnecessarily dire situation in Xinjiang. The state uses an impressively comprehensive mixture of suppressive policies that combine soft, information-centric tactics and campaigns with violent kinetic, often lethal operations. Chinese counterterrorist campaigns usually receive coverage in the West for their physically brutal character; because there is a plethora of information and analysis available on this angle of China's repression, however, I touch on it only briefly here. My focus in the subsequent section is on China's much larger and relatively unknown information-oriented operations, which all but cripple their dissenters. 

The most famous of China's anti-terrorist campaigns against its East Turkestan dissidents is the ruthless "Strike Hard" campaign, which is initiated and rescinded as needed, usually in the run-up to or aftermath of major protests, incidents of unrest, or violent attacks. The campaign has allowed for a range of repressive measures, including: legal proceedings against suspected terrorists to be expedited or circumvented altogether, the torture of suspects, executions, police sweeps through neighborhoods without warning or justification, intrusive surveillance, targeted assassinations, and a general massive increase in the presence of security forces. Joshua Kurlantzick reported in 2003 that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had turned Xinjiang into "a garrison," noting that the Army ran a drill "conspicuously" near a mosque.24 This is in contrast to an earlier trip report from the mid-1990s by Paul Henze, who characterized the PLA bases as being in "inconspicuous locations," giving the impression that the increase in security forces is no temporary measure but part of a long-term kinetic strategyagainst violent extremists in the region.25 Indeed, later on, in 2010, the Communist Party of China recruited five thousand more special police from within Xinjiang, while the People's Armed Police added a new rapid-reaction unit in Ürümqi. In 2010, there were sixty thousand security cameras in the city of Ürümqi alone.26

The campaign has also mobilized individuals, both directly and indirectly, into informant networks, whereby they sell one another out to the security services to avoid having suspicion fall on their own families. The legitimacy of such accusations is often questionable. The second-order effects of the informant network, however—sowing distrust and discontent between locals and among the minority populations—play neatly into some of China's information operations against the East Turkestan movement. 

Information Warfare with Chinese Characteristics 

Overall, China executes a brilliantly comprehensive propaganda and information campaign that has, in ways, achieved degrees of success with assimilating and erasing Uyghur culture and reframing Uyghurs' self-perception firmly within a Chinese-identity narrative. In this section, we peer into the shadowy and layered world of China's subversive and methodical propaganda to find out just what the Uyghurs have been up against in their fight for survival—let alone for their own autonomous province or nation. 

The Pen Is Mightier 

One of the most effective moves the PRC has used to undermine Uyghur identity is to grind away the people's literature and oral history traditions. It has done this primarily through a series of language overhauls, beginning with the first rewrite in 1956. At the behest of Mao, written Chinese itself was undergoing its own language overhaul at this time: traditional Chinese characters were abandoned for simplified characters, a first blow for modernization that was felt countrywide. The Uyghurs, for their part, were forced to convert to the Cyrillic alphabet, in a purposeful effort to undermine the influence of Uyghur intellectuals.27 In 1960, the script was changed again, this time from Cyrillic to Latin, further impeding the transmission and comprehension of any cultural records that may have survived to that point. Eighteen years later, in 1978—or in other words, as the next generation came into adulthood—Beijing imposed a modified version of Arabic writing on the Uyghur people. Thus, successive cadres of schoolchildren have lost the ability to read their own history, even recent history, except as promulgated from the central authority.

In addition to having their written history cut off from them, the Uyghur population had three different languages imposed on them within a span of 28 years, four languages if Mandarin Chinese is included, and many more when including dialects from adjacent provinces and Soviet influences during the same era.28 Anthropologists consider the effects of language loss on a culture to be devastating because languages are "like a key that can unlock local knowledge" and are certainly a key to transmitting history and maintaining national identity.29 The generational timing of the language impositions also ensured that not only the culture as a whole but also the microcosm of Uyghur families would be weakened, making Uyghur youth more vulnerable to the influence of the dominant Chinese culture during their formative years. The Uyghur schools have also been disrupted by these mandates regarding which language to use for instruction in minority areas.

Every 10 years or less, the Chinese government switches its policy to either allow and encourage, or disallow and discourage, Uyghur language instruction. Because of this, alternating generations of Uyghurs may speak, read, and write some version of their own language, or exclusively Mandarin, inhibiting intragroup communication. According to Rudelson, who spent a number of years in Xinjiang doing field research, Uyghur intellectuals "feel that the younger generation may grow up not only uninterested in reading about Uyghur history, but also unable to simply read."30 These policies and language shifts have created an important communication gap that helps China in its efforts to assimilate or erase Uyghur culture and identity. 

There have also been more direct attacks on the historiography and cultural records of the region and its localities, including the establishment of a regional museum that portrayed only a Han Chinese presence in Xinjiang. Despite purporting to cover thousands of years of the area's history, the museum reportedly excluded any mention of the actual peoples native to Xinjiang.31 (This museum apparently has been shut down.) Beijing also has a long track record of imprisoning any authors, academics, and artists, including those from the Uyghur minority, whom it considers dissident. As a recent example, economist and historian Ilham Tohti was arrested on 15 January 2014 for "inciting separatism," only a few weeks after he sat for an interview with the Australian Broadcast Corporation.32 Books and music are publicly burned for their supposedly separatist content in sudden and powerful waves of repression. Mass public rallies are held "at which Uyghurs [are] sentenced to jail [or death] without trial," in an eerie harkening back to the worst years of the Cultural Revolution.33 Beijing also co-opts up-and-coming Uyghur intellectuals by handpicking them to be educated in the country's capital based on their compliance with Beijing's views and policies.34 These assimilated scholars are more widely published and thus become more influential than Uyghurs who are more true to their original culture and sentiments.

There Goes the Neighborhood 

With the completion of the transnational railroad in 1962 into Urumqi, the Chinese government shifted the capital of Xinjiang away from the traditional Kashgar and Ili regions—the cultural centers of Uyghur identity—north to the historically more Han-friendly city of Ürümqi. Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Han Chinese have been persuaded by the Communist central government to migrate en masse to historically Uyghur lands throughout Xinjiang in exchange for land, money, government or Party positions, or other compensation; ostensibly to develop the region, the central government also built a railway line that connects developed eastern China to Ürümqi. In 1949, Han Chinese made up a mere 5 percent of the population in Xinjiang; by 2010, they comprised 41 percent. In the regional capital of Ürümqi, Han account for nearly 80 percent of the population.35 When the United States encouraged American settlement of the newly independent Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas in the early nineteenth century, the Spanish-speaking Tejanos were outnumbered by Americans within the span of about 30 years, and the Mexican-American War of 1846 was the result. The Uyghurs are similarly becoming strangers in their own lands and, likewise, have so far been unable to win back the territory they believe belongs to them.

Islam in a Chinese Choke Hold 

The practice of Islam, which underpins modern Uyghur culture even for secular Uyghurs, is also subject to unjust scrutiny and clampdowns. Uyghur religious leaders are sometimes forced to go to re-education camps, where they are taught how to be "more patriotic," and hundreds of thousands of clergy members have been "examined" by authorities; an estimated 10 percent of these were defrocked in the crackdown that came immediately after the April 1990 Baren Township Riot.36 The initial protests were not even related to Islam but were instead in response to the forced abortions that were being carried out to implement the government's one-child "family planning policies," as they are often euphemistically called. Uyghurs who work in state institutions (there is no such thing as a truly "private" enterprise in China) are sometimes not allowed to attend mosque services, particularly during Ramadan, and are not allowed to observe the Ramadan fast. Islamic teachers and scholars are also regularly imprisoned and sometimes summarily executed without explanation. Mosques are shut down and destroyed without warning or media coverage, and imams are charged with "spreading material promoting ‘religious extremism' on the internet" under ambiguous circumstances.37 Uyghur women who wear headscarves, especially in the rebellious Kashgar region, are pulled off the street tohave their scarves forcibly removed; Uyghur men are encouraged to shave their beards. According to Kurlantzick, "Government documents smuggled out of the country reveal … government officials, including [former president Hu Jintao] proposing to use secret agents to infiltrate and ‘quietly smash' religious groups … supposedly threatening public order."38 In schools, the Buddhist origins of certain Uyghur Turkic texts are emphasized over their Islamic roots.39

Chinese Identity or No Identity 

Nicholas Dynon, an expert on Chinese public diplomacy, writes, "Education reinforcing state sanctioned views of cultural identity … equips youth with the ability to say, ‘I am Chinese, I am Uyghur, I am not an Arab.'"40 Other surreptitious efforts to shape ethnic identity include the revision of history textbooks used in Xinjiang schools to portray Uyghurs not only as being ethnically Chinese but also as having no history separate from that of the Han Chinese people. One such textbook used in Uyghur schools and created by the Beijing-controlled Xinjiang Youth Press is called I Am a Pan-PRC Chinese, as translated from Uyghur by Rudelson. The short-term effects of this kind of education reform and revisionist history, which were implemented in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are difficult to measure, but there are some signs that the PRC has been successful at least in causing confusion among younger Muslim and Turkic Chinese about their non- Chinese cultural heritage. These tactics may even be beginning to disconnect them from their heritage entirely. For example, in a survey cited by Millward in Eurasian Crossroads, 43 percent of Uyghurs sampled in the mid-2000s believe that their culture and ethnicity are historically a part of China; 80 percent of Han believe the same of the Uyghur people.41

The central government has also attempted to divide ethnic minority groups in a bid to prevent cross-minority sympathy, a perception of likeness, or a sense of shared grievances, which could strengthen the minorities in solidarity against the Chinese state. For instance, when the Chinese Communists were first consolidating their control of Xinjiang, they forced the nomadic Kazakh minority into fixed and smaller pastures, while simultaneously increasing the Kazakhs' political leadership of then-Uyghur-dominant Xinjiang; Beijing still uses this historically oppositional minority relationship to its own advantage.42 The central government has even turned the historic Ili area of Xinjiang into an official "Kazakh Autonomous Region," which, despite also being historically Uyghur territory, is now governed by Kazakhs and Han. 

In conjunction with the information campaigns launched within the Uyghur and other Xinjiang communities, Beijing has also been steadily increasing its nationalist rhetoric and nationwide propaganda campaigns directed toward the Han population and jingoists, "[fostering] intense nationalism through fascist-like mass rallies and xenophobic school curricula."43 The Xinhua News Agency recently released a series of paintings and slogans from the early days of communism's rise in China, pulling the patriotic heartstrings of its citizens and appealing to Han Chinese youth, who seem to have a growing penchant for overly zealous portrayals of "mother China."44

China Seals a Deadly Bomb 

At the same time that it engages in these active strategic propaganda and information campaigns, the government blocks off any routes for redressing grievances—either historical ones or those arising strictly from these policies. Any protests, for instance, "must be officially approved beforehand and … the application must specify the protest's ‘purpose, methods, slogans, or catchphrases.'"45 Aside from giving the government the obvious upper hand in physical security for such protests, including the ability to shut them down before they even begin, this pre-approval documentation also presumably gives Beijing advance time to preload all of its media outlets with precisely drafted rhetoric that is relevant and damaging to the movement, as it did in the 2013 Nanfang Zhoumo scandal.46

Uyghurs and any other dissenters in China cannot safely seek legal representation either, because lawyers are discouraged, with consequential threats, from representing anyone even remotely related to a protest or "any other"47 activity that could be deemed "separatist" or "terrorist."48 Even if one does find a brave-enough lawyer, the Chinese government openly describes the judges presiding over such cases as "selected politically qualified personnel drawn from the entire region,"49 thus preventing citizens from having any truly just, legal route of appeal to the government.

Blockades without Borders 

Blocking any international avenue of recourse, China prevents Uyghurs from either gaining sympathy from or finding refuge with neighbors by painting the Uyghurs as threats not only to China but to the other countries in the region as well.50 Through the SCO, China has secured the return of Uyghurs it deems to be criminals from other member states, which unquestioningly fulfill China's requests for extradition. SCO members also deny Uyghurs' applications for asylum without review, thus shutting them out of the region's legal arenas. 

China's media and communications blockades so severely limit the availability of information that the Uyghurs' plight simply cannot be fully or accurately portrayed by international media, and thus fails to win the sympathy or intercession of the rest of the world. China has also become so powerful on the world stage that those who might otherwise intervene under similar circumstances are discouraged from doing so out of fear of economic or other repercussions. The difficulty of clearly defining the Uyghur people as an ethnic group probably exacerbates the difficulty that would-be sympathizers have in trying to identify with the people's plight. The easiest way to solve that problem may be through increased Islamicization of Uyghur identity, something that seems to be happening naturally in response to the intense and complete stifling of Uyghur nationhood. In other words, the common thread of Islam may be the most direct means the Uyghurs have to connect with and gain the sympathy of outsiders, whether they be mainstream Muslims or violent extremists. 

Uyghurs are effectively blocked off from every major means to redress grievances: legal, direct appeals to the domestic government, peaceful activism, community organization, and regional or international aid from private citizens, organizations, or governments—every angle is occluded by China's truly comprehensive collection of strategies. This combination of soft and hard policies, however, can lead to a particular explosiveness. If there is no other way to express their frustration but to detonate, that may just be where the Uyghurs are headed. As Gregory Gause put it, "When a dictatorship controls the political life of a country, responsible opposition cannot develop, and dissent is driven underground and toward the extreme."51

China Gets Hit by Its Own Shrapnel 

The information and kinetic dimensions of China's war on terrorism have proven so harsh that these policies are backfiring by further alienating the Uyghur population. For instance, the information bureau's success at painting Uyghur violence as "evil," and thus instilling a sense of otherness and eroding sympathy among the non-Uyghur populations, has antagonized Han Chinese into forming serious prejudices against Uyghurs.52 Many Han, especially those who have limited or no direct personal contact with Uyghurs, fear, dislike, and discriminate against them as a result of official propaganda. At the same time, paradoxically, as China has implemented a strategy of re-education in Uyghur schools to make students feel more like an integral part of China, Uyghurs' daily experiences on the ground are giving them a different picture. Racial discrimination against Uyghurs seems to be as cruel as ever. One Han urbanite in Guangzhou recoiled in fear during a conversation when I explained that some Uyghurs have sought new lives in the United States. "Aren't you afraid of what they will do to your country?" he asked in bewilderment. When I asked why anyone would be afraid of them, he explained to me that "Uyghurs are psychotic people" and "criminals" to be feared and contained. Several years earlier, in 2007, during the time I spent doing ethnographic research on ethnic discrimination in China, sentiments among Han were similarly harsh and unjust. 

The harsh physical security measures used by the Chinese government against the Uyghur population are propelling otherwise moderately minded people to begin identifying with the more extreme subgroup. Norwegian Police University College professor Tore Bjørgo writes, "The experience of being beaten up or arrested by the police along with other group members … tends to redefine their entire relationship to the society."53 Nick Holdstock, British journalist and author of the Xinjiang exposé The Tree That Bleeds, reported that "many Uyghurs claimed [to him] that the adoption of a more conservative approach to Islam … [only] came after the crackdown" on the Yining protests in 1997.54 He went on to write, "The growth in religiosity among Uyghurs in Xinjiang can be seen as a response" to China's repression and restriction of Muslim identity. Abdullah Mansour, widely considered to be the leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party55—a terrorist organization advocating for an independent East Turkestan—claimed in a Uyghur-language video that the 23 April 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square was in direct response to Chinese state actions taken against Uyghur culture.56 A report for Al Jazeera on Uyghur unrest also points to China's repressive policies as a significant motivating cause for the "adversarial orientation" of Uyghurs against Han rule.57

Conclusion: Reclaiming Identity, Reclaiming Rebellion 

As China's counterterror policies backfire, the Xinjiang region is undergoing additional social and political changes that are feeding overall instability and, most likely, further violence. The relatively recent reopening of Xinjiang's borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India, as well as the little-known Wakhan Corridor into Afghanistan, is bringing a slew of transformations. First, there is the reuniting of Uyghur families who were separated during the Cultural Revolution and throughout the early Communist era. Estimates vary, but Rudelson notes that between sixty thousand and one hundred twenty thousand minority nationals fled from Xinjiang into what is now Kazakhstan. Although we don't know precisely what percentage of that number were Uyghurs, we do know that Uyghurs made up at least 80–90 percent of the population in Xinjiang Province at that time, so their percentage of that exodus was likely quite significant. Rudelson also mentions that many Uyghurs "fled to India and settled in the Rawalpindi area of today's Pakistan" in the 1930s.58 It is not difficult to imagine what those Uyghurs have been exposed to during their lengthy exile in such a conflicted area. There are also significant Uyghur populations in Kyrgyzstan and more-distant Turkey. 

Second, the various oases of Xinjiang historically were more closely tied to their most proximate neighbors in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan than to the Han populations to the east. This is one of the reasons that the oases developed such distinct cultures—bilateral relations with neighboring countries varied sharply from oasis to oasis, exposing each to a unique cultural influence. When China's borders were closed in 1962, not only were thousands of Uyghur families split apart, but the identity-reinforcing relations that each oasis had with Central Asians were all but obliterated. Since the 1980s-era reopening of the borders under Chinese politician and reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, Xinjiang's oases are experiencing a revival of their more traditional non-Chinese and non-PRC identities. Both the deeply personal connections that are being reformed by families, and the significant political and economic relationships that are being dusted off and rebuilt, may have a substantial influence on the overall milieu of Uyghurs' relations with the Chinese state in the coming years. 

The reopening of these borders may have other effects as well, due to the overall regional environment. In particular, the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan leaves a well-recognized vacuum of authority in a region that is already notoriously under-governed. Central Asian borders, particularly where they run into northwestern China, are dangerously unpoliced and, even when they are guarded, are easy to pass through with an extra pack of cigarettes or what amounts to a few U.S. dollars. The dearth of authoritative presence and security, particularly in the nearly hidden Wakhan Corridor, presents a welcome mat for the kind of destabilizing influences that an angry ethno-nationalist group like the Uyghurs would gladly welcome. 

China's notoriously inhumane and repressive policies are pushing its Uyghur minority to the only other extreme that seems to be left open to them: the violent means of communication we call terrorism. The revival of Uyghurs' Muslim identity due to the rejuvenation of their cross-border relations with Central Asia may be leading to a new solidarity that mirrors Xinjiang's not-so-distant rebellious past. The regional community in Central and South Asia will undoubtedly feel the effects of a rise in Uyghur ethno-nationalist terrorism. We already see the expansion of attacks going well beyond Xinjiang's borders into the rest of mainland China, despite a tremendously restrictive security environment. It would almost be easier for Uyghur radicals to target Han in neighboring countries, and as the Vietnamese violently kick out Chinese workers from their country over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it is not a far cry to imagine further attacks on Han Chinese citizens abroad, carried out by members of an insurgent-empowered Uyghur "nation." 

Increased security measures will almost certainly be called for by regional partners in the near future, particularly China's fellow SCO members who have at least some relative influence with Beijing, in a bid to prevent cross-pollination with neighboring takfiri radicals and an explosion of new and more violent attacks from radicalized Uyghurs. What China's leadership still does not seem to recognize, however, is that harsher crackdowns only serve to ignite these explosions in the first place. They need to understand that the Uyghur ethnic identity they've been pounding down on so hard is effectively becoming a detonator, before it's too late to cut the fuse of the bomb they themselves have packed.

About the Author(s): Julia McClenon is a writer, researcher, and editor who served as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in China from 2012 to 2014.


1. Andrew D. W. Forbes, Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: A Political history of Republican Sinkiang 1911–1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 10 

2. Literally, "old one hundred surnames," a term roughly translatable to "an ordinary citizen," as separate from, say, a government leader or powerful enterprise executive. 

3. Human Rights in China, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights: The Impact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (New York: Human Rights in China, March 2011): http://www.hrichina.org/ en/publications/hric-report/counter-terrorism-and-human-rights-impact-shanghai-cooperation-organization 

4. Emphasis added. Human Rights in China, Counter-terrorism and Human Rights, 45. 

5. Joshua Kurlantzick, "China's Dubious Role in the War on Terror," Current History 102, no. 668 (December 2003): 432–38. 

6. From a poem by Abdurusul Omar, a Uyghur, as translated by Justin Jon Rudelson, Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism along China's Silk Road (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 152. 

7. For a thorough history of eastern Central Asia, see James Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers Limited, 2007). For an equally fascinating but more modern history dating from the late 1800s, see S. Frederick Starr, ed., Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2004); and Andrew D. W. Forbes, Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: A Political History of Republican Sinkiang 1911–1949, 2nd ed. (Bangkok: White Lotus Co., 2010). 

8. The distinctiveness of the peoples across the different oases and cities throughout Xinjiang clouds the issue further. Each locality has its own history and identity, and Uyghurs from one particular oasis may view Uyghurs from any other oasis as members of an entirely different nationality, such as the Dolans near Kashgar, or the Loplik fishing community near Lop Nor. Pertinently, as Uyghurs begin to piece back together what was lost of their recorded histories in China's devastating Cultural Revolution, each locality's intellectual community is now competing with the others to reformulate a narrative of identity. This makes the Uyghur label highly subjective, according to whom and by whom the label is being applied. For simplicity's sake, but in quiet recognition of Uyghurs' complexly woven histories, I use the term Uyghur in this article to refer in general to the Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim peoples residing in Xinjiang Province. 

9. Uyghurs were not widespread followers of Islam until about the fifteenth century. Before that, they went through a series of religious conversions: predominantly Buddhism, but also Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity. (See Rudelson, Oasis Identities.) Even today, the mystic branch of Islam, Sufism, is widely practiced. Before the fifteenth century, the term Uyghur was actually used to refer to and differentiate the Turkic Buddhist society residing in Turpan (in northeastern Xinjiang) from the Turkic Muslim societies to the west. Around the time that these Turkic Buddhists began converting to Islam in 1450 CE and up until the mid-twentieth century, the term Uyghur completely fell out of use, presumably because it was strongly linked to the Buddhist history of the culture. Only in the early 1930s did the term come to be as closely linked with Islam as it is today. This is significant because Chinese critics point to Islam and religion as the drivers of social instability among Uyghurs, when in fact there are indications that observant Islam may be experiencing a resurgence primarily in response to the repressive policies of the Chinese government. 

10. Not only is there an economic difference within a given city in Xinjiang, but we can also see an economic and political disparity across the regions of Xinjiang, along an unsurprising divide: the northeastern, Beijing-favored, Han-dominated Turpan region including Ürümqi, versus the rest of the province, where 80 percent of Xinjiang's Uyghurs live. Raymond Lee found socioeconomic development disparities at their extremes in this case, with "the heartland" Uyghur areas in the south suffering the poorest conditions and the mainly Han-inhabited areas in the north enjoying some of the highest GDP-per-capita rates in the entire country. See Raymond Lee, Unrest in Xinjiang, Uyghur Province in China (Mecca: Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 9 February 2014): http://studies.aljazeera.net/ResourceGallery/ media/Documents/2014/2/20/2014220921643580Province%20 in%20China.pdf 

11. Lee, Unrest in Xinjiang. 

12. Ibid., 5. 

13. Ibid., 4. 

14. Rudelson, Oasis Identities, 75. 

15. F. Gregory Gause III, "Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?," Foreign Affairs 85, no. 5 (September/October 2005): http://www. terpconnect.umd.edu/~mkm/gause.pdf 

16. China's Far West: Conditions in Xinjiang One Year After Demonstrations and Riots: Roundtable Before the Congressional- Executive Commission on China, 111th Cong. 10 (19 July 2010) (statement of Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch): http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG- 111hhrg57904/pdf/CHRG-111hhrg57904.pdf 

17. Nick Holdstock, Islam and Instability in China's Xinjiang (Oslo: Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, March 2014): http:// www.peacebuilding.no/var/ezflow_site/storage/original/applicati on/3ba335a7680451de2612c693a481eb96.pdf 

18. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads, 276. 

19. Chien-peng Chung, "China's ‘War on Terror': September 11 and Uighur Separatism," Foreign Affairs 81, no. 4 ( July/August 2002): http://www.cfr.org/china/ chinas-war-terror-september-11-uighur-separatism/p4765 

20. Jacob Zenn, "China Claims Uyghur Militants Trained in Syria," Terrorism Monitor 11, no. 14 (12 July 2013): http:// www.jamestown.org/regions/middleeast/single/?tx_ ttnews[pointer]=4&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=41115&tx_ttnews[b ackPid]=676&cHash=111fdb863851f0ea1f831d12bec28957#. U7HDmbEn_Nw 

21. Julia McClenon, "From Backwards to Upwards: Ethnic Discrimination in China" (unpublished manuscript, May 2008), Microsoft Word file. 

22. Lee, Unrest in Xinjiang, 5. 

23. Rudelson, Oasis Identities, 27. 

24. Kurlantzick, "China's Dubious Role." 

25. Paul B. Henze, Xinjiang and Ex-Soviet Central Asia: Impressions of Chinese Turkestan (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1995), 5. 

26 China's Far West: Conditions in Xinjiang One Year After Demonstrations and Riots: Roundtable Before the Congressional- Executive Commission on China, 111th Cong. 3 (19 July 2010) (statement of Shirley A. Kan, Specialist in Asian Security Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division, Congressional Research Service): http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG- 111hhrg57904/pdf/CHRG-111hhrg57904.pdf 

27. Rudelson, Oasis Identities, 101. 

28. Although the spoken changes to the native tongue were mostly minor pronunciation changes according to whatever alphabet they were being forced to use at any given time, Mandarin exclusively was also intermittently forced on children in the schools. As a result, spoken Uyghur was being learned only at home during those times. Depending on the timing, home-spoken Uyghur sounded different from that taught in schools, and/or from the Uyghur that Uyghurs of other ages spoke. To make matters worse, the Cyrillic-taught Uyghur borrow many Russian words that are unintelligible to traditional Uyghur-speakers; the Arabic-taught Uyghurs use Arabic words unintelligible to the Cyrillic or otherwise trained Uyghurs; and so on. The result is both written and spoken language blockades to cultural cohesion. 

29. Paroma Basu, "What Happens When a Language Dies?," National Geographic News, 26 February 2009: http://news. nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/02/090226--dying-languages-india-missions.html 

30. Rudelson, Oasis Identities, 59. 

31. Ibid., 136. 

32. Andrew Jacobs, "China Charges Scholar with Inciting Separatism," New York Times, 26 February 2014: http://www. nytimes.com/2014/02/27/world/asia/ilham-tohti.html ; Stephen McDonell, "Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti Arrested in China Could Face Life in Prison, Human Rights Watch Researcher Warns," Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 January 2014: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-18/ scholar-arrested-in-china-could-face-life-in-prison/5206180 

33. Kurlantzick, "China's Dubious Role," 432–38. 

34. Rudelson, Oasis Identities, 135. 

35. Holdstock, Islam and Instability; Chung, "China's ‘War on Terror,'" 5. 

36. Kurlantzick, "China's Dubious Role." 

37. Rudelson, Oasis Identities, 135. 

38. Kurlantzick, "China's Dubious Role," 436. 

39 Rudelson, Oasis Identities, 139. For example, one text in question, from the eleventh century, is considered "one of the first Uyghur masterpieces on the aesthetics of the Turkic language." Although the author was born in Kashgar and his mausoleum in Kashgar is considered an important Uyghur historical site, a Han Chinese author published an article in 1986 claiming a Buddhist origin for the book. Rudelson cites this as an example of how "the Chinese disassociate Uyghur history from Islam […] by claiming Buddhist origins" for Uyghur texts. Ibid. 

40. Nicholas Dynon, "The Language of Terrorism in China: Balancing Foreign and Domestic Policy Imperatives," China Brief 14, no. 1 ( January 2014): http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=41799&no_cache=1#.U4Dd0fldXs8 

41. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads, 351. 

42. Rudelson, Oasis Identities, 35, 133. 

43. Kurlantzick, "China's Dubious Role," 435. 

44. "Early PLA Posters, Signatures of an Era," People's Daily Online, 30 April 2014. 

45. Holdstock, Islam and Instability, 4. 

46. In January 2013, a generally progressive newspaper in Guangzhou, Nanfang Zhoumo, attempted to publish a call for constitutional reforms on its front page. The head of the provincial level propaganda department edited and censored the article for its final published version without consent of the author or any of the editorial staff at the newspaper. The original version, titled "The Chinese Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism," was widely leaked, however, and Communist Party censors who attempted to block all the online chatter about the censorship were overwhelmed with protests from as far away as Shanghai. See Reporters Without Borders: http://en.rsf.org/chine-chinese-censors-pursue-cover-up-11-01-2013,43908.html. Also see "The New Year's Greetings Incident:" https://www.wefightcensorship. org/censored/new-years-greetings-incidenthtml.html 

47. The phrase any other is a hallmark ambiguity of China's definitions of terrorism. See the introductory section of this article. 

48. China's Far West: Conditions in Xinjiang One Year After Demonstrations and Riots: Roundtable Before the Congressional- Executive Commission on China, 111th Cong. 16 (19 July 2010): http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-111hhrg57904/pdf/ CHRG-111hhrg57904.pdf 

49. Ibid. 

50. Kurlantzick, "China's Dubious Role," 437. 

51. Gause, "Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?," 3. 

52. Author conversations with Han Chinese in Guangzhou, China, September–December 2013. 

53. Tore Bjørgo, "Process of Disengagement from Violent Groups of the Extreme Right," in Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement, ed. Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan (London: Routledge, 2009), 35. 

54. Holdstock, Islam and Instability, 5. 

55. Also commonly referred to as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM. 

56. Zenn, "China Claims Uyghur Militants Trained in Syria." 

57. Lee, Unrest in Xinjiang, 3. 

58. Rudelson, Oasis Identities, 61.



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Kirk Stork
The US "Patriot Act" definition of Domestic Terrorism:

" A person engages in domestic terrorism if they do an act ""dangerous to human life"" that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. Additionally, the acts have to occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States and if they do not, may be regarded as international terrorism.

Key elements "by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping" The Chinese definition is much much broader.
Posted on 8/21/14 8:20 PM.