It’s not really “China’s Chechnya” yet, but the insurgency in Xinjiang is growing fast. Incidents of anti-Chinese violence are getting bigger and much more frequent. Since March, 176 people have been killed in six separate attacks on Chinese police and government officials, local collaborators and ordinary Chinese residents of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, and the authorities don’t seem to have a clue what to do about it.
The Uighur attackers have mostly used knives or explosives in their attacks (guns are hard to get in China), but nobody has suggested that they are so technologically backward that their bombs come with long, trailing fuses that have to be lit by hand. Yet Chinese police in Xinjiang last month seized tens of thousands of boxes of matches.
The rebels, on the other hand, are very serious people. Like most independence movements of the colonial era, they believe that you have to take the war to the homeland of the “oppressor” if you can. One of those recent attacks was not in Xinkiang but in Kunming in southwestern China, where a band of eight knife-wielding Uighurs killed 29 ordinary Chinese citizens and wounded 143 in the main railway station.
The Uighurs are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, and the official Chinese line blames the separatist violence on foreign Islamists who are stirring up the local people. The separatists themselves say that it is a legitimate response to Chinese oppression, and in particular to the Chinese government’s policy of flooding Xinjiang with Han Chinese immigrants in an attempt to change the territory’s demographic balance. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.
Xinjiang (literally “New Territory) was conquered by Chinese troops in the 1750s, but the population mix did not change. In the early 19th century a census reported the population as 30 percent Han Chinese (almost all living north of the Tian Shan mountains) and 60 percent Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslim farmers who accounted for almost the entire population south of the mountains. The rest were Kazakhs, Huis, Mongols and others.
The Uighurs had grown to 75 percent of the total population by the 1953 census, with many by then living north of the mountains. The Han Chinese had fallen to only 6 percent. But now, thanks to large-scale immigration, the Chinese are back up to fully 40 percent of Xinkiang’s population, while the 10 million Uighurs are down to 45 percent.
In other words, the numbers will support almost any argument you want to make, if you choose your census dates carefully. But it is certainly not true that Han Chinese people are newcomers to Xinjiang, and it is probably not true that the Chinese government has a policy of encouraging Han immigration to reduce the Uighurs to a marginal minority.
Chinese officials themselves say that they are trying to develop the Xinjiang economy and raise local living standards, with the (unstated) goal of making people so prosperous and content that they will not even think of “betraying the motherland” by seeking independence. It’s just that a developed economy requires job skills that are not plentiful among the Uighurs, so large numbers of Han Chinese are drawn in to do those jobs.
Add in all the resentment about the brutal assaults on the Uighurs’ culture and religion that happened during the Cultural Revolution – and continue in a minor key even today, thanks mainly to ignorant government officials who have never before lived outside an exclusively Chinese cultural context. And now there is also a radical Islamist ideology available, for those who are thinking about rebellion.
So now it’s getting really serious in Xinkiang: the last big incident, on 28 July, saw hundreds of Uighurs storm a police station and government offices armed with knives and axes. 59 of the attackers were killed and 215 arrested, while 37 (presumably Chinese) civilians were murdered. When you have organized groups doing violence on this scale, you are already in a low-level war.
It will probably never be as bad as Chechnya, and it is very unlikely that Xinkiang will ever be independent, but it may be a long and ugly counter-insurgency war, with many deaths. At least they’ve got the matches under control.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.