Solutions to Problems
China’s “War on Terror”
Throughout Ramadan,police intensified a campaign of house-to-house searches, looking for books or clothing that betray “conservative” religious belief among the region’s ethnic Uighurs: women wearing veils were widely detained, and many young men arrested on the slightest pretext, residents say. Students and civil servants were forced to eat instead of fasting, and work or attend classes instead of attending Friday prayers.
The religious repression has bred resentment, and, at times, deadly protests. Reports have emerged of police firing on angry crowds in recent weeks in the towns of Elishku, and Alaqagha; since then, Chinese authorities have imposed a complete blackout on reporting from both locations, even more intense than that already in place across most of Xinjiang.
Chinese police crack down on the wearing of beards and veils, observance of Ramadan, in Muslim-majority Xinjiang province.
A Washington Post team was turned away at the one of several checkpoints around Elishku, as army trucks rumbled past, and was subsequently detained for several hours by informers, police and Communist Party officials for reporting from villages in the surrounding district of Shache county; the following day, the team was again detained in Alaqagha in Kuqa county, and ultimately deported from the region from the nearest airport.
Across Shache county, the Internet has been cut, and text messaging services disabled, while foreigners have been barred. But in snatched conversations, in person and on the telephone, with the few people in the region brave enough to talk, a picture of constant harassment across Xinjiang emerges.
“The police are everywhere,” said one Uighur resident. Another said it was like “living in prison.” Another said his identity card had been checked so many times, “the magnetic strip is not working any more.”
On July 18, hundreds of people gathered outside a government building in the town of Alaqagha, angry about the arrest of two dozen girls and women who had refused to remove their headscarves, according to a report on Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA).
Protesters threw stones, bottles and bricks at the building; the police opened fire, killing at least two people, and wounding several more.
Then, on July 28, the last day of Ramadan, a protest in Elishku was met with an even more violent response, RFA reported. Hundreds of Uighurs attacked a police station with knives, axes and sticks; again, the police opened fire, mowing down scores of people.
China’s official Xinhua news agency said police killed 59 Uighur “terrorists” in the incident, although other reports suggest the death toll could have been significantly higher.
According to the Chinese government’s version, the angry crowd subsequently went on a rampage in nearby towns and villages, killing 37 civilians — mostly ethnic Han Chinese. The region has been in lockdown ever since, with police and SWAT teams arresting more than 200 people and drones scanning for suspects from the air.
Xinjiang is a land of deserts, oases and mountains, flanked by the Muslim lands of Central Asia. Its Uighur people are culturally more inclined towards Turkey than the rest of China.
China says foreign religious ideas — often propagated over the Internet— have corrupted the people of Xinjiang, promoting fundamentalist Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Islam and turning some of them towards terrorism in pursuit of separatist goals. It also blames a radical Islamist Uighur group — said to be based in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas and to have links to al-Qaeda — for a recent upsurge in violence. In March, a gruesome knife attack at a train station in the city of Kunming left 33 people dead, while in May, a bomb attack on a street market in Urumqi killed 43 others.
In response, President Xi Jinping has vowed to catch the terrorists “with nets spreading from the earth to the sky,” and to chase them “like rats scurrying across the street, with everybody shouting, ‘Beat them.’ ”
But the nets appear to be also catching many innocent people, residents complain. “You should arrest the bad guys,” said one Uighur professional in Urumqi, “not just anyone who looks suspicious.”
Some 200,000 Communist Party cadres have been dispatched to the countryside, ostensibly to listen to people’s concerns. Yet those officials, who often shelter behind compound walls fortified with alarms and barbed wire, appear to be more interested in ever-more intrusive surveillance of Uighur life, locals say.
In Shache, known in Uighur as Yarkand, an official document boasts of spending more than $2 million to establish a network of informers and surveillance cameras. House-to-house inspections, it says, will identify separatists, terrorists and religious extremists – including women who cover their faces with veils or burqas, and young men with long beards.
In the city of Kashgar, checkpoints enforce what the authorities call “Project Beauty” — beauty, in this case, being an exposed face. A large billboard close to the main mosque carries pictures of women wearing headscarves that pass muster, and those — covering the face or even just the neck — which are banned.
Anyone caught breaking the rules faces the daunting prospect of “regular and irregular inspections,” “educational lectures” and having party cadres assigned as “buddies” to prevent backsliding, the billboard announced. In the city of Karamay, women wearing veils and men with long beards have been banned from public buses.
Terrorism — in the sense of attacks on civilians — is a new phenomenon in Xinjiang, but the unrest here has a much longer history, with many Uighurs chafing under Chinese repression since the Communist Party takeover of the country in 1949, and resentful of the subsequent flood of immigrants from China’s majority Han community into the region.
What has changed is the growth in conservative Islam, and the increasing desperation of Uighurs determined to resist Chinese rule.
Until a decade or two ago, Xinjiang’s Uighurs wore their religion lightly, known more for their singing, dancing and drinking than their observation of the pieties of their faith. But in the past two decades a stricter form of the religion has slowly gained a foothold, as China opened up to the outside world.
While worship was allowed at officially sanctioned — and closely supervised — mosques, a network of underground mosques sprang up. Village elders returning from the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, brought back more conservative ideas; high levels of unemployment among Uighur youth, and widespread discrimination against them, left many searching for new ideas and new directions in life. The rise of Islam was, in part, a reaction against social inequality and modernity.
But Joanne Smith Finley of Britain’s Newcastle University, an expert on Uighur identities and Islam, says religion has become a “symbolic form of resistance” to Chinese rule in a region where other resistance is impossible.
When hopes for independence were cruelly dashed by mass executions and arrests in the city of Ghulja — or Yining in Chinese — in 1997, Uighurs had nowhere else to turn, she said.
“People lost faith in the dream of independence,” she said, “and started looking to Islam instead.”
Not every Uighur in Xinjiang is happy with the rising tide of conservatism: one academic lamented the dramatic decline in Uighur establishments serving alcohol in the city of Hotan, while insisting that many young girls wear veils only out of compulsion.
But China’s clumsy attempts to “liberate” Uighurs from the oppression of conservative Islam are only driving more people into the hands of the fundamentalists, experts say.
“If the government continues to exaggerate extremism in this way, and take inappropriate measures to fix it, it will only force people towards extremism” a prominent Uighur scholar, Ilham Tohti, wrote, before being jailed in January on a charge of inciting separatism.
A virtual media blackout makes it hard to know what’s happening as China tackles unrest among its Uighur Muslim minorities
On a clear, sunny morning last October, an SUV carrying three people turned right on to Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue, plowed through crowds gathered near the entrance to the Forbidden City and burst into flames at the northern edge of Tiananmen Square. The wreck killed five people, including three in the vehicle and two bystanders. Dozens more were injured.
Almost immediately, eyewitnesses started posting pictures. The photographs showed scenes of chaos in the heart of China’s capital: a plume of smoke rising in front of a portrait of Chairman Mao; the charred carapace of the vehicle resting at the foot of the ancient Gate of Heavenly Peace. Almost as quickly as the images were posted, however, they started to disappear. It became clear that the Chinese government, and the government alone, would tell this story.
Nearly a year later, they are still pulling the strings. On Aug. 24, state-backed media announced that three masterminds behind the incident were executed, alongside five other convicted terrorists. The report listed their names and charges, but did not mention when or how they were put to death, where they were held, in what conditions, or whether they were offered legal counsel. (State broadcaster CCTV did note, however, that Usmen Hasan, the driver of the SUV, once beat a middle-school teacher and was “feared” by his wife.)
Though some elements of the official account may well be true, the reporting is clearly selective — and impossible to confirm. Hasan, his wife and his mother were killed in the crash, and the others were held out of public view. Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, says rights groups and foreign journalists have effectively been blocked from looking into the matter. “We are just as much in the dark about these individuals,” she says. “We have almost no independent information, except what the state press has released.”
The handling of the case is part of an effort to manage when, and how, China talks about terrorism. This past year has seen a wave of attacks, starting with the Tiananmen crash and moving, in bloody succession, to ambushes at train stations in Kunming and Urumqi in March and April, respectively. In late May, Urumqi was hit again, when attackers targeted a morning market, leaving dozens dead. Each was pinned, directly or indirectly, on “separatists” or “extremists” from Xinjiang. If and when details are released by state media, they tend to point toward a straightforward story of radicalization at the hands of overseas Islamic terrorist groups. And those reports are always followed by news of the government’s swift and effective response.
The reality is more complex. Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Pakistan and several Central Asian nations, is claimed as the traditional homeland of the Turkic Uighur people — and as part of China. Since coming to power in 1949, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has sent waves of military personnel and migrants west to settle the area they call New Frontier. Many Uighurs resent the influx of ethnic Han Chinese and worry they are getting cut out of the region’s resource-driven economic boom.
A small minority of the Uighur population, meanwhile, has waged a decades-long fight against the central government, often targeting symbols of state power including police stations and government buildings. There have also been direct attacks on civilians. The ruling party has responded by beefing up security and trying to forcibly integrate the mostly Muslim Uighur population. In recent months, entire cities have been sealed off by police checkpoints. Some areas are trying to discourage, or outright ban, certain types of beards and veils.
This has not stopped the bloodshed. In July, violence broke out in Xinjiang’s Shache county (called Yarkand in the Uighur language). State media waited more than 24 hours before announcing the unrest. As soon as they did, conflicting accounts emerged, with the government saying the violence broke out after police foiled a terrorist plot, and exile Uighur groups saying police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against restrictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and against the alleged extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family. The state says 96 people were killed; Uighur groups claim the figure is much higher.
We might never know what happened there. The authorities moved quickly to restrict access to the area and pulled comments from the almost-always-out-of-service web. (In times of unrest, authorities slow, or stop, Internet traffic in Xinjiang; after the 2009 riots the entire region was without Internet for nine months.) Given China’s weak record on the rule of law — and the sensitivity of the case — it’s highly unlikely that there will be an impartial investigation, let alone a fair trial. People on the ground in Xinjiang are rightly frightened that they will be punished if they comment. According to Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit media group, one blogger was already arrested for “spreading rumors” about the number of deaths.
Perhaps in 10 months we will finally hear more about the people involved in the incident. Like those killed in Beijing, Kunming, and Urumqi, the people who died in Yarkand deserve justice. The question is, what kind of justice will it be?