March 03, 2014 was a different day for China. It definitely was not a usual Monday – because most parents in Kunming, Yunnan were wondering if it would be a good idea to send their children to school that day. Businessmen in the south western province were not looking forward to a new week either, as customers had reduced by about two-thirds the day before and most small businesses had reported a stagnated growth. A wave of mourning fear prevailed in the air and it was as if the entire city was constantly looking over its back to check for any signs of danger. The sense of loss that had gripped the city, soon made its presence felt in the capital as well. In a rare move that day, China's top political advisory body observed a minute of silence in Beijing for the victims of the Kunming Railway Station attack on March 01, 2014. Nearly 2200 delegates at the 2nd Session of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) stood in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and paid their ‘silent’ tribute to the 29 people who lost their lives in the knife attack. According to the South China Morning Post, “there had been only two other occasions when CPPCC observed a period of silence - for martyrs at its first annual meeting in 1949, and at the 1997 session after the death of Deng Xiaoping.”

 

The Uyghurs:  A Background

 

Dubbed as China’s 9/11, the ‘massacre’ in Kunming was a ‘terrorist’ attack by a group of eight knife-wielding men and women who stabbed and slashed passengers at the city’s railway station, killing 29 of them and injuring more than 140 people. Four of the eight terrorists who had carried out the attack were killed by the Chinese police forces on that very day, while three others were neutralized the day after. Six months later, on September 12, 2014, China spared the eighth terrorist - Patigul Tohti – of an execution because she was expecting a child. Three other men - Iskandar Ehet, Turgun Tohtunyaz and Hasayn Muhammad, were ordered to be executed for helping plot the attack. The Kunming trial was particularly significant because all those convicted were Uyghurs.

 

Regarded to be of Turkic ethnicity, the Uyghurs today comprise one of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. They are largely descendants of oasis-dwelling and agricultural communities in Central Asia and a substantial portion of the ethnic group is concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As per the 2010 Census, Uyghurs account for only around 10.06 million (or 0.7555%) of the country’s population. Known to be practitioners of Islam, the Uyghurs have been known to follow diverse cultural traditions in Central Asia. However, their ethnic, cultural, historical and political differences from the majority Han Chinese, coupled with economic disparity in the region, have long made them aspire for an independent state of East Turkestan (or Uyghurstan). In the early part of the 20th Century, the Uyghurs briefly declared independence; however the region was brought under the complete control of the PRC in 1949. Xinjiang is, today, officially designated an autonomous region within China, like Tibet to its south.

 

China's central government has often accused Uyghur militants of waging “a violent campaign for an independent state by plotting bombings, sabotage and civic unrest.” As per the Chinese state media, methods of political resistance used by the Uyghurs have often relied on the use of violence and the most infamous of these are said to be the Urumqi riots of 2009 that led to the death of 197 people. Other incidents include the infamous 2010 Aksu bombing, the 2011 Hotan and Kashgar attacks and the Tiananmen Square car incident in 2013. China’s Communist Party (CCP) views the Uyghurs’ demand for a separate state to be in sync with the "Three Evils" of international terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism. The Party had therefore launched the ‘Strike Hard’ Policy to counter this threat to national security from the Uyghurs. However, according to the BBC, “Since the 9/11 attacks in the US, China has increasingly portrayed its Uyghur separatists as auxiliaries of al-Qaeda, saying they have received training in Afghanistan. Little evidence, however, has been produced in support of these claims.”

 

The ‘Strike Hard’ Policy

 

According to a 2007 Xinhua report, China initiated the "Strike Hard" anti-crime campaigns in 1983, with the objective of dealing with criminals “severely, heavily and with no delay.” The policy was aimed at countering a sudden surge in criminal offenses which had arisen shortly after China began its reform and opening up policy. Also known as the ‘strike hard and punish policy’, the campaign has been widely used as a tool to curtail social unrest in China. According to a Reuters report published in 2006, the Chinese government believes its greatest terrorist threat exists in the XUAR. At the CECC's (US Congressional Executive Commission on China) roundtable in November 2005, Dr. S. Frederick Starr had also explained in a statement that the Chinese government has employed a sustained "Strike Hard, Maximum Pressure" campaign within the XUAR since the late 1990s and had used this campaign to focus on crimes of separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism. The central government reaffirmed the use of "Strike Hard, Maximum Pressure" in August 2005, even though the campaign "has long since wiped out whatever separatist currents may have existed in Xinjiang a decade ago." The CECC's 2005 Annual Report also stated, "The Chinese government's 'strike hard' anti-crime campaigns are evolving from periodic and intense national crackdowns into a lower intensity but permanent feature of the law enforcement landscape” A decade since the report, China continues to maintain this status quo.  When Meng Jianzhu, the Politburo member in charge of internal security, visited Kunming after the day of the attack, he had suggested a ‘Strike Hard’ policy against the terrorists, who were later confirmed to have links with Xinjiang by the official Chinese news agency Xinhua. Meng’s remarks were significantly underscored by President Xi Jinping a month later in Kunming when he promised a “strike first” policy and called police officers, who were disproportionately Han Chinese, the “fists and daggers” in the country’s fight against terrorism and separatism. “Sweat more in peacetime to bleed less in wartime,” he reportedly advised.

 

Implications of the Strike Hard policy

 

Human rights organizations and civil society activists have argued that Beijing’s ‘Strike Hard’ campaign has curtailed the Uyghurs' religious, commercial and cultural rights through:

 

• Increase in crackdowns and detentions: In June 2014, Time Magazine reported that China had arrested at least 380 people in its first month of a year-long campaign against terrorism. As per general practise, the names of those arrested were not revealed and most were expected to undergo a trial in secrecy. The Ministry of Public Security further said in a statement that the campaign to avert the spread of religious radicalism would last until June 2015, “with Xinjiang as the center, and with cooperation from other provinces.” Over the past decade, many prominent Uyghurs have been imprisoned or have sought asylum abroad after being accused of terrorism. The recent order of life-long imprisonment for noted Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti has only led to further negative perceptions of the government by the minority community. Beijing is now too often accused of exaggerating the threat from Uyghurs in order to justify repression in the region – and this doesn’t stem from ‘terrorist’ organizations like the World Uyghur Congress alone. In July 2014, media reports stated that several government departments in Xinjiang had banned students and civil servants from fasting during the month of Ramadan. Statements posted on websites of schools, government agencies, and local party organizations in the region claimed that the ban was aimed at protecting students' wellbeing and preventing use of schools and government offices to promote religion. This year too, media reports have indicated that students and civil servants have been ordered to avoid taking part in traditional fasting during Ramadan. Article 35 of the country’s Constitution states that citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration; however the above examples illustrate a different reality. In a 2010 Society for Threatened People Report, the World Uyghur Congress  alleged that after the 2009 disturbances, China had considerably increased its military presence in Urumqi. The ‘Strike Hard’ campaign facilitated patrols by nearly 130,000 armed forces in the city and expenditure on public security in the region saw an increase by almost 90 percent. New laws on the transmission of information and ethnic unity were passed that year by the Party which suppressed and criminalised all public discussion on Xinjiang’s autonomy.  These new laws are in sharp contrast to Law of the People's Republic of China on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, amended and issued in 2001, which explicitly stipulates that "the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities is a basic political system of the state." Given the ban on autonomy-related discussions, it would certainly not be incorrect to assume that the ‘Strike Hard’ policy appears to have taken a divergent route from the earlier state law and has made life difficult for the minorities in Xinjiang.

 

• Discrimination between the Han Chinese and Uyghurs: In March 2014, Ablimit Ahmettohti Damolla Hajim, delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), had stated that  emigration by majority Han Chinese to Xinjiang was sidelining Uyghurs in their own homeland. One of the most pressing issues he called on the government to address at the conference was the rampant unemployment among Uyghur youth. Hajim argued that Uyghur young people were not seeing the benefits of the country’s economic growth because employers were discriminating against them and preferred Han Chinese instead. According to a New York Times report dated October 7, 2013, nearly half of the 161 positions advertised on the Civil Servant Examination Information Web site in China in the period indicated that only ethnic Han Chinese or native Mandarin speakers would be considered. Such discrimination has only stoked feelings of resentment among the Uyghurs, who argue that the best jobs go to the newly-arrived Han. A flood of migrants from China’s Han ethnic majority, many working for state-owned natural-resource companies or military-linked firms, has remade the ethnic makeup of Xinjiang. Official statistics show that Uyghurs are now a minority in their own homeland, making up some 45% of the population. Although the Chinese government counters that they have helped to raise living standards in Xinjiang, many amongst the community disagree. They argue that development is a mere smokescreen and the severe government crackdowns on the Uyghurs only serve to indicate the increasing discrimination towards their people.

 

• Press censorship: The right to freedom of speech is preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is granted formal recognition by the laws of most nations. Nonetheless, the degree to which the right is upheld in China has always been subject to debate. Media censorship is not a new concept in China and with respect to the Uyghurs’ demand for autonomy; it has been argued that the government is well within its rights to cite the rationale of ‘national security’ to prevent the dissemination of any sensitive information about/from the region. However, what is worrying are the different forms in which this censorship has manifested in China. For instance, a day after the Kunming attack, the South China Morning Post noted that the China Central Television evening news programme did not report the attack while the other national media kept the news item out of the headlines. China Daily published appeals by Chinese social media users to "stop circulating bloody pictures.” Microblogged and social media-hosted images of the carnage were swiftly deleted by state censors.  The world Uyghur Congress reported that Canadian journalist Heidi Siu from Radio Free Asia was held in her hotel for two days on July 10, 2009 after she had filmed security men in Urumqi searching suspects. She was de facto placed under house arrest and left Urumqi guarded by security personnel. Siu was only released after she had written a “self-criticism.” Going by the increased censorship, it can be deduced that the Chinese government is rather keen on avoiding any leak of information on incidents of violence from the Xinjiang region.

 

Is China anti-Uyghur?

 

The above policies paint a rather negative picture of China’s attitude towards the inhabitants of Xinjiang region. However, they also paint an incomplete one. The Uyghur issue in China is a deeply sensitive one because of the polarized views it represents. Commentaries on the Uyghur issue often range from portraying the community’s struggle as an idealistic fight against a brutish regime or conversely denouncing them as terrorists. And while the parties to the ‘dispute’ are likely to tweak favourable views to their advantage, some perspective needs be reined in. At the crux of it, the Uyghur issue is essentially about an asymmetric power struggle. Therefore, bracketing the issue into banal categories of ‘good vs. evil’ or ‘state authoritarianism vs. minority repression’ would be doing studies of the issue a disservice. To illustrate, the laws of the PRC, on paper, do stipulate the Right of Self-Government and Central support for Ethnic Autonomous Areas. China believes that implementation of its autonomy policy is critical “to enhancing the relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among different ethnic groups, to upholding national unification, and to accelerating the development of places where regional autonomy is practiced and promoting their progress.” The People's Republic of China Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law is the basic law for the implementation of the system of regional ethnic autonomy prescribed in the Constitution and enlists the following principles:

 

• Independent management of their internal affairs

• The Right to Formulate Self-Government Regulations and Separate Regulations

• Using and Developing their Spoken and Written language

• Freedom of Religious Belief

• Retention and altering of their Folkways and Customs

• Independent arrangement, management and development of Economic Construction

• Independent development of Educational, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Undertakings

 

Economically too, Xinjiang has witnessed a dramatic growth spurt over the last decade. The region’s nominal GDP was approximately 220 billion RMB in 2004 and increased to 926.4 billion RMB in 2014. This was largely due to exploration of the region’s abundant reserves of coal, crude oil, and natural gas and the China Western Development policy introduced by the State Council to boost economic development in Western China. Thanks to state policies, Xinjiang today has become one of the most important energy producers in China. It also boasts of a thriving agriculture sector and is particularly famous for its fruits and produce including grapes, melons, and walnuts. As part of its development plans, Beijing is connecting Xinjiang to Central Asia through roads, rails and pipelines to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. But the government cannot afford to ignore that these very openings also link Xinjiang directly to Islamic militant training and arms as well as the drug trade emanating from these countries and beyond. Thus, as analyst, Elizabeth Van Wie Davis put it, “The response from Beijing has been officially reasonable, but less so in practice.” Having granted the region autonomy in 1955, and its close proximity to radical outfits, it could be argued that President Xi Jinping’s ‘Renewed Xinjiang Policy’ in May 2014 was not entirely off its mark in its mandate of “fighting terrorism with an iron hand, implementing development to benefit the common people, and strengthening military presence in the region.”

 

However, it is the execution that remains debatable. In the spirit of his ‘Chinese dream’, President Xi had emphasized that investment in the region should have an immediate impact on local people’s lives by providing employment and higher incomes. But given the increasing incidence of violence and unrest in the region, stability, quite understandably, remains a key concern for the region. Getting the two parties together is not going to be easy, not only because of Beijing’s non-negotiable stand on not ceding territory or control in Xinjiang, but also because of mistrust and resentment harboured by both parties.  However, dialogue is perhaps the only way for China to maintain its internal cohesion in a peaceful and productive way. As the old Chinese saying goes, “If people are of one heart, even the yellow earth can become gold.”

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.