Repression in China and Its Consequences in Xinjiang

By Kanat, Kilic | Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, August 2014 | Go to article overview

Repression in China and Its Consequences in Xinjiang


Kanat, Kilic, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology


A SERIES OF VIOLENT INCIDENTS IN CHINA INVOLVING UYGHURS has focused increasing attention on the Turkic Muslim minority group and on the religious and political situation in their homeland, China's vast northwestern province known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or East Turkistan). The incidents have included an increasing number of ethnic clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, explosions and Chinese military operations in XUAR, and a number of high-profile incidents involving Uyghurs. The attacks include a car attack at Tiananmen Square in 2013 as well as a violent knife attack in 2014 on passersby at the train station in Kunming that left 29 dead and 100 injured. A number of observers have seen in these attacks evidence of growing radicalization among Uyghurs.

There is no dispute that the Uyghurs as a people have grown increasingly disgruntled and shown their anger and resentment toward the People's Republic of China's (PRC) and its policies. Some marginal groups even started to resort to violence. The question is why. For many years, PRC authorities painted Uyghur political activism and the growing unrest in the XUAR as the work of radical groups. However, such claims have historically rested on dubious evidence. Moreover, there has always been a compelling case that it is Beijing's repressive policies-not the transnational jihadist movement or the extremist ideology that drives it-that is the primary cause of the tensions and conflict in Xinjiang today.

Since coming to power, President Xi Jinping has deepened the PRC's crackdown on Uyghurs in a variety of ways. For years, the PRC's "Western Development" projects have marginalized the indigenous Uyghur populations of East Turkistan by inviting large-scale Han Chinese migration, forcing the Uyghurs' cultural assimilation, and placing restrictions on religious and political freedoms. Meanwhile, PRC authorities have prosecuted Uyghur dissent and activism as manifestations of extremism, separatism, or terrorism. Even the moderate dissenter Ilham Tohti, a professor of economics and a winner of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, was jailed by the PRC on charges of inciting separatism, mostly because of his work and public statements that focused attention on the social and economic dimensions of the conflict in XUAR.1 The Chinese government, moreover, has systematically curtailed freedom of the press and basic liberties for Uyghurs. he government has controlled all information coming out of XUAR, including information about the violent incidents that have racked the region Without an opportunity for political dissent, Uyghurs have come to feel more disenfranchised and pessimistic about their future in China. The absence of any political space or platform to express their legitimate grievances combined with the deterioration of economic and political conditions in XUAR are marginalizing increasing numbers of Uyghur youth and, in some instances, motivating their radicalization.

The purpose of this study is to show that the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang and rising rates of violence involving Uyghurs have been primarily the result of Chinese policies. In particular, the PRC's policies have stamped out religious freedom and weakened indigenous and moderate religious practices among the Uyghurs. This, in turn, has been radicalizing conservative Muslims in the XUAR and leaving others who would like to leave but cannot vulnerable to exploitation by radical groups. The aggressive responses of the Chinese government to religious movements and growing grievances in the region have further fueled the conflict. Nor has the Chinese government shown any intention to take a different approach to resolving the problem. As a result, Beijing's repressive policies combined with its intransigence and refusal to address the religious, economic, and cultural causes of the unrest in XUAR are likely to contribute to greater radicalization among Uyghurs. …

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