China’s separatists

President Xi Jinping’s decision to send troops to Xinjiang province in order to strike a “crushing blow” against terrorism marks a troubling resurgence of a political crisis that has been simmering for years. Xi’s announcement followed a bomb blast in the regional capital’s railway which killed three people and injured 79 – shortly after he had concluded a well-publicized visit to the region focused on fighting extremism.

The Urumqi attack was the second high profile attack in the last three months. On March 1 an attack on a railway station in the city of Kunming left 29 people dead and scores injured. A week after the Urumqi bomb, two knife-wielding assailants wounded six people at a railway station in the southern province of Guangdong. Dramatic as these recent assaults have been, however, the most unsettling attack – at least in terms of Chinese public opinion – took place last October when terrorists crashed a jeep into a crowd in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The vehicle subsequently burst into flames killing five people, including the attackers.

During the last decade, Xinjiang’s resistance to Beijing’s heavy-handed development of the province has reached a crisis point. Pressured by a massive influx of ethnic Chinese, the local Uighur population has endured repression on several fronts: in religion (Muslim Uighurs must use a state-approved Koran and worship in government-supervised mosques); in the workplace, through hiring practices that favour ethnic Chinese; and linguistic discrimination within state schools. Although outside access to the province has been limited, human rights groups have reported on a number of punitive measures and human rights abuses by the authorities, resulting in ethnic clashes that caused 200 deaths in 2009 and more than 100 last year. Beijing’s belated attempts to soothe local grievances – while simultaneously stepping up official denunciations of terrorism – have done little to pacify the separatist movement which seeks to completely detach Xinjiang from China and to create “East Turkestan” in its stead.

It is no accident that the recent targets have been railway stations. An important part of China’s long-term economic development is focused on infrastructure projects that connect outlying provinces with the rest of China, particularly as a means of reducing the country’s current dependence on shipping. Three years ago the Wall Street Journal reported that Beijing had planned to invest some US$300 billion in Xinjiang between 2010 and 2015 – including the creation of more than 5,000 miles of new railways. In addition to being what is known in the lexicon of modern counter-terrorism as “soft” targets, railway stations are a potent symbol of the Communist Party’s primarily economic interest in the places like Xinjiang, and its relative indifference to local concerns. A perceptive commentary in The Diplomat notes that if the attacks successfully undermine public confidence in China’s railways “they can make the use of the new rail lines by foreign entities much less attractive [and by] doing so, they can fend off the challenge of modernization.”

Beijing’s current response to the recent attacks – official threats and heavy censorship – is reminiscent not only of its previous over-reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests but also of Russia’s official rhetoric on the eve of its repressive “war on terrorism” in Chechyna. The pursuit of a similar campaign in Xinjiang would underscore China’s difficulties in moving beyond a reflexive authoritarianism when dealing with political crises. In recent years, senior Communist Party members have become increasingly aware of the value of transparency in public life. In fact the CCP is in the middle of its significant crackdown on corruption in decades – following the arrest of several personal assistants to politburo member Zhou Yongkang. But the party remains uneasy with transparency when dealing with more complex issues, like the ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, especially when these risk stirring up further trouble elsewhere.

As with Russia, it appears as though China’s leaders have yet to learn that open societies cannot pick and choose which crises are fit for public consumption, but must stake their hopes for the future on the idea that the benefits of transparency eventually outweigh the embarrassments. The crisis in Xinjiang can only be resolved through reasonable political accommodations with the aggrieved local population. Modern history provides a long list of governments who failed to prevail against extremist groups simply by delivering “crushing blows.” If Beijing chooses to ignore these failures it will do so at its peril.

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