Gwynne Dyer: Terrorism in Xijiang

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      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 confiscation has enabled us to strengthen controls over important elements of public security and thus eliminate potential security threats,” said the Kashgar police. The police website in Changji declared that they had acted “to ensure matches would not be used by terrorist groups and extremist individuals to conduct criminal activities.”

      No disrespect intended (well, maybe a little), but these are not serious people.

      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.

      Another standard tactic in this sort of war is the use of violence to deter one’s own people from collaborating with the colonial power. On July 30, Jume Tahir, the imam of China’s largest mosque, in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, was stabbed to death just after leading early morning prayers. His crime? Praising Communist Party policies and blaming the rising tide of violence on Uighur separatists and extremists.

      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 six 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.

      Beijing’s officials make the same argument about Tibet, and they are probably being sincere about their intentions there too. They just have a huge cultural blind spot that makes it almost impossible for them to imagine how all this feels to the average Uighur who sees more and more Chinese coming in and getting all the good 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 July 28, saw hundreds of Uighurs storm a police station and government offices armed with knives and axes. Fifty-nine 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 an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.


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      Aug 13, 2014 at 7:22pm

      it is probably not true that the Chinese government has a policy of encouraging Han immigration to reduce the Uighurs to a marginal minority.

      you are misleading here and there , in many place. it seems you read only from Chinese sources which is always fake and western media some of them cites from Chinese sources unintentionally or just says something without getting first hand account.
      if you are not expert on that region, please don't write such misleading article.
      learn then write, as a journalist, you should have responsible for what you have write.
      let me correct you.

      1757, not Chinese army conquered , but Manju army conquered. 19 centry data in which Chinese 30 percent, I don't know where did you get this. fact is that, after Manju conquered the region, Chinese come after them as merchant or just as prisoner. That is time Chinese come to this region and start to live , so they are new comers. after 1949, Chinese are poured into that region as bingtuan, then with the help of various state sponsored programs. there was a unspoken policy of encouraging them to come and get job to them. In recent years, it is publicly announced, check Chinese website about helping west programs.
      Uighurs are not lack of skills, they just could not make development, because of everything is controlled by Chinese and they give all economic chances and jobs to their 1.6 billions Chinese. I have friends who could not find a job 3-4 years after graduate from college, some of them from famous colleges in China. simple reason, boss is Chinese in government, they own factories, but don't let Uighurs become rich. simple reason, rich , economical rich Uighur society could not make a reason to Chinese to claim is that we are going to help them. in fact , such help is just step by step controlling everything and eliminate you people.
      there is no so-called Islamic extremist and Uighur militant, those people who attacks, because they are deprived from their lands to make living and see no future, so get angry and have to choose that dead road.
      go and see, learn, then write. your article are full of wrong facts.
      anyway, cite sources of data if you could.

      Joe Schlabotnik

      Aug 13, 2014 at 8:59pm

      It's "Xinjiang".


      Aug 13, 2014 at 9:00pm

      Thanks to Uighur for his comments, and I have to say once again Dyer seems to be slipping these days in his analyses and in accepting what are often mainstream news angles on events--his recent comments on the Ukraine a case in point.

      Most disappointing, and so I am not surprised to see his latest foray immediately checked by a knowledgeable reader. Don't get me wrong, I used to often agree with Dyer and view him as a fine example of independent journalism, as held up against co-opted and increasingly propagandistic mainstream news. But he has been slipping lately. Badly.

      From my own graduate studies on Gnostic thought I was well aware of the Uighurs, their having a Manichaean state religion at their peak. A proud independent people--some of the most poignant and descriptive Manichaean texts have come from that era--and keep in mind that Manichaeism at it's peak was THE mortal enemy of Catholicism, par excellence. Augustine himself was a Manichaean for 9 years and this highly literate faith at its peak extended from the Yellow Sea in China to the North African and Spanish Atlantic coasts in the West.

      The Uighurs were a seminal part of this major religious development in oriental and occidental history--a point Dyer does not even mention in passing--and so isn't it ironic that their world view is up against an "archontic" state that the founder of Manichaeism, Mani, would have viewed as an oppressive and ignorant barrier to the Manichaean eschatological end-game of rescuing as much light trapped in matter as possible before it all collapsed into an abyss of nescience.

      Perhaps much of the present Uighur resistance to the slow burn of Chinese Han cultural genocide in their ancestral lands draws from the ancient Manichaean well, from which the world is clearly divided between the forces of Light and of Darkness. If so, the Chinese are well advised to read up on the prolific teachings of Mani.

      Uncle Jack

      Aug 13, 2014 at 11:18pm

      Mr. Dyer did not attend the PC lesson.

      Not terrorists, but militants, activists, fighters, gunmen, oppressed people. occupied people, victims of ethnic cleansing!!

      No Way

      Aug 14, 2014 at 7:46am

      uigher - The Chinese did not invade any territories nor do they try to overwhelm existing cultures by sheer force of immigration to dilute the Aboriginal populations. Only white people do that. Chinese are only victims. Get your facts straight.

      Wee Gur

      Aug 14, 2014 at 11:15am

      The point I will make is that no one really knows what's going one.
      we all seem to think that this is a Han Chinese version of ethnic cleansing but it's actually a fight between Atheists and Believers.
      Just look at how the Chinese Gov. treat members of the Falun Gong.
      End of story.

      Dale Andrews

      Aug 14, 2014 at 4:23pm

      I recently returned from a visit to this region in late May and early June of this year. I have to quite agree with DR-Montreal and his comments about Dyer's writing. In actual fact, the Chinese are trying to displace the Uighurs in Xinjiang. They are barred from taking any type of job and just how many skills does it take to do road building like the Chinese are doing and not letting Uighurs do some of the work. The Chinese are racist and they will only thing of the well-being of their own kind. The Chinese are taking young unmarried Uighur women away from their families and forcing them to go to work in the electronic factories in southern cities like Shenzen. The men are not allowed to go. It is unfortunate that Dyer does not see the whole picture here. He just seems to be taking his research for the article from the main stream press.

      I Chandler

      Aug 14, 2014 at 6:16pm

      Japan hasn't had much trouble with their Christian minority - but there are few of them left:

      "The legendary Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier established a mission church in 1549. The Catholic community grew and eventually prospered over the next several generations. However it eventually became clear to the Japanese rulers that the Portuguese and Spanish commercial interests were exploiting Japan; and soon all Europeans – and their foreign religion – were expelled from the country."

      "From 1600 until 1850, being a Christian was a capital crime in Japan. In the early 1600s, those Japanese Christians who refused to recant of their new faith were subject to unspeakable tortures, including crucifixion. After the reign of terror was over, it appeared to all observers that Japanese Christianity was extinct.

      However, by the mid-Nineteenth Century, after the gunboat diplomacy of Commodore Matthew Perry forced open an offshore island for American trade purposes, it was discovered that there were thousands of baptized Christians, living their faith in a catacomb existence, completely unknown to the government.

      With this humiliating revelation, the Japanese government started another purge; but because of international pressure, the persecutions were eventually stopped, and Christianity came up from the underground. By 1917, with no help from the government, the re-vitalized Christian community had built the massive St. Mary’s Cathedral in the Urakami River district..."


      Aug 14, 2014 at 10:47pm

      To all the people whining that Dr. Dyer does not/no longer supports your particular historical narrative, you might want to apply that same skepticism to yourselves.

      For example, what sense would it make, from a Chinese perspective, to deliberately marginalize their various minority groups (In Tibet as well as Xinjiang)? Being basically an empire, and having presumably read the odd history book, China's government surely knows that pissing off minorities often causes them to react in violent and unpredictable ways.

      No, much more logical to simply try to bribe said minorities with public works and benefits that will theoretically improve their standards of living and in the process buy their loyalty. It's a very common tactic, and in fact our own government has a similar policy to Canada's aboriginals. I suspect China's policy has failed for very much the same reason ours has, though obviously the reasons are not simple.

      When the minority in question sees the majority as oppressors, they instinctively regard any attempt at "help" with suspicion. When the majority view the minority as inferior, they will see poverty, unemployment, and crime within the minority as proof of this. It's a self-perpetuating process. Add in the fact that Han Chinese (and presumably the Uighurs) are very racist, and it's easy to see how the situation could deteriorate so.

      Never attribute to malice what is better explained through incompetence, and never assume that just because someone lived in a certain country, that they're an expert on it.


      Aug 15, 2014 at 1:16pm

      You might want to apply that same skepticism to yourself:
      "buy their loyalty. It's a very common tactic, and in fact our own government has a similar policy to Canada's aboriginals."

      Bought loyalty? How loyal are the kids? If you're thinking about those luxurious residential schools - they've closed down. Still 50% of status First Nations children live in poverty compared to 17% for all Canada.

      You must have thinking about those luxurious penitentiaries - Aboriginals make up about 4% of the Canadian population, but 23% of the federal inmate population