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Why is violence spiking in China's northwest?

Why is violence spiking in China's northwest?
Published 21 Aug 2014 

Clive Palmer says the Chinese government shoots its own people. If he's talking about Xinjiang, he's right. 

Last month saw the deadliest violence in years in the autonomous region, which has a sizeable Uyghur Muslim population. A knife attack in Yarkand on July 28 saw 100 deaths, including a whopping '59 terrorists' shot by security forces. A separate incident near Hotan on August 1 involved 30,000 locals teaming up with security forces to trap and kill nine terrorists, according to state media. 

There are reasons to be suspicious of official accounts, but there's no denying the security situation in Xinjiang has deteriorated. On Sunday the People's Daily reported drones were to be deployed in the region. 

Some great pieces have been filed from Xinjiang over the past month (here, and here), while Getty photographer Kevin Frayer supplied some stunning photography on a recent Ramadan trip. 

A lot of the reporting has highlighted Beijing's oppressive religious and security policies towards Uyghurs. But these have been in place for years, and Beijing is currently engaged in an unprecedented effort to raise living standards ad generate 'social cohesion' in the region. Xinjiang's hard-line Party boss Wang Lequan was kicked out of his post following mass rioting in July 2009, and his successors in regional policy, Zhang Chunxian and Yu Zhengsheng, initially signaled a softer approach. 

So why is violence spiking? I spoke with some of the foremost experts on Xinjiang to find out. Below are highlights. [fold]

Henryk Szadziewski, a senior research at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, discussed recent policy and personnel changes:

It's a good idea to look at the unrest from a broader chronological perspective. Uyghur grievances with the Chinese state stretch further back than the recent uptick in violence. Wang Lequan was known for dealing harshly with Uyghur expression of dissent. Post-2009, the appointment of his successor Zhang Chunxian was supposed to bring a 'softer' approach to governance in Xinjiang.

Given the policies we see in effect today, it's hard to distinguish this 'softer' approach. Xi Jinping's announcement earlier this year that security policies would be emphasized over development was viewed as a palliative to unrest. Although the Second Xinjiang Central Work Forum this year proposed some measurable goals in addressing economic disparity between minorities and Han Chinese, especially in terms of reducing unemployment, the systematic and ingrained social discrimination faced by Uyghurs remains. As with many economic policies in the past, these goals have been imposed from above with little agency in decision making from Xinjiang residents.

Reza Hasmath, a lecturer in Chinese politics at the University of Oxford, said socioeconomic disparities and lack of institutional access for Uyghurs were at the heart of discontent. He also saw significance in this year's Xinjiang Central Work Forum: 

The work forum outlined what I think can be construed as a moderate option to deal with the spread of radical Uyghurs: namely, to boost employment and income levels among Uyghurs. The problem at hand, however, is the manner in which the state actually attempts to do this. The work forum proposed increased fiscal transfers. This does not necessarily increase the odds of Uyghurs obtaining high status/high wage jobs. Moreover, the forum's recommendations to increase urbanization and inter-regional migration, while a good step in principle, often means more Han migration into urban Xinjiang rather than ethnic minority migration.

Finally, the last major recommendation (of the work forum) to 'strengthen state education,' while important, can have a moot effect given that Uyghurs have difficulties obtaining good jobs in spite of having high education. In short, a moderate option does exist for the state. The problem is that it is often not executed in a manner that will yield tangible results. 

James Leibold, a Xinjiang expert at Latrobe University currently based in Beijing, says the Government is increasing its micro-management of locals' lives: 

Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Party-state has doubled down on Xinjiang, increasing its penetration into nearly every aspect of Xinjiang society: quadrupling the regional public security budget since 2009; sending thousands of high-level cadres down to live alongside local villagers and community members in small groups; re-doubling efforts to urbanise and industrialise southern Xinjiang; and regulating the daily activities of Xinjiang's Uyghur minorities from the length of their facial hair to what sort of religious activities are 'legal.'

As Li Xiaoxia, deputy director of the Xinjiang Social Science Academy recently wrote, and I quote loosely here: "As the scope of religious extremism expands, the government's management of religious affairs must be further strengthened, become more detailed and penetrate into more areas of Muslim social life, so that it touches on every aspect of daily life, such as clothing, food, housing, marriage and deaths."

Finally, Michael Clarke, a research fellow at Griffith Asia Institute, discussed the issue of radicalisation: 

Most of the violence until recently has been the result of the state's heavy-handed approach to Xinjiang and the Uyghurs. However, the violence that we have seen in the past six to 12 months, I think, suggests that there is evidence of some level of radicalisation. The March attack in Kunming, the bombings in Urumqi in April and May, and the latest incident in Yarkand point to a certain level of premeditation and planning that we have generally not seen before. 

Chinese claims that groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Party are to blame for these events are difficult to verify. Overall I think that the strategy or tactics of the more recent attacks in Xinjiang point at least to some Uyghurs looking to the example of regional (ie. Central and South Asian) and global Islamist groups for inspiration. In this context, though, I would argue that state policy has played a facilitating role. Through its systematic repression of Uyghur dissent — including of modern and secular Uyghurs — it seems inevitable that elements within the Uyghur population will turn to violence.

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