While the West and the world's media attention has been focused on the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, China has been gripped by a wave of violence perpetuated by homegrown Muslim terrorists. Last week fifty people were killed (including forty suspected assailants) and more injured as multiple explosions shook Luntai County, Xinjiang. In the past eighteen months, over 300 people have been killed by aggressors with links to Xinjiang, the autonomous region in western China.
Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, a minority numbering some ten million, scattered across China's far western expanse and bordering several Central Asian countries. The Uighurs are a Turko-Islamic people who long lived on the periphery of Qing China, in an atmosphere of semi-independence as a tributary state to Beijing. Following the fall of imperial China in 1912, Xinjiang enjoyed de facto independence during the mid to late 1940s as the East Turkestan Republic, before being reincorporated into the People's Republic of China in 1949.
The Han dominated central government in Beijing has long viewed Xinjiang as a restive frontier, inhabited by troublesome minorities who refuse to assimilate and adopt the majoritarian norms promoted by the government. This tension has increased in recent decades for several reasons. Firstly, Central Asian nations each inhabited by Turkic peoples which emerged on to the world stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union, spurred similar separatist sentiments in Xinjiang.
More recently the rapid industrialization of China and corresponding need for resources has seen large scale Han migration (actively encouraged by Beijing) into Xinjiang, lured by construction, resource extraction and defence related projects. This demographic pressure combined with Beijing's emphasis on a Han-dominated, unified national identity has led to the increasing marginalization of the Uighurs. Unequal access to jobs, government services as well as prejudicial sentiments within the migrant Han population has also led to growing discontent and radicalization.
The explosions in Luntai County are merely the latest in a recent upsurge in Uighur/Xinjiang linked violence. In March a knife attack in the southern city of Kunming left twenty-nine dead and 143 injured. Two months later in May 2014, Uighur extremists detonated explosives in and drove off-road vehicles through a crowded market in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, killing thirty-nine and injuring more than ninety. In response the government executed thirteen individuals linked to Xinjiang attacks in June, and on September 24th executed eight others implicated in five separate acts, including suicide car crashes in Tiananmen Square which killed the attackers and two tourists.
Even moderate Uighur voices are falling victim of Beijing's crackdown, which has been paying extra attention to Xinjiang since the 2009 Urumqi uprising which left hundreds dead and injured. On September 17th the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court began the trial of Uighur activist Ilham Tohti, who has been accused of separatism. Tohti is a moderate Uighur voice, who while advocating to the Uighur cause has repeatedly sought to mend Han-Uighur relations by campaigning against ethnic intolerance and anti-Han sentiments within the Uighur community. Tohti ran afoul of the central government after creating Uighurbiz in 2006, a Chinese language website fostering Han-Uighur understanding. Tohti has repeatedly been subject to house arrest, and only four days after his trial began, on September 21st was sentenced to life in prison.
Alongside a predictable security crackdown in the region, Beijing has increasingly been implementing policies which seek to undermine Uighur identity, and which many critics characterize as efforts to “Sinify the Uighurs.” These efforts tout the promotion of secularism and community (read Han) values, by delegitimizing Uighur values, often surrounding Islamic pratices. For instance, during his incarceration, Tohti went on a ten day hunger strike because the guards refused to give him halal food. Such actions are in line with Beijing's larger goal of stamping out the Muslim identities of Uighurs. The government has recently banned young Uighur from growing beards or wearing Muslim garb. Similarly in April 2014, Shayar County introduced a program which offers rewards to people who informed the local government about individuals under the age of 18 who are suspected of growing a beard or attending a mosque.
Recently President Xi Jinping suggested that more Uighurs should be moved to Han dominated areas for education and employment. Furthermore, in recent weeks, Chinese officials in Xinjiang have begun offering various incentives to encourage Han-Uighur intermarriage. Cherchen County in southern Xinjiang is offering 10,000 renminbi ($1600) a year for five years to Han who marry one of China's fifty-five minorities.
The government is also offering inter-married couples priority consideration for housing and government jobs, as well as up to $3200 a year in health benefits. Moreover the government is also promising free K-12 education for children of mixed parentage, and tuition subsidies for technical school or university. Cherchen County director, Yasen Nasi’er, said that inter-ethnic marriages were “an important step in the harmonious integration and development of all ethnicities.” Yasen went on to characterize such marriages as positive energy contributing to the realization of the “Chinese Dream,” a concept popularized by President Xi Jinping.
These restriction have been put in place because the central government sees the expression of Uighur identity as a threat. The position of Uighurs as Turkic Muslim non-Mandarin speakers who agitate against the status quo undermines the efforts of Beijing to mold a unified modern Chinese identity. The government is pushing strongly to instill the image of 21st century China as Mandarin, Han and secular. These efforts are driven by the desire to prevent another Tibet situation in Xinjiang and other minority areas. Specifically, this means preventing the establishment of a robust non-Han identity which challenges the official discourse emanating from Beijing.
At a meeting discussing recent Uighur violence, Xi called on the government to "establish correct views about the motherland and the nation" among China's minorities. The greatest fear for the central government is an internationalization of the Uighur cause. The proliferation of international sympathies for Tibetan independence haunt the Chinese leadership. Consequently their chief priority is preventing the situation in Xinjiang from attracting foreign attention and creating unrest, either from the West, but more importantly from pan-Turkic sympathizes and the greater Muslim world.