Uighur Unrest: Are China’s Policies Working?

21 May, 2014    ·   4459

Rheanna Mathews analyses if China's policies towards quelling the Uyghur separatist movement have been effective

Rheanna Mathews
Rheanna Mathews
Research Intern
The recent bomb and knife attack on 30 April at a railway station in Urumqi, China has refocused the world’s attention on the Uighurs and the unrest in China’s north-western Xinjiang province. The government has blamed “extremist religious thought and extremist religious activities” for the violent occurrence. Government action indicates that Uighur separatists are responsible for the recent spate of attacks, evidenced by the number of Uighurs detained for questioning, and the increase of police and paramilitary personnel in Uighur-populated areas. Within a week of the Urumqi incident, there was another knife attack at Guangdong railway station – the third high profile attack in the recent months. Although not termed a terrorist act by the government, this raises a number of questions regarding China’s immediate and long-term measures to curb terrorism, and the possible outcomes of the crackdown on the Uighur minority.

China’s Response to the Attacks
While it is undeniable that the government’s response time is quick, the effectiveness of its measures is questionable. Following the Urumqi attack, the affected area was cordoned off, cleared within hours, and the station was re-opened. All data regarding the incident was deleted from social media, leaving only those portions that conformed to the official statement on the attack. Over 100 Uighurs, including women and children, were detained for questioning due to their relations with the suspected perpetrators of the crime. Urumqi and other important cities across China, especially Beijing, also saw increased security. However, the government’s tough stand on the matter, heightened security and crackdown on the Uighur population, failed to prevent another attack in Guangzhou, Guangdong.

Although the latest attack does not resemble the previous ones in sophistication and seems to be the action of a single disturbed individual, it is indicative of the growing unrest in China and a tendency for “propaganda by the deed.” Chinese official media management which restricts the reportage of violence could be one of the reasons for the attacks becoming more numerous and elaborate.

The Urumqi attack itself occurred after the security measures were put in place following the Kunming attack in March. Terrorism in China has grown more sophisticated and random in the recent past and it is obvious that the government finds itself inexperienced in dealing with such blatant acts of terror. The pre-emptive action that President Xi Jinping promised is yet to be seen.

How Effective Have the Government’s Strategies Been?
The Uighur community has long complained of repression –  an accusation the government has always denied, stating its Western Development Strategy as proof. However, it is obvious that the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority who have very little in common with the Han majority do receive secondary treatment. The government quite openly tries to suppress their right to religious and cultural expression. Moreover, they are held back economically. Employment opportunities for the Uighurs are low due to existing prejudice and the preference for Mandarin Chinese speakers. The lack of jobs sees hundreds of the Uighurs migrating to the larger cities in eastern China to find employment.

In the recent years, many Southeast Asian countries, owing to the porous borders, have seen a large influx of Uighurs. China has requested the return of these refugees, most of whom are women and children, claiming that they are terrorists, and most states have complied, unwilling to risk China’s ire. Increased migration, coupled with the rise in violent attacks, seems indicative of a hardening of China’s policies pertaining to the Uighur community. If China’s intentions, according to the aforementioned strategy, was to quell the violence and unrest in its western regions and make the population more cooperative towards the government, it obviously has not worked.

Will the repressive crackdown on the Uighur minority have the intended effect?
The attitude of the government seems indicative of its inability or unwillingness to learn from the past. If indeed these attacks are the work of Uighur terrorists, then the boilerplate method of promising economic reforms to the Uighurs while simultaneously engineering a crackdown on them is not the answer.

Moreover, though the government censors information regarding such terrorist attacks, it fails to do the same towards racist comments about the Uighurs, seemingly encouraging the spreading notion that all Uighurs are terrorists. This can serve to demonise an entire nation and definitely contributes to the rift between the Hans and the Uighurs. 

It is desirable that the Chinese government institute policies that will uplift the Uighur population and shall act as decelerators to the rising terrorism; but given the current attitude of the government and its tough measures, it seems that the stage is being set for a repeat of the 2009 Urumqi riots. 

However, taking into account the authoritarian nature of the Chinese state and its disregard for human rights, it is also possible that the attacks might induce a harsher reaction than what was bargained for and bring about total annihilation of the Uighur separatist movement.