By Anurag Tripathi and Nilanjana Ghosh*
Ethnic tension in the Xinjiang (also East Turkestan) autonomous region of China is increasing. On the basis of situations traced in 2016, the tension is no longer limited to Xinjiang but is spreading across the border to the other Central Asian states as well. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), comprising mainly of the Uyghur Muslim community, is apparently instigating havoc in the region and also in the neighbouring countries recently. On August 30 there was a suicide car bomb attack in the Chinese embassy at Kyrgystan. Though there has not yet been any evidence of any radical organisation behind it but due to the conflict and protests going on in Xinjiang between Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese the suspicion goes to the ETIM.
China has taken full guarantee for the safety of its foreign servicing officials and has taken initiatives to trace the attacking group as soon as possible. China has responded with emergency response mechanisms and also increased the pace of building Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism comprising of Afghanistan-Pakistan-China-Tajikistan. China’s concern is growing with regard to the Xinjiang region and growing Islamic separatist movement there as many of the ETIM members have recently joined ISIS and are expected to return with stronger beliefs of Islamic extremism.
Given the economic and geographic importance of Xinjiang, the Chinese government has encouraged internal migration of the Han Chinese into this region since 1949. As per the 1953 census, Uyghurs comprised of 75% of the entire population and Hans comprised of only 6%. This has changed significantly in the 2000 census which reported 45.21% Uyghurs and 40.57% Hans. Since the 1990s, accusations of marginalisation and discrimination against the Uyghur community by the government started fuelling ethnic clashes between them and the Hans. Various Uyghur groups have also been formed abroad by the exiled members of the community. It is believed that the Uyghur groups inside Xinjiang are not only supported by these groups but also by many Islamic countries, especially Turkey. The government has blamed the separatists for many terrorist activities inside the country.
Importantly, in several riots, the Chinese officials have burned down several mosques and refrained women from wearing burqas and imposed strict control over the functioning of Islamic religious schools. All this led to upheaval among the Muslim community and their determination for a separate state became stronger. But China neither in the past nor in the present wants to lose its control over the Xinjiang region and the secessionist tendencies have been curbed violently and rapidly whenever required.
Local authorities in China’s Xinjiang region have forced Muslim Uyghur farmers, government workers, teachers and the unemployed to partake in a mass event where they had to dress in traditional Chinese garb and perform tai chi, a very old form of Chinese martial arts. According to the Shule County government website, in April 2015 Chinese authorities forced Uyghur imams in Kashgar to do a dance performance in the town’s main square and female teachers had to assure not to teach Islam to children. The imams were also forced to tell children that prayer was harmful for the soul and to chant slogans in support of the state over religion and declare that “our income comes from the Chinese Communist Party, not from Allah.” On the response of this event, Ilshat Hasan, president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association on August 25, 2016 criticized the event as another attempt by China to weaken Uyghur ethnic and cultural identity and force Han Chinese identity on the Muslim ethnic minority. There has been continuous crackdown on Uyghur inhabitants to prevent the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism there, according to Radio Free Asia.
The future stability in the region still remains a matter of question. Domestic policies are partly responsible for the increasing violence. Also, the extreme and forceful measures taken by the Chinese government to wipe out Islamic ideology is leading to expanded restlessness among people and is proving to be dangerous for both China as well as the neighbouring regions. An exile Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, who spoke during a press conference in Tokyo on June 20, 2013, claimed that at least 2,000 ethnic minority Uyghurs may have been killed by Chinese security forces following riots in June 2013 Xinjiang region alone, far more than reported by the state media.
According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) that “in most likelihood” the number of fatalities “will never be known due to the lack of transparency the Chinese authorities employ when reporting violent incidents”. A separate report released by the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress on February 2014 said there had been “a dramatic increase in the use of violence” in Xinjiang. Rights groups say that harsh police treatment of Uyghurs and government campaigns against religious practices, such as the wearing of veils, has led to violence. China defends its policies, arguing that it has boosted economic development in the area and that it upholds minority and religious rights in a country with 56 recognised ethnic groups.
It is clear that China is showing its authoritative attitude in the Xinjiang region and is focused on maintaining the region’s national integrity at any cost. They have been successfully using militarist policies to suppress internal dissent and used culture and religion as a tool in its containment strategies.
The Uyghur’s conflict could get much bloodier than it is today. Some Uighurs Muslims were captured fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Pakistan and there is very likely a number of Uyghurs in the ranks of ISIS/ISIL. If they survive in future, they will be imbued with confidence to fight, will have seen the benefits of accessing larger-scale financing, and will almost certainly receive encouragement to take their fight to other parts of China to others regions as well, which they have done before.
*Dr. Anurag Tripathi is an Assistant Professor at Christ University, Bangalore and Nilanjana Ghosh is student of Master in International Studies Christ University. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected])