Time Is Running Out For Ethnic Peace And Reconciliation In Xinjiang
In my last post, I questioned if the recent Chinese efforts to meet Uyghurs’ deep concerns about their living conditions and their cultural future could or could not be sufficient. But in almost no time, an answer comes, a tragic one: from a Turkmen’s perspective, Beijing’s accommodating drive cannot be acceptable. On the 30th of April, at 19:10, at the Urumqi Train station (the territorial capital), two Uyghurs posing as travelers, armed with long knives started a rampage, before detonating a bomb that killed themselves and a bystander on the spot, and injured 79 (four of them critically).
In the hours to come, every observer immediately noted the proximity of the 1st of May, the “sacred” day of the Work in China. And even more, the presence of the First Secretary in the city, concluding a four days visit. Xi Jinping had just exhorted the SWAT special police to “sweat more before the war, so as to bleed less during it”, and to have zero tolerance for rebel separatists. And elite soldiers were shown on TV, shouting to the leader to indicate their high degree of preparedness against the enemy.
The answer of the kamikaze killers is devastating to the regime – already applied four more times in the last six months, a new form of violent Uyghur opposition is taking form, that defeats all forms of Chinese security, able to strike where and when it decides to do so.
A few weeks earlier, Alim Seytoff, Spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, from Germany, had already shrugged away at the tentative new plan to gain sympathies in Xinjiang: Beijing “cannot acquire the people’s love”, he was quoted to say, be it through the displacement of 200,000, or even two million civil servants. The crux of the matter, said Seytoff, would be for the government to review its ethnic management and to concede to the Uyghurs, the historic settlers of Xinjiang, who currently have a minimal voice in shaping their own destiny –starting with the liberty to practice their religion according to their own customs.
This is a serious matter, and it suggests that China suffers a serious confidence gap with its “new territories” (the meaning of “Xinjiang”, an administrative name imparted in the 20s). One of the first decisions made by Mao after the socialist conquest of 1949, was to send troops to pacify Xinjiang, and to stay there forever, as farming villages cum fortresses, after having been provided wives: they were the “Bingtuan,” or Production and Construction Corps, now the cornerstone of Han Chinese occupation and of local economic investment. The Bingtuan occupy the best land (30% of the whole) and have priority over water – they often cultivate rice, on flooded paddies, where Uyghurs grow wheat which is much less irrigation dependent. In the cities as well, Uyghurs are at a disadvantage because of their poor mastering of mandarin.
Moreover, they are the victims of official distrust, which mostly bar the few ones up to the jobs, in administration, and in the strategic fields of oil, mining, energy. They are under constant distrust and surveillance: Urumqi’s streets alone are said to maintain over 50,000 video cameras. There have been recent moves to force the men to shave their beards, and the women to give up their burkhas (full veil). Such acts by soldiers or vigilantes have often resulted in fatal acts of defense or revenge. In the cities, according to a testimony quoted by the French reporter Ursula Gauthier, in Urumqi “up to 40% of the people in the streets are spies… paid 1800¥ per month, plus 300¥ for each substantiated report. Many people disappear, who are not necessarily involved in politics or rebellion. And among those innocents, which make a large share of those blind arrests, only a part can be released – those whose relatives have the right contacts and enough money to buy back their freedom.”
Worse yet than the 30th of April attack, the worst recent case of violence was the 1st of March attack at the Kunming Station by 8 Uyghurs, men and women all dressed in black. Armed with long knives, displaying the same scenario as in Urumqi, they killed 29 passengers in less than 20 minutes, and injured 143 others before being killed or arrested by the police. The total number of victims of clashes varies between sources: officially “100 since April 2013” (including several policemen), but “150 since beginning of the year” according to other, reliable sources.
Economically disempowered, harassed by spies, Uyghurs turn to their religion – more and more clandestinely. As a result, this traditionally benign Islamic church has distinctly started to radicalize. On the 7th of April, Nur Bekri, the governor of Xinjiang (himself a Uyghur) accused Islamist militants of trying to ban laughter at weddings and crying at funerals, TV and radio, and even cosmetics and medicine, unless they are “halal,” according to the Islamic law. This seems quite extreme, and can be interpreted as a refusal of all things Chinese. The radicalization goes on both sides. IlhamTohti, a Uyghur professor at a Beijing university has recently been arrested. A staunch defender of the Uyghur cause and rights, he was considered a moderate and a legalist. China on the 1st of April reacted angrily to the human rights award to Tohti by the PEN American center. All sorts of political powers (including the EU and the United States), of celebrities (like Salman Rushdie) and movements around the world, have condemned this unsubstantiated detention which could result in a death penalty if the indictment of ‘subversion’ is supported by Chinese justice.
The last word belongs to Ablimit Hajim, a young delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Hajim bitterly complained during the last March’s session against the abuses. The government “misunderstood” Islam, and prevented his people from both social integration and normal religious practice. New cities did not plan new mosques, and airports foresaw smoking areas but not praying areas. Prejudices against Islam, in schools, pushed the youth out of them. Those same youth were suffering rampant underemployment following decades of encouraged Han immigration. Hajim bravely concluded, asking Beijing for “instructions.”
The answer, since then, is still pending. Whether its massive investment will be enough to calm down the anguish of the Uyghurs on their material survival remains to be seen. But obviously, if the objective is ethnic peace and reconciliation, time is rapidly running out.