On April 30, 2014, an attack at a train station in the capital of China’s Xinjiang region killed three people and injured 79 others. Haiyun Ma, a former task force leader on minority welfare in China, argues that the only way to prevent more violence is to revise the current repressive policies on the Uyghur minority.
China’s ethnic policies are largely to blame for the state of Uyghur–China relations. In the 1930s and 1940s, Communist China developed its own minzu (ethnicity) politics, which were borrowed from, and modeled on, the former Soviet Union’s nationality politics.
Chinese minzu policies after 1949 identified 55 ethnic minority ethnic nationalities, such as the Uyghur, as different minzu, and established ethnic autonomous regions, ethnic autonomous laws, and minzu-related agencies and apparatus at national and local levels.
China’s ethnic policy aims to provide services for socially and economically disadvantaged ethnic minorities. Minority groups’ rights are largely defined and generally realized through special ethnic policies, such as food stipends, lower requirements for college entrance, and liberal family planning. The minzu policy is thus supplementary to China’s constitution and basic laws.
In reality, the practice of the minzu policy by local officials in ethnic autonomous regions to some extent ignores China’s basic laws. On the other hand, China’s basic laws and institutions, no matter how imperfect, have protected Han citizen rights in Han regions.
The juxtaposition of ethnic autonomous laws in ethnic regions and basic laws in Han regions has resulted in bifurcated law enforcement on the ground, and has strengthened the divide between Han and non-Han.
The majority Han culture is seen to represent China as a political entity: The state, officials, and scholars have officially and publicly promoted Han language, clothing, culture, cults, and fashion. Meanwhile, due to their distinct cultural and ethnic features, the Uyghurs and other non-Han groups are perceived as less Chinese, or even un-Chinese, and are pushed towards nationalization (i.e., Hanification) through clothing, cultural, and language reforms.
The bifurcated law enforcement is most evident in Xinjiang, where the Uyghurs have been deprived of their constitutionally guaranteed rights as Chinese citizens, such as practicing their religion and obtaining passports.
This already suggests the danger of alienating non-Han peoples in China. Since the 1990s, when Wang Lequan came to power as party secretary, the legal status of Xinjiang Uyghurs has deteriorated.
Instead of enforcing China’s basic laws and ethnic autonomous laws in Xinjiang, Wang’s Urumqi government instituted a series of local laws restricting Uyghur religious practices from publication, prayer, and public gatherings.
These local laws are in opposition to China’s basic national laws and deprive the Uyghurs of their rights as Chinese citizens. More seriously, they have not been discussed or passed by China’s National Congress. Here we see an official separatism supported by various local policies and regulations in the name of maintaining stability and sovereignty.
Wang Lequan is not the first to try to instate military rule in Xinjiang. His warlord predecessors endeavored to make themselves king of Xinjiang by creating tensions and conflicts in this borderland region when China was in turmoil from 1911 to 1949.
It is not coincidental that during Wang Lequan’s tenure as king of Xinjiang, relations between the Uyghur and the government have quickly worsened, as represented by the open conflict in Gulja in 1997.
Even China’s national campaign (the so-called “strike hard” campaign), whose goal in other provinces is to reduce ordinary crimes, has been twisted and manipulated by the Urumqi government, and positioned as a political campaign against the “evil forces” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism.
The bifurcated law enforcement in China, warlord legacy in Xinjiang, and lack of a national-level agency (such as the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, or CIA in the United States) indicate that Urumqi – not Beijing – has exercised sovereignty since the 1990s with regard to China’s Uyghur policy and anti-terror campaign. It is clear that China is not a complete and regular modern nation, not to mention a complete global power.
The 9/11 attacks on the United States provided a timely justification for Urumqi’s policies towards the Uyghurs. China’s opportunistic siding with the United States on anti-terror was a victory for the Urumqi government’s ongoing repressive Uyghur policy.
Beijing and Washington’s joint designation of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist group substantialized Urumqi’s long-held campaign against separatism, extremism, and terrorism. When China established an Anti-Terror Coordination Team and set up an anti-terror bureau in the Ministry of Public Security, Urumqi’s policy was promoted to a national level.
China’s opportunism, however, proved to be nearsighted. The new administration in Washington quickly corrected the previous administration’s “anti-Islamic fascism” campaign, clarifying that it was targeting terrorists represented by Osama Bin Laden. Later, the ETIM was removed from the terrorist organizations list, which to some extent embarrassed Beijing.
Beijing changed its Anti-Terror Coordination Team (with the United States) to an Anti-Terror Leadership Team in 2013, and it is now focused on the unrest in Xinjiang.
From the perspective of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Central and South Asia, this anti-terror war is the Chinese translation of a mujahideen movement. A prolonged regional guerilla conflict with the goal of revenging China’s Uyghur policy will likely develop in Xinjiang and elsewhere (as recent deadly attacks in Kunming, Beijing, and Urumqi suggest) if China continues to allow the Urumqi government to implement its repressive policies.
Photo Credit: Uyghur Turkistan via Compfight cc
Haiyun MaHaiyun Ma is a former task force leader on minority welfare in China, and currently teaches in the history department at Frostburg State University in Maryland. His teaching and research interests are Chinese History, Islam and Muslims of China (including Xinjiang), China-Middle East relations, and China-Central Asian Relations.