What We Talk About When We Talk About “The Uyghurs”

What We Talk About When We Talk About “The Uyghurs”

How did Western media accounts transform China’s Xinjiang region from an obscure, exotic district into a hotbed of terrorism?

Uyghur baker in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China (Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)

In 1997 I watched a news report about a protest in a place that I’d never heard of. The newsreader probably hadn’t heard of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China either; he certainly couldn’t pronounce it, nor the name of the ethnic group—the Uyghurs—that were said to be protesting. But although the report had little to say about them, other than that they were Muslims, its message was clear: here was an ethnic minority that the Chinese government was persecuting.

Seventeen years later I read an article in the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid newspaper, titled, “Who are the Uyghurs? Islamic militants in China who could be linked to missing Malaysia Airlines flight.” The article talked about their “known terrorist links.” The next day Fox News repeated the accusation and described Xinjiang as a “radical Islamist enclave.”

It would be nice to dismiss both the Fox report and the Daily Mirror article as part of their usual hysterical output, which it was (there’s no evidence of any link between Xinjiang, Uyghurs, and the fate of the plane). Unfortunately, these ill-informed pieces were the nadir of a more general tendency in much of the Western media’s coverage of the region. Xinjiang is no longer represented as an obscure, exotic district but as a “volatile” and “restive” region of “smouldering tensions” where “scarcely a week passes without anti-government violence.” Uyghurs are now “an ethnic minority in Xinjiang whose members . . . are enmeshed in a growing number of clashes with China’s ethnic Han majority” (New York Times, March 6). In dramatic terms, the dominant narrative couldn’t be better: it is all about conflict.

This isn’t entirely a figment of the Western media’s imagination. There have been major confrontations in Xinjiang between some Uyghurs and representatives of the Chinese state since the early 1990s (in which both Uyghurs and Han Chinese have been victims). But the lack of foreign reporters in Xinjiang—most are based on China’s east coast, and when they do visit Xinjiang they are subject to restrictions—means that there’s often little credible information about these disturbances. The Chinese media might report an attack on a police station, which will typically be followed by the presentation of a counter-narrative from Uyghur activist organisations like the World Uyghur Congress or Radio Free Asia (which is funded by the U.S. government) claiming that the incident was a peaceful protest suppressed by the authorities.

The explanations of cause and motive are equally divergent. The Chinese government claims to be the target of radical Islamist organizations that promote the “Three Evils” of “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.” Officials argue that Uyghurs are being brainwashed by terrorist organizations such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) into wanting to secede from China. In support of this claim, they point to the fact that in 2002 the United States placed the ETIM on a terrorist monitoring list, and that a small number of Uyghurs were incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay after being arrested in Afghanistan. There is never any suggestion that there might be problems within the region causing Uyghur dissent.

Uyghur activists and many human rights organizations contend that it is precisely the internal situation that is provoking confrontations. Rather than being ideologically driven, they argue, Uyghur discontent is the consequence of progressively worsening conditions for Uyghurs in Xinjiang over the last twenty years. Economic exclusion is one of the main grievances; Uyghurs aren’t employed in many of the region’s main industries, especially the extractive industries (Xinjiang has vast reserves of oil, gas, and coal, which are likely to be central to China’s future energy security). The problem is worsened by the continuing influx of government-sponsored migrants from other provinces into Xinjiang in spite of high unemployment figures amongst Uyghurs. The result has been a huge demographic shift in the region. In 1949 Han Chinese, the ethnic majority in China, only made up around 5 percent of the population of Xinjiang. Today they account for about half.

Xinjiang is no longer represented as an obscure, exotic district but as a “volatile” and “restive” region of “smouldering tensions” where “scarcely a week passes without anti-government violence.”

In keeping with this narrative of colonization, activists claim Uyghurs are also undergoing cultural and linguistic repression. Their own language is no longer taught in schools. Uyghur books have been publicly burnt and intellectuals have been arrested, such as the respected academic Ilham Tohti in February this year. Uyghur neighborhoods and communities have been knocked down throughout the region, most notably a 3,000-year-old town in Kashgar. There are also pervasive religious restrictions on Islam in Xinjiang, such as a ban on government employees and university students fasting during Ramadan. Mosques have been demolished and imams arrested. It’s also claimed that Uyghurs in Xinjiang are subject to arbitrary detention and imprisonment.

In the past, the majority of Western news services have attempted to cover Xinjiang with some degree of objectivity. Claims and counterclaims have been presented, the presence (or absence) of supporting evidence noted. Though there has been no coherent position among academics or the media on the nature and motivations behind the succession of reported incidents in Xinjiang since 1997, there has been a general acknowledgement that many Uyghurs in Xinjiang have legitimate grievances.

The existence of genuine, systematic inequalities between Uyghurs and Han Chinese doesn’t preclude these being the causes of a genuine, protracted, sometimes violent campaign against the Chinese authorities, the ultimate aim of which is the formation of a separate Uyghur state. To assess this claim requires a lengthy discussion of the known facts about events ranging from protests in Yining in 1997 to the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of the region, which led to over 200 deaths. Yet the Chinese government has not presented any credible evidence to support its claim that there has been a protracted terrorist campaign in Xinjiang over the last few decades. Even the existence of ETIM, at least in any practical capacity, is far from established. The extent to which Uyghurs in Xinjiang view independence for the region as a desirable goal is also unknown.

Moreover, many of the incidents in Xinjiang appear to have been triggered not by extremist ideology but by local sources of friction between Uyghur communities and officials. As for the alleged connection between Uyghur “separatists” and Islamist organizations in Pakistan or Afghanistan, the Uyghurs in Guantanamo have all now been released. The Bush administration’s willingness to place ETIM on one of the terror lists is now seen as a case of “we’ll support your shaky intelligence about terrorism so long as you don’t oppose ours.” (ETIM has since been removed from the list.) The only other candidate for a “terrorist” group operating in Xinjiang is the Turkistan Islamic Party, which releases Internet videos calling on people to attack the Chinese state. Yet just as with ETIM, the only people who view them as a credible threat are self-designated “terrorism experts” (who, like the Chinese government, have a vested interest in promoting the idea of Xinjiang as a battleground of Islamic jihad). No group claims responsibility for the supposed “terrorist” attacks in recent years.

Given this paucity of evidence, the Western media has formerly been skeptical of the Chinese government’s claims about organized Islamic terrorist groups in Xinjiang. This equivocation has provoked the ire of the Chinese media on a number of occasions, such as in October 2013, when a jeep exploded in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing its three occupants and two tourists and injuring forty. The Beijing police described this as “an act of terrorism by suspects from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” and blamed the ETIM. They also claimed to have found a “jihadist flag” in the vehicle, despite it having exploded. When some commentators questioned the details of the official account, the foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said that this amounted to “connivance with terrorists.”

But a recent incident in Kunming, the capital of China’s southwestern Yunnan province, seems to have shifted much of the Western media’s tone, and with it the way Uyghurs are portrayed. On March 1, 2014, a knife-wielding group of eight people attacked passengers and passers-by in the railway station in Kunming. Twenty-eight were killed and 113 injured. Four of the attackers were killed by police at the scene; one woman was injured and captured. The authorities claimed to have found an Islamic flag at the crime scene, just as they had with the incident in Tiananmen in 2013, and said that Xinjiang “separatists” were responsible. They named Abdurehim Kurban (a Uyghur name) as the group’s leader, and although they did not release details on the other attackers, it was generally assumed, in China and elsewhere, that the attackers were all Uyghur.

In the shock and confusion that followed the killings, one thing was not disputed: that they were deliberate. In China social unrest usually takes the form of strikes, riots, or public demonstrations (often against land confiscations by local authorities), which are collectively known as “mass incidents.” Though it’s unclear precisely how many occur every year, some argue they have been increasing throughout the country over the last decade. Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, claimed there were at least 180,000 such incidents in 2010, twice as many as in 2006. Yet while these incidents occasionally become violent, it’s rare for loss of life to be their main purpose. The high degree of organization evident in the planning and execution of the Kunming attack, however, and the apparent aim of causing widespread fear and loss of life among civilians, suggested it was something different. To the degree it’s still advisable to use the label “terrorism,” the Kunming attack seems to merit the term.

In China it was described as “China’s 9/11” and placed in a context of supposedly similar terrorist acts “over the past two decades.” The Kunming attack and the explosion in Beijing were said by the state-owned Global Times to be indicative of a “despicable trend that separatists are targeting civilians out of Xinjiang.” This notion was echoed by many Western media outlets, which offered different versions of the idea that the Kunming attacks represented “a dramatic escalation of China’s simmering Uighur problem.”

The BBC article in which this quote appeared did at least say that this would only be true if the attack did turn out to be the work of Xinjiang separatists. Other outlets were less cautious. Quartz ran a story with the headline, “China’s bloody train station attack shows how terrorism is spreading out of Xinjiang,” and an accompanying infographic of alleged “Terrorist attacks and ethnic violence since 2005.” The fact that the attacks “took place far from the [sic] Xinjiang,” the author of the piece speculated, was “a sign that insurgents are branching out.” In order to be able to hypothetically tie the Kunming attack into a longer narrative of violence involving Uyghurs, others selectively presented facts about “terrorism” in Xinjiang. Both CNN and the BBC mentioned that ETIM had been put on a U.S. terrorist list but not that it had been removed. CNN also spoke of “Uyghur groups” that “claimed responsibility for bus bombs in Shanghai and Yunnan prior to the Olympics in 2008,” without mentioning that these claims were discredited even by the Chinese government. By taking the terrorist attack in Kunming as license to reclassify previous, apparently unconnected incidents, the media is helping to legitimize repressive security policies in the region (which already has one of the heaviest police and army presences in China), such as arbitrary detention, house-to-house searches, and a shoot-to-kill policy.

Xinjiang fits two well-worn narratives in the Western media: conflict between a beleaguered minority and an ethnic-majority state, and the association between Islam and “terrorism” that has been especially prevalent since 9/11.

There has in fact been a succession of violent incidents over the last few years in Xinjiang, often involving Uyghurs (although often as victims). And despite a heightened military and police presence throughout the region, two major violent incidents recently occurred in Urumqi. On April 30 an explosion outside a train station killed three people and injured seventy-nine, an attack that some said was aimed at a train bearing migrant Han workers from Chengdu in the south of the country. Then, on May 22, a group crashed two cars into a market and threw explosives, killing thirty people. Though this incident, like the Kunming attacks, was clearly aimed at civilians, its causes are unknown. No one has claimed responsibility for either the April 30 or the May 22 attacks.

These high-profile incidents have understandably lent support to the characterization of the region as “restive” and turbulent. But it is somewhat disingenuous to portray this as exceptional within China. It may be true, as the Economist claimed in March 2014, that “scarcely a week passes in Xinjiang without anti-government violence,” but the same could probably be said of virtually any other province in China, judging by the number of mass incidents that are thought to take place. If anything, there seems to have been less dissent in Xinjiang than in other places. In 2003 historian James Millward argued that unlike in the rest of China, where violent forms of protest had increased, “both the frequency and severity of violent activity associated with Uyghur separatism have in fact declined since the late 1990s.” This conclusion was echoed by Gardner Bovingdon in 2010 and again in 2012 by Sean Roberts, one of the most rigorous and perceptive analysts of the claim of “terrorism” in Xinjiang. Roberts argued that the “general impression of a threat escalating since 1990 to crisis proportions today is exaggerated.”

If this is the case, then why single out Xinjiang (and by extension, the Uyghurs) as “restive”? The region fits two well-worn narratives in the Western media: conflict between a beleaguered minority and an ethnic-majority state, and the association between Islam and “terrorism” that has been especially prevalent since 9/11. Uyghurs are almost always characterized as “Turkic-speaking Muslims,” a statement rarely qualified by explaining that the degree of religious belief and participation varies greatly among Uyghurs, to the point that some use “Muslim” more as a cultural marker than as a description of faith.

While the Chinese government is anxious to stress that ethnic relations in Xinjiang are good (especially after the Kunming attacks, which led to a wave of online anger in China against Uyghurs), anyone who spends a substantial amount of time in Xinjiang will encounter considerable ill-feeling between Han and Uyghur. Yet most of this goes no further than prejudice voiced among peer groups, and a de facto separation of their communities, the extent of which varies between cities. (I lived in Yining, in the northwest of the region, for a year and almost never saw Han Chinese and Uyghurs mix socially, but in Urumqi it’s far more common.) Despite occasional breathless reports about “high tensions” in Xinjiang, the atmosphere in most parts of the region is usually anything but. The killings of Han Chinese civilians during the 2009 Urumqi riots, and the revenge attacks on Uyghur communities by Han Chinese mobs, certainly had an ethnic component. But to automatically assign ethnicity a dominant role is to ignore the myriad causes of protest throughout China.

The little we do know about the confrontations that have taken place in Xinjiang over the last few years suggest that most Uyghurs protesting at police stations or government buildings have complaints that are common across China: the corruption of local officials, the heavy-handed application of religious or family planning policies, the unlawful seizure of land. Many Uyghurs are especially vulnerable to such injustices, owing to their marginalization within the region’s economy, itself the result of systematic inequalities in employment and investment (despite some government policies, especially in education, that aim to remedy this). Along with the severe security policies applied to Uyghurs in the region—such as house searches and mass arrests—this has led to a worsening of relations between Uyghur and Han Chinese in many places in Xinjiang. But despite the frequent talk of “increased tensions” in Xinjiang—exactly how “tensions” are measured is unclear—it’s still a massive overstatement to speak of Uyghurs and Han in Xinjiang as being at each other’s throats.

If we want to talk about what’s happening in Xinjiang, and about Uyghurs, we might start by remembering to qualify our statements with a “some” or “many” (unless of course we think we can accurately speak for the beliefs and aspirations of 10 million people spread across a geographically diverse region the size of Western Europe). We might occasionally even risk writing something about Uyghur music, literature, and art, or anything else that does not involve reference to terrorism or conflict. When we talk about Xinjiang and the Uyghurs, let us report what we actually know. There’s no need to exaggerate—the facts are probably bad enough.

Nick Holdstock is the author of The Tree That Bleeds, which describes the year he spent living in Yining. China’s Forgotten People, a book about Xinjiang and the Uyghurs, will be published by IB Tauris in spring 2015.