In the Wake of Paris Attacks, Xinjiang Faces Crackdown

Daniel Litke

Incidents per month, 2014 vs. 2013 (Courtesy of the Uyghur Human Rights Project)

Before the dust had settled following the Paris attacks, reports from Chinese state media emerged detailing an anti-terror campaign by the Chinese police. Over the course of a 56-day manhunt in China’s Xinjiang province, police claimed to have killed 28 terror suspects from a mysterious group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

Chinese authorities revealed these details as they ramped up counterterrorism rhetoric following events in Paris. In addition to condemning ISIS, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have called for international support for China’s battle against terrorism in Xinjiang.

With the world reeling from the Paris attacks, activity in the restive Xinjiang province has prompted concerns that the Chinese government may attempt to use the tragedy to establish further control over the territory. Xinjiang’s Uyghur people, a Muslim ethnic minority, have repeatedly accused the Chinese government of human rights abuses and fear they could be further repressed.

“China has always used this kind of opportunity to somehow crackdown on Uyghurs and somehow link the incidents in East Turkestan with incidents in the West,” said Omer Kanat, Vice President of the German-headquartered World Uyghur Congress. who uses an alternate name for Xinjiang used by many Uyghur seperatists.“It used September 11th and war on terror as way to suppress the Uyghur dissent in East Turkestan.”

Kanat, a Uyghur exiled from China, works for the World Uyghur Congress from Washington, DC. He fears the Paris attacks could signal further repression of the Uyghurs and further unrest in the region.

Bans on fasting during Ramadan and growing facial hair as well as the disappearance of Uyghur activists have already created a volatile climate in Xinjiang. There is tension between the Muslim minority and Han Chinese, China’s ethnic majority, who have migrated into the territory in great numbers since the People’s Republic of China’s inception. Many Uyghurs believe that Han Chinese were relocated to Xinjiang to take jobs and repress Uyghur culture.

This tension has erupted into violence on numerous occasions. China’s 56-day anti-terror campaign came in response to a deadly coalmine attack that left 50 dead on September 18th — most of the victims were Han migrants. The incident came a year after a similar attack by Uyghur extremists on a Kunming train station. A study from the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, DC based non-profit, reported that 656 to 715 individuals were killed due to political violence between 2013 and 2014. The same report suggests a dramatic increase in such incidents with as many as 478 of those deaths occurring in 2014.

The Chinese government attributes this violence to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or ETIM. The government claims it a separatist group run by Uyghur extremists, yet some wonder if it exists as nothing more than a Chinese propaganda tool.

“The ETIM is a mysterious organization, so mysterious that whether it really exists or not is a controversial point,” said Dr. Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, who specializes in Chinese politics and human rights. “I have no way of resolving that controversy, but I think if it does exist it’s quite small and weak.”

Despite this, the Chinese government has repeatedly referred to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in calling for international support. The government claims that several of its members have left for Syria to join ISIS.

Since the attacks, China has already consolidated some control over the area through a crackdown on mobile services. The Chinese government suspended phone service for citizens using foreign messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram or using a Virtual Private Network to access websites blocked by China’s firewall.

“What we’re seeing now is a new approach taken by the propaganda machine of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Greg Fay, Project Manager at Uyghur Human Rights Project.

An increase in such activity has some experts worried about the radicalization of Uyghur people. They believe that China’s failure to understand the importance of cultural identity will lead to further unrest in the area. However, they point out that that radicalization and unrest are in direct response to Chinese suppression and is distinct from the ideologies of ISIS and other terrorist groups.

Much of the unrest and dissent amongst Uyghurs stems from the desire for an independent Xinjiang. This sentiment, however, appears to be wishful thinking. As the province stares down the potential for tighter control, the outlook for independence looks bleak.

“I’ve spent 20 odd years researching Xinjiang and when I started there was hope that there might be change. Many Uyghurs believed they would get independence,” said Dr. Joan Smith Finley, senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Newcastle University. “The situation has changed dramatically since then and I’m finding it quite hard to carry on researching. I’m getting quite burned out with it.”

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