China: Mass stabbing shows the country must address Uighur grievances

Awareness of the plight of the Uighurs needs to be raised and China needs to address their very real grievances in order to prevent further disenfranchisement.

Ghaffar Hussain is head of research at counter-extremism think tank Quilliam

On the 1 March 2014, a mass knife stabbing attack that claimed 29 lives and injured over 130 took place at Kunming train station in South-West China.

There were at least 10 individuals involved in the attack and the group, which used swords and meat cleavers, and the group involved a mixture of males and females.

The incident is already being described as China’s 9/11 and the fact that it is being blamed on Uighur Muslim separatists from the Muslim-majority Xinjiang province means such comparisons are likely to continue.

This incident follows an October 2013 car-bombing that claimed 5 lives near Tiananmen Square in Beijing which was also blamed on Xinjiang separatists.

At this stage it is not clear if the perpetrators were driven by global jihadist ideology or by localised Xinjiang-based grievances. What is clear is that these attacks represent a worrying escalation in violence within the world’s most populous country at a time when it is also seeking to become the world’s largest economy.

However, any real understanding of this escalation, along with resentment amongst the Uighurs in recent years, has been largely absent from the current media debate.

In April 2010, Quilliam held a roundtable discussion entitled ‘The Uighurs: Chinas Forgotten Muslims’. The discussion was led by Dr. Enver Tohti, chairman of the Uighur Association and UK representative of the World Uighur Congress.

Tohti highlighted a number of key factors that had lead to the disenfranchisement and, in some cases, radicalization of the Uighur community. In particular, he focused on how many members of his community felt they were treated as outsiders and prevented from expressing their Muslim identity.

The Uighurs of Xinjiang refer to their region as East Turkestan. They speak Uighur, a Turkic language, and culturally have more in common with other Turkic nations, such as Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey rather than the Han Chinese.

The region was at the centre of the ‘Great Game’, which was a series of geo-political struggles in Asia between imperial powers, such as Russia and Britain, in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was eventually taken over by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1949 and has been treated as a colony since.

Since the absorption of Xinjiang into China, the Uighurs have felt like strangers in their own land, with local jobs going to Han Chinese and the rapid development taking place in the rest of China passing them by.

In 1957, 100 Uighur Muslim scholars were executed by the Chinese government for no reason; they merely felt the need to instill fear into the locals. Uighurs have very limited religious freedoms and are often teased for not eating pig meat, using the insult of being descendents of pigs as an explanation for why they don’t consume the meat.

More recently, due to the lack of females which has resulted from the one-child policy, the government has encouraged firms to employ Uighur girls to work in inner China. They have also encouraged these girls to meet and marry local Chinese men, and if they don’t they get sold to prostitution or punished. The girls are subject to 5000 yen punishment if they refuse to accept jobs in inner China, and with an average Uighur family earning 2500 yen per year their hand is forced.

Thus, Uighur families are being forced to send their daughters away and, in the process, they lose their identity and cultural heritage.

The plight of the Uighurs is further complicated by the fact that they cannot leave their country. This is due to them being surrounded by countries that would send them back to China.

The only place that does not do this is Afghanistan, which is why many people end up there.

Once in Afghanistan Uighurs are easy prey for extremist groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that five Uighurs ended up in Guantanamo Bay shortly after the 2001 war in Afghanistan.  

Tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese exploded in July 2009 when riots erupted in the capital city of the Xinjiang province, Urumqi. During these riots, which lasted several days, 197 people were killed and 1721 were injured as Uighurs targeted local Han Chinese people and set fire to vehicles and buildings.

According to Tohti, these riots were a watershed moment for the Uighurs, since they led to an increase in overt religious devotion and the expression of a strong Muslim identity.

Needless to say, this new found religious zeal can easily be exploited by extremists, especially given the history of disempowerment, marginalization and strong sense of helplessness.

During the roundtable in 2010, which I hosted, Tohti predicted that China would experience a spate of terror attacks in the coming years. Again, the extent to which the attackers have bought into the global jihadist narrative, as opposed to a localized Xinjiang-specific narrative is not entirely clear.

In either case, awareness of the plight of the Uighurs needs to be raised and China needs to address their very real grievances in order to prevent further disenfranchisement.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.