Uighur separatism

By Julian del Prado

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Uighurs work at a site to the west of Urumqi where houses are being built on the side of a hill with no water or electricity, and on a road on the way to a garbage dump. None of the people in this image were quoted in McClatchy's story. Perhaps more than any other corner of China, the city is now a showcase of the police state tactics used in tandem with economic growth by the country's rulers to maintain their vision of "harmonious" society. (Tom Lasseter/MCT)

Uighurs work at a site to the west of Urumqi where houses are being built on the side of a hill with no water or electricity, and on a road on the way to a garbage dump. None of the people in this image were quoted in McClatchy’s story. Perhaps more than any other corner of China, the city is now a showcase of the police state tactics used in tandem with economic growth by the country’s rulers to maintain their vision of “harmonious” society. (Tom Lasseter/MCT)

On March 1, 10 men, wearing all black and armed with knives, stormed a train station in Kunming, China, and killed 29 people and wounded 130. The attackers perpetrated a terrorist attack of unprecedented scale in China, and the Chinese authorities are saying that these men were part of a violent Uighur separatist movement.

Uighurs, a Turkic minority in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, have been increasingly at odds with the Han majority there, and skirmishes between the two groups in Xinjiang are not unheard of. However, this attack took place in Yunnan province in the southwest, which makes this the first significant outbreak of the Xinjiang conflict. In light of China’s reputation for disseminating false information when it aids their government, one has to wonder whether this is an escalation of ethnic tensions in Xinjiang or if the Chinese government is hiding the true nature of the attack for the sake of justifying repression elsewhere. Similar suspicions arose when three people, a Uighur man with his wife and mother, drove through Tiananmen Square and killed two tourists before their car burst into flames. The Chinese government claimed to have found radical paraphernalia in the car, but received heavy skepticism about finding such items in a burned out automobile.

It’s easy to see why China would want to portray the Uighurs as bloodthirsty terrorists in light of its past human rights abuses. With the Dalai Lama as its figurehead, Tibet has been able to expose Chinese neocolonialism to the world, which has rallied behind their cause and condemned China at every turn on its abuses. This has aided in creating a cultural rift between China and the United States, and placed fear into China’s neighbors about that country’s increasing military ambitions.

With the Uighurs, China has a clean slate. Xinjiang province is not a commonplace topic in the international community, and the Uighur separatist movement is completely unheard of to the vast majority of citizens in the western world. By portraying the Uighurs as terrorists, the Chinese government can continue to pursue colonial practices in the region with the implicit (or even open) consent of governments around the world. After all, terrorism is something which most governments would rather not take a risk on. Actual skirmishes in Xinjiang between Han Chinese and Uighurs have not received adequate reporting, and it is unclear whether Uighur organizations have been staging attacks on government institutions or not. Uighur groups claim that security forces fire on unarmed citizens without provocations, which could open China up to further accusations of human rights abuse. Regardless of which scenario is true, it is still in the Chinese government’s best interest to portray the Uighurs as terrorists if it wants to continue its colonial practices. A further look into what these practices are makes it apparent that the Uighurs are facing serious infringements upon their autonomy.

Chinese methods of control are ancient and effective at eradicating, or at the least assimilating, various ethnic and cultural groups. By making them minorities in their own homes, the Chinese government can sap the legitimacy of these groups through dilution. After all, these groups are exempt from the one child policy and can surely keep up with the rising tide of Han. Unfortunately, the truth is that the sheer volume of Han Chinese sent with natural-resource companies and military firms is more than enough to drown out native peoples. In the last year, 100 people have died in clashes in Xinjiang.

The Uighur separatist movement very well may have escalated to strike at what it sees as the Han heartland, leading to this horrific attack in Kunming. As a result of the Chinese government’s lack of transparency, there is no clear evidence as to whether a violent terrorist organization is gaining traction and organization in China, placing countless lives in danger in the name of the Chinese government’s interests in Xinjiang.

Julian del Prado is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].