Details on who carried out the horrendous knife attack on March 1 that killed 29 people and injured more than 130 in a train station in southwestern China are still emerging. Officials say it was perpetrated by a team of more than 10 separatists from China’s far-western Muslim region of Xinjiang, five of whom were killed by security forces, with four more suspects arrested Monday. Meanwhile, China’s President Xi Jinping has ordered a crackdown on “violent terrorist activities.”
The timing of the attack in Kunming, Yunnan, clearly was aimed at embarrassing China’s top leaders, coming as it did just days before the opening of the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing on March 5. It also occurred amid a particularly severe crackdown on China’s Muslim Uighur minority, who now make up only about half of the population of Xinjiang. The latest clampdown by Chinese security forces follows a fiery jeep crash in Tiananmen Square in late October, also blamed on terrorists from the region, which borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan.
The attack is part of the larger dilemma China faces managing its restive west, a challenge that goes back centuries. Simply put: It is China’s desire to control a key resource-rich and strategic region, one that has long served as a buffer to other territory-hungry countries, butting up against the desire of the ethnic peoples who have long lived there for more autonomy, if not outright independence. And it involves not just the Muslim Uighurs, but also the Tibetans and ethnic Mongolians.
“The contemptuous attitude of the Han colonists in general reminded me uncomfortably of some of Britain’s own empire-builders,” wrote Christian Tyler in his fascinating history of the Uighur people of Xinjiang, Wild West China: the Untold Story of a Frontier Land, published in 2003. “The Chinese have always regarded their far west with a mixture of fascination and fear.”
Those two poles—fascination and fear—seem to coexist in China’s uneasy attitudes toward Xinjiang and more generally its ethnic minorities. With the tragedy of March 1, it is clear which is now ascendant, with China’s state press referring to the “inhumane attack” that was “orchestrated by separatist forces from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”
Contrast that, however, with a state-published tourism guide from 1989: “The people of Xinjiang are simple, honest, outspoken, and hospitable. They love to sing and dance and are known for giving warm reception to guests,” says A General Survey of Xinjiang. After the region “was peacefully liberated in 1949, a people’s political power center was established there. Since then all nationalities in Xinjiang have freed themselves from national oppression and discrimination and have acquired political equality, taking the socialist road to common prosperity,” the book explains.
The tension between more recent Chinese immigrants and Xinjiang’s original inhabitants was obvious when I visited more than a decade ago. While I had come to see China’s massive 4,200-kilometer gas pipeline, then still under construction (later to send gas to Shanghai), it was impossible to ignore the ethnic friction.
While taking a walk in the city of Korla, Xinjiang, the headquarters of the region’s oil and gas operations that sits on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, I came across a statue several meters high. It was of Wang Zhen, the former revolutionary leader and military man who led the Communist reconquest of Xinjiang in the early 1950s (the region had experienced a very brief period of relative independence during China’s civil war).
Why is he honored? I asked the 10- and 11-year-olds, playing in the square around the statue, all of them children of Chinese entrepreneurs—restaurateurs, small shopkeepers, cabdrivers—who had come to Xinjiang looking for economic opportunity. He is a hero “because he killed many Uighurs,” they replied with sweet smiles on their faces.
Later I spoke with a Uighur friend living in the capital of Urumqi, asking him what kinds of pressures Muslims faced there. He would nervously say only that he worked for the government, the implication being that his position provided some protection from growing discrimination, while others, including friends and family, were not so lucky.
China’s most recent claim to sovereignty over the region dates back to the 18th century conquest by the Qing Dynasty, whose rulers were not Han Chinese but ethnic Manchus. Fearful of being swamped themselves by the much larger Chinese population, the Manchu overlords initially had something of a hands-off policy toward the region. “Although they allowed the Han Chinese to trade, they did not appoint them as officials nor let them settle for fear of antagonizing the natives,” writes Tyler.
That policy is long gone, of course. Beijing has encouraged Chinese immigration into Xinjiang to the point that Uighurs will likely soon become a minority in their own homeland. And the so-called autonomous region system instituted in Xinjiang and other ethnic areas in reality provides only a semblance of local control. Instead, senior positions in government are all reserved for party members, who almost always are Han Chinese.
“Autonomy was a fig leaf for Communist Party rule. From head to toe, the party controlled every executive decision,” writes Tyler. “Mao and his colleagues had adopted Lenin’s practice of promising freedom of choice to the old imperial colonies in order to win their support for revolution but had made sure the promise was not honored afterwards.”