The alarming rhetoric of China’s war on terror


Paramilitary policemen patrol past a building with broken windows after an explosion in Urumqi, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in this photo taken by Kyodo May 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Kyodo)

In a speech this week, China's President Xi Jinping addressed the challenges Beijing faces in its own war on terror. A grisly May 22 attack in Urumqi, capital of the far-western region of Xinjiang, had led to 39 dead and nearly 100 injured. It was the worst terrorist attack in the restive region in recent memory and the bloodiest single day since ethnic riots between Han Chinese and local Muslim Uighurs rocked Urumqi five years ago. (The Post explained the root causes of the violence here and here.)

Xi's speech, delivered at a closed-door meeting of Chinese officialdom concerned with the troubles in Xinjiang, does not offer much encouragement for those hoping for a shift in Chinese policy. Xi called for "nets spread from the earth to the sky" to thwart further terrorism, according to state news service Xinhua, reinforced by "walls of copper and steel."

It's evocative language that critics may argue is a sign of Beijing's heavy-handed, centralized rule over the region and some 10 million Muslim Uighurs who call it home. As discussed earlier, Chinese counterterrorism initiatives have come alongside crackdowns on Uighur civil society, mass arrests and a tacit culture war that have led some Uighurs to consider their very identity under siege.

“The Urumqi bombings are utterly reprehensible," said Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch's China director, in a statement following the attack. But she cautioned: "China’s duty to maintain public order includes respecting the rights of both suspects and the general population."

Beijing officials like to play up their country's model of multiculturalism, which hinges on a somewhat Soviet understanding of minority "nationalities" committed to a larger project of national "unity." Here's what Xi said:

The president urged all ethnic groups in Xinjiang to "show mutual understanding, respect, tolerance and appreciation among themselves, and learn and help each other," so that they could be united together "like seeds of a pomegranate."

"The more separatists attempt to sabotage our ethnic unity, the more we should try to reinforce it," the president said, adding that unity is the "lifeline" for people of all ethnic backgrounds.

The pomegranate is a cute metaphor, not least because it invokes a fruit ubiquitous in Central Asia. But pomegranate seeds don't really mix: they stay fixed in place until they fall out. Xi made worrying noises about how authorities should manage the practice of Islam in Xinjiang:

Calling for "meticulous" religious work, Xi stressed that there should be a focus on helping religion adapt to a socialist society and ensuring the role of religious figures and believers in boosting economic and social development.

"Focus on fostering a team of patriotic clergy and boosting the general quality of people in the religious circle so as to ensure that the leadership of religious organizations is firmly in the hands of people who love the country as well as religion," he said.

Georgetown University historian James Millward, author of Eurasian Crossroads, a noteworthy history of Xinjiang, offers a very comprehensive analysis of the problem Uighurs present for the Chinese state, which often pins the rise of militant activity in the region on the involvement of foreign terror networks, rather than domestic troubles.

Chinese policies and never-ending crackdowns, especially since the 2009 riots, have created a climate in which some Uyghurs are more likely to heed twisted, pseudo-religious ideologies that advocate killing innocents to send a political message. But even if we accept the Chinese position that religious extremism, leading to terrorism, is mainly an exogenous force, why then campaign domestically against features of Uyghur culture, nonreligious as well as religious, that have been part of Uyghur life and Xinjiang’s social landscape since long before the Taliban and al-Qaeda emerged elsewhere? Why then the repeated gratuitous insults against Uyghur culture — false claims that Uyghur is a primitive language, thoughtless dismantling of Uyghur-language education,suspicion and persecution of private Uyghur-language instruction, compulsion of government workers to eat during Ramadan, prohibition of doppa caps and scarves?

I suspect that the Chinese leadership and some Chinese scholars who advise them are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. They increasingly feel that this distinctiveness is itself a source of the problem.

The crisis in Xinjiang, then, gets at the heart of the ideology of the Chinese state under one-party rule. And there are few signs that the leadership in Beijing is willing to bend to a more tolerant, pluralist track of reform. "Our party's strategy on Xinjiang is proven to be correct and must be continued in the long run," said Xi during his speech. "We should remain composed and confident of our strategy."

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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