35 People Dead in Chinese Mass-Murder: What Happened?

Why the attack took place -- and why Beijing is trying to blame it wrongly on foreigners and terrorists.
xinjiang.jpgArmed paramilitary policemen run in formation during a gathering to mobilize security operations in Urumqi, Xinjiang. (Kyodo/Reuters)

China's westernmost province, Xinjiang (technically an "autonomous region"), seldom appears in the Western media without the word "volatile" or "restive" attached to it, and for good reason: the massive region has seen more than its fair share of violence. This unhappy history continued last Wednesday with the armed attack of government buildings in the city of Lukqun, an incident that claimed the lives of at least 35 people. According to the Xinjiang provincial government, a 17-member "terrorist cell" organized attacks on the local police station and other nearby buildings in retaliation for the capture of one of its members. The supposed leader of the cell was a Uighur man named Aihemeitiniyazi Sidike, who had formed the group in January and had, sometime in June, begun to prepare an attack.

The incident in Lukqun appears to be the latest chapter in the long-running tension between China's dominant Han majority and the Uighur, a ethnic minority group native to Xinjiang who comprise 45 percent of the province's population. Uighurs and Han have clashed repeatedly over the years, and just four years ago fighting between the two resulted in the death of almost 200 people. Yet the Chinese media, in its coverage of the Lukqun incident, makes no mention of this ethnic tension. Instead, Xinhua has blamed "separatists in and outside the country" and "a few criminals" whose "anti-human nature" has made them "the common enemy of all ethnic groups." The Global Times, meanwhile, explained that members of a "East Turkestan faction" had recruited Uighurs fighting in Syria to return to Xinjiang in order to carry out attacks. When the U.S. government chimed in, calling for a transparent inquiry into religious tensions in Xinjiang, the Chinese state media dug its heels, even accusing Washington of "encouraging" terrorism in the province. 

Could the Chinese state media be right -- is violence in Xinjiang the result of a few bad apples and nefarious foreign terrorists? There is an organization called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which both the Chinese and American governments claim has ties to al-Qaeda and which, according to Beijing, has been responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in China over the past 15 years. However, ETIM is estimated to have fewer than 100 members and little external support, and no evidence links the group with any of the recent Xinjiang violence. In addition, few Uighurs are able to leave the country, much less travel to Turkey or Syria -- assuming those individuals have fomented much violence is likewise a stretch.

If evidence of foreign meddling in the Xinjiang violence is so thin, why does the Chinese government continue to promote it? Why doesn't the state media simply acknowledge that ethnic tension in Xinjiang exists, and that they're working on resolving it?

First, acknowledging ethnic tension is to say that the "harmonious society," one of Hu Jintao's principal governing philosophies, is little more than an empty slogan. China's policy of blaming domestic instability on external forces also applies to its handling of Tibet, where uprisings are usually attributed to the Dalai Lama, even though he hasn't lived in China in over half a century. This strategy -- by no means exclusive to China -- preserves the illusion that all of the country's internal violence has an external origin.

Secondly, saying that Uighurs have a legitimate grievance would force Beijing to actually do something about it. Will this change? Russell Leigh Moses, in the Wall Street Journal, argues that the Xi Jinping administration is taking a softer approach to Xinjiang, but Beijing still lacks any kind of strategy for alleviating the root causes of the violence.  Blaming ethnic violence on external forces may be good public relations, but if Beijing actually believes in it there's no reason to expect the violence will end.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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