Beginning with the Tiananmen Square incident on 28th October 2013, the Xinjiang Province in China has been witness to a number of recent attacks where many lives have ended and many questions have been raised such as: ‘Who is carrying out these attacks?’ and ‘Why are the attacks happening in the first place?’

To understand these events and the motives behind them it is important to recognise the location in which they are taking place. Xinjiang is in the North West of China and is the largest of all the Chinese provinces. Xinjiang borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The province is home to many numbers of ethnic groups the largest being the Uyghur people followed by the Han Chinese. These two ethnic groups have not always seen eye to eye, mainly due to the majority of the Uyghur population seeking autonomy from the rest of China and the Han supporting the Chinese state in their attempt to modernise the region.

The Xinjiang province is of particular importance to China as it shares boarders with eight different countries, giving the province a particular geopolitical significance. In some parts Xinjiang’s boarders have been militarised, namely the Afghanistan and Pakistan boarders. As western forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan and the surrounding area, Xinjiang’s boarders have been secured as a precaution. It is believed that if radical separatists joined with terrorist insurgents from Pakistan and Afghanistan then China could be facing a cross-border conflict that it would rather avoid.

The response from Chinese leadership has not only been increased boarder control but also a strict crackdown on perceived separatism and other activities that they believe might inspire such ideology. The crackdown has introduced religious restrictions for those practicing Islam, which happens to be the religion of the Uyghur people, who make up almost half the population in China’s largest province, and have been seeking greater autonomy for many years. So to stop the spread of terrorism, the leadership has decided to alienate a population, restrict their rights, and give them a reason to resent authority. I think the phrase ‘playing with fire’ would probably be an understatement in this context.

Vice News correspondent Jordan Larson, reminded us in his article ‘Strike Out! Police in China Are Rounding Up and Destroying Matches’ that restrictions on the Uyghur are nothing new. ‘Informants are paid to point out women wearing the hijab and men sporting long beards, Islamic education for children is banned, and children are prohibited from entering mosques during Ramadan. The government also recently banned civil servants and students in the region from fasting for Ramadan.’

To add to the controversy on 25th June 2009 around 100 Uyghur were killed over accusations that two Han women had been raped by six Uyghur men; there was no evidence to support this claim. Ten days later on the 5th July 2009 Uyghur protesters were ‘massacred’ by Chinese authorities, the authorities claimed that 46 Uyghur were killed, however, eyewitnesses claimed the death toll was closer to 1000. On top of all this, demolition in the old city of Kashgar has been approved by local (Chinese) authorities. Around 50,000 Uyghurs will be displaced and moved to new apartment blocks. This is in the name of earthquake protection, which would be an understandable reason to advise people to leave their homes but it appears as though the national leadership has an ulterior motive, one that seeks greater control over cultural practices by replacing the Uyghur’s traditional way of life with the consumer culture of modern China.

Xei Tao – a political science professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University – believes that the Chinese government must rethink its approach to domestic terrorism: ‘The US did the same thing, and something probably even more stupid . . . look at Guantanamo bay, look at US invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq.’ China likes to keep its national and international policy regarding many things particularly close to its chest, and there aren’t many ways to know what they will do in the future to suppress any potency behind domestic extremism.

In a recent article by Tom Philips at the Telegraph, Chinese officials declared a ‘people’s war’ on terrorism and have begun a PR campaign to possibly avoid criticism from foreign observers. They intend to increase security measures in an attempt to regain the confidence of the Han population, but heightening suspicion is likely to further alienate the Uyghur population. In their attempts to secure China from the influence of external terrorism they have bullied, intimidated, and marginalised an ethnic group that makes up almost half the population of their largest province. The discrimination and cultural control have resulted in provoking the Uyghur population and possibly radicalising a small percentage of them.

The Chinese leadership must come to understand that their current approach to domestic terrorism is likely to escalate into a long drawn out struggle that will result in more suffering and possibly increased support for the separatist movement in Xinjiang.

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