According to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) history books, Sheng Shicai was an opportunistic warlord who relied on Soviet support to rule Xinjiang for more than a decade after 1933.
But when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union in 1941, Sheng switched allegiance to the Kuomintang (KMT), executing many of the Communists he had previously befriended in 1943 – including Mao Zedong’s younger brother Mao Zemin.
The KMT’s grip in Xinjiang was short-lived. Discontented Uighurs staged violent uprisings against their Han Chinese rulers in three northern districts of Xinjiang and the East Turkestan Republic was briefly declared.
Because the rebellion weakened the KMT, the CPC initially endorsed the uprisings as the “Three Districts Revolution” that helped to liberate the province. In 1949 the CPC even invited five of the Uighur leaders of the uprisings to discuss Xinjiang’s political setup in Beijing. All five were killed in a plane crash before they could arrive in the new Chinese capital. Soon after that more than 100,000 PLA soldiers (and 40,000 women) were sent to Xinjiang and settled as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. The CPC’s rule in Xinjiang was secured.
But ethnic tension in Xinjiang is resurfacing once more. Last month, five men in two jeeps drove through security barriers at a market in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi. They mowed down shoppers in their path and lobbed explosives into the crowd. Four weeks earlier at a nearby railway station, two men detonated bombs and used knives to kill three passersby and injure more than 70. The killings came only a few days after a visit from Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Violence has spread to other Chinese cities. On May 6, an assailant stabbed six people at a railway station in Guangzhou. On March 1, a dozen people dressed in black went on a killing spree at a railway station in Kunming, murdering 29 and wounding more than 140. In October last year a family from Xinjiang drove another jeep full of explosives into a crowd at Beijing’s Forbidden City.
The authorities have blamed Uighur terrorists, creating a new sense of insecurity in many cities. For instance, there was a stampede in a Shenzhen mall last week when a man accidentally pushed over a shopping shelf. Fellow customers panicked, thinking it was a terrorist attack. The Nanfang Daily said that high schools in the city are also holding drills on “anti-terrorism self protection”.
“In contrast to past episodes of low-level violence in Xinjiang, which have been characterised by low technology and opportunistic attacks on representatives of the state… the current spate of violence is clearly designed to be indiscriminate and mass impact in nature,” Michael Clarke, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith Asia Institute told the BBC.
Because of the killings at transport hubs, local tourism is being hampered. Xinjiang is suffering most of all. More than five million domestic tourists visited last year but arrivals have dropped 40% compared with the same period last year, says China Radio International.
In an effort to boost visitor numbers the Xinjiang government is even planning to offer Rmb500 ($80) vouchers to tourists visiting the autonomous region.
Beijing’s response to the violence has been characteristically hardline, with the Ministry of Public Security promising “a year-long nationwide anti-terror operation”. Xinjiang’s Party chief Zhang Chunxian has also called for a “people’s war” against extremism. Last week 55 people were convicted en masse for acts of terrorism and separatism. Unusually, spectators were allowed to witness the sentencing at a sport stadium in Yili near China’s border with Kazakhstan. Three of the defendants now face the death penalty.
The central government is also trying to address economic grievances in the region, knowing that they have fanned anti-Beijing sentiment among the Uighurs. While the country’s western-most region has been a recipient of significant investment, there is a growing realisation that Han Chinese residents may have benefited most. But Beijing wants wealth to be distributed more evenly among different ethnicities, especially in the poorer southern region. The ruling Politburo announced last week that “creating jobs for local people will be put on the top of the agenda” and nearly 300 projects will start in southern Xinjiang to create 45,000 jobs, it said. Moreover, 25% of new hiring by state firms must now be set aside for residents who aren’t Han Chinese.
Anticipating a massive investment spree and potentially huge policy subsidies, shares of listed companies known to have major Xinjiang operations have been reporting gains, says China Securities Journal.
The security drive has been massive too. Beijing News reports that in the capital alone 850,000 civilian volunteers are now patrolling public areas. Another 100,000 will help with intelligence collection and anyone who provides important information will get a Rmb40,000 reward. (In Xinjiang residents will be paid Rmb500 for each gun turned in; Rmb10,000 for any tip that leads to the recovery of larger amounts of weapons; and Rmb30,000 for intelligence that foils bombing plots.)
The effort to stamp out the violence may help Xi to consolidate his authority further. He chairs the National Security Commission, which was set up last year. Likewise, his “new Silk Road” plan will probably advance more quickly. He first floated the idea during a visit to Kazakhstan last September, aiming to narrow regional disparities between China’s east and west, while also encouraging closer ties with neighbours such as Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan via Xinjiang.
Meanwhile an ancient Chinese idiom has been used in support of the security measures, marking their consecration as key policy initiatives. In this case Xi has told security forces to employ “nets spread from heaven to earth” – an expression that derives from Laozi’s “Tian wang hui hui, shu er bu lou”.
What Xi means is that there must be no way for perpetrators of violence to escape.
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