In recent weeks, China has seen a sudden escalation in separatist activity from rebels in the north-west province of Xinjiang. In February, a group of police were attacked by a group wielding gas cylinder bombs. Now, over the weekend, we have seen a considerably more deadly attack in the main train station of Kunming, the capital of the southern Yunnan province. Over 30 people were killed and more than 100 others injured in a clearly coordinated attack by a group of men with knives. Four of the attackers were shot dead on the scene by Chinese police, and it is reported that the other four have since been captured.
The attack is already being slotted into the narrative of Muslim terrorists, which suits both the western belief that all Muslims are violent extremists, and the Chinese need to justify repression in Xinjiang. In truth, however, the idea that Xinjiang is being infiltrated by Al Qaeda or other outside groups that want to stir up religious extremism seems highly unlikely. The attacks in China are much more likely to be related to a longstanding desire for independence, or at least greater autonomy, for the Uygher people of Xinjiang, along with a feeling that the Chinese are exploiting the province in a colonial and potentially racist manner. After all, apart from the latest attack, most of the unrest in Xinjiang has been very similar to the riots and resistance that has sporadically appeared in Tibet over the past five years – and no-one would suggest that the Tibetans are Muslim extremists.
Ultimately, the minority populations of China are becoming increasingly suspicious of the mainstream Chinese narrative of the Zhonghua Minzu – a phrase that roughly suggests that there are many ethnic nations within China (minzu), but that they are all ultimately part of the same family, the family of the Chinese state (Zhonghua). Under this narrative, the ethnic Han Chinese who run the country from Beijing are freeing minority provinces like Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia from feudalism, and bringing economic development and prosperity to the people.
This may have seemed plausible initially, as China opened up a railway to Tibet and started to explore for oil and other valuable resources in Xinjiang. But as time has gone on, it is becoming increasingly clear to the minority minzu that the economic benefits are intended to be channelled directly and almost exclusively to the Han. The Uyghers, like the Tibetans, continue to live in poverty and are beginning to find themselves marginalized in their own land – the Han population in both provinces is now larger than the native population, and the local languages are becoming increasingly hard to hear or see on the streets as Chinese becomes the de facto language for daily business.
China is not going to grant Xinjiang or Tibet independence any time soon – as far as they are concerned, these areas are an inherent part of the Chinese state and always have been. Those of us in the west who disagree with this can do nothing to change it. However, we should be encouraging China to treat the local population with considerably more respect. If China is going to stop separatist attacks like the one in Kunming, they do not need to join the global ‘war on terror’ – they merely need to start finding a way to spread the benefits of economic development more evenly and to protect the culture, society, and language of their minority minzu. By living up to their own idea of a pluralistic nation, they will find that the unrest in the west will be considerably quietened down.