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181 Terrorist Groups

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Last week China claimed it had arrested 181 terrorist groups in Xinjiang over the past year. Mass arrests, wide spread surveillance and an increased military presence have targeted ‘religious extremism’; some Xinjiang terrorist groups have been said to have links to Isis. The crackdown followed a number of violent incidents including bombings and knife attacks. According to one estimate, 72 people were killed in less than eight months. At the start of the campaign last year, President Xi Jinping said that terrorists must be made to ‘become like rats scurrying across a street, with everybody shouting “beat them!”’

It remains unclear who is responsible for much of the violence in Xinjiang. The government regularly blames organisations like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or the Turkestan Islamic Party, but it’s doubtful whether such groups exist in any functional capacity. No details or evidence have been produced to support the latest glowing progress report; as with previous claims, the numbers seem both arbitrary and inflated. Like many countries’, China’s definition of terrorism is elastic enough to allow all kinds of criminal act to be classified under the heading: in the past crop burnings and robberies have been labelled ‘terrorism’. Unsurprisingly, the regime won’t admit that the violence in Xinjiang over the last few years may have its roots in economic, social and cultural discrimination against Uighurs.

It’s routine for the Chinese authorities to trumpet the success of their policy initiatives. In this case, the aim is to reassure the growing population of Han Chinese settlers in Xinjiang that the situation there is stable. The regional authorities in Xinjiang are far more sympathetic to settlers’ concerns than those of the local Uighur population. After the riots in Urumqi in 2009, which officially led to more than 200 deaths, several large protests by Han Chinese in Urumqi were treated with remarkable leniency, even though some of the protesters singled out Wang Lequan, the regional party secretary at the time, for vilification and even death threats.

Previous crackdowns in Xinjiang (known as ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns) have had only a temporary effect, and been counterproductive in the long run: many of the recent clashes around Kashgar and Hotan, in southern Xinjiang, appear to have been sparked by the detention of young Uighur men for their involvement in ‘illegal religious activities’. As elsewhere in China, people can only worship in officially approved venues; students and state employees (including teachers and doctors as well as party officials) are forbidden from attending a mosque or observing Ramadan.

Prominent voices in China are calling for a reassessment of economic policy in Xinjiang. But China’s new draft security law suggests that Xi Jinping’s administration is committed to criminalising dissent, even the moderate criticism offered by the Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who was jailed for life last September for ‘separatism’. Until Uighur communities in Xinjiang are given equal access to employment and education, and allowed the freedom of religious expression guaranteed by China’s constitution, the cycle of resentment, violence and repression will continue.

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