China’s repressive policy towards its Islamic fringe has badly backfired

There was no Islamic extremism in China until Beijing inadvertently created it, according to Nick Holdstock’s measured history of the Uighurs of Xinjiang

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State Nick Holdstock

I.B. Tauris, pp.288, £14.99, ISBN: 9781784531409

In October 2013, a jeep ploughed through a crowd of pedestrians on the edge of Tiananmen Square, crashed and burst into flames, killing five people. The authorities identified the driver as Uighur, a member of an Islamic ethnic minority hailing from China’s northwest region of Xinjiang. Six months later, eight knife-wielding Uighurs rampaged through a packed railway station in Kunming in southwest China, killing 29 people and wounding more than 140 others — an attack described by the national media as ‘China’s 9/11’.

Beijing blamed both attacks on radical Islamist organisations pursuing what it calls the ‘three evils’: terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. It claims terrorists are attempting to create an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang, directed by hostile foreign forces aligned with al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Since the World Trade Center attacks in New York in 2001, Beijing has explicitly linked its crackdown in Xinjiang to the US’s global war on terror, portraying China as a fellow ‘victim of international terrorism’. And it has used this to justify restrictions on Uighur culture and religion in the name of ‘security’.

In China’s Forgotten People, the Edinburgh-based writer Nick Holdstock sets out to ‘reveal truth from facts’ in Xinjiang, to appropriate one of the Communist Party’s pet phrases. Holdstock’s central contention is that there is little proof of either organised Islamic terrorism or widespread separatist agitation in Xinjiang, where he used to live. Instead, the spiralling violence witnessed over the past few years is itself a reaction to repressive government policies put in place to control ‘terrorism’ — a self-fulfilling prophecy that is, tragically, now inciting the real thing.

Holdstock starts with a concise history of Xinjiang, explaining how this vast expanse of desert, steppe and mountain in central Asia is actually a relatively new addition to the Chinese empire. Conquered by the Qing emperor Qianlong in the mid-18th century, it was not named ‘Xinjiang’ — ‘new territory’ in Chinese — until 1884. Foreigners referred exotically to ‘East Turkestan’, a name that would be revived by Uighur nationalists in the 1930s. No one viewed Xinjiang as an essential part of China until the 19th century, and it wasn’t until 1959 that Communist officials formulated the rigid line that Xinjiang ‘has since ancient times been an inseparable part of the motherland’.

Since then China’s leaders have encouraged Han Chinese to migrate to Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, as it is now formally but misleadingly known. They have funnelled vast sums into updating the transport network, industrialising agriculture and developing the oil and gas industries. But most of this wealth has flowed back to Beijing or into the pockets of Han Chinese immigrants, fuelling resentment among native Uighurs. Conflict has surged since vicious ethnic riots in 2009 killed 197 people and injured nearly 2,000. Last year’s reported body count — though no one knows the true figure — was around 400. Beijing’s response is to enforce ‘unity and stability’ with a heavy hand.

Holdstock explains the sad plight of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, recounting how the authorities have turned much of the region into a police state, raiding homes and banning symbols of religious devotion. But he is admirably even-handed, criticising Uighur activists for distorting history for political ends. He writes scathingly of the World Uighur Congress, a US-based activist group, which perpetuates ‘the same kind of misrepresentation as the government they oppose’. This meticulously researched book is anything but a crude exercise in China-bashing.

He also chastises foreign media for too readily linking unrest in Xinjiang to separatism or terrorism. Hundreds of protests happen across China every day, and most are not politically motivated. Why should Xinjiang be any different? Reporters have done a valiant job in raising awareness of Chinese state repression in Xinjiang, but they must beware unwittingly legitimising the government’s ‘terrorist’ narrative. References to the role of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — a shadowy organisation that Beijing dubiously accuses of masterminding terrorist attacks from abroad — only help the government’s cause.

So what to make of the Kunming knife attack, ‘China’s 9/11’? Holdstock admits that a small group of Uighurs deliberately targeted civilians for political ends. As such, it qualified as terrorism. But there is still no evidence that the ETIM or any other ‘terrorist’ organisation was responsible, or that the attack was fuelled by religious sentiment. An alternative explanation, he suggests, is that this was a desperate act of Uighur resistance against state repression. Since Beijing’s policy of control is supposed to ensure security, its attempt to fight ‘terrorism’ appears to be creating the very problem it is supposed to combat. And that should worry China’s leaders far more than an exaggerated threat from Islamist terrorists outside its borders.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £13.49 Tel: 08430 600033.

Tom Miller is the author of China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History.

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Show comments
  • Infidelissima

    Huh. Call me crazy, but I find it extremely difficult to feel sorry for a people who can’t not seem to live peace, anywhere in the world, with anybody, be it Sikh, Jewish, CHristian, Hindu, Buddhists, not even their own.

    Nice try, but I applaud Chinese policies when it comes to Islam. They’re neither stupid nor suicidal. Or do you think that Rotherham, Trojan Horse, Lee Rigby or 7/7 will ever happen in China?

    • sebastian2

      The Chinese may not always be admirable but they are not stupid. They will know as we are discovering that mohammedism is pretty well incompatible with everything including itself. This creed that seeks out jihad and celebrates it, is bound for confrontation, division and segregation; and if there’s one thing Beijing will not tolerate at any price it’s separatism – especially when sought by a rival ideology dressed up as a religion.

      Uighurs may have a range of grievances – in fact many Chinese citizens all across the country have them too. Uighurs are not alone in this. But mohammedism goes beyond grievance of these kinds and Beijing is aware of it. The problem, though, is that Beijing’s policy intended against mohammedan agitation is a very blunt instrument indeed: one that may alienate many more than it was designed to halt.

      That said there are two things Beijing’s policy could teach us. First, no appeasement at all for radical mohammedism working to overthrow us. We’ve tried that and got nowhere – or made matters worse. But second, in hitting one hard and eliminating it Chinese style, we should not harm those “muslims” who are perhaps only nominally so and just want reasonable trouble free lives. We don’t want through clumsiness, to turn them against us. Jihadists and their ideology are as much their enemies as they are ours. Let’s keep it that way.

      • Johnny Foreigner

        Hmm, a nice idea, but the only thing the state will come down hard on, is if any of the indigenous population, starts to form any type of grouping, with the intent of vocalising dissent or any sort of manifestation along the lines of direct action. The state will not only act decisively, but punitive prison sentences will start to be meted out.
        The state chite itself during the poll tax riots, the civil service especially. The prevention and containment of mass civil unrest, goes right back to the days of the French Revolution.

        • UncleTits

          As Peter Hitchens says, in his latest MoS blog entry, the police will react like any other State monopoly when its position is seen to be challenged – even if it refusing to do what it is actually paid to do.

          • Johnny Foreigner

            Quite right Uncle, the general public mongs, have latched on to the notion that the mythical ‘policing by public consent’ is a reality, but of course it’s total bull chite. These so called public servants are indeed just an enforcement agency of the state.
            I’ve also tried to explain on this site the fallacy, when referring to the banning of the general public from holding weapons for use in defence of themselves and their property. Which is the maxim trotted out and eaten up by the public is that it all done for the sake of public safety (again total bollox), but in reality it is the state over many years, preventing the public ,from having the ability to coalesce into a potentially effective insurrection against the aforementioned state.

  • Cim Thayne

    I think if anything the Chinese show quite admirably that the total crushing of Islamism in brutal and efficient fashion is quite effective at preventing violence. Consider that despite having many more Islamists than Europe in raw terms, there has been (the car attack notwithstanding) *nothing* on the scale of 9/11 or 7/7 in China’s main super-city hubs of Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong.

    We should consider a similar approach here. No mercy. Just the total destruction of any Islamist influence on British life- point blank. In a way, the British state, and its people, have a right to defend their way of life.

    • UncleTits

      I was going to offer “the British people and their State” in place of your “the British State, and its people” but, as things stand in this multicultural utopia, you are probably and sadly correct.

    • Melody Szabo

      WE want a peaceful respectful free society with minimal inequality corruption poverty and suffering (we’re not doing well here just now we have to come to grips with replacing Capitalism now that the OECD says it’s dead); THEY want a violent intimidated theocracy where, as news reports make abundantly clear, in muslim countries rape and murder and corruption and poverty and suffering are common place. Clearly, these two philosophies of life are incompatible. As such you cannot talk to them as equals. It is more like a rabbit talking to a cat, they are both capable of killing one another, but talking to a cat will get you no where.

  • Gilbert White

    Another do nothing and we will not have anything to be afraid of merchant. The journalistic taboo you cannot mention. The Chinese in the end will out breed them! The Hans have it. Last time I looked they were also tearing down the mud lined walls of the Uighur rabbit warren in old Kashi as an extra precaution.

  • Asmund Yngvar

    Didn’t the Chinese authorities recently arrest about a hundred Uyghurs who were on their way to fight for ISIL/Daesh? Anyway, I am sure that I read about the Chinese having a “Muslim” problem years ago – well before Beijing “started it” with repressive action against certain Uyghur elements.

    • Infidelissima

      who doesn’t have a ‘Muslim problem’, including muslims?

  • Usman Ali Khan Tahir

    The Chinese regime occupied the East Turkestan region and it has been under occupation since 1949. Brits wouldn’t know a damn thing about it coz the Brits themselves occupied and colonized half of the world in the past.
    The constant marginalization of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has long gone unnoticed. But the Islamophobes wouldn’t know a damn thing about it either.
    Do praise China a repressive state that mowed down its own students back in 1989 and crushes human right activists. Google ‘Lio Xiaobo’ and you`ll know what I mean.

    • Gilbert White

      Would not normally reply but British people have been travelling and observing the people and naturally history of this region for centuries.Many books are in our libraries. This was in the days when most muslims did not even consider these nomads as true muslims. Just because you have absorbed by what Naipaul calls mimicmanship idioms of our left and use the whiteman’s technology this does not mean you fully understand the world’s ills.

      • Johnny Foreigner

        Man, that was some left hook.

    • Infidelissima

      mu$$ies didn’t occupy anybody, they just got their 58 countries, with flowers, butterflies and unicorns, and not with wars, oppressing, ethnic cleansing, and bloodshed, non-stop for the past 1400 years, ey Abdul?

      or were 58 mu$$ies pits previously unoccupied, like you claim Israel to be?

      for a people who have (and still are) beheading their way through the world, country after country, you inbred mutant surely have galls talking about ‘occupation’.
      Europe feels ‘occupied’ by Islam today, so when are you all gonna phack off to you sh!!holes already and keep killing each other?

    • Johnny Foreigner

      It was less than a quarter, but don’t let facts get your way Usman. A bit of Chinese thinking on local politics enacted here, maybe needed in the not too distant future.

      • Infidelissima

        let’s bloody hope so

    • cartimandua

      Muslims in China were allowed to breed themselves into poverty and failure as they do across the world.
      China wasn’t repressive enough.

  • AverageGuyInTheStreet

    It must be the Chinese at fault here, everywhere else Islam raises its peaceful tolerant modern-thinking enlightened face things just tend to go just swimmingly.

    • WTF

      Yep, those darn Chinese causing Islamists to get antsy, who would have thought it !

  • cartimandua

    Even China was fooled into permitting Muslims more children than anyone else.
    Of course they grew up in poverty and with a sense of “unfairness”.

  • uberwest

    Yes, the Chinese should learn from us and allow the Uighurs to infest government, rape their children and decapitate Chinese soldiers on the streets of Beijing.