A link from NPR for those who haven’t heard much about it.
Last Saturday, at least 29 Chinese were killed in a knife attack at a railway station in southwestern China. Unfortunately, reporting of this incident has been mediocre at best in the United States. Generally, the perspective has been that it was the work of a few nuts, and every now and then, one sees on Twitter how this news shows the importance of having a society with guns, as somehow one man with a pistol could have stopped over ten men with knives. The point is not a debate on gun rights – rather, it is on the lack of discussion in the West about terrorism in China. For this attack was not just some lone nut, nor is it a demonstration one way or the other on gun rights. It was a terrorist attack by Islamic extremists, and yet unlike other terrorist attacks in other Western countries such as the Madrid and London bombings, there has been little reporting. And this has not been the only incident of Muslim terrorism in China – five months ago, a group of Muslim terrorists crashed a car into Tinanmen Square before setting it on fire, killing 2 people and injuring over 40.
The general problem with Islamism in China comes from the Xinjiang region, which is in the northwest region of China and borders Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This is not like say, Crimea ( which has just totally not been invaded by Russia, who have issued an order for Ukranian forces to clear out of the region. Honest.) which has a slightly better record of disputes of whether it is Russian or Ukranian or whatever. Xinjiang was part of the Tang Dynasty which ruled China over a thousand years ago. Xinjiang is populated by Muslim Uyghurs, but it has almost always been that way, and Han ethnic Chinese have lived alongside the Uyghurs for hundreds of years. So what is the cause of this new found problem?
Certainly, the global rise of Islamic extremism has played a huge role in the rise of conflict between the Han and Uyghur peoples, but ethnic separatism is just as much of a factor as religious conflict. There is a substantial, though highly disorganized Uyghur movement who seek separatism , and honestly the Uyghur should serve as yet another example of my concerns of the rising threat of self-determination. What does separatism mean? Does it mean independence, or economic autonomy? Well, as I said, the movement is highly disorganized. Much of the problems from the self-determination however are due to Chinese policies as much as they are about terror. I am not talking about Chinese repression of the Uyghur people like one would instantly assume from the previous sentence – far from it. But while China has implemented policies designed to ensure that the Uyghurs are not completely marginalized like affirmative action and less stringent policies on birth control compared to Han Chinese, many of these policies have resulted in the classic “good intention bad results” scenario.
Take the affirmative action program. Just like being black or Hispanic is an automatic boon for one attempting to enter a top-tier American university, so the same applies with being an Uyghur in China. However, China’s best universities are located in the coastal regions where the majority of the populace lives, which means that those Uyghurs who are intelligent enough to make it into said universities depart for the coastal regions – and many have little interest in returning to their poorer homeland of Xinjiang. The result is that Uyghur who are left behind are less educated and more radical about ethnic and nationalist ideals. But these less educated Uyghurs still get into key local government posts, which thus creates conflict between the educated Han who could not get into the university and the less educated Uyghur, many of whom are willing to promote Islamic extremism.
What is to be done about such policies? I admittedly am not in a real position to make recommendations, as to shunt Uyghurs out of the top Chinese universities would clearly create more problems than it would solve. But the point is that the West must realize that there is a terrorism problem in China, partly fostered by Islamism but just as much by standard ethnic conflict similar to that of the Troubles, and must not assume that either Chinese autocracy or Islamic extremism means that either Uyghur or Han are right or wrong. This is a fundamental problem in American thinking in general.