Insurgency high in Xinjiang

It’s not really “China’s Chechnya” yet, but the insurgency in Xinjiang is growing fast.

Since March, 176 people have been killed in six separate attacks on Chinese police, government officials and ordinary Chinese residents of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, and the authorities don’t have a clue what to do about it.

The Uighur attackers have mostly used knives or explosives in their attacks, but nobody has suggested that they are so technologically backward that their bombs come with long, trailing fuses that have to be lit by hand.

Yet Chinese police in Xinjiang last month seized tens of thousands of boxes of matches.

The Uighurs are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, and the official Chinese line blames the separatist violence on foreign Islamists who are stirring up the local people.

The separatists themselves say that it is a legitimate response to the Chinese government’s policy of flooding Xinjiang with Han Chinese immigrants in an attempt to change the territory’s demographic balance.

At least they’ve got the matches under control.

The truth is more complicated.

In the early 19th century a census reported Xinjiang’s population as 30 percent Han Chinese (almost all living north of the Tian Shan mountains) and 60 percent Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslim farmers who accounted for almost the entire population south of the mountains.

Now the Chinese are  40 percent of Xinkiang’s population, while the 10 million Uighurs are down to 45 percent.

It’s not that huge a change, and Han Chinese people are not newcomers to Xinjiang.

Nor is it necessarily true that the Chinese government is encouraging Han immigration in order to reduce the Uighurs to a marginal minority.

Chinese officials themselves say that they are trying to raise local living standards, with the (unstated) goal of making people so prosperous and content that they will not even think of “betraying the motherland” by seeking independence.

That may be true, but a developed economy requires job skills that are not plentiful among the Uighurs, so large numbers of Han Chinese are drawn in to do those jobs.

Add in all the resentment about the brutal assaults on the Uighurs’ culture and religion that happened during the Cultural Revolution, and continue in a minor key even today. And now there is also a radical Islamist ideology available, for those who are thinking about rebellion.

It will probably never be as bad as Chechnya, and it is very unlikely that Xinkiang will ever be independent, but it may be a long and ugly counter-insurgency war, with many deaths.

At least they’ve got the matches under control.

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