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Separatism, Splittism, Terrorism, Activism: What’s in a name in China’s ‘War on Terror’?

Separatism, Splittism, Terrorism, Activism: What’s in a name in China’s ‘War on Terror’?

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Published by Alia Lamaadar
The following paper addresses China’s approach to terrorism, specifically outlining how China’s position has changed after it’s involvement in the global war on terror. Beginning with a brief examination of the history and strategic importance of the Xinjiang region, this paper proceeds to describe China’s initial treatment of unrest as isolated crimes of separatism and splittism. This approach is contrasted starkly with China’s behaviour following the watershed event of 9-11, when it seized the opportunity to rally international support for its suppression of unrest in Xinjiang, deflect human rights criticisms, and counter U.S. influence in the region. China’s subsequent approach has been to broaden the definition of terrorism, exaggerate the threat that it poses, and violently confront opposition. Martin Wayne (2007) has recently suggested that China’s efforts have successfully kept the global jihad from spreading into its territory. As this paper counters, the lack of popular support for anti-government violence in Xinjiang is predicated not on China’s violent suppression, but rather on the moderate economic, social and political gains made in Xinjiang in the last 30 years. Consequently, unless China renews its efforts to address the valid social and political concerns in the region, viewing dissent as activism rather than terrorism, violence will invariably erupt in Xinjiang again.
The following paper addresses China’s approach to terrorism, specifically outlining how China’s position has changed after it’s involvement in the global war on terror. Beginning with a brief examination of the history and strategic importance of the Xinjiang region, this paper proceeds to describe China’s initial treatment of unrest as isolated crimes of separatism and splittism. This approach is contrasted starkly with China’s behaviour following the watershed event of 9-11, when it seized the opportunity to rally international support for its suppression of unrest in Xinjiang, deflect human rights criticisms, and counter U.S. influence in the region. China’s subsequent approach has been to broaden the definition of terrorism, exaggerate the threat that it poses, and violently confront opposition. Martin Wayne (2007) has recently suggested that China’s efforts have successfully kept the global jihad from spreading into its territory. As this paper counters, the lack of popular support for anti-government violence in Xinjiang is predicated not on China’s violent suppression, but rather on the moderate economic, social and political gains made in Xinjiang in the last 30 years. Consequently, unless China renews its efforts to address the valid social and political concerns in the region, viewing dissent as activism rather than terrorism, violence will invariably erupt in Xinjiang again.

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Published by: Alia Lamaadar on Dec 28, 2008
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05/09/2014

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Separatism, Splittism, Terrorism, Activism: What’s in a name in China’s ‘War onTerror’?
 
[China] also opposes unrestrained expansion of anti-terror war, believing that terrorism will not be eliminated by military means alone, but by consorted political, economic, cultural and diplomatic efforts.
(Guang 2004: 527)
Intro
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks upon the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the worldhas witnessed and cast measure upon the American response to terrorism and its efficacy. Thesame can be said of many large democratic states, whose actions remain heavily scrutinized.Less frequently mentioned or considered is China’s involvement in the International War onterror. Such an endeavour is no easy task considering China’s opaque political system,authoritarian control of the media, and often obscure leadership intentions. ‘That China is solarge and complex that one can look there for proof of any thesis, and find it, complicates thesituation’ (Johnson-Freese 2003: 52). To some, China’s support of the U.S.-led war on terror seemed to contradict its declared avoidance of state alliances, and jeopardise its obstinate position on protecting state sovereignty at all costs. Conversely, other analysts (Lai 2003)suggest that by aligning with the US after September 11, China has instead sought to strengthenits sovereignty and national unity by justifying its suppression of separatist movements in the North Western Xinjiang region (131). While China has a long history of often violent statecontrol and equating independent religious activities and political dissent with the statutory crimeof “separatism” (or more accurately translated, “splittism”), it wasn’t until it joined the war onterror that it unequivocally linked all dissenting voices in Xinjiang with terrorism. China nowdescribes this once understated and secretive issue as an integral facet of the international war onterror. Despite a lack of media exposure in the West the “Xinjiang Problem” takes high precedence in China, and a recent internal security report concluded that ‘the independencemovement in Xinjiang is the main threat to China’s stability, ranking concern over this aboveTibet and unemployed workers’(Hyer 2006: 81). With an estimated one million troops stationedin Xinjiang (
ibid 
), and no immediate external threat, their presence indicates the significance of ethnic unrest to China, and warns of the magnitude of violence that threatens the region.The following paper addresses China’s approach to terrorism, specifically outlining how China’s position has changed after it’s involvement in the global war on terror. Beginning with a brief examination of the history and strategic importance of the Xinjiang region, this paper proceeds todescribe China’s initial treatment of unrest as isolated crimes of separatism and splittism. Thisapproach is contrasted starkly with China’s behaviour following the watershed event of 9-11,when it seized the opportunity to rally international support for its suppression of unrest inXinjiang, deflect human rights criticisms, and counter U.S. influence in the region. China’ssubsequent approach has been to broaden the definition of terrorism, exaggerate the threat that it poses, and violently confront opposition. Martin Wayne (2007) has recently suggested thatChina’s efforts have successfully kept the global jihad from spreading into its territory. As this paper counters, the lack of popular support for anti-government violence in Xinjiang is predicated not on China’s violent suppression, but rather on the moderate economic, social and political gains made in Xinjiang in the last 30 years. Consequently, unless China renews itsefforts to address the valid social and political concerns in the region, viewing dissent as activismrather than terrorism, violence will invariably erupt in Xinjiang again.
History
1
 
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as it is officially known to the Chinese, or as Uyghur nationalists call it “Uyghuristan” or “East Turkistan”
2
, is a vast region that occupies a sixth of China in the North West
3
. Despite its immense size, Xinjiang contains great expanses of inhospitable dessert and mountains and as a result holds little more than 1 percent of China’s population, of which over sixty percent of Xinjiang’s eighteen million citizens are Muslims
4
.Under the Chinese Communists, Muslims were divided among ten official nationalities, with theUyghur 
5
comprising an ethnic majority in Xinjiang (Gladney 2005a). Despite the Uyghur majority, migration of Han Chinese started in the 1950s when the army sent troops to occupyXinjiang, and has increased at a rapid pace as China has sought to develop the region. The Han population of Xinjiang has risen from nearly zero in 1950 to more than 40% of the current population (Forney 2002). Despite coexisting, the Han and the Uyghurs share very fewdemographic similarities, as the Han speak Putonghua (Mandarin) rather than Uyghur, and enjoyhigher levels of economic development, employment and literacy rates.
6
Certainly, the rapidgrowth of the Han has contributed to ethnic tensions in the region, especially amid Uyghur nationalist accusations that this growth has come at their expense.From China’s perspective, the stability of Xinjiang is a high priority based on the strategic andeconomic value of the area
7
. Xinjiang is viewed as an important area to absorb high populationgrowth from the Central and Coastal regions, and it is additionally home to several major nuclear testing facilities, due to rich reserves of uranium and copper. Also invaluable, is Xinjiang’s linksto Central Asia,
8
as it has the only major road to these countries. China ‘desperately want[s] tomaintain hold of Xinjiang, fearing its loss would incite the [Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP)]collapse and possibly the secession of Taiwan and Tibet’ (Dwyer 2005: 89). Despite China’sambition of unity, Xinjiang has a history of independence movements and since the mid-nineteenth century, there have been three rebellions that resulted in independent Uyghur states
9
.Following the turmoil and austerity of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s was a period of liberalized cultural and political freedoms for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang
10
(Dwyer 2005: 4).However, by the mid-1990s, China began to credit several isolated incidents of unrest inXinjiang, as well as rising overt displays of Islam to the lax cultural and political freedoms of the1980s. This initiated a wave of political and cultural crackdowns accompanied by ‘largely covertshifts in language and cultural policy aimed at further sinicizing the region’ (Dwyer 2005: 5).
Pre-9/11: Separatism/Splittism
China has been wary of ‘splittism’ since the 1950s, continually suggesting that it poses thegreatest threat to national security (Dwyer 2005: 54). While the precise extent of the unrest inXinjiang is obscured by unreliable and manipulated CCP data, internal official Chinese sourcessuggest that violent acts related to Xinjiang separatist movements numbered in the thousands inthe 1990s and that ‘[i]n 1998 alone, more than seventy serious incidents occurred, causing morethan 380 deaths(Lai 2003: 126). In response to this unrest the Chinese governmentimplemented the ‘Strike Hard! Maximum Pressure!’ Campaign, aimed at eradicating the ‘threeevils’ of separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism, although as Dwyer (2005) has noted, thecampaign was primarily concerned with “splittists” rather than religious terrorists (54). As thename indicates, the campaign did indeed ‘Strike Hard,’ subjecting Uyghurs who expressed anygovernment dissent to rapid, secretive, and summary trials, where the imposition of the death penalty was common. Vicziany (2003) has reported that Uyghurs executed for separatism was upto six times greater than their proportion of China’s population in the late 1990s (246). Inaddition to the covert policies which stifled cultural, religious and political freedoms for the

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