China's terrorism narrative emerges for June 26 incident


Yesterday, a “knife-wielding” mob attacked a police station, government offices, and a construction site in Lukqun township, Xinjiang. The mob killed nine security personnel and eight civilians before police gunfire killed ten of the assailants. In my commentary of the crisis, I may have spoken too soon. Comparing it to another violent clash in April 23 near Kashgar, I wrote, “April 23 was part of the terrorism narrative, whereas June 26 looks like it will need to find another narrative.” I was wrong.

As I described yesterday, the coverage of these violent incidents by the foreign media always comprise of summarizing the state media explanation and push back from the the Uyghur diaspora community. So after many reports in Western media began coming out summarizing state media accounts, the Uyghur American Association (UAA) urged the international community to be cautious about taking official accounts at face value. The UAA indicates in their press release that there might be “an information blackout in the area” and tension in the locality might stem from the killing of a seven-year-old Uyghur boy last month in a neighboring village.

While this cautionary narrative was being disseminated, the state media structure was also on the move. Photos of the scene that I linked to yesterday were taken down. A new narrative was in the works. Xinhuanet ran the headline “SCO defense chiefs vows to maintain regional peace, combat terrorism” after a one-day meeting of defense officials from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. There was nothing newsworthy about the meeting–formal approvals of cooperation plans for 2014-2015 and the usual reiteration of resolve to counteract separatism, extremism, and drug-trafficking. Though the June 26 incident is not mentioned, the SCO press release was so well-timed that it is hard to believe the two are unrelated.

Then another “coincidental” press release went live. The report describes an explosion in Ghorachol township in Awat county earlier this month. The story goes as follows. Police were conducting a house-to-house search (whether for this specific group of Uyghurs or with another objective remains unclear) and cornered this group of Uyghurs. Some groups members were arrested while others killed themselves by triggering explosive devices. Twelve of the Uyghurs were killed, five of whom were allegedly connected with the July 2009 clash in Urumqi, having been previously arrested but then released. This incident occurred “earlier this month,” but only became publicized now. Curious. I don’t mean to question the accuracy of this explosion report, merely to proffer it as an example of maneuvering to write a specific type of narrative for the June 26 incident.

Finally, the actual use of “terrorism” to describe June 26 began in state-controlled media. In the Global Times article “Riot kills 27 in Xinjiang,” the authors interview Li Wei, an anti-terrorism expert, who explained the reason for the violence in such a remote location with no history of violence as “terrorists sought to launch attacks in areas with relatively weak anti-terrorism measures.” A second interviewee, Pan Zhiping from the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, explains “that the attack was a bid by terrorists to show that they are ‘willing to do anything anywhere’ by starting chaos and panic in ‘peaceful’ eastern Xinjiang, and exhibited the logic of ‘jihad’.”

In a similar vein, this morning China Daily ran an opinion piece titled “United against terrorism,” where the author links the April 23 incident with June 26. The opinion piece reads, “The strikingly similar manner of the latest terrorist attack [June 26] tot he previous one [April 23] means it is difficult to see them as isolated incidents.” The author describes July 2009, April 23, and June 26 (perpetrated by “terrorists, separatists, and extremists”) as part of a larger metanarrative, a more sinister plan, “to sow the seeds of hatred and fear among local residents in order to facilitate their own selfish goals.” The piece concludes with a call for “[l]ocal people of different ethnic groups…to take a firm and untied stand to crush the sinful brutality of those who seek their own gains at the cost of harmonious coexistence.”

This concluding sentence sounds eerily like the party line I described yesterday. Han and Uyghurs should unite together against this looming terrorist threat. Such a motto underlines the premise: the violence is motivated by religious extremism and separatists rather than Han-Uyghur ethnic tensions. I say again, this security policy does not seem to be working and these violent incidents should promote self-reflection rather than a tightening grip.

So I was wrong. The June 26 incident will likely go the way of April 23. The Chinese government will add June 26 to its database of evidence of a terrorist threat that justifies its current security policies. Much like April 23, when jihadist materials emerged in connection to the violence, we can wait and see if evidence will surface for this “act of terror” on June 26.

 [This article was originally published at Registan  here]