Annual Mobilization in Xinjiang?

Much has happened since I documented the emergence of a terrorism narrative for the June 26 incident. State media raised the death toll from 27 to 35, 11 of which were killed by police response. Then another violent clash occurred in Hotan prefecture last Friday--another mob wielding knives attacked a police station, but this time there were no reported deaths. The Hotan event may not have been as surprising to the government because violence erupted in the area in July 2011, compared to the June 26 Turpan incident which occurred in a more remote village with no history of violence.

What is the significance of the two events occurring in close succession? There is a lot of sociological literature on “copycats” once news leaks out of a violent event. This risk management perspective is applied in U.S. school shootings. The media plays a critical role in whether such clashes will spread to other parts of a region. The state media in China wants to prevent similar copycat phenomena in Xinjiang. At the same time, the Chinese government must also have in mind the Arab Uprisings that had a domino effect in the region. Hence the information blackouts, applied to the June 26 incident, but to an even stricter degree to the recent Hotan clash, serve a tactical purpose.

Whether the two events can or will be linked by the Chinese government in a significant way is yet to be seen. The close proximity in time to the anniversary of the July 5, 2009 riots in Urumqi cannot be overlooked. Just as every year June 4 is a day of candlelight vigils in Hong Kong and Taipei and masked references on Sina Weibo, this spike in violence may portend annual acts of defiance to draw attention to the Uyghur plight. Ever since July 2009, Han-Uyghur relations have plummeted and this marks an all-time low.

How can the Chinese government get ahead of the violence? Yu Zhengsheng, the Standing Committee member overseeing religious and ethnic policies, believes that “high-pressure attacks” (read ramped up security measures) can “form a powerful deterrent.” Unfortunately, non-state actors are infamously difficult to deter. The United States has learned this full well in its “war on terror”. Assuming, from Yu’s perspective, that there is a terrorist threat in Xinjiang, these alleged terror cells are likely to be decentralized. Deterrence usually requires an organization that can choose to send or withdraw militants, order or stay its agents.

Yu might be thinking of a deterrent in terms of stricter laws keeping a populace in submission. Yet even heightened security will fail to deter those who are willing to attack a police station, who are knowingly risking their lives in doing so. This is even more true if we take the government’s perspective on an East Turkistan Islamic terror group (i.e., East Turkistan Islamic Movement), who have reason to believe their deaths means martyrdom. In either case, taking the government’s premises, deterrence is an ineffective policy.

The Chinese government admits that only a small number of Uyghurs are actually involved in terrorism (a statement that even some might dispute). Whether or not this is the case, the Chinese government must recognize the way its security policies are alienating the wider population for the sake of a few alleged terror cells. Beijing should look at the broader picture.

One way forward (not the only one of course) is to explore the possibility of allowing locals to let off steam through peaceful demonstrations. July 2009 is not as sensitive as June 4 and does not stand as an existential threat the CCP’s political structure. Gradual degrees of political reform have happened at the grassroot levels throughout rural China. The central government claims that it is desirous of Han-Uyghur harmony, which is in reality eroded by economic disparity and unequal opportunity. If we take the central government at its word, then there is a serious principal-agent problem. Top-down strategies through Beijing’s oversight must be complemented by bottom-up strategies to provide substantive accountability when it comes to government policies. Of course the effectiveness of this strategy depends on how responsive the government is to local demands. If peaceful demonstrations and other avenues of feedback to the government are coupled with responsive policies, violence may become less attractive.

The ratcheting up of violence as July 5 draws near can potentially set a precedent for using this anniversary as a day for widespread mobilization to press the government to recognize the deleterious effects of its policies in the region. The Chinese government should address this issue while it still has time. By allowing locals to voice their concerns and being responsive to them, the government might ameliorate its deteriorating legitimacy in Xinjiang.

This was originally published at Registan here.