Terror Attacks in China
IITM CSC Article #73
05 June 2014
Terror Attacks in China
On May 22, 2014, not less than 31 people died and 90 were injured in a terrorist attack in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The attack took place in an open market in Urumqi where a series of explosions were carried out by unknown assailants. This is considered to be one of the most severe terror attacks in China. However, this is just one of the many terror attacks China has been witnessing for the past few years. A surge in the number of terror strikes have been witnessed in the ongoing year. On April 30, 2014, an explosion was carried out at the Urumqi South Railway Station. In addition, attackers used knives to stab people at the station exit. The attack took place in the wake of the visit of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping to XUAR in April. During his visit, he pledged “to deploy a “strike-first approach against terrorists in the region”, and stated that the province’s long-term stability was “vital to the whole country's reform, development and stability.”
There have been similar attacks outside Xinjiang as well. On March 1, 2014, a group of eight assailants attacked passengers at Kunming’s city railway station with knives. This attack left 29 people dead and another 140 injured. While no group came forward to take the responsibility for the attack, Chinese investigating authorities held Uyghur separatist groups responsible for the attacks. This was not the only incident when Chinese officials blamed extremist groups in Xinjiang for the attacks; they maintained that groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which are involved in protesting against the government with the objective of gaining independence, are behind terror attacks in China.
It is pertinent to debate whether China is going to embark on its own ‘War on Terror’. Though the Chinese leadership is procative in tackling terrorism, its policy to curb terrorism has not yielded substantive results. For instance, China has been training Xinjiang police in gun use and combat training. China has stepped up police patrols and surveillance mechanisms in Xinjiang in order to effectively deal with the growing menace of terrorism. Despite such steps, however, China has achieved little success in preventing such attacks.
It is widely believed that the terrorist groups in China are a result of deep-rooted unrest in its ethnic minority areas. Ethnic tensions have their origins in economic inequality, regional disparity and resultant relative deprivation. The trajectory of China’s economic condition reveals that provinces that are demographically dominated by the ethnic minorities are less developed than those dominated by the Han community of China. This particularly holds true for Xinjiang. Since the time of incorporation of Xinjiang into the Chinese territory, ethnic population of the area is dissatisfied with the Chinese policies towards the region. Additionally, there is a huge discrepancy between China’s western and eastern regions. China’s eastern coastal regions are far more developed than Xinjiang and China’s other western provinces. With the initiation of its Western Development Programme and opening up of Xinjiang for trade with neighbouring countries, China has been quite successful in improving the economic condition of the region. In such a situation when Chinese leadership is endeavouring to improve the economic condition of the region, it wouldn’t be wrong to believe that separatism in Xinjiang is partly fuelled by foreign separatist forces. Amidst the rising incidents of terror attacks in China, the US has decided to pull-out from Afghanistan. A troubled Afghanistan, heavily affected by radical and fundamentalist forces, might worsen the ongoing frictions between ethnic communities on one hand and China on the other. This has been a major cause of concern for China. Chinese leadership fears that separatist groups in Xinjiang might take advantage of the security vacuum in Afghanistan. What is more worrying for China is the fact that its old-time friend and ally, Pakistan is also slipping into the hands of radical factions that are believed to be exporting jihad.
In this situation, what Beijing needs to address the concern of common people of Xinjiang and focus on the economic development of the region while stepping up its counter radicalisation operations in the country. Moreover, more freedom of religion and language should be given to the Uyghurs so to address the feeling of alienation among the minorities.
Associate Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.