22 March 2019
Mourners pray at the scene of the May 1 terror attack at a train station in Kunming. Photo: AFP
Mourners pray at the scene of the May 1 terror attack at a train station in Kunming. Photo: AFP

Violent attacks leave Uyghurs increasingly marginalized

Alidi is a 29-year-old graduate of the Xinjiang Arts College who performed traditional music at venues all over China and earned nearly 10,000 yuan a month. Since the attack in Kunming railway station on March 1 which left 33 dead, no one is willing to hire him.

Imir runs a Xinjiang restaurant in the Uyghur district of Guangzhou, 5 kilometers from the railway station, where six people were injured in knife attacks on May 6. Since then, a police van has been parked outside his restaurant and there are virtually no customers.

Alidi and Imir are two of the thousands of Uyghurs living outside their home region who are suffering “the collateral damage” of a series of violent attacks that began on October 28 last year when a car driven by three Uyghurs crashed into a gate in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

The East Turkestan Islamic Movement claimed responsibility for the attack and promised more. They have delivered on this threat – in the railway stations of Kunming, Urumqi and Guangzhou.

The Beijing attack was a milestone in China’s modern history. For the first time, an Uyghur group challenging the government with violence was able to launch an attack outside Xinjiang. Its members are ready to die, which makes defense against such attacks very difficult, as governments around the world have learned.

In response, the Beijing police on May 12 deployed 150 armed patrol vehicles, with 13 heavily armed officers, on the city’s streets. Each will cover an area of no more than 3 kilometers, with the aim of reaching the scene of a violent attack within three minutes.

As the national capital and the city with the highest concentration of domestic and foreign media, Beijing is a high-profile target. The Irish Republican Army used to say that an attack in London was worth 30 in Ireland.

In this vicious spiral, the thousands of Uyghurs who live outside Xinjiang are among the main victims. Unable to find employment at home, they moved to cities in the east and south and run shops, restaurants and street stalls, work in factories and do trading.

After each attack, their situation worsens. Landlords are unwilling to rent apartments to them, employers to hire them and Han people to do business in their shops and restaurants. Some schools are unwilling to accept their children, saying they cannot provide the Halal food they require. They are forced to send the children to live with their relatives at home.

Officials of the Xinjiang government have visited these communities and advised their members to go home. The community in Guangzhou, for example, has dropped from more than 1,000 to about 500. The number of Uyghur restaurants in the city has fallen from over 20 to nine.

Aili, 26, a native of Kashgar who is a trader of cloth in Guangzhou, said that, whenever he walked on the street, people point at him and say “he is from Xinjiang” or “he is a terrorist”.

“I feel very angry and want to hit them. When taxi drivers see us, they do not stop. When I go to a hotel and they know I am from Xinjiang, they say all the rooms are taken. I have applied for a permit to visit Hong Kong but never received one. Is it because I am from Kashgar?”

If the Uyghurs of Guangzhou and other cities decide to go home, they may not find work. Xinjiang is booming, with the fourth highest minimum wage in the country, at 1,520 yuan a month. It produces 13 percent of China’s crude oil output and 30 percent of its natural gas; its coal reserves account for 38 percent of the national total. It is a major producer of cotton, tomatoes and other farm goods.

But most of this wealth is concentrated in the hands of the large state companies who dominate natural resources: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (Bingtuan), a state-owned, paramilitary organization that is nearly 90 percent Han, and private entrepreneurs, mainly Han, who have better access to capital, technology and markets at home and abroad than their local competitors.

Like firms elsewhere in China, companies in Xinjiang are nervous about hiring Uyghurs when there is plentiful supply of other well-qualified candidates.  It means special registration procedures and filing monthly reports to the local public security bureau, providing halal food and, in some cases, providing places for daily prayers.

Each attack makes things worse. It increases the mutual suspicion between Uyghurs and other communities and makes employers less willing to hire them. It increases police and army operations and surveillance of the Uyghur community and controls of mosques and religious institutions, which they resent. And it may persuade a small number that a suicide attack against the “colonizer” is their only option.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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