Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment


James Millward

Policy Studies, No. 6


Washington, D.C.: East-West Center

Publication Date: 2004
ISBN: 1-932728-10-4
Binding: paper
Pages: ix, 54
Free Download: PDF


Xinjiang is an arid region three times the size of France in the northwestern corner of the People's Republic of China, bordering on Mongolia, Russia, and several Central Asian countries. Just over half of the region's population of nearly 20 million is composed of Turkic-speaking, traditionally Muslim peoples, including over 1 million Kazakhs and some 9 million Uyghurs.

From its conquest by the Qing empire in the mid-eighteenth century until its incorporation in the PRC in 1949, there have been several efforts to wrest all or part of Xinjiang from Beijing's control. Though this restiveness is often portrayed as an enduring "clash of civilizations" between Chinese and Muslim realms, both the participants and the causes of these episodes have been more diverse than this simplistic formula allows. Indeed, Turkic or Uyghur nationalism has been a far more salient ideological feature than religious zeal. After 1949, despite some Islamic-colored unrest in southern Xinjiang, disturbances in the region corresponded with the political and economic disruptions of the Great Leap Forward (1959-61) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

In the relative openness of the 1980s, several incidents in Xinjiang unsettled Chinese leaders. Yet these too were varied in origin, organization, and outlook, consisting of demonstrations sparked by police heavy-handedness leading to rioting and shouting of anti-Chinese and Islamic slogans, on the one hand, and student demonstrations on the other. The demonstrations greatly resembled the prodemocracy student marches then common throughout China, except that the Xinjiang students, including Chinese Muslims (Hui) as well as Uyghurs, voiced concerns relating to ethnic matters.

Since the 1990s, concerns about Uyghur separatism have received increasing official and media attention. These concerns have heightened since the events of 9-11 with the advent of a more robust U.S. presence in Central Asia and Chinese attempts to link Uyghur separatism to international jihadist groups. A steady flow of reports from the international media—as well as official PRC releases (a document on "East Turkistan" terrorism, a white paper on Xinjiang, and a list of terrorist groups)—have given the impression of an imminent separatist and terrorist crisis in the Xinjiang region. This study surveys open sources as well as less easily accessible Chinese documents on violent separatist and terrorist events and groups. Although the catalog of incidents seems to indicate the existence of an organized, unified, and violent Uyghur movement, careful scrutiny reveals problems with the evidence presented in both media and official sources. In fact, both the frequency and severity of violent incidents in Xinjiang have declined since 1997-98, possibly because of Chinese efforts at interdiction. While it is not negligible, the current threat of organized Uyghur separatism and particularly of terrorist attacks on civilian targets seems less serious than claimed in official and media reports.

Since 1998, accusations of Uyghur involvement in terrorist activities have become commonplace in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The government-controlled press in Central Asia has frequently alleged Uyghur involvement in these killings as well as in bus bombings and bazaar fires, but these reports are often contradictory and offer no clear explanation why Islamist Uyghur terrorists would want to attack Uyghur merchants or leaders.

This study presents an overview of antistate organizations and violent resistance among Uyghurs and other peoples in Xinjiang, considering both domestic and international groups and activities, beginning with a historical survey of resistance in the Xinjiang region from the Qing period through 1990. This background shows that episodes of resistance to rule from Beijing, while relatively common, have been discontinuous and characterized by a variety of ideologies, Islam being only one of them. The period since 1990 is the main concern of the study and presents two main theses. First, from the analysis of Chinese official documents and international press accounts of violent activity attributed to Uyghurs, the record contains much inaccurate, questionable, or contradictory reporting and slanted conclusions reflecting ulterior agendas. Second, contrary to the implication conveyed by these materials and commonly voiced by journalists and analysts alike, both the frequency and severity of violent activity associated with Uyghur separatism have in fact declined since the late 1990s. There is no doubt that PRC authorities and Han citizens genuinely fear Uyghur separatist violence, and the threat of unrest or further violence in the region by Uyghur groups is not negligible. Nevertheless, the general impression of a threat escalating since 1990 to crisis proportions today is exaggerated.