Rising Risk of State-Led Mass Killing in East Türkistan/China’s Uyghur Autonomy Region Xinjiang 

Thomas Nelson is a writer based in Washington, DC. He runs the Uyghur Update newsletter.

East Türkistan/Xinjiang is China’s westernmost region, far removed from Beijing and officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Most residents of the XUAR are Uyghurs, who are Turkic, speak their own language, and are largely Muslim. While the region has periodically been under Chinese rule for centuries, the people are culturally more similar to their Central Asian neighbors. Separatist activity and ethnic tension is not uncommon, but historically there have only been a few incidents of mass violence.

Map via Radio Free AsiaUntil recently, the most recent of those incidents had occurred in 2009, when riots erupted in Urumqi, the political capital of the XUAR. Following the deaths of two Uyghur workers during a violent riot in the southeastern city of Shaoguan, Uyghurs in Urumqi took to the streets in protest. Clashes between the Uyghurs and police led to numerous deaths, injuries, and disappearances of Uyghurs, as well as increased surveillance of Uyghur communities.

Since 2009, violence in East Türkistan/Xinjiang has largely been limited to small attacks carried out by independent groups against symbols of the Chinese government and Han Chinese. This year, however, East Türkistan/Xinjiang has seen a dramatic increase in violence and with it the potential for, if not the occurrence of, an episode of state-led mass killing.

On April 30, 2014, Urumqi’s main train station was attacked. According to reports, a group of people used knives to slash people leaving the station, and several bombs disguised as suitcases were detonated in the area. Three people were killed and 79 were injured. Three weeks later, two sport utility vehicles drove through a crowded outdoor market in Urumqi. The drivers swerved to hit as many people as possible, while others in the cars threw explosives out the windows. Some 43 people died, including four men that were in the cars, and more than 90 were injured. The market attack took place in a largely Han neighborhood of Urumqi, and many of the victims were Han as well.

The Early Warning Project’s expert opinion pool appears to have responded to these two violent days, even if only marginally. In late 2013, EWP asked its forecasters, “Before 1 January 2015, will an episode of state-led mass killing targeting Uighurs occur in China?” Between the weeks of April 21 and April 28, the crowd’s estimated probability of that event increased from 14.6% to 15.0%. In May, following news of the market bombing, it rose again, to 15.5%, nearly a full percentage point increase over the course of one month.

Expert Opinion Pool Consensus Estimate of the Probability of a State-Led Mass Killing Targeting Uyghurs in China Before 2015

Expert Opinion Pool Consensus Estimate of the Probability of a State-Led Mass Killing Targeting Uyghurs in China Before 2015

In response to the April attacks, the Chinese government declared a country-wide counterterrorism campaign. Aspects of that campaign include a monetary reward for information about “terrorist activity,” limits on the purchase of petrol by Uyghurs, demonstrations of counter-terrorism training, mass public trials in sports stadiums, and advertisements instructing on what to do in case of an attack. A number of news reports from the region since have noted the rising tension and distrust between Han authorities and Uyghurs, no doubt informed by the memory of violence in 2009.

On July 28th, following the end of this year’s Ramadan, more violence broke out in Elikshu, a city in Yarkand county, not far from Kashgar. Because of the Chinese government’s strict controls on media access to Xinjiang, very little is known about what happened that day. Multiple accounts agree that there were street clashes between Uyghur rioters and police forces, with buildings being damaged and cars lit on fire. It is possible that the riots were retaliation for the government’s ban on fasting for certain groups during Ramadan. According to Chinese state media, 96 people were killed in the July riots—59 suspected terrorists and 37 civilians. Diaspora groups, however, place that number much higher. Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said that the death toll could be as high as 2,000. After that incident, the opinion pool forecast rebounded from a dip of 0.3% the week before to increase to almost 16%, where it has remained since.

The task of predicting or even verifying mass killings in East Türkistan/Xinjiang is made more difficult by the aforementioned strict media control over the region, and by that lack of transparency in exile groups’ reporting. Following recent events, several Western media outlets decried the lack of credible information from Xinjiang. Even so, if the truth lies somewhere between the claims of the Chinese government and the WUC, then hundreds of government-sanctioned killings may already have occurred this year in the name of counterterrorism. Considering the reports from Elikshu, it is even possible that a state-led mass killing involving more than 1,000 civilian deaths has already happened but remains hidden from the eyes of the world. A full understanding of what is transpiring in East Türkistan/Xinjiang right probably won’t emerge until there is a significant change within the Chinese government, and the floodgates of information are finally opened.


About Republic Of East Turkistan
Official Website of Eastturkistan Republic

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