Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the growing unrest in the western province of Xinjiang on Thursday, pledging to tackle poverty and ethnic divisions. In a speech to Communist Party leaders, prompted by last week’s deadly suicide bombing, which killed 39 people and left 94 wounded, Xi noted, “Employment must be made a priority.”
Xi’s words belie Beijing’s past approach to extremism in Xinjiang, namely security crackdowns and a media campaign that blamed the violence on separatists from the Muslim Uighur group, long marginalized in the resource-rich region. (Uighur residents also complain of government restrictions on their religious and cultural practices.) Beijing has linked four recent attacks to Islamist separatists, who it alleges are seeking to create an independent state named East Turkestan. However, it has limited the information released to the public about such claims, making them difficult to verify. In the meantime, the government offensive continues. Last week, 39 people were sentenced to prison on various terrorism charges, including advocating ethnic hatred. On Wednesday, local officials in Xinjiang hosted a mass trial in a stadium open to the public, in which 55 people were sentenced, including at least three who received death sentences. (All the defendants listed appeared to have Uighur names).
Yet the problem is getting bigger, not smaller, with attacks taking place with increasing frequency outside of the region’s borders. In March, following a deadly knife attack in the southwestern city of Kunming, Blouin Beat world blogger Lora Moftah noted that “crackdowns on the Uighur population […] appear to be breeding the exact problem Beijing claims to be fighting against.”
Now, finally, China looks to be openly addressing one of the root causes of unrest in Xinjiang with an economically focused approach, i.e., efforts to boost the local economy by opening the doors to private investment and granting local firms access to development projects previously off limits. As for the social ills prevalent in the region, Xi pledged initiatives to implement bilingual education, increase education funding and improve religious tolerance. The goal here is not only to curb extremism, but also to better utilize Xinjiang’s oil and gas resources needed to feed China’s increasing energy needs, not to mention re-energize the province’s flailing tourism industry. (The latter is in such dire straits that local authorities are mulling a plan to give cash bonuses to tourists.)
Not that Beijing is completely abandoning its heavy-handed tactics. Last Friday government officials announced a one-year crackdown in Xinjiang. Their work is cut out for them – while less than a year ago, militant attacks linked to Xinjiang separatists killed a handful of people, recent attacks have had death counts numbering in the dozens. Given homegrown terrorists’ growing reliance on suicide attacks, that upward trend looks set to increase. This time around, it remains to be seen if an influx of cash from Beijing will make the difference.