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Charting the Course of Uyghur Unrest

  • Justin V. Hastings (a1)

What explains the course of Uyghur-related violence in Xinjiang and Central Asia since 1990? Using data derived from a variety of sources, I argue that the locations and types of violent incidents were influenced by a combination of Chinese government policies and the political geography of Xinjiang. Specifically, 1990 to 1996 were dominated by logistically complex incidents in a low-level violent campaign in Xinjiang. The Strike Hard campaign in 1996 brought about an increase in logistically simple incidents in Xinjiang and some violence in Central Asia as Uyghur separatists had trouble moving people, information and weapons across the well-guarded, difficult terrain of Xinjiang's borders. China's rapprochement with Central Asian countries in the late 1990s led after 2001 to a dramatic decrease in Uyghur-related violence in general, but also signalled the appearance of logistically creative attacks that required little planning or materials. My findings suggest that Uyghur rebels will have a difficult time mounting a large-scale violent campaign as long as China retains even minimal control of Xinjiang.

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1 This is not the first article to consider the importance of Xinjiang's location or geography in affecting the course of events there. See also Christofferson, Gaye, “Xinjiang and the Great Islamic Circle: the impact of transnational forces on Chinese regional economic planning,” The China Quarterly, No. 133 (1993), pp. 133–51; Pannell, Clifton J. and Ma, Laurence J.C., “Urban transition and interstate relations in a dynamic post-Soviet borderland: the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China,” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, Vol. 38, No. 4 (1997), pp. 206–29; Starr, Frederick (ed.), Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004).

2 Debata, Mahesh Ranjan, China's Minorities: Ethnic-Religious Separatism in Xinjiang (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2007), pp. 2628, 136–85 has a thorough review of the rise and progress of Uyghur separatism.

3 Information Office, “History and development of Xinjiang” (Beijing: State Council, May 2003).

4 Millward, James, “Violent separatism in Xinjiang: a critical assessment,” Policy Studies, No. 6 (Washington, DC: East-West Center, 2004), p. 5.

5 Becquelin, Nicolas, “Staged development in Xinjiang,” The China Quarterly, No. 178 (2004), pp. 366–68.

6 Bovingdon, Gardner, “The not-so-silent majority: Uyghur resistance to Han rule in Xinjiang,” Modern China, No. 28 (2002), pp. 3978; Bovingdon, Gardner, “Autonomy in Xinjiang: Han nationalist imperatives and Uyghur discontent,” Policy Studies, No. 11 (Washington, DC: East-West Center, 2004); Jessica Koch, “Economic development and ethnic separatism in western China: a new model of peripheral nationalism” (Perth, Western Australia: Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, August 2006); Bellér-Hann, Ildikó, “The peasant condition in Xinjiang,” Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 (1997), p. 102.

7 Becquelin, “Staged development in Xinjiang,” pp. 365, 368, 372, 375; Reza Hasmath, Benjamin Ho and Elaine Liu, “Ethnic minority disadvantages in China's labor market?” working paper (2009), pp. 14–15, 23.

8 Becquelin, “Staged development in Xinjiang,” pp. 358–60.

9 Hastings, Justin V., “Uighur demonstrations and the perception of a single Chinese state,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 52, No. 1 (2005), p. 38.

10 Millward, “Violent separatism in Xinjiang,” pp. 15–17.

11 Rudelson, Justin Jon, Oasis Identities (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 170.

12 Hastings, “Uighur demonstrations and the perception of a single Chinese state.” See also Bovingdon, “The not-so-silent majority,” pp. 44–45.

13 See e.g. Liu Zehua, “‘Dongtu’ zuzhi baoli shizhi 7-5 shijian zhong baolu wuyi” (“‘East Turkestan’ Organizations' violent nature in the 5 July incident will be exposed without fail”), Xinhua News Agency 23 July 2009; Shichor, Yitzak, “Limping on two legs: Uyghur diaspora organizations and the prospects for Eastern Turkestan independence,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, Vol. 6, No. 48 (2007); Rotar, Igor, “The growing problem of Uighur separatism,” China Brief, Vol. 4, No. 8 (2004).

14 Millward, “Violent separatism in Xinjiang,” pp. 13, 29.

15 Branigan, Tania, “Al-Qaida threatens to target Chinese over Muslim deaths in Urumqi: Algeria-based group issues threat to Chinese workers and projects within North Africa in retaliation for Uighur deaths,” The Guardian (UK), 14 July 2009.

16 Dillon, Michael, Xinjiang – China's Muslim Far Northwest (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004); Starr, Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland.

17 Xinjiang Tongzhi: Gong'anzhi Weiyuanhui, Xinjiang Weiwu'er Zizhiqu Difangzhi Bianzuan Weiyuanhui (Xinjiang Gazette: Public Security Gazette Committee, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regional Government Compilation Committee), Xinjiang tongzhi: gong'anzhi (Xinjiang Public Security Gazette) (Urumqi: Xinjiang renmin chubanshe, 2004); Information Office, “‘East Turkistan’ terrorist forces cannot get away with impunity.”

18 See START, “Global terrorism database” (College Park: University of Maryland, 2010).

19 The complete dataset is available from the author on request.

20 Millward, “Violent separatism in Xinjiang,” pp. 21–22, for example, notes suspicions that the killing of a Chinese diplomat in June 2002 in Bishkek was actually related to a business dispute.

21 Piazza, James A., “Incubators of terror: do failed and failing states promote transnational terrorism?International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 3 (2008), pp. 469–88, notes this problem with quantitative terrorism data on p. 478.

22 Uyghur News, “Uyghur News,”, accessed 25 September 2010.

23 Xinjiang Public Security Gazette, p. 294.

24 See e.g. Information Office, “‘East Turkistan’ terrorist forces cannot get away with impunity” (Beijing: State Council, 21 January 2002).

25 Bovingdon, “The not-so-silent majority,” pp. 39–78

26 Zhiping, Pan, “‘DongTu’ kongbuzhuyi toushi” (“‘East Turkestan’ terrorism perspectives”), Xinjiang shehui kexue (Xinjiang Social Sciences) (2002), p. 61.

27 Xinjiang Public Security Gazette, pp. 790–91.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid. pp. 791–93.

30 Ibid. pp. 794–95.

31 Ibid. pp. 81–83.

32 Ibid. p. 84.

33 Ibid. pp. 83, 85.

34 Ibid. p. 83.

35 Ibid. p. 86.

36 Ibid. p. 294.

37 Information Office, “‘East Turkistan’ terrorist forces cannot get away with impunity.”

38 Xinjiang Public Security Gazette, p. 88.

39 Ibid. p. 318.

40 Ibid. p. 94. Millward, “Violent separatism in Xinjiang,” p. 17 notes the effects of the ban on mäshräp.

41 Xinjiang Public Security Gazette, pp. 318–19.

42 Ibid. p. 319.

43 Bageant, Joseph, “CIA's secret war in Tibet,” Military History, February 2004.

44 Xinjiang Public Security Gazette, pp. 96–97.

45 See the section on provocation in Kydd, Andrew H. and Walter, Barbara F., “Strategies of terrorism,” International Security, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2006), pp. 6972.

46 Information Office, “‘East Turkistan’ terrorist forces cannot get away with impunity.”

47 Xinwen ban'gongshi (Information Office), “Zhongguo Xinjiang lishi yu xianzhuang” (“Chinese Xinjiang's history and present conditions”) (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin gongheguo guowuyuan, 26 May 2003), ch. 6. See

48 Millward, “Violent separatism in Xinjiang,” pp. 19–22.

49 International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010), p. 399.

50 Ibid. p. 404.

51 Wang, Fei-ling, Organizing through Division and Exclusion: China's Hukou System (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 111, 234n99.

52 Xinjiang Public Security Gazette, p. 295 is an official version of this genre.

53 Salehyan, Idean, Rebels without Borders: Transnational Insurgencies in World Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).

54 Li Xiaoling, “Zhongguo weiyi dui Tajikesitan lu lukou an huopi quantianhou kaifang” (“China's only land crossing with Tajikistan is open in all conditions”), Xinhua News Service, 24 March 2008.

55 Jacob Townsend, “China and Afghan opiates: assessing the risk” (Washington, DC: Silk Road Studies Program, Central Asia – Caucasus Institute, 2005), pp. 49–55.

56 World Bank, “Cross-border trade within the Central Asia economic co-operation” (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 20 August 2007), p. 16.

57 “Qinghai teda kuaguo qiangzhi zousi an diaocha reng you shushi ren zai tao” (“Scores of people are still on the run in Qinghai's largest transborder gun smuggling investigation”),, 12 September 2005. See also Arms smugglers on trial in Qinghai court,” China Daily, 25 August 2005.

58 Information Office, “‘East Turkistan’ terrorist forces cannot get away with impunity.”

59 Xinjiang Public Security Gazette, p. 295. The yearbook also says that police found “large quantities” of weapons in 1999 and 2000, but fails to count them.

60 Chung, Chien-peng, “The Shanghai Co-operation Organization: China's changing influence in Central Asia,” The China Quarterly, No. 180 (2004), pp. 9891009; Chung, Chien-peng, “The defense of Xinjiang: politics, economics, and security in Central Asia,” Harvard International Review, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2003), p. 58.

61 Fravel, M. Taylor, “Regime insecurity and international co-operation: explaining China's compromises in territorial disputes,” International Security, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2005), pp. 4683.

62 “Jiefangjun shouci chujing yanxi; ZhongJi jinming juxing lianhe fankong junyan” (“PLA for the first time has exercises outside the country; China and Kyrgyzstan hold combined counterterrorism military exercises today and tomorrow”), Xinhua News Agency, 11 October 2002.

63 Carlson, Charles, “Central Asia: Shanghai cooperation organization makes military debut,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5 August 2003; Pannier, Bruce, “China/Kazakhstan: forces hold first-ever joint terrorism exercises,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 24 August 2006.

64 ‘Eastern Turkistan’ terrorist killed,” China Daily, 24 December 2003; Neil Arun, “Guantanamo Uighurs' strange odyssey,” British Broadcasting Corporation, 11 January 2007.

65 Thanks to one of the anonymous reviewers for this point.

66 Pannier, “China/Kazakhstan: forces hold first-ever joint terrorism exercises.”

67 Poch, Rafael, “Un incidente en el pamir,” La Vanguardia, 20 June 2007.

68 Xinjiang pohuo liang qi zhendui aoyun kongbu an” (“Xinjiang uncovers two Olympics-related terrorist incidents”), Xinhua meiri dianxun (Xinhua Daily Telegraph), 11 April 2008

69 Guangxiong, Tao, “Kashi xiji an xianfan shenfen chaming; baozha zhuangzhi yu ‘dongtu’ xiangsi” (“Kashgar surprise attack suspects are identified: explosive devices and similarities to ‘East Turkestan’”), Zhongguo shinwen (China News), 5 August 2008.

70 Xinjiang quanli zhuibu kuche baozha an 3 ming xiangfan” (“Xinjiang hunts with all its might three suspects from the Kuqa violent incident”), Renmin ribao (People's Daily), 11 August 2008.

71 Wong, Edward, “China locks down restive region after deadly clashes,” New York Times, 6 July 2009; Bradsher, Keith and Yang, Xiyun, “Top official dismissed over Urumqi protests; China moves swiftly to replace Party Chief as police quell violence,” International Herald Tribune, 7 September 2009.

72 Liao Lei, Xu Song and Li Zhongfa, “Zhongguo xiwang qita guojia ying renqing jingwai ‘DongTu’ kongbu fenlie shili de benzhi” (“China hopes other countries will see clearly the essence of overseas ‘East Turkestan’ terrorist and separatist power”), Xinhua News Agency, 7 July 2009.

73 Branigan, Tania, “China launches ‘strike hard’ crackdown in Xinjiang,” The Guardian (UK), 3 November 2009.

74 Garver, John W., “Development of China's overland transportation links with Central, South-West and South Asia,” The China Quarterly, No. 185 (2006), pp. 122.

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