Xinjiang: China’s Unseen Diversion

Nowadays when people think of terrorism, generally ‘ISIS’ or ‘Al-Qa’ida’ are the first thoughts that come to mind. Regardless of whether or not you are thinking of these specific groups, most people envision activity in the Middle East. However very few people would think to picture China. For years China has been dealing with separatist groups in it’s North West Xinjiang region. To provide some background, Xinjiang is a region that was previously autonomous after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, but has been an autonomous region within China since 1955 after the Chinese government invaded and took over the region in 1949. Xinjiang’s majority population is an ethnic Turkic minority known as the Uighur people who are predominately Muslim. Within that sentence alone one can gather how drastically different the Uighur are from China’s majority Han group and help break the idea that China is one homogenous nation state.

Since China retook Xinjiang, ethnic tensions have risen and Uighur grievances have grown. Uighur’s argue that most of the benefits of the growing economic activity in the region favor Han citizens, whose presence has steadily grown since China’s claim to Xinjiang. Uighur’s also feel an encroachment on their culture, as for instance men under the age of 18 cannot enter a mosque and the Mandarin language is mandatory to teach for core classes instead of the Uighur language. These are just only a few specific examples of how Uighurs feel imposed upon by the Chinese government. Many others feel that the situation for this ethnic minority group is much more intense and argue they have been oppressed by the Chinese government for years. For instance, Aljazeera’s  Alim A Seytoff argues a cultural genocide has been occurring, explaining how 45 nuclear devices were tested in the Xinjiang region alone between 1964 and 1996 resulting in environmental pollution and health consequences for residents. Furthermore their have been numerous reports of government crackdowns in the region and repression of Uighurs through arrests.

China has been dealing with various Uighur separatist groups for years, the most active being the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), however the government’s responses illustrate a strong example of the usage of ‘diversion’ as we have discussed in class. While this diversion is not representative of the same diversion we have discussed for causes of war, it does exemplify the usage of diversion to excuse assertive force and poor treatment in Xinjiang. For instance, Chinese sources constantly seem to blame Uighur separatist groups for any type of violent activity. Although groups such as ETIM have had many known attacks, a good portion of attacks remain alleged as Alim A Seytoff. Seytoff perfectly illustrates the usage of diversion in his argument that “such attacks were immediately taken advantage of by Beijing to skillfully spin the narrative that it faced a “terrorist threat from Muslim Uighurs” and “China was also a victim of terrorism” in order to win public opinion both in China and the world and silence international criticism of its subsequent heavy-handed repression.”(This second linked source within the quotes was linked in the original article and not by myself which is why it has remained there).

As discussed in our course, governments use diversion to avert attention away from any oppression, poor actions, or unsatisfactory results on behalf of the government in order push aside political unrest and remain in power. The Chinese government utilizes this tool to conceal and excuse any persecution of the Uighur people. Additionally, averting attention to terrorism allows the Chinese government to avoid acknowledging any of the actual issues in this region and with this particular ethnic group. China is an extraordinarily ethnically diverse, totaling up to about 56 ethnic minorities, the Uighurs exemplify only one group, however many other groups face similar oppressions. China’s scapegoat of terrorism allows them divert attention from some of the real issues, suppress any uprisings and excuse oppressive measures. Instead, the government gets to crackdown in this region in the name of national and international security.

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5 thoughts on “Xinjiang: China’s Unseen Diversion

  1. The dynamic you mention (diversionary targeting of groups within a country) was the subject of a recent study in the Journal of Conflict Resolution: http://jcr.sagepub.com/content/52/5/641

    “… we argue that the embattled leader can elicit public support by using armed force against ethnic minorities within his/her country. We call this option domestic diversion and argue that it is not only available to a larger number of leaders, but that it also often presents a less risky course of action than external diversion. Empirical tests of the domestic diversionary hypothesis show a connection between domestic problems facing the leader and the use of force against minorities. … “

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  2. You don’t see this type of behavior in western countries such as the US. Is it because of the more homogenous populations, or is it because such actions would have an very negative backlash in the more democratic states. This is not to say that Western countries are not capable of using internal diversionary tactics, instead the diversions may come under the guise of hot topic issues, or extreme focus of the media on a specific topic- diverting everyone’s attention away from other major concerns. Just an interesting idea to consider how other countries engage in this type of behavior.

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    • Interesting point, Jonathan! If you look at the article I link above, the following relates to your observation:
      – wealthier countries are less likely to engage in this behavior
      – regime type and embedded ethnic discrimination are not systematically associated with this behavior

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  3. I never really thought of the crackdown on the Uighur people by the Chinese government to be a diversionary tactic before. It’s an interesting idea though. What do you believe is in the future for the Uighur people? Will this situation just continue to worsen?

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  4. I had no idea there was terrorism occurring inside China and this article sheds light on the real situation, which is clearly not the situation portrayed by the Chinese state run media. I agree with your interpretation of the crackdown on the Uighur people as a diversionary tactic. It makes sense that China would use terrorism as an excuse for all of their oppressive, statist measures. I think the point you brought up about the Chinese government testing 45 nuclear devices in their province is an interesting point because it is a good justification for their separatism. Its a shame that the Uighur separatist groups have no peaceful means to deal with the Chinese government.

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