21 people were killed last week in a Chinese province where 45 percent of the population is Muslim, specifically Uighur, an ethnic minority. Citing the April 15th bombings in Boston, Hou Hanmin, a spokeswoman for the propaganda bureau of the province of Xinjiang where the deaths occurred, called the violence “certainly a terrorist attack.” Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, castigated the U.S. for not condemning what had happened and said, in another reference to Boston, that the U.S. should ”be more sympathetic toward Chinese policies since both countries are dealing with violent terrorist attacks.”
Was what happened in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang on April 23 an act of terrorism undertaken by religious extremists? Or was it, as groups representing the Uighurs and operating outside the region say, yet another instance of Beijing’s suppression of ethnic and religious minorities?
Foreign reporters are not allowed into Xinjiang. We are pretty much looking at a “black hole” of information about the region, writes Ian Stone Hall in Foreign Policy. The New York Times also comments that “as with many such events in Xinjiang, details of the fighting on Tuesday remained murky even a full day after the violence had transpired. Some elements of the official accounts were bizarre.”
The official account from the Chinese government is that a gang of 14 “suspicious people” took three community workers hostage in the city of Kashgar. When police and officials arrived at the scene, a gang attacked them with axes and large knives, murdered the hostages and set a house on fire. The Xinjiang propaganda bureau’s Hou has emphasized that the attackers “had been influenced by ‘religious extremism’ and had been plotting a ‘jihad’ since the end of last year,” though any actual evidence of them working with foreign forces has yet to be noted.
In its response to the attacks, the U.S. government said that it is “deeply concerned by ongoing reports of discrimination against and restrictions on Uighurs and other Muslims in China” and that it urges the Chinese government to “cease policies that seek to restrict the practice of religious beliefs across China.”
Ethnic Strife or Terrorism?
It is the case that Han Chinese, who comprise the vast majority of China’s population, have moved in huge numbers in the past decades into Xinjiang, which contains huge swaths of undeveloped land and prospective petroleum and natural gas mines. Residents of Xinjiang have long complained of discrimination by those who have emigrated. Last week’s violence was the worst in the region since 2009, when more than 200 people were killed in the regional capital of Urumqi.
In the Guardian, Gary Greenwald examines why some violent attacks have been called “terrorism” and some not, in light of the debate over whether or not the two men associated with the Boston bombings, Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, were terrorists. The Tsarnaevs are Muslim and the surviving brother, Dzokhar, has been accused of using weapons of mass destruction and is now in prison. As Greenwald writes, no evidence connects them with any terrorist group or organization.
Indeed, the bombing does not fit with the U.S. government’s own definition of terrorism as, according to Ali Abunimah, “absolutely no evidence has emerged that the Boston bombing suspects acted ‘in furtherance of political or social objectives.’” Nor has evidence yet emerged that their alleged acts were “intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal.”
Greenwald notes that it remains “certainly possible that it will turn out that, if they are guilty,” the Tsarnaevs’ “prime motive was political or religious.” Citing Columbine and the shootings in Tucson, Aurora and Newtown, he points out other factors:
… it’s also certainly possible that it wasn’t: that it was some combination of mental illness, societal alienation, or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature. Until their motive is known, how can this possibly be called “terrorism”? Can acts of violence be deemed “terrorism” without knowing the motive?
China is claiming that there is a double standard at work in global media, calling the deaths in Xinjiang “terrorism.” The Chinese government’s official Xinhua news agency reports that “11 runaway suspected terrorists” connected to last week’s attack have also been captured.
Certainly there is much that we have yet to learn about what happened in Xinjiang and also in Boston. But there is one key difference: information and reports about the Tsarnaevs and the events in Boston have been flooding the media, in the West and around the world. As Hall comments, until foreign investigators can go and see for themselves what is going on in Xinjiang, the official line from Beijing will remain all we know — and the world really needs to know much, much more.
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