China has seen 10 “terrorist incidents” in the past year that have killed more than 30 people, according to official media, which has blamed most of the violence on ethnic minority “Uyghur separatists.” While authorities have worked to shut off the flow of information from the affected areas, it appears that in recent months the attacks have focused on train stations rather than police stations, as they had in the past. Exiled Uyghur commentator Mehmet Tohti, a former youth leader who in 1985 helped to launch a student rally against Chinese rule in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, spoke to RFA’s Uyghur Service about why Uyghurs are increasingly shifting their targets from official sites to public spaces.
Q: What do you make of the recent trend of attacks shifting from police stations to train stations and public areas? What could be the reason for this shift?
A: Most of the attacks that took place in the Uyghur region last year focused on police stations. In those attacks, there were a large number of Uyghurs who were shot dead by the authorities.
I believe that [the attackers] recalculated their gains and losses based on the previous attacks and decided to change their target. We could say that the decision to kill the attackers rather than capture them alive and bring them to trial has caused them to shift their targets to public areas, like train stations.
Q: So you believe that sending a clear signal to the broader public might have played a role in this shift?
A: They have two goals for these attacks: One is to send a signal to the government about their discontent with regional policies and the second is to damage the institutions of the government that ruthlessly implement those policies.
Last year there were just a few incidents reported by the Chinese media. The train station attacks are harder to hide for the authorities, compared to the police station attacks. So it could be that they changed their targets in order to send a clearer message to the broader public.
We can also see clearly prejudiced and provocative reporting about the incidents in the Chinese media … with Uyghurs regarded as the enemy. These disturbing reports have obviously added gasoline to the fire. Therefore, now we are seeing more and more attacks on train stations and public areas to send a louder message that the Chinese government cannot cover up and Chinese immigrants [in Xinjiang] also cannot ignore. There are signs which suggest that these kinds of attacks will continue.
Q: What signs you are talking about?
A: The first and most important sign is that the Chinese government has not shown any indication it has learned from the Uyghur discontent and unrest. Instead, the same old policies inherited from former Chinese leaders remain in place.
Q: Some say that provocations by President Xi Jinping triggered last month’s train station attack in Urumqi. What is your take on this?
A: I think provocative calls by Xi are one of many reasons for the Urumqi attack. It is mostly Xi’s increasingly hard-line policies [in Xinjiang] which are to blame and the reason that many Uyghurs have lost hope. We have never seen from previous Chinese presidents a direct statement about similar attacks before.
Since the beginning of this year, Xi’s main mission has shifted from fighting corruption to fighting terrorism and maintaining social order. It is obvious that he is waging a holy war against Uyghurs to draw attention away from his failed policy of fighting corruption.
Q: What did the Uyghur people expect from Xi Jinping when he took over China’s presidency?
A: Uyghurs were not naive enough to expect a fundamental shift of policy, but they at least held out hope for a new beginning through a revamp of the old broken system. All members of Uyghur society certainly hoped that the government would respect regional autonomous law and rectify the long-running hard-line policies towards the Uyghur people … [however], as seen from his message during a recent visit to East Turkestan [Xinjiang], he reiterated and upheld the [existing] hard-line policies.
Q: Do you think that this is a clear distinction that the attackers have kept in mind, differentiating between government organs and civilians?
A: Uyghurs are subject to many injustices and open discrimination at the hand of the government, but no Chinese civilians ever offer their sympathy to the Uyghurs—instead, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the army and police, and echo the position with [the ruling Chinese Communist] Party when it comes to cracking down of Uyghurs.
Therefore, claiming that Uyghurs are only attacking government organs and refraining from attacking Han civilians could be misleading. In my best assessment, one reason Uyghurs may have refrained from attacking Chinese civilians in the past was because they did not want to be branded “terrorists,” like the official media has tried to do, in a bid to receive more attention and sympathy from the international community.
Q: Xi Jinping is promoting tough new measures in combating “terrorism.” What is your assessment of how effective this will be in preventing further attacks?
A: The situation in East Turkestan has entered a new phase because of the unlawful and inhumane practices of the Chinese authorities who are transgressing their own constitution and criminal code when it comes to the Uyghur region … Citizens rights that are guaranteed by the constitution must be respected no matter what the circumstances. We are not seeing these legal norms applied to Uyghurs in the Chinese political and judicial systems. Instead, it has become routine practice to crush Uyghur resistance in the region.
In these circumstances, Uyghurs will find a way to express their anger and discontent to the government one way or another. It may be a train station today, but it could be another vulnerable institution of the Chinese state tomorrow. We can expect more attacks on civilian and infrastructure targets in the coming years.