By Ursula Gauthier
Beijing is proclaiming its solidarity with France. But it is demanding the same sort of international support for its own “battle against terrorism”, the merciless crushing of the Muslim Uyghur minority.
The attacks on November 13th have clearly touched a nerve in China. The strength of people’s reactions – in a society which tends to feel apart, not to say unloved and so shows little sympathy for the rest of the world – has surprised observers. “I have never seen anything like it” says one diplomat. “Since Saturday there has been a steady stream of Chinese of all sorts, schoolchildren, students, ‘friends of France’ or anonymous passers by, who have come to the French embassy to lay flowers or to sign the condolences book.”
Red White and Blue
You have only to leaf through its pages to hear an astonishing declaration of love. “Prayer for Paris, peace be on Paris, love always for Paris” says one entry. Another says “Today I am with the French! We have no fear! To you, Paris, with my greatest love, long live France, long live freedom.” And a third “I have two loves, my country and Paris. And again “Paris is at the peak of culture, art and freedom. Nothing can undermine its unique position in the history of humanity.”
China’ tycoons have joined in the chorus. A historic first – a warm letter to Francois Hollande signed by eight of the biggest businessmen in the country, including Jack Ma, head of Alibaba, and Wang Jianlin, the richest man in China. Shanghai’s famous TV tower was lit up red white and blue all Saturday night, while social media were flooded with hundreds of thousands of shocked messages.
Why such emotion? “Because Paris is the most beautiful city in the world for us,” explains one young Beijinger, “almost a kind of paradise on earth. Everyone lucky enough to know Paris loves it. Everyone who has not been so lucky dreams of going there one day.”
The Chinese authorities have not been silent either. Xi Jinping told Francois Hollande that he stood by France’s side in its “fight against terrorism.” Beautiful solidarity, but not entirely free of ulterior motives. For just a few hours later the Chinese Public Security ministry, quick to draw parallels, announced the capture of the leaders of an attack – also described as “terrorist” – which had claimed around fifty lives two months earlier in Baicheng, Xinjiang.
But, bloody though it was, the Baicheng attack had nothing in common with the 13th November attacks. In fact it was an explosion of local rage such as have blown up more and more often in this distant province whose inhabitants, turcophone and Muslim Uyghurs, face pitiless repression. Pushed to the limit, a small group of Uyghurs armed with cleavers set upon a coal mine and its Han Chinese workers, probably in revenge for an abuse, an injustice or an expropriation.
But for Beijing, which refuses to acknowledge its own responsibility for the rising exasperation of its minorities, the recent boom in bloody incidents in Xinjiang can only be the work of an international jihadist organization. On the Sunday after the Paris attacks the Chinese leader, attending the G20 summit in Antalya, declared that “the Paris attacks show that the international community must unite its efforts and base its fight against terrorism on strengthened collaboration.” And he added, meaningfully, “there should be no double standards.”
In other words, if China declares its solidarity with nations threatened by Islamic State, in return it expects the support of the international community in its own entanglements with its most restless minority.
“The same problems as you”
Recently the wave of violence has washed over the borders of distant Xinjiang, which is closer to Kabul than to Beijing, to strike cities in Han regions. The weapons used are always rudimentary, knives and homemade explosives, but these embryonic armed groups are beginning to show signs of more complex organization. And despite the considerable number of victims, these Uyghur commando actions have not shocked the international community.
During the same G20 summit, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made things clear. “The United Nations should play the united front role against terrorism, which is targeting China too” he said. “The fight against ETIM (an extremist Uyghur movement) is an important part of the global struggle against terrorism.”
ETIM is just the kind of international jihadist organization on which Beijing would like to pin all its problems in Xinjiang. The difficulty is that numerous experts doubt whether ETIM is the coherent and dangerous group that Beijing describes. Some even doubt whether it exists. In the wake of September 11th, George Bush – wanting above all to seal an alliance with Beijing – agreed to put ETIM on the US list of terrorist organizations. It no longer appears on that list.
“In insisting on blaming international terrorism, the Chinese government seems above all to want to convince its own public opinion and support the idea that violence in Xinjiang is part of a global problem,” says Nicolas Becquelin, a Xinjiang specialist with Amnesty International. “They are certainly also trying to earn a little legitimacy in the eyes of the international community by saying ‘look, we’ve got the same problems as you’.”
Human rights organizations say the violence in Xinjiang is more a result of the radicalization of young people pushed to the limit by the pitiless repression that is wiping out all aspects of Uyghur life – culture, language, religion, access to education, jobs, even a passport. Things have got worse recently.
A few examples:
- A number of traditional Muslim given names have been banned. Anyone with such a name must change it…
- Uyghur restaurants are now obliged to offer their clients cigarettes and alcohol…
- Civil servants must eat in public during Ramadan…
- Any man wearing a beard is naturally suspected of religious extremism, along with any woman wearing a headscarf…
- And now, any young man who stops smoking or turns down the offer of a beer is also suspected of extremism.
China is unlikely to win the sort of cooperation from the US and Europe that it garnered after September 11th. Given the smothering control over Chinese society and territory that the authorities enjoy, it is equally unlikely that Islamic State jihadists will link up with infuriated Xinjiang residents. But so long as the Uyghurs’ situation continues to get worse, China’s magnificent mega-cities will be vulnerable to the risk of machete attacks.
This piece originally appeared in L’Ors Magazine. Translation from French courtesy of Ursula Gauthier.