Thursday 22 May 2014

Why Xinjiang-related terrorism isn't going to stop any time soon.

One Thursday morning in 2000, Stephen Saunders, an Athens-based British diplomat, was driving to work when two men on a motor-cycle pulled up next to his car. One man levelled a Kalashnikov at him and pulled the trigger only for the weapon to jam after firing only one shot, a .45 ACP M1911 semi-automatic pistol was then used to fire the fatal last shots that killed Stephen Saunders.

For our purposes here, this senseless killing of an innocent man by a group of Marxist fanatics is interesting in one detail: the pistol that was used had been used by the assassins had first been used by the same group 20 years before, in 1980, and had probably come into their possession some years even before that during a bank robbery. Stephen Saunders killing was the last kick of a Marxist insurgency that had been rumbling on in Greece since the second world war, on through the years of the 1944-49 Greek civil war where the communists were finally extinguish in a blaze of napalm at Mount Gramos, to the left-wing resistance against the US-backed Greek military junta, to the 1973 uprising at the Athens Polytechnic that gave birth to the 17 November group that carried out Saunders' assassination.

Essentially, armed with only a couple of pistols and fanaticism, and formed in a tight grouping of probably no more than 25 people, 17 November had kept up a pointless campaign of killings that outlasted the last real justification for their existence after Greece's democratisation and economic growth of the 80's and 90's, and carried on for 27 years. No outside support was needed for them to carry out this campaign,  no real justification was needed other than the indoctrination that had already been imbibed by the group during the 60's and 70's, there was no real head to cut off, and no reform that would have made them stop short of implementing the Marxist nightmare that was their final goal.

It is therefore with this in mind that I read of today's car-bombing in Xinjiang  that has killed as many as 31 innocent people.

The insurgency in Xinjing has its own history that stretches back just as far as 17 November's, having its modern roots in the ending of the Soviet-backed autonomous government there in 1949 that at one point threatened to turn the area into a satrap of the USSR, on through the years where the Han Chinese population of the area grew with the expansion of the Bingtuan military-agricultural colonies, to the violence in the area after the Sino-Soviet split, the smashing of religious centres by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, to the 1989 uprising and the Gulja Incident.  It shows no sign of stopping now or even in the event of some major liberalisation in China, indeed, even a vote on independence for the territory would probably be a "no", since Han Chinese now form 40% of the population.

Ending discrimination against Uighurs, examples of which were widely discussed after the 2009 uprising (e.g., "Han-only" job adverts ) is a desirable goal in and of itself, but nothing is ever likely to give the terrorists carrying out attacks like today's what they want because what they want - at the very least independence for Xinjiang - is not acheivable. At the same time they do not need the support of the majority, or even a very large minority to keep up these attacks - T.E. Lawrence estimated that the active support of only 2% of the population can sustain an insurgency, a figure born out by the experience in Northern Ireland, where a 1999 survey reported that only 3.6% of people (7.4% of Catholics) admitted to having "a lot of sympathy" for Republican paramilitaries. It seems that even a collapse in support for the insurgency amongst Uighurs in Xinjiang would not stop it from continuing.

Whilst the Chinese authorities can and should be doing more to placate the Uighurs, it seems that whilst such changes might reduce the violence, whatever they do China faces the prospect of these killings carrying on for the forseeable future.

[UPDATE: this piece in today's Dawn on airstrikes in Pakistan hitting an ETIM training-camp demonstrates also the international reach of Xinjiang terrorism. H/T Ryan Mclaughlin]

[Picture: The .45 ACP M1911 pistol used in Stephen Saunders' assassination. Source: The Public Relations Office of the Greek Police via]

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