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October 16, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright October 16, 2009 Mark Elliott. Used by permission.


China Beat has run several pieces recently on the Xinjiang riots. On October 2, we featured Rian Thum’s “The Ethnicization of Discontent in Xinjiang,” which argued that the riots had raised ethnic tensions in the region. A few days later, we published “Islamic Fundamentalism: An Ignored Specter in the Xinjiang Riot,” written by Liang Zheng. Zheng argued that the foreign media had ignored indications that the riots were instigated by fundamentalists from southern Xinjiang, an argument that preserves the notion of ethnic harmony in Urumqi itself.

Today we run a response to Zheng’s argument from Mark Elliott, Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard University. Further responses may be sent to thechinabeat

With great interest and no little concern I read the recent post by Liang Zheng (“Islamic Fundamentalism: An Ignored Specter in the Xinjiang Riot,” 6 October), arguing that Islamic fundamentalism is behind the violent protests that took place in Urumqi this past July. If Mr. Zheng’s claims were true, that would indeed be cause for alarm on more than one level. Yet, because this is such a contentious point – dovetailing as it does rather neatly with the government’s line on discontent generally in Xinjiang and the justification given for “striking hard” against Uyghur dissent – the evidence should be examined extremely carefully. As far as I can tell, the evidence presented by Mr. Zheng seems to be little more than hearsay.

Disregarding the argument that Xinjiang’s shared border with Afghanistan and Pakistan is prima facie evidence of fundamentalist influence, the assertions in the post regarding the spread of Islamic extremism to Xinjiang and the July violence are based mainly on the comments of the journalist and blogger Gheyret Niyaz,quoted in an interview in the August 2 issue of Yazhou zhoukan (English translation here). Gheyret says first that during one street protest in Urumqi he heard slogans being shouted for the imposition of Shari’a law and the establishment of an Islamic state. One would like to have independent verification of these claims, and to know whether similar calls were made at other locations. I myself am unaware of any confirmed accounts that this was the case, but perhaps other readers of China Beat have information they can provide? Gheyret goes on to say that since these goals coincide with those of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party, or ILP), that organization must have helped to organize the protests. This seems to be mere inference. As further evidence of this involvement, he points to the fact that the people in the crowd of one hundred he observed that day were all wearing tennis shoes; that “they came together and dispersed in unison, in a highly organized way”; and that they spoke with accents identifying them as coming from Kashgar and Khotan. On this last point he is tentative, since, as he says, “I could not see if they had knives” (!). None of this seems convincing to me as evidence of a link to outside fundamentalist organizations. (A perusal of ILP’s UK website turns up no indication of any special interest in events in Xinjiang or support for the Uyghur cause. Quite the contrary: it approvingly reports the Pakistani president’s praise of the Chinese government’s handling of the unrest.)