Kaiser Kuo: On Radicalization and Chinese Policy

I get that some people trying to make sense of the attacks in Kunming want to take the opportunity to discuss how Chinese policy contributed to radicalization. And while I’ve noted elsewhere how it bothers me profoundly that many Anglophone commentators offer a merely perfunctory nod to the monstrousness of the knife attacks that claimed 29 innocent lives and sent 160 or more people to the hospital with stab and slash wounds before moving on to the “real” issue of Chinese repression of Uyghur rights, I do believe the desire on the part of some people to use the Kunming massacre to talk about underlying issues is well-intentioned and appropriate.

What troubles me, though, is that too often in that ensuing discussion, this attack as well as all the recent attacks—whether or not they cross our (still somewhat blurred) definitional line into terror—are seen simply as responses to Chinese repression. Is there repression and bad policy? Yes, absolutely. Has it contributed to radicalization? Sure.

But is it the only factor that has contributed to radicalization?

Of course not. The weird part is that while it should be stunningly obvious that the whole context, the whole relationship between Islam and the secular, industrialized world, the whole discourse on the way Islamic peoples are situated in the modern world—all this has dramatically changed, but this barely enters conversation. There are myriad alternative responses, loci of identity, causes, leaders, and movements on offer now that just weren’t there pre-September 11. The Internet barely existed in the oasis cities of the Tarim before 2001.

But people are for the most part writing and talking about the situation as though it’s happening in complete isolation, as though the rise of radical Islam in the rest of the world since the 1980s doesn’t figure in. It somehow doesn’t merit a paragraph or two alongside the context paragraphs that most of the Anglophone outlets see fit to include about repressive policies in restive Xinjiang. People can’t see beyond the simple narrative of Chinese repression.

Any serious effort to look at what’s happened and where things might go from here has to look at Chinese policy, and I’m sure that there’s plenty of blame to be laid there. But it should also factor in—and this is a far from comprehensive list—the rise of Wahhabism and other fundamentalist sects much further to the west; the Mujahedin in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal; Bin Laden and AQ; their bloody work; the whole idiotic enterprise of the GWoT; networks like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; the Afghan training camps (where let’s not forget there were many Uyghurs); the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and the Arab Spring in more recent years. It has to look critically at the WUC and the pared-down, simplistic narrative it’s managed to sell, and on and on.

It’s depressing that instead people are quibbling over how well organized ETIM is, with some even denying that any organizations like it exist at all. Or they quibble over whether scare-quotes should be used with the word terrorism. (Yes, I’ve been quibbling over that, but I think it’s important: Like many people, I find that the word’s been badly abused, mostly at the hands of the Bush 43 Administration, and is deeply problematic, but dropping our use of it now, or deploying it only with the scare-quotes, is too loaded a statement and sends very wrong messages).

But to my main point: Yes, let’s talk about the underlying problems. But let’s not for a second believe that if only the Chinese would be nicer all the nasty, violent radicalism would just disappear.

This post was originally published on Kaiser Kuo’s Facebook page on 3/3/14. It received so much attention that we reached out to Kaiser for a repost on ExSE.  This is posted with the permission of the author. Comments and discussion welcome.  

7 Comments

Filed under Current Events, ethnic policy, Governance, Kunming Train Station Attack, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Uncategorized

7 Responses to Kaiser Kuo: On Radicalization and Chinese Policy

  1. Pingback: How Terror Works | Urban Future (2.1)

  2. Chris

    Kaiser Kuo is making sweeping statements on the “Islamic world” as the engender of terror, a theme which has run its course to justify wars and regime change in parts of the world. Similarly with his sweeping conclusions on the tenuous link between social unrest in Xinjiang and wannaby jihadists.
    Let us remember that the “Islamic world” if such a thing exists is not always and everywhere a hornets’ nest of extremism; large swaths of that “world” is perfectly orderly and thriving peacefully, engaging in arms length negotiations with all kinds of economic partners as is the same with much the rest of the world.
    But to go back to China and the brief of this article, indeed we the readers would be very interested to hear Kaiser Kuo’s ideas to mitigate current ethnocentric grievances and policy proposals.
    It seems to me that China was once culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse, at least judging by all the carved inscriptions on most Chinese temples and ancient government offices, including the forbidden city, where all can read edicts in three languages, Chinese, Tibetan Sanskrit and Mongol (which is in fact the Uyghur alphabet written in Kufic style and transposed vertically to follow the classic Chinese style of writing).
    I would posit that it is incumbent on the dominant power to regulate ethnic affairs and that failures to achieve social harmony lies squarely with policy choices. It is all too easy to say: “see, we bring them progress and they’re so ungrateful”. Human beings have complex needs and often diverging priorities, maybe the “oasis civilization” is not receptive to industrialization at all cost, maybe Uyghurs would like to be recognized for their deep and lengthy ties with the history of China rather than being relegated as a troublesome people. Maybe ethnocentrism is more to do with the Han-centric view of China. Maybe racial compulsary profiling on Chinese ID cards is creating unnecessary tensions.
    A lot of maybes but a country that wants to be large and great and multiethnic cannot achieve all of that if it remains locked in unipolar thinking. And unlike what Kaiser Kuo may think, Islam, radical or otherwise, has absolutely nothing to do with it.

  3. Pingback: Kaiser Kuo: On Radicalization and Chinese Policy – East by Southeast | CleverJots

  4. karlis

    It really depends on what is meant by “radicalisation”. For one, we are seeing a lot, a lot of radicalism* in the ways people express disenchantment and protest here in China. To take just a few examples — the bus burnings in Xiamen last year and just a few days back in Guiyang; kindergarten and school stabbings; self-immolations in Tibet, group suicides of petitioners in Beijing — these are all radical and extreme acts, and just like the violence in Xinjiang, they are happening in a global context.

    Of course, radical religions movements abroad and examples of religion on nationalism mixing into explosive conflict, like in Chechnya, provide models to emulate for potential extremists. Xinjiang is in many ways connected to places and people engaged in such acts and policies, therefore it is unsurprising that Xinjiang would be the place in China where such actions would surface. However, given then prominence of violent radical actions of various forms throughout China, I think it is reasonable to look inward first. IMHO, the context for commentary in Xinjiang-related violence should be expanded to include extreme protests from other parts of the country at the first instance and only then focus on the specific foreign connections and religious circumstances of Xinjiang.

    * I do not use the word “radicalisation” because it implies an increase of radicalism, which is very hard to gauge. For context, here is a very interesting discussion on whether ethnic tensions are increasing in China: https://www.chinafile.com/are-ethnic-tensions-rise-china

  5. I agree with Kaiser’s point that placing the blame entirely on the Chinese government for this atrocity is repugnant. Even if we agree that Chinese policy bears some of the blame (and keep in mind that police are still investigating the motives behind the attack, and they’re being careful about what they share,) this attack was poorly aimed and thought out. If these were the work of true freedom fighters, they have done nothing to advance their cause in the eyes of the world. Killing a bunch of innocents is an immature expression of nihilistic anger, not the thoughtful action of a national leader. That is true whether we are talking about a Chinese train station or an Israeli bus.

    Violent radicalism is no substitute for thoughtful, determined, and strategic resistance. Stable nations and secure futures are not built on the bodies of suicide squads.

  6. Derek

    The fact remains that BUT FOR the Chinese state’s oppressive, imperialist policies in Xinjiang, this attack would never have happened and 29 families wouldn’t be mourning the loss of a loved one right now. Of course there’s tension between Islam and modernity, but do you see Muslim Uyghurs targeting the secular states of Australia or Norway? No, they are responding to the specific entity that is directly responsible for making their lives a living hell.

  7. Pingback: Terrifying Uyghurs | the art of life in chinese central asia

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