China and the Uyghurs: The “Palestinization” of Xinjiang?

Michael Clarke, “China and the Uyghurs: The “Palestinization” of Xinjiang?,” Middle East Policy, 15 September 2015.


In this 2015 article published on Middle East Policy, Dr. Clarke, an associate professor at Australian National University, uses Palestine or “Palestinization” as an analogy to capture the Uyghur-Han ethnic tension in China, the emulation of radical Islamism and violence by Uyghur extremists, and lastly, the immense international attention such developments are attracting. Clarke illustrates the history of the erection of a massive counterterrorism apparatus in Xinjiang, and the series of terrorist incidents and trends of extremism that have catalyzed the overwhelming securitization of the region. Clarke also makes note of the diplomatic maneuvers Beijing has made to convince the Central Asian republics and the Islam world to suppress Uyghur autonomy and separatism against the backdrop of retreating American influence in the Middle East.


ver a decade ago Dru C. Gladney argued that China faced the prospect of Xinjiang (or East Turkestan as many Uyghurs would prefer it) becoming its own West Bank if it failed to address the problems stemming from its forceful attempts to integrate the region. In a neat summation of Beijing’s core dilemma, he suggested, “If China does not explore other options besides repression, restriction and investment, millions of Uyghur Muslims might
become disenfranchised, encouraging some to look to the intifada, the Taliban or al-Qaeda for inspiration.”
Chinese dissident Wang Lixiong in his 2007 book, My West China: Your East Turkestan, also pointed to the likely “Palestinization” of conflict in
Xinjiang in which “the full mobilization of a people and the full extent of its hatred” would be directed against the state. While the situation in Xinjiang has not reached this point, I would suggest that the beginnings of the Palestinization of the region are discernible at three levels. First,
the analogy is apt in capturing the hardening of the political and ethnic boundaries between the core actors in Xinjiang: the Uyghur, the Han and the Party-state. Although these boundaries have always existed with varying degrees of intensity they are hardening as a result of the state’s unrelenting implementation of its strategy of “repression, restriction and investment.” Second, evidence from a number of major terrorist attacks in the region in
recent years suggests that some extremist Uyghur militants have begun to adopt the tactics of other regional and global Islamist organizations. Third, the conflict between Uyghurs and the Chinese state has become internationalized, largely through Beijing’s efforts to link violence in Xinjiang to globally oriented radical Islamism to obtain diplomatic benefts in the post-9/11 era. Yet such a strategy is beset by a number of pitfalls that have the potential to make the Uyghur and Xinjiang issues points of contention in China’s foreign relations with a variety of states.

Keywords: Ethnic tension, counterterrorism, Uyghur, Palestine