Wednesday, 29 February 2012

What's in a word?

It is perhaps too early to attempt to analyse the events of yesterday, where 20 people are reported to have died in a violent disturbance in Kargilik/Yecheng. Detailed and reliable reports are yet to emerge from the area, and it would seem foolish to attempt a full dissection of what precisely occurred and why.

However, there is a stand-out feature of the reports that have emerged; the immediate labelling of the Uyghur individuals involved as 'terrorists.' This is a common response by the Chinese authorities when dealing with high-profile incidents involving Uyghurs, be they violent or non-violent, and be they instigated by Uyghurs or not. The words 'terrorists' and 'separatists' are used interchangeably to mean the same thing, and are seemingly used to decry any Uyghur individual who engages in activism of any kind.

The effect of this is obvious. Very simply, the labelling of individuals as 'terrorists' allows the Chinese authorities to treat them as such. The Copenhagen School's theory of securitization posits that 'security' is merely a speech act; that is, by describing something as a security issue, it necessarily becomes one. By labelling Uyghur individuals as 'terrorists', the Chinese authorities seek and are granted legitimation to enact the liberty-limiting policies which they so clearly pursue in Xinjiang, in order to preserve the 'security' which is threatened.

A simple linguistic trick it may be, but it is a trick which the Chinese authorities use time and again in order to behave as they do in Xinjiang.


  1. I think the important words here are "immediate" and "common", but even so this particular incident is difficult.

    Based on the most recent reports I've seen out of Hong Kong, 9 men exited a vehicle with axes and started slashing random people in the street with the goal of decapitation.

    By definition alone, is this not a "terrorist" act meant to instill fear into the average citizen?

    I think the key to your argument here is that the terrorist label shoveled onto the Uyghur by the Chinese government is done immediately and it's done every time without question. Unfortunately in this circumstance I think they had a good reason to say so.

  2. Thanks for your comments.

    You are correct, it is the immediacy of the Chinese state's inclination to blame terrorism or separatism that is the crux of the article.

    In terms of the definition of 'terrorism', it is a difficult problem. Should we really label every act that induces terror as a terrorist act? If so, would we class the Chicago school shooting of the past week as a terrorist act?

    'Terrorist' and 'terrorism' are words, I would argue, that should be reserved for acts which are clearly politically motivated and which have a political intent. In the absence of clear facts surrounding the incidents in Kargilik/Yecheng a few days ago, and specifically the motivating factors behind them, it is surely premature to call them 'terrorist' acts?