Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
The People’s Republic of China under President Xi Jinping has grown to be one of the most powerful nations on earth. It currently has the second largest economy in the world, second only to the US and is one of the largest military powers in the world. It has tremendous capital for investments and wields much influence worldwide. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and is being projected as a growing super-power that is capable of challenging the United States. It already has surpassed the US in terms of the number of naval vessels and is steadily projecting power in the near seas. While it has been projecting its rise as a peaceful one with extensive diplomatic practices, China’s rise is seen with much skepticism by many. Reasons vary from the skirmishes with its neighbours as well as its extensive investments in numerous countries which has been dubbed as debt-traps. However, on the domestic scenario, China has drawn major flak on the treatment towards the Uyghur Muslim population in its Xinjiang Autonomous Region as well as in Tibet and the protests in Hong Kong for democracy among others. While all the crackdowns have drawn criticism from various corners of the globe, the one in Xinjiang has garnered much attention due to the many reports and testaments of the extensive violations of human rights in ‘re-education’ centers aimed at inculcating patriotism, Chinese culture and simultaneously eradicating extremist and radical thoughts from the minds of the Uyghur Muslims. While the activities in the ‘re-education’ centers are justified with the arguments of national security and counter-terrorism, China has constantly denied all accusations of ill treatment meted out to the ethnic minority. However, a number of news media have come up with evidences and accusations against the Chinese Communist Party’s approach, particularly under Chen Quanguo (Chestnut, Greitens, Lee, & Yazici, 2019) whose tenure in Tibet also was controversial and this in turn has raised calls for transparency from the international community, including prominent voices like the former United Nations Commissioner Michelle Bachelet who requested unfettered access to a UN fact-finding commission (Byman & Saber, 2019), only to be denied. China’s rise as a major power with considerable influence in Africa and Asia has emboldened its stance, but serious questions still remain.
Scholars and observers have noted how China has employed extensive measures to counter the various insurgent movements in Xinjiang with mainly a two-fold strategy of extensive surveillance and policing aided by technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ‘re-education’ through involuntary detention. It is to be noted here that the regular accusations of human rights violations in the region have caused the actual presence of terrorism and violence there to be undermined in the public perception. This study aims at understanding the politics of identity, terrorism and counter-terrorism in Xinjiang along with taking the factor of human rights into scrutiny. This study will initially examine the demographics of Xinjiang followed by insights into the terrorism prevailing in the region also looking at its causes. This will be followed by an examination of Chinese response in countering these movements also listing the possible challenges.
Demographics of Xinjiang
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is located in the northwestern part of China which is sometimes cited as one of the buffer zones that shielded the Han Chinese mainland from the erstwhile Soviet threat during the Cold War. It has ample of natural resources containing large Oil and Uranium reserves. It currently hosts a number of oil, gas and mineral industries and has enormous economic potential. The Chinese government has built a number of gas pipelines connecting Xinjiang with cities along its coasts and is allegedly depriving the non-Han population of these gains by unjustly levying taxes (Raza, 2019). This has caused much resentment among a population that has existing wounds of being seen inferior to their Han counterparts, being characterized as prone to poverty and illiteracy along with rampant discrimination in their own land.
The Uyghur population is of Turkish ethnicity and having roots in Central and East Asia predominantly dominate the XUAR demographics. The territory became part of China in an 1884 settlement whereby it was bordered by the erstwhile Russian empire. Today it borders India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia and Mongolia over 5,600 kilometers. A 2015 report by the US State department put the total population estimated at 23.2 million consisting of Uyghurs, Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz and other predominantly Muslim population making up around 63 percent of the population of Xinjiang. Reports state that nearly one million Uyghurs are being held against their will in detention and the CPC has declared “no-mercy’ as per a report in the New York Times. (Ramzy & Buckley, 2019). The move has been termed by many as ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic-cleansing’ with a concerted effort being undertaken to erase their culture. It is imperative to go into the recent developments in order to understand this.
The Chinese government recently came up with a report stating that attempts are being made to distort the facts about Xinjiang’s history (Raza, 2019). It claims that the Uyghurs are not of Turkish ethnicity and that Xinjiang had been part of China since the third century. The religion of the majority in the region- Islam, according to the report was an ‘imposition by the Arab Empire’ and not belonging to them originally. The report reasserted that Xinjiang was an inseparable part of the Chinese state. While it is true that Islam came later to the province which had cities like Khotan being Buddhist hubs, Xinjiang has seen a major increase of the Han Chinese population. For example, the Han Chinese constituted only 7 percent of Xinjiang population in 1949 whereas the figure stands at 40 percent today. The CPC is being accused of cultural destruction by forced migration of Uyghur children in the guise of scholarships and education to brainwash their minds and eradicate their religion, culture and traditions to replace it with Chinese nationalism while adults are sent forcibly for labour to various parts of China. Attempts are also being swiftly carried out to intermix the populations. For example, Uighur women are offered independence of their male relatives if they agree to marry Han men. Kazakhs reportedly were offered monetary benefits for such marriages (Byman & Saber, 2019).
China has constantly spread the narrative that the ethnic minority are always prone to extremism and crimes. With the rise in number of violent attacks being perpetrated by Uighurs in various parts of the country, the CCP evaluated that the population was vulnerable to Jihadist influence and as a result, various scholars and the US has estimated a population between 1.5 million to 3 million Uyghurs being incarcerated in various detention centers across the province. In 2017, Xinjiang had 1.5 percent of China’s total population while it had 21 percent of the country’s recorded arrests (Chestnut, Greitens, Lee, & Yazici, 2019). It is in this context that an examination of the terrorist movement in Xinjiang and its roots is critical in understanding the security ramifications and the condition of the ethnic population residing there.
Terrorism in Xinjiang- Overview and Causes
China has conceptualized the idea of three evils namely separatism, terrorism and extremism in the 1990s and remains the framework of its framework in countering such movements against the state. The Chinese government defines terrorism and extremism as a broad range of actions that can threaten the existence of the regime in the Counterterrorism legislation passed in 2015. Beijing argues that the three evils have led to XUAR being mired in poverty, violence and instability since the last three decades and according to some sources from the CCP, there are concerns as to whether XUAR would become “China’s Libya” (Chestnut, Greitens, Lee, & Yazici, 2019). The number of terrorist incidents in China have been significantly linked to the Uyghurs and the organizations that support their cause. These include the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and its successor Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). While 2014 saw the ‘Strike Hard’ campaign being initiated to suppress terrorism, Beijing has been alarmed by the reports of various Uyghurs having joined the fighting forces of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al Qaeda which poses a major threat on returning home through Central Asian states along the Chinese border. Beijing in response turned to a strategy that maybe termed as a double-edged sword as speculations remain that whether this will indeed work out or instead come to bite back the dragon.
The root of discontent among Xinjiang people has its roots from the time of the Qing dynasty when colonization of the region took place. The people of Xinjiang faced mass starvation, destruction and violence with the attempts at integration with China as well as the promotion of the Han Chinese culture and the forced labour that was promoted (Raza, 2019). This continued even after the formation of PRC in 1949. The Uyghurs, who were a majority in Xinjiang were denied any political power in their homeland and considered as ‘Barbarians’ who could not hold power and had to evolve in order to progress to Communism. The outlook of the Communist government didn’t help either. This characterized the Uyghurs as terrorists who were ‘waiting for the right time to attack’ the PRC. The resentment would naturally build up,
In the late 1970s, the interference of Soviet Union in Afghanistan and its eventual breakup, the formation of various terrorist and extremist organizations in the Central Asian region. The Islamic extremist organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) caused Islamic revolutions in Central Asia which invoked fear in the CCP and the control over Xinjiang was further tightened. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, later known as the Turkestan Islamic Party, was founded in 1989 with Zeydin Yusup, Hasan Mahsum as its prominent leaders, seeking to create an independent Turkestan instead of the XUAR. The initial members of the movement were Uyghurs who had fled Xinjiang and fled to the surrounding countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan who became later associated with the likes of Al Qaeda and Taliban. According to Chinese government data, these terrorists sanctioned by the United Nations and US State department carried out more than 200 attacks killing 162 people and injuring over 400 in Xinjiang from 1990 to 2001 (Jin & Dehang, 2019). Over the years, the terrorists have joined ranks and trained with the Islamic State whose then leader Abubakar Al Baghdadi included China among the states that “forcibly seized the ‘rights’ of Muslims” and encouraged other groups to attack the Chinese state. His call to take revenge and ‘bloodshed for tears shed’ rattled Beijing. The Israeli intelligence had put the figure of Uighurs fighting at 3000 while the Syrian ambassador to China estimated the number at around 5000 (Chestnut, Greitens, Lee, & Yazici, 2019). Additionally, reports of terror groups transiting over Hong Kong and recruiting militants from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to later wage war in Xinjiang has set alarms in Beijing which has clamped down heavily on the XUAR.
The threats are exaggerated by the Chinese government according to observers. Though the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have had Uyghur recruits and a number of attacks have taken place over the years such as those on government buildings in 2016 and 2017, the attacks on Tiananmen square, etc. Government figures put the number of attacks by Uyghurs in Xinjiang at 200 with 162 resulting deaths and over 400 injuries in the years between 1990 to 2001Attacks wary from bomb detonations to knife attacks, but the state of China is well equipped to deal with these and has established an enormous presence in Xinjiang as well as numerous strategies to counter the movements. However, risks can emanate from returning Uyghurs who have been fighting in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as stated by Vice Minister of Chinese Public Security Meng Hongwei (Jin & Dehang, 2019) and as per the testaments from some of the Uyghur terrorists who wished to wage ‘long-term attacks’ in Xinjiang. Terrorists are reportedly also being aided by the Turkish government along with the Syrians, the former refusing to clamp down on the groups who share ethnicity with themselves (Byman & Saber, 2019). Additionally, the exit of US from Afghanistan initially had deeply concerned China as news of abuses against Muslim population have spread widely and the possible outflow of terrorists into its borders. This was reflected in a speech of XI Jinping himself in several of his speeches. However, Beijing has been undertaking efforts to entice the Taliban in order to prevent the Afghan threat. Nevertheless, China is threatened by the possibility of its citizens coming under attack from terrorists in various parts of the world as it is steadily expanding its presence globally as demonstrated from the car suicide attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kazakhstan in 2016. This concern was also shared by Special Envoy Wu Sike (Chestnut, Greitens, Lee, & Yazici, 2019) who stated that terrorists need not necessarily enter Xinjiang to carry out the attacks but could operate from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Thus, faced with domestic and international ramifications, China has steadily worked to adopt some formidable counter-terrorist practices which has come under extreme scrutiny.
Chinese Response and Counter-Terrorism Practices
The Chinese response to counterterrorism has evolved over time and is a double-edged sword as several of its actions can prove counter-productive causing the exact opposite of what was originally intended to be. While China has promoted the rhetoric of these Uyghurs as uncivilized and barbaric, the terror outfits were accused of rejecting modernity, human rights and human progress. Besides such propaganda being fed to the masses, the CPC exploited the factors of national security in order to push forward strategies of aggressive surveillance and re-education. The ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns which saw its initiation in the 1980s gained a new vigor and form in 2014 (Byman & Saber, 2019) which was originally aimed at preventing crime. On the other hand, a year later, China passed its first comprehensive counterterrorism law. These along with mass funding and new leadership has transformed the security landscape of the province.
The first component of the counterterrorism strategy is the extensive surveillance aided by technology. China has significantly invested in maintaining a huge force presence in the region aimed at psychologically intimidating the population while also surveilling almost every aspect of their lives. Along with police and paramilitary forces posted every few hundred feet and a network of police stations and outposts aimed at rapid response, the electronic surveillance employing Artificial Intelligence (AI) monitor their movements. The authorities reportedly collect people’s biometric data, gait, location, etc. (Byman & Saber, 2019) and record their purchase of knives and blades. The systems report if they move more than 300 meters beyond their homes, workspaces and other approved spaces (Chestnut, Greitens, Lee, & Yazici, 2019). Uyghurs are also subject to forced deportation from foreign countries. Their interactions with friends and relatives abroad are also closely monitored in order to prevent them from leaking information or being ‘radicalized’. Another aspect of the surveillance method is cutting off ties of the citizens with their relatives and friends abroad as well as targeting diaspora networks. There have been a number of instances where China has required other countries to take individuals into custody or deport them to Xinjiang (Ramzy & Buckley, 2019). The communication interception by the authorities is important in this regard. In fact, if one member of a family is sent into detention, the next three generations of the family would be subject to increased surveillance.
In fact, the surveillance method is not new to Xinjiang. It was implemented there from the time of the September 11 attacks in US. However, the level of surveillance has increased manifolds in the last decade. Beijing has coerced its technology companies to aid in its activities including decryption and collection of data to surveil not just the population in XUAR, but all over China. Interestingly, several US companies continue to provide complex technology and surveillance systems to China while the American government continues to criticize CCP’s actions (Byman & Saber, 2019). With Beijing gaining experience and expertise over years with such systems, they have also begun export of such systems abroad to countries with authoritarian governments. Surveillance is aided by the huge presence of armed security forces; the spending and intake of which has increased manifold over the past four years. All the while, it has made sure to censor all news regarding its activities including violations of human rights. It has also made sure to employ propaganda effectively. It also uses its soft power to curtail criticism globally. In such a scenario, Chinese claims of having arrested over 14,000 terrorists, broke up gangs and seized over 2,000 explosives and punished over 30,000 individuals for ‘illegal’ religious activities seem spurious.
The second component of Chinese counterterrorism strategy is ‘re-education’ or ‘transformation through education’. Re-education and political indoctrination are steps carried out by the CPC allegedly to ‘Sinicize’ the Uyghurs who are predominantly Muslims and root out their faith and culture while imposing the ‘Chinese’ language and ‘values’ including, mainly of the party. This practice of re-education has two points of historical context in China- the first during the Xinjiang colonization beginning with the Qin Dynasty and the secondly, the re-education through labour program in 1955. According to some Human Rights groups, today up to 30 percent of Southern Xinjiang’s Uyghur population have been detained. These steps were in consideration of the CPC since 2009 and was approved in 2014 with the increase in violence. Basically, the original beliefs of the people are seen as a disease and are often termed as a ‘cancer’ or ‘tumor’ (Chestnut, Greitens, Lee, & Yazici, 2019) that needs to be operated upon and removed before it spread to others. This kind of step, by mass indoctrination of people are seen as being helpful in the long run rather than leaving them to possible radicalization. Groups of people from universities, party, etc. are sent to identify possible patients. Party members are also sent to Uyghur homes in order to ‘fraternize’ with the families according to the CPC while they actually are meant to surveil all aspects of the people including their personal lives. They monitor the family members’ knowledge of the party, language, their practices of religion and force them to have food forbidden by religion such as pork. There have also been reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by party representatives against the female members of the Uyghur families (Kang & Wang, 2018).
Coupled with these reports are the allegations of torture and inhuman treatment meted out to the people in re-education centres referred to by the western media as detention camps where no outsiders are allowed access (Ramzy & Buckley, 2019). There have been accusations of the ‘students’ or prisoners being beaten, subject to harsh punishments, deprivation of food and sleep, exposure to loud music and bright lights among various allegations of sexual abuse and forced sterilization while the state economy is benefiting from their collective labour (Chestnut, Greitens, Lee, & Yazici, 2019). There are no exceptions to the category of those detained- they include elderly, breastfeeding women as well as the disabled and weak. They are provided minimal healthcare. Children of prisoners have reportedly been separated from them, including toddlers who have even been said to be referring to their teachers who brainwash them from an early age as ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ (Raza, 2019). Some students are sent on scholarships to different Chinese cities and fed the CPC propaganda from there. There are also attempts at removing the Uyghur language from the syllabuses in XUAR. Also, to be noted is the fact that there is little or no documentation regarding those imprisoned. Several thousand people have been reported ‘missing’.
It is interesting to note that China is using several bilateral and multilateral forums to advance its counterterrorism approaches and build intelligence networks. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization members along with China have signed various agreements since 2001 (Jin & Dehang, 2019) and conducted drills together. They have also been able to largely restrain the drug trade from Afghanistan to Central Asian states. China also has maintained a very principled stand in the UN against terrorism (Chandra, 2019) what can be termed as ‘hollow rhetoric’. Nevertheless, numerous challenges exist for the CPC due to their actions and the geopolitical scenario across the world which may have severe ramifications.
The counterterrorism efforts of China have received praise from some countries, primarily those from Central and West Asia along with Africa while the western world has been largely critical and skeptical of Chinese actions. It was in July 2019 that 22 western states submitted a letter to the UNHRC against Chinese suppression of human rights under the cover of counterterrorism while 37 states, from the Middle East and Africa submitted a letter to counter the former letter, lauding Beijing’s ‘successful’ counterterrorism efforts (Byman & Saber, 2019). In March 2019, the Organization of Islamic Countries had also appreciated China. However, there are increasing number of countries that are demanding actions and companies raising voices against Chinese actions in Xinjiang. An example is how the popular sports brand Nike expressed concerns about forced labour in its products (Reuters, 2021), that caused a storm on social media. China may face issues with its global image with the extreme measures taken against minorities while being a key UNSC member. There is also much at stake for Beijing. Its Belt and Road Initiative in several countries are being speculated as possible targets for Uyghur terrorists, who have trained and fought with the ISIS and Al Qaeda. Chinese casualty in many attacks have been described as collateral damage. This can have effects on the prospects of Chinese investments in several countries, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. There are also challenges of cross-border terrorism emanating from China’s borders with Central Asia which could become a transit point. More importantly, several scholars have expressed doubts over the success of Chinese efforts as this could backfire and instead of causing assimilation or ‘integration’, (Jin & Dehang, 2019)the insurgency might actually increase in China, gradually inspiring movements in other territories and destabilizing the state eventually. Moreover, the feasibility of conducting such actions also is under scrutiny and the possibility of radicalization and separatism for this cause, not just within China, but globally is a possibility, that can hinder China’s ambitions to be next superpower.
It is quite evident from the previous sections of the article that Chinese actions against the XUAR population exceeds the requirements. While the threat of terrorism is real and looming, the ramifications of Chinese actions can only be speculated. The extent to which any form of ‘re-education’ will be successful, if at all with real concerns, is playing with fire. Suppression of a people’s beliefs, culture and values is a very difficult task that can be considered impossible. The fear of a backlash is very real and the results on Chinese interests, both at home and abroad are under scrutiny. Also under cloud are China’s global image and relations with Islamic countries in case China loses its economic leverage and the soft power resulting from it. China will be faced with a large number of aging populations in a few years and the question whether the Han Chinese population will be able to maintain the monopoly and leverage over the ethnic population who have ties with neighbouring states can be considered as a major question. Also, having a number of countries under debt, including Pakistan can have negative impacts on Beijing’s security setting as Islamabad has many terror groups who have until now been reined under the strong control of the ISI and the Pakistan Army. There is also the Afghan issue post-US retreat regarding which CPC has been trying to reach an understanding with the Taliban. However, how this works out and the presence of a much docile Al Qaeda, ISIS and related terror groups also will determine whether the Turkestan Islamic Party and the people of Xinjiang will be able to form an East Turkestan, retaliating against their oppressors, creating a revolution, and history.
(Sreekuttan Kolathur Madathil is a second-year Master’s student at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Graduated in B A International Relations, from Central University of Kerala. Areas of interest include China, Terrorism, India’s National Security and Indian Foreign Policy. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S.)
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