Updated: Sep 1, 2022
C3S Article no: 0050/2017
Map Courtesy: amazingxinjiang.com
“Terrorism has become the systematic weapon of a war that knows no boundaries or seldom has a face”.
China stated on May 2, 2017 that it is to soon deploy drones, install surveillance cameras and barbed wire fencing to patrol the over 5,600-kilometre border of its Muslim-majority Xinjiang province bordering the Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Afghanistan. The aim is to curb infiltration of Uyghur militants according to the reports. According to China’s instructions, Pakistan has also launched military operations to wipe out East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) training bases in its tribal areas. Chinese officials have also stated that several Uyghurs have joined Islamic State to fight in Syria.Some reports state that there is a presence of Chinese military vehicles named Dongfeng EQ 2050 which is the equivalent of American Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, Humvee, inside a region called Little Pamir, a barren plateau near the border. [i]
Background of the Uyghur issue
The Xinjiang Conflict is a separatist conflict in China‘s far-west province of Xinjiang whose northern region is known as Dzungaria and whose southern region is known as East Turkestan. It was a protectorate of China since 60 B.C during the Tang Dynasty. The series of Xinjiang wars that took place during early and mid 20th Century played an important role in the East Turkestan independence movement. The Uyghurs are a Muslim, Turkic-language speaking ethnic group found throughout Central-Asia. The vast majority live in Xinjiang. Uyghur nationalists claim that 5% of Xinjiang’s population in 1949 was Han and 95 percent was Uyghur and that the Han were about one-third of Xinjiang’s population in 1800 during the Qing dynasty. It is believed that a declining infant-mortality rate, improved medical care and a laxity in China’s one-child policy helped Xinjiang’s population growth in the past. Alienation in Xinjiang has been caused in part by China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The presence of Islam in Xinjiang can be traced back to 8th century. In the 11th century, Mongols from the east invaded Central Asia and defeated the Turks, a reason why many Turkish-speaking Chinese today actually descend from Mongol as well as Turkish tribes. In 1884, Xinjiang was officially incorporated as a Chinese province which also was when the Qing dynasty began calling the region Xinjiang (New Frontier).[ii]
Xinjiang province has fared better compared to other provinces like Gansu but it also hosts the largest rural-urban gap in terms of wealth gap where majority of China’s poor reside in the countryside. Xinjiang which is considered to be rich in natural resources is strategically crucial because it shares international boundaries with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and India controlled Kashmir. The majority of China’s jade, gold and other precious metals are derived from the Xinjiang province. This region also produces one third of the China’s petroleum, two thirds of coal and one third of cotton and also possessing several nuclear testing sites. The government blames the violence on Islamist militants and separatists from the Uighur community who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. [iii] China fears that instability in Xinjiang will threaten the economic investment.
The terrorism angle and cross-border linkages
The gravity of the situation can be seen from the major incidents of Uyghur terrorism: In February 1992, two buses exploded in Urumqi, resulting in at least 3 deaths, and 23 injured and reports stated that the attacks were perpetrated by the East Turkestan Islamic Party (ETIM). In June 2012, Chinese official media reported that 6 men attempted to hijack Tianjin Airlines flight GS7554 from Hotan to Urumqi, Xinjiang. In April 2013 Xinjiang ethnic clashes killed 21 people including 15 police officers. In October 2013 Tiananmen Square attack, a fiery car blaze killed 5 and injured dozens. In September 2015, an unidentified man attacked off-duty workers at a coalmine, killing 50, among them 5 police officers in Xinjiang.[iv] These incidents raise queries on how the terrorists are acquiring weapons to carry out the attacks.
The answer can be found in the fact that in the Khunjerab Pass border in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, criminals and terrorists try to smuggle drugs or guns into the country. Khunjareb pass is also near Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Khunjerab Pass in Kashgar Prefecture has an important position in law enforcement in terror-plagued southern Xinjiang. Drugs also came from the “Golden Crescent,” an area that stretches from Afghanistan to Iran via Pakistan, where the vast majority of the world’s illegal opium is grown in the three countries mountainous peripheries. The issue is not only about drugs: People living on the Xinjiang frontier are familiar with the phrase “using drugs to foster terrorism”.[v] It is believed that many gun shops exist along the Khunjerab Pass to Gilgit where people can own a wide range of guns if they acquire an easily-obtained license. It is also easier to acquire a gun without a license in Afghanistan. Ever since the Khunjerab Pass crossing opened in 1982, drug dealers have been trying to take advantage of this route to get their lucrative product onto the Chinese market. The drugs are usually grown and manufactured in Afghanistan and are then transported to northern Pakistan, where the bulk product is packaged into smaller bags before being smuggled into China. Guns and drugs are always go hand in hand.
Since the 1990s China has sought to normalize relations with the Central Asian states by settling border disputes specifically linked to Uyghur separatism in a pragmatic way. Uyghurs in Central Asia can be divided into 2 groups which is the mainly secular, Russified long-term residents from Europe who are not preoccupied with the Xinjiang issue and the recent arrivals from China. Chinese are concerned about the Uyghur diaspora in Central Asia, who have organized, lobbied politicians and have employed the Internet to publicize Central Asian Republics effectively their grievances to a global audience.[vi]China is worried that Uyghurs in Central Asia will sympathize with those in Xinjiang and offer assistance and refugee with Uyghurs being the 7th largest minority in Kazakhstan where they enjoy genuine political and cultural autonomy. Kyrgyzstan has made several attempts to crackdown on Uyghurs on their own soil. Central Asia’s 500,000 strong Uyghur diaspora, 25% of Uzbekistan’s 27 million citizens enjoy close blood ties with the Uyghurs where Beijing considers it to be a complex reality . Some international concerns remain regarding the return extraditions to China of the known Uyghur separatists from states such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan to face death penalties. In 1994 Chinese Premier, Li Peng visited Central Asia promising economic aid to the struggling republics in return for assurances that they would not harbour Uyghur activists. The following year both the countries signed an agreement under which Kazakh security services would monitor Uyghur activities and share their findings with Beijing. The realignment of Central Asian policies regarding Uyghurs can be seen to develop over the years due to incidents between 1997-2000 which were swiftly put down by regional governments. Many Central Asian countries have also used ‘Uyghur Card” to curry favour with China.[vii]
The Chinese government sees these attacks as linked both to the Xinjiang independence and global jihadist movements. Police are the “fists and daggers” in the fight against terrorism according to China’s President Xi Jinping who was on a trip to the western Xinjiang region where authorities say members of a Muslim minority are waging a violent separatist campaign.[viii] Uyghur separatists claim that the region is not a part of China and is said to be illegally incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and has since been under Chinese occupation. It is said that after the establishment of the Soviet Union, many urban Uyghurs sometimes select Russian names for their children in cities such as Urumqi. Uyghur exiles have later threatened China with the Uyghur “liberation army” recruited from pro-Soviet emigres. Many Uyghurs complain that they are denied economic opportunities due to an influx of Han Chinese into the region. Xi urged ethnic unity and encouraged students to seize the opportunity to learn both Chinese and the Uighur language. Organisations like Human Rights watch and Amnesty International claim that ‘cultural repression’ of the Uyghurs is the cause of ethnic riots in Xinjiang. China responded to the growing unrest in the region in number of ways. In 1996, the government enacted “Strike Hard” campaigns or government operations designed to fight crimes and any threats to stability by accelerating arrests, trials and sentencing criminals. Some security measures that China has put forth include the intervention of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and various paramilitary organizations such as the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).
Seperatism under Communist rule began during the Maoist era where Xinjiang was subjected to intense periods of unrest that correlated with the fluctuating national policies of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Like the other Muslim minorities in China, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang saw their religious texts and mosques destroyed, their religious leaders persecuted and individual adherents punished. After Mao, the government lifted several of the restrictions as part of its effects to enact liberalisation and reform policies. Even after Xinjiang was considered to be referred to as China’s “Wild West”, China would occasionally report ethnic riots, illegal separatist activity or the arrests of the Uyghur activists from the early 1980s until 1997. In the mid 1990s China pushed for the transformation of “Shanghai Five” regional conference into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) established in 2000. China’s growing concerns about the separatist and the militant activity led Beijing to urge the SCO to focusing on the trans-border threats such as the radicalism, Islamic extremism and drug trafficking. In 2003, China produced its own version of a terrorism watch list. Since 2000 the ethnic tensions have worsened between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese. Muslims in Xinjiang allege that the government’s policies as state interference in religious worship and a deliberate campaign against Uighur culture. China fears that unrest in Xinjiang would lead to a decline in outside oil investment, jeopardise infrastructure construction and decrease other forms of foreign investment. The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) was created in 2002 which is a multilateral security agreement between SCO member states. In the year 2003 and 2006 China has conducted military exercises with SCO members, focussing on border security and attacks on mock terrorist training camps to build political support for cracking down on Uyghur rebels.
The repression of Muslim Uyghurs has long inspired fighters from Central Asia to support them. The Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent threat to occupy part of Xinjiang and his message to the Uyghurs that “Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue and are anticipating your brigades” appears to have been taken seriously by China. [ix] One can reasonably infer that Central Asia has become even more significant to the security of China. Though China generally avoids domestic interference, it has used the SCO to pressurise the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to shut down Uighur political parties and newspapers. China also hosted the largest military drill with SCO members since 2004 within its own borders. It has also been working with its Central Asian member states through intelligence, equipment and resource sharing in large part for counter-terrorism purposes. Countries in Central Asia are also in great need of stability and security, which gives the governments of the region and China common ground in dealing with the “foreign jihadists.
Besides these traditional anti-terror mechanisms, the Xiamen -2015 online counter-terrorism exercise was jointly hosted by relevant authorities of member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It was successfully held on October 14, 2015 in the southeastern Chinese coastal city of Xiamen, Fujian province. This is the first joint online exercise to counter terrorists hosted by the SCO. Based on the “Cooperation Program to Combat Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism in 2013-2015”, RATS established a cyber expert group in 2013 to strengthen the pragmatic cooperation of the SCO member states in the fight against online activities of terrorism, separatism and extremism. To enhance the mutual trust and strengthen the law enforcement cooperation in the field of cyber counter-terrorism further, the RATS Council passed the Resolution No. 386. SCO was initially established to prevent “foreign jihadists” from instigating violence in the Xinjiang region, and has helped to secure assurances from Central Asian governments that they will never support “militant separatists” on the basis of religious and ethnic commonalities.
China’s first comprehensive anti-terrorism bill, passed at the end of 2015, took effect on the first day of 2016. Till today, most of the debate on the law has been focused on “backdoor provisions. These portions of the draft law would have required telecommunications operators and Internet service providers to provide the Chinese government with “backdoor” access to their products to handover encryption codes for review, and to store local user data on servers within China. The new law also places restrictions on the reporting of terrorist attacks and government responses. China has long implemented a “people’s war” strategy to fight terrorism. Article 5 of the “People’s war” strategy highlights the participation of civilians has been recognized as a top principle of the counter-terrorism law. Article 8 of the law says that the authorities should establish joint coordination mechanisms to mobilize grassroots organizations. Article 74 highlights the formal forces or volunteer groups in the communities and encourage civilians to work as informants to promote intelligence gathering according to Article 44. Article 9 states that the law stipulates that all organisations and individuals have the duty to assist and cooperate with the authorities, and promises that honours and rewards should be given to those who have provided outstanding support in the prevention of terrorist activities as per Article 10 and those who have been injured or killed for performing their anti-terror civil duties according to Article 75.[x]China needs to find an alternative solution or adopt to regulations to strengthen the protection of civil liberties in its counter-terrorism activities.
After the September 9/11 attack in the U.S, China seized the opportunity to reframe its dispute with the Uyghurs as a dimension of the global war against terrorism. The government felt the need to protect its borders from an influx of more violent forms of Islam from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Although the Bush administration initially was reluctant to equate its fight against terrorism with domestic crackdowns on Uighur separatists, the State Department of the U.S added in 2002 to its “Terrorist watch list” the ETIM. The ETIM has been accused by the U.S State Department on its involvement in numerous acts of terrorism in China like assassinations, arson attacks, bombing of cinemas, buses, markets and hotels and it was also accused of having links with the Al Qaeda’s terrorist network. The United Nations (UN) on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attack designated the ETIM as a financier of terrorism. China accused Xinjiang in a separate report to the United Nations that ETIM cells were operating in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Beijing also issued its first ever “terrorist list” which included the Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organisation (ETLO), World Uighur Youth Congress (WUYC), and the East Turkistan Information Centre (ETIC).[xi] The Chinese government is cognizant that granting the Uyghurs greater autonomy would embolden dissidents such as in Tibet or Taiwan. The most critical issue one needs to understand is the Chinese government’s suppression of Cultural and religious freedom. In the past ethnic leaders like Kadeer allege that the Chinese government is attempting to wipe out the Uighur culture and language and has secretly executed thousands of Uyghurs. China sought to portray Uyghur separatism as another face of the global terrorism threat that the international community must confront in the early 2000s pitting “modern” states such as the United States and China against not-state Islamic foes. It is believed that the ambitions and objectives of Uyghurs are not consistent with those of Islamic jihadist groups. The Uyghur separatists are motivated not by religious fanaticism or ideological fervor but by nationalistic and separatist movements. It has never been sufficiently demonstrated that a substantive organisational link between al Qaeda and the ETIM exists. Hence it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusion about relations between the two organizations. [xii]
Challenges faced by Uyghurs
There are several other reasons the Uygurs are discount with the Chinese authorities. For instance, Uyghurs are disappointed with the rampant corruption by the Chinese government. In 2004 hundreds of Uyghur residents protested government plans to push them off their farm lands without fair compensation in order to build a dam. Human Security theory as applied by Clarke (Griffith University, Brisbane) provide a more credible lens through which to view China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. It is reported that thousands of college educated Uyghur youths have difficulty finding employment while Han graduates tend to secure jobs in the government sector. The educated Uyghurs are relegated to the lower ranks in their work due to their ethnicity. The Chinese government has prohibited parents from choosing names like ‘Muhammad’, ‘Arafat’ and ‘Jihad’ for their children in Xinjiang.[xiii] Many Uyghurs who have escaped the unrest in Xinjiang have traveled clandestinely through Southeast Asia to Turkey. In 2015, Chinese officials put a ban on beards for Muslim men and veils for Muslim women in public spaces and also put a ban on fasting in the holy month of Ramadan, and ordered Muslim-owned restaurants to remain open during the Ramadan period. Turkey angered China by expressing concern about reports of restrictions on Uyghurs worshipping and fasting during Ramadan. The Turkish protesters have also marched on China’s embassy and consulate in Turkey over the treatment of Uyghurs.[xiv] It is said that both the countries were also at loggerheads due to Thailand’s deportation of Uyghur migrants back to China.
With respect to the Silk Road where the Silk Road Fund will likely bolster Xinjiang’s role in China’s economic partnership with its energy-rich neighbours and be a boon to the livelihood of the Uyghurs, it is also another reason to crackdown on unrest in the region. As China’s investment and trade along the New Silk Road continues to grow, the region may become economically dependent upon Beijing. By developing extensive gas and oil pipelines and a network of transportation links, China is making itself economically indispensable to Xinjiang and the countries lying within the modern-day Silk Road. By eliminating other major competitors, Central Asian countries do not have many other partners to turn to who can offer few of the benefits of working with China. Their investment and diplomacy and also the hands-off approach to politics make the Chinese the perfect match for authoritarian governments in Central Asia. This would make for a win-win situation because Chinese trade partners in Central Asia will likely take the same hands-off approach to China’s domestic policy towards the Uyghurs. On the whole, China appears to be successfully capitalizing on the economic opportunities within the region while increasing the isolation of the Uyghurs.
To conclude, President Xi asserted that ‘long term stability of the autonomous region is vital to the whole country’s reform, development and stability, as well as to national unity, ethnic harmony and national security’ . But despite China’s online censorship, research has found that social media provides chance for the Chinese Muslims to interact with the outside members.[xv] The main reason that some Uyghurs have radicalized is because of perceived repression by the Chinese state. The suppression of the movement in Xinjiang for protection of the fundamental rights to secure its religious and cultural autonomy and identities needs far greater attention by the global community. China should work more towards strengthening its relationship and understanding about the Uighur province and also its effects of policies in Xinjiang. Unless the culture, language, religion, education, and work of the Uyghur community are preserved, Xinjiang will continue to be stained with blood.
[i] “China to deploy drones in Xinjiang to prevent infiltration”, Economic Times, May 2, 2017 (http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/china-to-deploy-drones-in-xinjiang-to-prevent-infiltration/articleshow/58478432.cms).
[ii] Cunningham, Christopher P , “Counter Terrorism in Xinjiang : The ETIM, China and Uyghurs”, International Journal on world peace, JSTOR, September 2012 (https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/24543768.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A1b0e9e32fb735a11ee7686a059ca245c )
[iii] Martina, Michael “China’s Xi says Xinjiang is front line on terrorism, hails police”,Reuters, 29 April 2014 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-idUSBREA3S03D20140429 )
[iv] “At least 50 reported to have died in attack on coalmine in Xinjiang in September”, The Guardian”, October 1, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/01/at-least-50-reported-dead-in-september-attack-as-china-celebrates-xinjiang
[vi] “ Who are the Uyghurs and why do they scare China”?,Global Risk Insights, October 3,2016 (http://globalriskinsights.com/2016/10/uyghurs-scare-china/ )
[viii] “ Who are the Uyghurs and why do they scare China”?,Global Risk Insights, October 3, 2016 (http://globalriskinsights.com/2016/10/uyghurs-scare-china/ )
[ix] Trinkle, Kate “China’s New Silk Road and Its Impact on Xinjiang”,The Diplomat , March 5, 2016 ( http://thediplomat.com/2015/03/chinas-new-silk-road-and-its-impact-on-xinjiang/ )
[x] Zhou, Zunyou, “China’s Comprehensive Counter-Terrorism Law”,The Diplomat, January 23, 2016 ( http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/chinas-comprehensive-counter-terrorism-law/. )
[xi] Monika, Chansoria, “Anti-terror drive’ is China’s ruse to target Uyghurs”, Sunday Guardian Live, May 13, 2017
[xiii] “China to deploy drones, wire fencing along Xinjiang border to prevent infiltration”, Press Trust of India, May 11, 2017 (http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/china-to-deploy-drones-wire-fencing-along-xinjiang-border-to-prevent-infiltration/story-mJNsHS9vJnxoOWWZh8HTEO.html )
[xiv] Blanchard, Ben, “China’s Xi calls for greater counter-terrorism cooperation with Turkey” , Reuters, May 14, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-silkroad-turkey-idUSKBN18A01D
[xv] Luqui, Rose and Yang, Fan “Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in China. We found that the Internet fuels — and fights — this”,The Washington Post, May 12,2017 ( https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/05/12/anti-muslim-sentiment-is-on-the-rise-in-china-we-found-that-the-internet-fuels-and-fights-this/?utm_term=.3fe25163a34a. )
(Preethi Amaresh is a Research Officer at C3S. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are the author’s own.)