Is China Really Facing a Terrorist Threat From Uighurs in Xinjiang? (Or just interested in genocide?)

By The Worl Politics review

The Chinese government has long framed its treatment of the ethnic Uighur population in the region of Xinjiang as part of a counterterrorism campaign, even more so recently. In February, the so-called Islamic State released a video purporting to show militants from Xinjiang vowing to bring the fight to China. On April 1, the government began enforcing anti-extremism measures including rules against veils and “abnormal” beards. In an email interview, Sean R. Roberts, a cultural anthropologist at George Washington University currently working on a book about Uighur militancy, discusses how violence in Xinjiang has evolved and whether it can accurately be described as terrorism.

WPR: What are the expressed grievances of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, and to what degree are they religiously motivated?

Sean R. Roberts: The grievances of the Uighurs in Xinjiang are multiple and include both longstanding issues with authorities in Beijing and more recent reactions to Chinese government policy in the region. The Uighurs, like the Tibetans, view the region inside China in which they live as their homeland, and they have long sought more self-determination over that territory.

Recently, however, grievances in the region have focused more on Beijing’s increasing oppression of Uighurs, which the government justifies as security measures intended to counter terrorism. Since 2001, the government has continually asserted that it faces a serious terrorist threat from Uighurs inspired by Islam. In many respects, this assertion has been misguided, initially portraying all kinds of Uighur expressions of dissent as being an indication of connections to terrorist organizations and, later, connecting virtually all Islamic religiosity with extremism and terrorism.

The result has been an increasingly oppressive security environment in Xinjiang, particularly focused on the state’s control of its local Uighur population. This environment includes draconian surveillance of Uighurs, suppression of political voices and extensive efforts to erase public expressions of Islam not associated with state-sanctioned mosques. Thus, while the origins of the grievances are not religiously motivated, many of them now do focus on the state’s attempt to control Islamic religious behavior in the region.

Image may contain: outdoor

Chinese paramilitary force vehicles line up during an oath-taking ceremony, Xinjiang, China, February 17, 2017 (Imaginechina via AP Images).

WPR: How has the violence in Xinjiang evolved in the past few years, and how has Beijing responded to both violence committed by extremists, but also broader Uighur grievances?

Roberts: I often characterize the evolution of violence in Xinjiang over the past few years as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Beijing’s exaggeration of the threat it faced from Uighurs in the early 2000s resulted in increasingly repressive policies that have intensified discontent in the region and helped push more and more Uighurs toward militancy.

During the first decade of the 2000s, there were numerous—but sporadic—violent incidents in Xinjiang that were almost all characterized by the government as terrorist acts. While the details of these events are difficult to ascertain from publicly available information, analysis of them suggests that few if any of them were likely premeditated terrorist attacks. Rather, most of them were more likely spontaneous expressions of anger and frustration by Uighurs, who felt increasingly under siege in their self-proclaimed homeland.

The culmination of this violence occurred in the summer of 2009 in Urumqi, where state suppression of a public protest turned violent and devolved into the worst ethnic violence in China in recent history. The government’s response to the July 2009 Urumqi riots was predictably to increase surveillance, arrests and control of the Uighur population, particularly those who were openly religious. Since that time, we have seen a massive exodus of Uighurs from China, mostly involving human trafficking networks that bring them through Southeast Asia, usually with a final destination of Turkey. Militant extremist groups in Southeast Asia and Turkey have radicalized some of these Uighur refugees, and a substantial number of them eventually found their way to Syria, where they have gained combat experience.

Not surprisingly, the number of violent incidents perpetrated by Uighurs in China also began to increase as these events unfolded, particularly after 2013, and many of these incidents could plausibly be characterized as premeditated terrorist attacks. In this sense, the recent increase in violence in Xinjiang suggests that government policies over the past 10 to 15 years helped to cultivate the Uighur security threat that China had long erroneously suggested it faced.

WPR: To what degree is the Uighur threat a terrorist threat, as Beijing has often claimed, and how might that change given the Islamic State’s recent threat to target China in Xinjiang?

Roberts: Interestingly, despite the global extent of the U.S.-initiated war on terror, there is no international consensus on a normative definition of terrorism. Thus, determining whether any security threat is a terrorist threat is a subjective endeavor. This has caused substantial problems for the Uighurs and other marginalized Muslim populations around the world who are in conflict with states, which seek to label them as terrorists and extremists.

However, in my opinion, terrorism should be defined as premeditated political violence that specifically targets innocent civilians with the intent of instilling fear. By this definition, it is still debatable whether the apparent recent appearance of premeditated political violence perpetrated by Uighurs inside and outside China should be deemed terrorism. That said, it is obvious that Uighur militancy has increased, and likely some of this militancy is being informed by Uighur experiences in Syria with extremist organizations.

Despite the attention now being paid to Uighur involvement in the Islamic State due to the group’s video showing Uighurs, most of the Uighur militants in Syria are actually not associated with this organization. Rather, most have been associated with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a group with alleged connections to the former Nusra Front and al-Qaida. While the TIP previously appeared to be merely a shell propaganda organization of al-Qaida with little capacity to carry out attacks, in Syria they have become a legitimate fighting force.

Uighurs fighting in Syria for either the Islamic State or TIP are actually more involved in conventional warfare than in terrorist tactics. Thus, if some of these militants do eventually succeed in bringing their fight back to China, it may be more likely that the threat China will face is technically less a terrorist threat and more of a conventional insurgency. As has always been the case historically, whether such an insurgency is characterized as “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” will be a political question that depends upon the larger political goals of those seeking to label them as either.


China’s Uighur heartland turns into security state

China says it faces a serious threat from Islamist extremists in its Xinjiang region. Beijing accuses separatists among the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority of stirring up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority.

China Xinjiang Uiguren (Reuters/T. Peter)

China’s far western Xinjiang region ramps up security

Three times a day, alarms ring out through the streets of China’s ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, and shopkeepers rush out of their stores swinging government-issued wooden clubs. In mandatory anti-terror drills conducted under police supervision, they fight off imaginary knife-wielding assailants.

Kombi-Bild Karte Xinjian China ENG

One Belt, One Road Initiative

An ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert. A historic trading post, the city of Kashgar is central to China’s “One Belt, One Road Initiative”, which is President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign and economic policy involving massive infrastructure spending linking China to Asia, the Middle East and beyond.

China Xinjiang Uiguren (Reuters/T. Peter)

China fears disruption of “One Belt, One Road” summit

A man herds sheep in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. China’s worst fears are that a large-scale attack would blight this year’s diplomatic setpiece, an OBOR summit attended by world leaders planned for Beijing. Since ethnic riots in the regional capital Urumqi in 2009, Xinjiang has been plagued by bouts of deadly violence.

China Xinjiang Uiguren (Reuters/T. Peter)

Ethnic minority in China

A woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamankan Desert. Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China. Although Uighurs have traditionally practiced a moderate version of Islam, experts believe that some of them have been joining Islamic militias in the Middle East.

China Xinjiang Uiguren (Reuters/T. Peter)

Communist Party vows to continue war on terror

Chinese state media say the threat remains high, so the Communist Party has vowed to continue its “war on terror” against Islamist extremism. For example, Chinese authorities have passed measures banning many typically Muslim customs. The initiative makes it illegal to “reject or refuse” state propaganda, although it was not immediately clear how the authorities would enforce this regulation.

China Xinjiang Uiguren (Reuters/T. Peter)

CCTV cameras are being installed

Many residents say the anti-terror drills are just part of an oppressive security operation that has been ramped up in Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang’s Uighur heartland in recent months. For many Uighurs it is not about security, but mass surveillance. “We have no privacy. They want to see what you’re up to,” says a shop owner in Kashgar.

China Xinjiang Uiguren (Reuters/T. Peter)

Ban on many typically Muslim customs

The most visible change is likely to come from the ban on “abnormal growing of beards,” and the restriction on wearing veils. Specifically, workers in public spaces, including stations and airports, will be required to “dissuade” people with veils on their faces from entering and report them to the police.

China Xinjiang Uiguren (Reuters/T. Peter)

Security personnel keep watch

Authorities offer rewards for those who report “youth with long beards or other popular religious customs that have been radicalized”, as part of a wider incentive system that rewards actionable intelligence on imminent attacks. Human rights activists have been critical of the tactics used by the government in combatting the alleged extremists, accusing it of human rights abuses.

China Xinjiang Uiguren (Reuters/T. Peter)

Economy or security?

China routinely denies pursuing repressive policies in Xinjiang and points to the vast sums it spends on economic development in the resource-rich region. James Leibold, an expert on Chinese ethnic policy says the focus on security runs counter to Beijing’s goal of using the OBOR initiative to boost Xinjiang’s economy, because it would disrupt the flow of people and ideas.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Is China Really Facing a Terrorist Threat From Uighurs in Xinjiang? (Or just interested in genocide?)”

  1. daveyone1 Says:

    Reblogged this on World Peace Forum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: