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.
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.
Tags: Beijing’s exaggeration of the threat, Beijing’s increasing oppression of Uighurs, China, Chinese rule against veils and “abnormal” beards, counterterrorism, ethnic violence, extensive efforts to erase public expressions of Islam, human rghts, Islam, Kashgar, marginalized Muslim populations, Muslims, One Belt One Road, oppressive security environment in Xinjiang, religiously motivated, Silk Road, suppression of political voices, terrorism, Tibetans, Uighurs, Urumqi, Xinjiang