“Counterterrorism” in Xinjiang

 Feb 27, 2017

Terrorist attacks are becoming more frequent in China’s Xinjiang province, and the Chinese government is in desperate need of a new counterterrorism strategy. While it is imperative to protect the country from radical Islamic terrorism, the government’s current strategy is one of forced assimilation disguised as counterterrorism policy, resulting in the denial of civil liberties to an entire ethnic group, most of which practices a moderate version of Islam. The longstanding political, cultural, and religious repression of Xinjiang’s Uyghur ethnic minority will only serve to make China’s terrorism problem worse, and may have created it in the first place.

There is ample evidence to suggest the government’s counterterrorism policy toward Uyghurs in Xinjiang is predicated not on religious affiliation, but on territorial security, race, and culture. The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group, one of 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups in China, living almost exclusively in southwest Xinjiang. Most Uyghurs follow a moderate Sunni religious tradition infused with Sufism. Several Uyghur uprisings occurred during the 1920s and 1930s, and the Uyghur state of “East Turkestan”, was an independent territory from 1944 to 1949, propped up by the Soviet Union. Though forcibly reincorporated into China after the 1949 revolution, strong separatist elements continue to exist, with many Uyghurs supporting the idea of a separate state. Among those Uyghurs who want to separate, there are a multitude of views on what “East Turkestan” would look like; some believe it should be an Islamic state, while others hope for a secular one. While other Muslim minorities (like the Hui) exist in China, Uyghurs have traditionally resisted full assimilation into majority Han Chinese culture more than similarly situated minorities. Uyghur’s continuous resistance to assimilation presents a problem for the government and its vision of a culturally homogenous Chinese state.

Since the 1990s, small sections of some of these separatist groups have increasingly turned to terrorist attacks both to advance their separatist agenda and to protest economic discrimination against Uyghurs. In the last five years, terrorist attacks in China, and in Xinjiang in particular, have increased sharply. In 2014, at least 300 people were killed in terrorist attacks across China, while 2015 saw 123 deaths in 16 attacks, mostly classified as carried out by militant Uyghur separatists.[i] The most vocal of these groups has been the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), which has pledged allegiance to al-Qa’ida and ISIS, and whose leaders borrow some rhetoric from these more famous groups. Its online activity and recruitment material increasingly mirrors that of ISIS, and the Chinese government has used this as an excuse to severely limit Internet freedom in Xinjiang.[ii] The government often attributes terrorist attacks to the TIP that the TIP does not itself claim them; however, many experts are skeptical about the rather small, disorganized, and unpopular group’s ability to plan and carry out sophisticated terrorist attacks.[iii] Most of the information we have on terrorist attacks has been released by the government with little independent verification.[iv] After each attack, government officials claim to have swiftly captured the planners, though their identities are rarely revealed, nor do they receive public trials. The government has been quick to attribute any violence in Xinjiang to the Uyghur population; it remains unclear whether some of these attacks are perpetrated by the TIP or disgruntled individuals.

Despite these doubts, the government has instituted harsh restrictions of the Uyghur population. In Kashgar, the largest Uyghur majority city in Xinjiang, there are reports of constant state surveillance.[v] Residents must carry identification cards, and electronic devices can be searched on the street at any time.[vi] Mosque attendance and religious schools are prohibited by the government. The Uyghur language cannot be taught in most schools, and is banned at the province’s main university.

Though the government claims these sweeping measures are part of its counterterrorism strategy, when viewed in light of its historical treatment of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs it begins to look like something else. For decades, long before terrorist attacks increased, official policy in Xinjiang has been forced cultural assimilation. While Xinjiang was once a majority Uyghur province, for the last 40 years, the government has incentivized Han Chinese to migrate there to ensure Uyghurs become the minority.[vii] Now, out of 21 million people, only 10 million are Uyghur.[viii] Internet crackdowns have extended far beyond religious fundamentalist content, and cover political dissent and discussions of Uyghur culture. For years there have been reports of forced disappearances, politicized trials, torture, and unlawful detention in Xinjiang, and the state’s current anti-terror campaign has allowed the government to jail moderate Uyghurs who criticize the government on political and economic issues.[ix] Government employees are not allowed to fast for Ramadan, during which time employees and university students are monitored to ensure they eat during the day. Considering the majority of Uyghurs do not practice a radical version of Islam or commit terrorist attacks, such collective punishments are a cause for concern.

Perhaps most worrisome are the government’s recent restrictions on Uyghur freedom of movement. Since October 2016, residents in various areas of Xinjiang province have been forced to hand over their passports to provincial police; they must now submit an application to gain their passports back for international travel.[x] Aside from some vague discussion of countering terrorism, there has been no clear articulation of the reasons for the mass confiscations.[xi] Similar measures have been employed at various times in Tibet, in violation of both international and Chinese passport law.[xii] Government officials have assumed a startling level of control over Uyghur ethnic groups, often a precursor to cultural eradication or mass violence.

Officials should resist the impulse to crackdown further on an entire ethnicity to appear strong on terrorism for an increasingly nationalistic domestic audience. A history of cultural repression, employment discrimination, and racism in Xinjiang have effectively made Uyghurs second-class citizens with little to lose. The more discrimination faced, the stronger the impulse toward both religious and non-religious separatism will grow. China does not need a civil war, particularly in its largest and most natural resource-rich province.[xiii] Repression and overreaction are counterproductive and only engender further violence.

[i] “Global Terrorism Database,” The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland, February 15, 2017. https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/search/Results.aspx?chart=perpetrator&casualties_type=&casualties_max=&country=44

[ii] “Xinjiang: Has China’s crackdown on ‘terrorism’ worked?” by Carrie Gracie, BBC News, January 2, 2015. www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30373877

[iii] “Is China Making Its Own Terrorism Problem Worse?” by Justine Drennan, Foreign Policy, February 9, 2015. http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/09/is-china-making-its-own-terrorism-problem-worse-uighurs-islamic-state/

[iv] “China’s Silent War on Terror,” by Emily Rauhala, Time, August 25, 2014. http://time.com/3172636/china-uighur-terror-attacks-executions/

[v] “China Imposes Intrusive Rules on Uighurs in Xinjiang,” by Barbara Demick, LA Times, August 5, 2014. http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-china-privacy-20140805-story.html

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Is China Making Its Own Terrorism Problem Worse?”, Drennan.

[viii] “A Tale of Two Chinese Muslim Minorities,” by Brent Crane, The Diplomat, August 22, 2014.


[ix] “Ilham Tohti, Uighur Scholar in Chinese Prison, Is Given Human Rights Award,” by Nick Cumming-Bruce, The New York Times, October 11, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/12/world/europe/ilham-tohti-uighur-human-rights-award.html?_r=0

[x] “China Confiscates passports of Xinjiang people,” BBC News China, November 24, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-38093370

[xi] “Xinjiang officials deny holding ordinary citizens’ passports,” by Zhao Yusha and Cui Meng, Global Times, November 25, 2016. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1020272.shtml

[xii] “China: Passports Arbitrarily Recalled in Xinjiang: Heightened Control Over Travel for Residents of Uighur Muslim Region,” Human Rights Watch, November 21, 2016. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/21/china-passports-arbitrarily-recalled-xinjiang

[xiii] “List of Chinese administrative divisions by area,” Wikipedia, Accessed February 15, 2017; “Uighur Extremists Joining ISIS Poses a Security and Economic Headache for China’s Xi Jinping,” by Charlie Campbell, Time, July 21, 2016. http://time.com/4416585/isis-islamic-state-china-xinjiang-uighur-xi-jinping/