Xinjiang Unrest: Terrorists or Victims?


An Islamic State propaganda video circulated recently shows ethnic Uighur fighters training in Iraq and vowing to conduct attacks on their Chinese homeland. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have held mass anti-terror rallies involving armed troops across the region of Xinjiang, and have declared a “People’s War” on terrorism. More than 10,000 troops assembled at the capital, Urumqi, with some later dispatched to other cities for similar rallies. In addition, China has banned long beards, wearing veils in public places, and home-schooling in Xinjiang. The latest measures, outlined in a sweeping new anti-extremism legislation, come on the heels of a series of steps to increase surveillance in the region that include the surrender of passports and mandatory GPS trackers in cars.

Chinese officials have characterized Uighur separatists in the nation’s western and mostly Muslim Xinjiang region as Islamic terrorists. The government says foreign militants have stirred up tensions in Xinjiang, where Beijing says it faces a determined campaign by terrorists who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. However, many civil rights and exiles groups doubt the existence of terrorist networks in Xinjiang. Instead, they believe Uighur anger at repressive Chinese policies is to blame for the social unrest, although China officially denies any repression in Xinjiang.

Is China victimizing the Uighur minority under the pretense of counterterrorism or does China face serious terrorist networks? Additionally, why do acts of violence still occur, despite China’s increasing security measures in the region?  As we will see, the Chinese government does not treat all of its Muslim population equally. First, let’s examine the history of Chinese actions in Xinjiang province.

Xinjiang’s Importance:

China views Xinjiang as critically significant for many reasons. First, Xinjiang is strategically located. China’s largest province, Xinjiang is bordered by eight countries including the former Soviet Central Asian republics, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. As it shares border with eight countries, Xinjiang provides China with an opportunity to forge trade and economic links with these countries to bolster its economy. Xinjiang extends China’s reach to the borders of oil rich Middle East and simultaneously serves as a security buffer to China proper. For ensuring energy security China looks at Central Asian Republics, Kazakhstan in particular. Second, Xinjiang has vast natural reserves. The mineral deposits constitute seventy eight percent of minerals available in all of China. The prospective coal reserves amount to one third of China’s total reserves. Xinjiang has abundant oil and natural gas resources as well. These resources are essential for China’s booming economic growth. Finally, Xinjiang has cultural and historical value for China. The major part of the historical Silk Road passes through Xinjiang. Beginning in the Han dynasty and during the Tang dynasty, China had considerable control and influence over the region. However, Xinjiang has remained a turbulent and contested region, despite China’s claim that it has always been a part of the country.

A History of Colonization:

Some Uighurs call China’s presence in Xinjiang a form of imperialism, and there have been movements for independence since the1990’s through separatist groups like the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), inflamed in part by large migrations of Han Chinese to the region. Xinjiang experienced a brief period of independence in the 1940’s but China regained control after the Communists took power in 1949. Although China was initially declared a multinational state, the Communist Party’s anti-rightist policy of 1957 opposed nationalism among ethnic minorities and clamped down on religious liberties. The Cultural Revolution caused even greater injustices against ethnic minorities. Religion, local language and dress were all targeted. The Uighur in Xinjiang, like other Muslim minorities throughout China, saw their religious texts and mosques destroyed, their religious leaders persecuted, and individual adherents punished. Between the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s, China loosened restrictions on minorities and religions with more open policies, but it wasn’t to last for the Uighurs.

Religious discrimination was not the only obstacle that Uighurs have faced. Economic development in the region was accompanied by mass immigration of Han Chinese. From the 1950’s onwards, the Chinese officials encouraged the settlement of Han population. The majority of immigrants came as workers for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). The local government heavily subsidized the XPCC. The Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) reported in 2006 that the XPCC reserved approximately 800 of 840 civil servant job openings for Han. This policy was changed in 2011, however, and the XPCC left almost all positions unreserved by ethnicity. But the 2011 CECC says both government and private sectors had discriminatory hiring practices against the Uighurs and also denied them religious rights such as observing Ramadan and allowing Muslim men to wear beards and women to wear veils.

The Han population rose from around seven percent of the region’s population in 1949 to about forty percent today. Yet, colonization has not stabilized the region. Beijing’s control of the local political system and economic marginalization of the Uighurs, have generated a response of Uighur nationalism. Many Uighurs complain of discrimination by the Chinese authorities. Beijing believed that economic development could undermine Uighur nationalism and solve Xinjiang’s problems. Xinjiang’s economy has dramatically improved in recent years, although it still lags behind the industrialized coastal areas. However, economic development has worsened ethnic tensions in Xinjiang. This is because mass migration has excluded many Uighurs from the benefits of economic growth. There are pronounced economic inequality among ethnicities. The per capita GDP in Han areas is far higher than that in areas where the Uighurs are the majority. At the same time, there is unequal access to the education system. Poverty plus discrimination in job recruitment practices places much of the Uighur population in the lowest class of society.

In addition, this state of affairs is also observable within the political system. While Xinjiang is nominally an autonomy region it isn’t autonomous in reality. In 1990, the national minorities provided only 28.8% of the total number of managers and administrators in Xinjiang. Officials drawn from the national minorities are still under-represented in the Xinjiang Communist Party. They accounted for only 37.3% of its members in 1997. The central government holds their loyalty suspect. Therefore Uighurs are often held down in posts with little power. Han loyal to Beijing, not Uighurs, hold the most important CCP posts in Xinjiang.

Because of increasing marginalization, anti-Han and nationalist sentiment have become more prevalent since the 1990’s. Whereas many Uighurs perceive the 1980’s as a time of reduced tensions, the 1990’s saw the emergence of a repressive climate that caused powerful resentment. The increase in repression is generally linked with increasing anxieties from CCP leaders at this time. This reaction has become trend of Chinese government actions in the region. After the Tiananmen protests in 1989, Beijing would no longer tolerate dissent and considered authoritarian crackdowns as essential to survival. At the same time, the Chinese government feared that the independence of the Central Asian Republics and the spread of jihadists in the region would seriously destabilize Xinjiang. The Chinese regime confronted by the rise of Uighur nationalism and by Islamic jihadists progressively tightened its control over society and the spaces for expressing religion. As relations between the Chinese state and Uighur society became strained, disturbances were on the rise, sometimes erupting in violence.

The turning point in relations came in 1996, following the launch of the great national campaign against crime, called “Strike Hard”, targeting separatism and illegal religious activities. As part of the same campaign, the government mounted several hostile police operations. This intense campaign of repression led to thousands of arrests and also to human rights violations. These restrictions gave the impression to the Uighur community that the real target of the Chinese governments operations was not separatists or jihadists but the Uighur identity. Repression increased further in Xinjiang after September 11, 2001, when China felt it was now both internationally permissible to crack down on “terrorists” in Xinjiang and nationally more urgent to protect its porous borders from an influx of jihadists from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

Since protesting in China can be dangerous, there are many ETIM protests abroad such as this 2009 protest in Berlin. Uighur Protest by Iangkawi, Flickr Creative Commons. 

Islamic Terrorism in Xinjiang:

Following the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, China publicly aligned itself with the US as a country that also suffered from “terrorism.” The incentives of the Chinese government to portray Uighur unrest as externally instigated, terroristic in nature, and specifically tied to al-Qaeda, increased. China has often blamed ETIM – the East Turkestan Islamic Movement – or people inspired by ETIM for violent incidents both in Xinjiang and beyond the region’s borders. ETIM is said to want to establish an independent East Turkestan in China. In 2006, the US State Department said ETIM is the most militant of the ethnic Uighur separatist groups.

However, the true extent of terrorism is likely minimal. With increasing government control over society, significant violent incidents in Xinjiang became rare until 2008 and 2009, when there were several creative incidents that required minimal planning or materials inside Xinjiang itself. The remote geography and harsh climate of Xinjiang, when combined with repression, constrains the movement of people and goods across the borders. This situation makes the planning and logistics of terrorist violence difficult. The relatively small number of land links between Central Asia and China decrease the options that terrorists would have for moving weapons and people into Xinjiang, while the difficult physical terrain limits the ability of separatists to smuggle supplies. Therefore, with the limiting geography and the pervasive presence of the CCP over Uighur life in Xinjiang, any violent attacks are likely spontaneous and unorganized.

Many violent episodes occur in response to marginalization. In July 2009, ethnic tensions between the Han and Uighur communities flared after severe riots between the two groups and police forces erupted in Urumqi. The riots were reportedly sparked by a Uighur protest over the ethnically motivated killing of two Uighur workers in the southern province of Guangdong. According to Chinese media, 197 people were killed, more than 1,600 were injured, and 718 people were detained. In 2010, about twenty-five people were sentenced to death over those killings.

In more recent years, the violence is probably a response to worsening economic conditions for China as whole, which would hit the vulnerable Uighurs in particular. In June 2012, six Uighurs reportedly tried to hijack a plane from Hotan to Urumqi before passengers and crew overpowered them. There was bloodshed in April 2013 and in June that year, 27 people died in Shanshan County after police opened fire on what state media described as a mob armed with knives attacking local government buildings. At least 31 people were killed and more than 90 suffered injuries in May 2014 when two cars crashed through an Urumqi market and explosives were tossed into the crowd. It followed a bomb and knife attack at Urumqi’s south railway station in April 2014, which killed three and injured 79 others. In July, authorities said a knife-wielding gang attacked a police station and government offices in Yarkant, leaving 96 dead. In September 2014, about 50 died in blasts in Luntai County outside police stations, a market and a shop. Arguably, these attacks are isolated and not a part of a vast terrorist network.

In response to the violence, the Chinese government has continued to erode civil liberties and marginalize the Uighurs. In July 2014, some Xinjiang government departments banned Muslim civil servants from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. It was not the first time China had restricted fasting in Xinjiang. In November 2017, the Chinese government confiscated the passports of residents of Xinjiang, saying it was necessary to combat terrorism. Human Rights Watch called it a violation of freedom of movement. In addition, in February 2017, authorities ordered all vehicles in the Bayingol area to be installed with satellite tracking devices. Mysteriously, Chinese military vehicles have even entered Afghanistan under the pretense of counterterror operations. James Leibold, a scholar of Xinjiang and China’s ethnic policies at La Trobe University in Australia, said the recent police rallies were unprecedented and seemed disproportionate to the current threat level. Leibold said the leader of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, was “clearly angling for a Politburo seat at the 19th Party Congress,” an important political meeting that is expected to take place in Beijing, and that Chen wanted to appear tough and in control. For political reasons then, the Chinese government in Xinjiang appears trapped in a self-defeating cycle.

A Different Way:

China has two big Muslim groups, the Uighur of Xinjiang and the more obscure Hui minority, each numbering about ten million people. But while the Uighur suffer, the Hui are striving. The number of mosques in Ningxia, cradle of the Hui, has more than doubled since 1958, from 1,900 to 4,000. New ones are being built across the province. The Hui are economically successful. They are rarely victims of Islamophobia. Few Muslim minorities anywhere in the world can say as much. Relations with the Han have not always been good. The so-called Dungan revolt by the Hui in the 1860s and 1870s was a bloodbath. But since the death of Mao in 1976, the government and the Hui have reached an accommodation. Thanks to this, they have been successful economically. They are emerging as the favored middlemen between China’s state enterprises and firms in Central Asia and the Gulf.

In contrast to the religious persecution in Xinjiang, the government afford the Hui significant freedoms. Hui participation in the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has increased over the past several years, and more Hui women are wearing veils. One sign of how far the government tolerates the Hui is that they are even able to practice Islamic sharia law to a limited extent. While sharia is not recognized by the Chinese legal code, at the Najiahu mosque, the Ahong, or Imam, and the local county magistrate share the same mediation office. Every week or so, the Ahong adjudicates in family disputes using sharia. The lessons offered by the Hui’s experience are largely positive. Islam, the Hui show, are not the threat that party leaders sometimes imply it is. They show that you can be both Chinese and Muslim.

This division of religious freedom has implications for the future of Xinjiang. While many of the recent arrivals who work at military or state-owned farms and mines are Han, some newcomers are Hui. China’s 2010 national census recorded 983,015 Hui in Xinjiang, up from 681,527 in the 1990 count. Will the central government apply the religious proscriptions equally or only target the Uighur? A blanket ban could push the two minorities to identify together, only to further increase Islamic zealotry across the whole country. Only prosecuting the Uighur will likely increase a sense of cultural insecurity and thus ultimately undermine the CCP’s attempts to create a more socially cohesive and stable society.


The scenario most worrisome to the Chinese leaders would be the Uighur movement in Xinjiang externally joining with international Muslim movements throughout Asia and the Middle East, bringing an influx of Islamic extremism and a desire to challenge the central government. Instability in China will impact all of Central Asia. Paradoxically, Chinese policies and reactions will largely determine the appeal of terrorists groups to separatists in China. If China continues to discriminate against nonviolent Uighurs and if economic development in Xinjiang aids Han Chinese at the expense of Uighurs, the problems in Xinjiang will most likely worsen. China has marginalized the Uighur ethnicity under the pretense of counterterrorism for imperialist purposes because China both needs the vast resources of Xinjiang and fears political autonomy. The Chinese government’s reliance upon authoritarian measures in Xinjiang only serves to further inflame separatism and encourage the rise of terrorist networks in the region. Moving forward, the Chinese government should include the Uighur people in the political process, economically empower the Uighur, and practice the same tolerance and respect afforded to the ethnically Han, but Muslim, Hui minority.

Featured Image: Bazaar- Hotan, Xinjiang by Evgeni Zotov, Flickr Creative Commons.


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