‘RESTIVE’ IS THE adjective favoured in the popular prints to qualify Xinjiang. President Xi Jinping’s call for the far western autonomous region to be surrounded by a ‘great wall of iron’ suggests the presence of a greater threat.
As does Cheng Guoping, state commissioner for counterterrorism and security.
He says that the Uighur separatists that comprise the East Turkestan Independence Movement are the China’s ‘most prominent challenge to social stability economic development and national security’.
Xi and Cheng’s comments follow the most recent show of force in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi and other cities such as Kashgar, involving some 10,000 paramilitary police with accompanying armoured vehicles and attack helicopters.
China has been fighting a sporadic and low-level civil war with Uighur separatists for decades that on occasion erupts into deadly terrorist attacks across China. These attacks, usually involving a car bomb or knifings, have become more frequent, dispersed and indiscriminate since 2012, though the number, as far as can be determined, is small.
A May 2014 attack in Urumqi killed 43 and wounded 90. The province simmers with unrest as the now minority Muslim population bristles under what it considers to be culturally and religiously repressive government by ethnic Han Chinese. Yet there is little on the surface to suggest that the local threat level has suddenly escalated to the degree these actions and Xi and Cheng’s comments would imply.
However, Beijing now sees external as well as internal threat. That is challenging its notions of how to deal with ‘terrorists’.
Three recent videos, purportedly made by the Islamic State group and an al-Qaeda affiliate, raise the spectre that China could import the radical Islamic extremism that it has so far avoided. Beijing has long used the bogeyman of radical connections between Xinjiang separatists outside and the Muslim Uighur minority within to exert repressive domestic control.
The 30-minute video that surfaced in February, in particular, gives some weight, at last, to those warnings. It shows Uighurs training in Iran and threatening that blood would ‘flow in rivers’ in China — although also in Russia and the United States.
There are well-documented reports of Uighurs having gone to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq to fight for radical Islamic groups. The numbers of Chinese ones — 100-150 on the estimates we have seen — scarcely seem to justify the extraordinary reaction of authorities, although one of the Islamic State videos includes what is thought to be the first instance of Uighur-speakers declaring allegiance to Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliphate.
One question is whether Beijing’s fears are overblown and its response proportionate; another is whether it can adapt a counterterrorism approach developed in response to domestic concerns to international terrorism.
China, unlike the United States and Russia, has little by way of a military footprint in West Asia thanks to its profession of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. It is not involved in either the US or Russian/Iranian-led actions against Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, the usual prerequisite of Islamic State acts of terror against a country.
A hostage taking and killing in 2015 is the sole known case involving targeting a Chinese citizen, although seven Chinese were among the 20 killed in a bomb attack on Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine and three Chinese citizens were among the 27 who died during an attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako, both the same year.
However, China’s growing global footprint and expatriate labour force, and especially the expansion of ‘One Belt, One Road’ across Eurasia, makes it almost inevitable that it would eventually be unable to avoid coming into harm’s way from international jihad.
As we noted recently, China and Afghanistan share a short border through which the forces Beijing so fears could enter the country directly. China border-police controls are keeping it under close surveillance in the event that, as Islamic State loses territory in Syria and Iraq, the group falls back to being an insurgent guerrilla force and its leaders and others of global jihadist movements relocate to Central Asia and Afghanistan, far too close to China for Beijing’s liking.
However, the capacity of Islamic State to coordinate and stage large-scale attacks inside China will be limited. Furthermore, Beijing’s already-fierce repression in Xinjiang and tight censorship everywhere mitigates the caliphate’s strategy of inspiring lone wolves and affiliated terror groups through a radicalising narrative of domestic marginalisation of Muslim minorities.
This has had some success in Europe and the United States, but beyond the difficulty in having the message penetrate the Great Firewall, disaffected Muslim minorities do not exist in China in the widespread urban pockets they do in, say, France, Belgium and Germany.
Hitherto, China has dealt with the threat of domestic terrorism, which it considers one and the same as separatism and extremism, with a three-pronged strategy: enhancing regional economic growth; stronger internal security; and strict controls over ethnic and religious activities. All have been heavily applied in Xinjiang with the additional factor of ethnic Han inward migration.
Beijing’s likely response to the new external threat that it sees to its emerging core national interests will be to crack down even harder on the one place it knows there are a lot of Muslims. Already law regulates and constricts religious practices and public life in Xinjiang, such as growing beards, wearing the veil and fasting during Ramadan — all symbols, the authorities say of “Islamic extremism” (like in the US, ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ will quickly become conflated).
Since last year Xinjiang residents who have a passport are required to turn it into local police, to whom they must reapply for its return if they want to travel abroad. There were reports last year of another Muslim minority, Kazakhs living in border districts of Xinjiang, being told to give DNA samples and fingerprints when applying for travel documents. Uighurs who speak in favour of greater political freedoms risk imprisonment.
These measures are likely to be both more tightly enforced and extended, in the name of “maintaining social control” in the resource-rich western marches that give onto the key overland routes through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe.
However, the One Belt, One Road dimension and the need to protect the growing numbers of Chinese citizens abroad is evolving Beijing’ security interests. Its responses will have to follow suit. It has been exchanging information on Islamic State with the United States, with which it also cooperates on technical matters to counter terrorism such as port security and anti-money laundering. (Whether and how that will continue with the Trump administration remains to be seen.)
China has also been talking to Pakistan and the Afghan government about ways to promote stability in Afghanistan, and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Regional Anti-Terrorism initiative. More controversially, it has also pushed for groups it considers to be terrorist to be added to international and national terrorist watch lists.
Beijing slowly recognises that many of the terrorism challenges that it faces have roots beyond its borders and thus will need it to participate in international counterterrorism efforts. However, its has so far shown that it prefers bilateral attempts to apply its three-pronged strategy with economic, policing and security aid to other countries, but that at best has to be done at arm’s length or get China involved in the internal affairs of countries in ways that run counter to its non-interference doctrine.
As it tries to figure that out, its instinctive reaction will still be to over-react at home by doing more of what it knows how.