Tag Archives: Uighurs

China’s Domestic Counterterrorism May Fail Against Global Jihadis

‘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.

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China and Afghanistan Draw Closer On The Roof Of The World

 

wakhan_corridor

CHINA’S BOUNDARY WITH Afghanistan is short; less than 100 kilometres arcing around the end of the Wakhan Corridor, a high mountain valley, seen above, on the ‘roof of the world’ that once provide a narrow imperial buffer between the Russian and British empires. Today it separates Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south and looks on maps like a panhandle of Afghanistan whose territory it is.

Though it is an ancient trade route, spilling into Xinjiang through the Wakhjir Pass, it has long been closed at the Chinese end for fear of the drugs, Uighur separatists or other extremists that might flow through it.

Beijing and Kabul have a 2015 border policing agreement that involves joint patrols, but of late there have been reports that Chinese forces have been operating on the Afghan side of the border.

Map showing location of Wakhan Corridor in AfghanistanThis is a remote part of the world, so supporting accounts are scant. The Defense Ministry has confirmed that counter-terrorism and anti-cross-border crime operations have occurred but has dismissed Central Asian and Indian reports of Chinese military vehicles patrolling inside Afghanistan.

Pictures published last November show what look like Chinese-made armoured patrol vehicles inside the Wakhan Corridor. While the vehicles can be made out, what cannot is who is driving them — PLA soldiers, Chinese armed police, Chinese private security firm personnel, or someone else altogether, such as Afghanistan border police.

Relations between the two countries have been gradually growing closer since the establishment of Afghanistan’s National Unity government in 2014.

Afghanistan has agreed not to provide sanctuary for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Uighur separatist group that has been fighting a long and sporadic war for Xinjiang’s independence. For its part, China is training Afghan police and supplying the force with equipment and has pledged $70 billion in military aid as the policing relationship expanded to the defence side (though this hasn’t yet extended to heavy weapons). Bilateral exchanges on both fronts are increasing.

None of this is yet any substitute for Afghanistan’s dependence on the West. However, for Beijing, always worried about insecurity on its Western marches, a close relationship with Kabul will also be essential to the success of One Belt One Road, especially if security concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor worsen.

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China’s Islamic State Dilemma

THE KILLING OF a Chinese hostage by the self-described Islamic State poses a dilemma for Beijing. It does not want to get dragged into the Syria-Iraq front of a war on terror it does not see as its fight and in which at best it would be a junior partner, not the equal on the world stage that it wishes to portray itself as. At the same time, it needs to preserve the narrative that Mother China — for which read the Party – looks after all its citizens when they venture abroad.

It is unclear under what circumstances Fan Jinghui fell into Islamic State’s hands. Described as a freelance consultant from Beijing, he was captured in September, according to Islamic State, which demanded a ransom for his release. That he has perished shocked Chinese. President Xi Jinping said in Manila, where he is attending the APEC summit, that terrorism was the “common enemy of humanity” and that “the Chinese government is opposed to all forms of terrorism, and will firmly crack down on any violent and terrorist activities.”

There have been unconfirmed reports that China is considering joining the Russian-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but at best any presence is likely to be token and focused on humanitarian operations. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi summed up Beijing’s dilemma when he told the UN Security Council session in New York earlier this month that “the world cannot afford to stand by and look on with folded arms, but must also not arbitrarily interfere”.

What Xi’s condemnation may turn out to mean is a further crackdown on Uighurs on the excuse that a handful of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang has gone to fight for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. On Friday, state media said that security forces had disbanded a ‘terrorist group’ in Xinjiang that was “directly guided by an overseas extremists group”, and during the 56-day operation had killed 28 people allegedly responsible for a deadly attack on the Sogan coal mine in Asku on September 18 in which 16 people died. Update: Flamethrowers were used to flush out militants hiding in a cave, who were then shot, according to the BBC.

Update: Chinese are reportedly among hostages taken by an al-Qaida-affiliated group that attacked a Radisson hotel in Mali on Friday. Later update: Three China Railway Construction Corp. managers were among the 21 hostages reported killed in the siege; four other Chinese hostages survived.

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Settlement And Security In Xinjiang

REPORTS EMERGING FROM Xinjiang about a deadly attack at a coal mine by suspected Uighur separatists in mid-September have got this Bystander thinking of that peculiar state organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Also known as the Bingtuan (‘military corps’), the XPCC is a paramilitary economic development agency that has widespread administrative and judicial authority in the semi-autonomous region.

Some 50 people were reportedly knifed to death in the attack on the Sogan colliery in Aksu prefecture. Most of the casualties were Han Chinese, including workers and police. If the casualty numbers and identity of the attackers turn out to be true, it would have been both the most deadly single attack by Uighur militants and the first time they had struck at an industrial site.

Politburo member Yu Zhengsheng, speaking at the 60th anniversary celebrations on October 1 of Xinjiang’s founding as an autonomous region, said that long-term stability and security is the top priority in Xinjiang, with counterterrorism as its focus.

“We must be fully aware of the severe situation we are facing,” he said probably with the attack in mind though authorities have not acknowledged that it has happened. “The three forces (separatism, terrorism, and extremism) are the biggest threats for Xinjiang… We must clench our fists tight and take the initiative to crack down on violence and terror activities.”

Aksu prefecture is one 14 areas in Xinjiang that have cities, settlements, and farms under the control of an XPCC regiment, belying its military roots. The headquarters of the regiment in Aksu is in Aral, a town of more than 200,000 people built by the XPCC on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The prefectural capital of Aksu is Aksu City, a stop on the ancient Silk Road that is little more than a three-hour drive from Aral in the direction of the border with Kyrgyzstan.

The XPCC dates back to the 1950s. It was a Mao Zedong initiative, rooted in a centuries-old tradition of sending military units to settle and cultivate remote border regions. The aim was to combine the economic development of frontier regions with border defense and the keeping of minorities from being troublesome. Production and Construction Corps, comprised of former soldiers, were dispatched to Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang as well as Xinjiang.

The XPCC fell victim to the Cultural Revolution, being disbanded in 1975. However, Deng Xiaoping revived it in 1981 in response to fears about Soviet encirclement and rising militant Islam in Central Asia. Turkic-speaking, Muslim-majority Xinjiang was seen as a vulnerable frontier.

There was forced migration from the East, particularly of women to provide wives for the soldier-farmers. The region’s remoteness and harshness also made it ideal for political banishment. Ai Qing, the poet father of artist Ai Weiwei, was exiled to a Bingtuan-run penal colony in the late 1950s. Generations of dissidents have followed him to labour-reform farms and prison factories.

To this day, the XPCC has a role with the army and armed police in combating separatism through its militia. Nonetheless, its line of authority is civilian, jointly to central and provincial government, though the Xinjiang authorities leave the Bingtuan to its own devices. The corps has a bureaucratic status equivalent to that of the provincial government.

It is a state within a state, its role a blend of American Peace Corps and West Bank settlers. The analogy with Israel is appropriate in another way. The Bingtuan has made the desert bloom. Over the years, it has built the irrigation and other rural infrastructure that lets its farms, stockbreeding, and commercial enterprises now generate upwards of an estimated $24 billion or one-sixth to one-seventh of Xinjiang’s economic output.

The Bingtuan has also built half a dozen cities. It is a far cry from the early days of hunger and hardship when teams of ex-soldiers would yoke themselves together to pull ploughs by hand to break the desert soil.

As of the end of 2013, the Bingtuan had 176 regiments, 14 divisions, an area of 70,600 square kilometers under its administration. More than a million hectares of farmland and more than 2.7 million people — overwhelmingly Han Chinese and equivalent to one in eight of Xinjiang’s total population — fall under the XPCC’s jurisdiction.

Its 1-million-strong workforce is primarily engaged in growing cotton, fruit and vegetables and in light industry, the XPCC having handed most of its mining interests over to the Xinjiang provincial authorities.

It has more than 4,400 businesses ranging from food processing to paper manufacturing, cement and electricity, with 11 of them publicly listed and trading under the umbrella of the China Xinjian Group. It also runs two universities.

Increasingly it is building cities. It controls ten, four of which have become cities since 2011. Urbanization is a central prop of the XPCC’s counter-terrorism strategy. In April last year, President Xi Jinping visited the Bingtuan and called to strengthen its role due to meet what he called the new conditions. As the Sogan colliery attack shows, the mission of the soldier-settler-farmer-colonists is far from complete.

Footnote: This history of the Bingtuan was produced by the government in 2014 to mark the 60th anniversary of the XPCC’s founding.

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Bangkok Bomb’s Possible Uighur Connection Presages New Crackdown

SUSPICION, IF SCANT hard evidence, is growing that there is a Chinese Uighur connection to the bombing of the Erawan shrine in the Thai capital Bangkok last month.

Thai police say that an alleged accomplice to the still-fugitive bomber had in his possession when captured near the Cambodian border a Chinese passport identifying him as Yusufu Mieraili, born in Xinjiang, home to China’s Turkic Muslim Uighur minority. Unnamed Chinese officials have declared to state media that Mieraili is a member of the Muslim separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

Thai authorities said at the weekend that they had issued a warrant for the arrest of the suspected organiser of the plot, whom they named as Abudusataer Abudureheman, a 27-year-old from Xinjiang. He is reported to have fled Thailand.

Muddying the picture is reports of Malaysian police arresting three people suspected of helping the bombers leave Thailand. They are two Malaysians and a Pakistani.

Authorities in Beijing are known to be watching the case closely. If, as it is being suggested, the bombing was retaliation for Thailand’s repatriation to China in July of 100 Uighurs, then it would provide Beijing with vindication — at last — for its long-standing claim that the ETIM is an international terrorist threat.

The group, which Washington, at Beijing’s urging, also put on its list of foreign terrorist organizations post-9/11 but now seems to have quietly dropped, wants an independent East Turkistan state stretching from Xinjiang somewhat indeterminately westwards. Most of the 8 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, but the diaspora spreads to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and a lesser extent beyond.

East Turkistan has had two brief periods as an independent state. Mao’s revolution put an end to that. In 1955, it was declared to be China’s Xinjiang autonomous region.

Uighur militants have been fighting a low-key war with Beijing for years. More recently, particularly since late 2013, they have been able to extend attacks beyond Xinjiang, despite a hardening security crackdown on Uighurs in the region. The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which may be a splinter cell from ETIM or the ETIM in another incarnation, claimed responsibility for fatal attacks in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and notably Kunming, where 33 people, including four of eight knife-wielding attackers, died at the railway station. In Urumqi, a car bomb killed 42 people including all four attackers, all believed to be Uighurs.

However, the opaque and obscure ETIM, which was first heard of around 1997, has scarcely shown the capacity to operate across international borders with any consistency, if at all. One of its founders, who moved the organization in the late 1990s from Xinjiang to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, was reportedly killed shortly after in a U.S. drone strike against al-Qaeda bases; another languishes in a Chinese jail.

Its current leader is reputedly Abdullah Mansour, although little is known about him or the rest of the leadership. Mansour told the Reuters news agency last year that it was his Islamic duty to fight China. However, it seems more focused on the Middle East than the Middle Kingdom. A ‘Turkistan brigade’ of foreign fighters, including Uzbeks, is reportedly in Syria alongside al-Qaeda aligned forces, supported by militant Uighurs in Turkey.

It is nigh impossible to know the strength of the ETIM though it probably numbers in the low hundreds. Reuters news agency quoted Pakistan intelligence sources as putting the number at 400. More than 20 Uighurs captured by the U.S. in 2001 in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban were held for several years in Guantanamo Bay. Once released, they were not repatriated to China by the United States. Pakistan, however, has been readier to hand over captured Uighurs to Beijing.

As in other parts of the western Marches, minorities have long complained of the Han colonisation of the regions in which they have traditionally lived, a suppression of their religions and cultures, and a worsening of their economic prospects compared to the newcomers. Shortly after the revolution, in 1953, three-quarters of Xinjiang’s inhabitants were Uighur. In the latest published census (2000) they accounted for barely two-fifths. Beijing says its sole intention is to promote economic development.

If indeed the Bangkok attack is Uighur-related, Beijing is likely grab with both hands the opportunity to jump on any signs of separatism in Xinjiang regardless of whether the ultimate instigators of the Bangkok bombing were the ETIM or sympathizers in Xinjiang or Turkey.

Separatism is a prime fear of Beijing’s and provokes well-armed counterterrorism measures whenever it is perceived. Stability in Xinjiang is a particular concern. The region is not only mineral- and energy-rich, but it is also a critical corridor through which the One Belt (New Silk Road) of the One Belt One Road project passes.

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Lessons Of Kunming Station

THE SINGULARITY OF the knife attack at Kunming station makes this Bystander wary of extrapolating its impact on both the public and authorities — and in particular whether it represents an escalation of Uighur dissent against Beijing that will require an escalation of the authorities’ efforts to suppress it.

Twenty-nine people were reportedly killed and more than 130 wounded, 20 still critically so, when a group of masked assailants wielding long knives hacked at the crowd of train travelers on Saturday evening. Police shot dead four and took one suspected assailant, reportedly an injured woman, into custody. The remainder, said at the time to number five, fled. Authorities now say it was three and that they have all been captured.

The attack was blamed in short order on separatists from Xinjiang. No evidence has been offered so far to support that claim. Equally there is nothing to discount it.

Beijing has been fighting a low-level but increasingly violent insurgency in its natural-resources-rich western reaches for decades. The 8.4 million-strong Uighur minority in Xinjiang, mostly Turkic Sunni Muslims, though far from universally supportive of the tiny separatist groups, resents the growing Han dominance of the province. It feels its culture and economic prospects being increasingly diminished. Anti-Han riots in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, left some 200 dead in 2009, and ushered in another crack-down by Beijing as well as the installation of 40,000 riot-proof cameras on the streets of the city.

The Kunming station attack set several precedents, if it indeed was by Uighur separatists. First, the casualty toll was far greater than in previous attacks. Second, the attack was against the public rather than police or officials. Third, it took place in Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan and more than 1,000 miles from Xinjiang, though there was a suicide car bombing in Tiananmen Square late last year, said to have been carried out by Uighurs.

State media are being made to walk a fine line between reporting a deadly act of terror that has shocked China and keeping questions from being raised about why the authorities didn’t prevent it happening in the first place and why Uighurs are so resentful of Han Chinese. Staging the attack in the openness of a large railway station makes it more difficult for officials to control the information flow; the first pictures of the event were posted widely on social media, and bloody. The most gruesome have been taken down. Online comment has been curtailed.

The openness of the attack also makes it more difficult to control the public narrative about the event. Hitherto, the state narrative has portrayed ethnic-religious violence in the country as terrorism originating outside China. The finger has been readily pointed at places such as Pakistan, Turkey and, more recently, Syria. The point being made is that it is not home-grown. This has proved an effective tactic for making it more difficult for dissenting ethnic minorities within China to make common cause.

Early comments in state media about the attack being “China’s 9/11” have been toned down. Such remarks misunderstand both the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and the one in Kunming station. Washington has, however, changed its description of the Kunming station attack from an act of violence to an act of terror. Beijing will welcome that as an aid to its portmanteau crack down on dissent — and to its continuing struggle with Washington over the issues of human rights. That may turn out to be the Kunming station attack’s most lasting impact.

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Religious Extremism Said To Be Surging In Western China

More trouble on China’s western borders, this time inside them. Eight people have been killed in another clash between police and suspected Uighur separatists in Hotan, the prefecture containing the Xinjiang city of the same name close to the border with the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. In July, 14 people died in a firefight in the city after a group of 18 men took over a police station in the city, replacing the Chinese flag flown there with a pro-Jihadist banner. The militant East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack, and for two attacks in Kashgar the same month.

In this latest incident, police say they rescued two hostages whom they say “violent terrorists” had kidnapped in a remote mountainous southern area of the prefecture, killing seven of the kidnappers and wounding four others. One police officer died and another was wounded in the operation, which took place overnight Wednesday/Thursday. Earlier this month, another kidnapping and killing had been reported, of a Uighur man accused of drinking alcohol. State media links both incidents to what it calls “a surge in religious extremism” in the Muslim ethnic Uighur-dominated area that borders Kashmir. The “extremists are becoming bolder, and their attacks more brutal,” Xinhua says.

China is desirous of a return to the stability along its borders that it had grown accustomed to until recently where it touches Pakistan and Burma. While it can only exert diplomatic pressure on those two countries, enforcing social order within its own territory is within its own hands. Previous outbreaks of ethnic violence in resources rich Xinjiang, which is heavily Muslim and has more in common culturally with Central Asia than with much of China to its east, have been met with crackdowns, even as Beijing has poured billions of yuan of development investment into the region. However, much of the fruits of that has gone to newly arrived Han Chinese, who now constitute a majority, only deepening the divide with native Uighurs, as does Beijing’s campaign of cultural assimilation.

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