The “war on terror” that took shape after 9/11 may have originated in the United States, but the security response to “Islamic terrorism” was swiftly adapted by countries outside the West – namely China and Russia. Today, Islamophobia is also on the rise in China.
Putin’s Russia used the catastrophic terrorist attack as an opening to consolidate control in Muslim-majority regions like Chechnya and Dagestan, while China, which has a Muslim population of around 21.7 million (as of 2009), pursued similar policies in places like northwest China, where separatist voices have sought to challenge the Communist Party of China’s territorial hegemony.
China’s version of the “war on terror” has produced the same sort of derivative problems that currently plague much of the West as it deals with national security concerns: radicalization, violent extremism and Islamophobia, for instance. The mirroring of these trends in China is evident, as the national conversation around the place of Muslims within the Chinese polity has shifted in recent years to reflect the issue’s increasingly ethnonationalist nature.
China’s Muslim population is dominated by two ethnic minority groups: the more-or-less culturally assimilated Hui, who are distributed throughout several provinces in the country, and the Uighurs, an ethnolinguistically Turkic group found mainly in the northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang. It’s with this latter group that the Chinese state has had the most political problems, particularly in the post-9/11 era.
This internal Chinese political dispute has combined with the post-9/11 security culture — which often produces a framework that centres on Muslims as a public safety concern.
A segment of the Uighur population has long been resentful of Chinese governance in the nominally autonomous region, while Beijing has cited terrorism and other national security concerns as the primary reason for its interference in Xinjiang. This internal Chinese political dispute has combined with the post-9/11 security culture — which often produces a framework that centres on Muslims as a public safety concern — to blur the ethnic lines that separate different Chinese Muslim minority groups.
In the past three years — due in part to the rise of ISIL and the widespread coverage of terrorist incidents around the world — this political conflict has taken an uglier turn as national rhetoric on post-9/11 issues has become increasingly Islamophobic. It didn’t help matters when, in March 2014, Uighur terrorists killed dozens of people in a large train station in the southwestern city of Kunming. Two months later, a truck driver used his vehicle to plough through a high-traffic market in Xinjiang’s capital city of Urumqi, killing over 30 people.
The Communist regime predictably used the incidents as an excuse to double down on its concerns about “Islamic terrorism” and to implement further security measures throughout the country, but particularly in Xinjiang. The rhetoric on issues relating to Islam and Muslims in China has since become toxic enough to prompt some professors to ban their students from using online sources for assignments that deal with relevant subject matter.
A good example of this tense climate is last year’s controversy surrounding the Hui community’s campaign to lobby for stricter national standards for halal (Islamically permissible) meat, which started a nationwide debate that can best be described as the Chinese version of “creeping Sharia” paranoia. The prominent Marxist scholar Xi Wuyi, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, characterized the campaign as an attempt by radical Muslims to challenge China’s ethnocultural status quo, and thus China’s national security. The end result, he argued, would be the creation of a state that’s compliant with “Sharia law.”
This kind of rhetoric directly mirrors the tone that has characterized similar issues in the US, Europe and Australia in recent years. And just as domestic post-9/11 security problems produce narratives that affect foreign policy, China’s strained relationship with its Muslim minority groups is also having external effects on the region’s geopolitics.
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For one thing, China is encouraging its allies and neighbours not to accommodate Uighurs. Pakistan, perhaps China’s top global ally, has already forced out a large number of Uighur exiles; last year many moved into Afghanistan, where they’ve contributed to the Taliban insurgency against the US-backed central government. This is just one example of how Uighur militants who are feeling the heat in China are beginning to proliferate globally.
As the veteran Pakistani journalist and analyst Ahmed Rashid writes, “The oldest group of Uighur militants that emerged in the 1990s, calling themselves the East Turkestan Islamic Movement [ETIM] and loyal to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar of the Taliban — both of whom are now dead — have now renamed themselves in the Arab world as the Turkistan Islamic Party [TIP].” In 2002, the George W. Bush administration added the ETIM, which Beijing claimed is friendly with al-Qaeda, to its list of international terrorist organizations.
The Communist government has expressed concerns that extremist Uighur groups will capitalize on instability in global war zones in places like Syria (where Uighur extremists have formed their own units within the anti-government and al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra) in order to further proliferate and eventually return to wreak havoc on Chinese soil. Just last August, a 21-year-old Uighur suicide bomber attacked the Chinese embassy in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek with the assistance of an Uzbeki militant who received training in Syria. Furthermore, Uighur militants have also made their way to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Evidence of the TIP’s involvement in key Syrian battleground cities like Idlib has prompted the Chinese government to corroborate President Bashar al-Assad’s assertion that Syria’s opposition is full of terrorists, which has serious international implications for any hope of reaching a political solution for Syria’s prolonged crisis. China’s relatively hands-off approach in Syria may change substantially if there is any significant level of Uighur militancy and involvement in the conflict.
As the noted scholar of Uighur militancy Michael Clarke reports, Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei visited Damascus last August and met with senior Syrian and Russian military officials, including the Syrian minister of defence, to discuss increased military cooperation, including intelligence sharing. This development reinforced China’s position of backing Assad as the most rational way to protect Chinese interests in the Syrian crisis.
This reactionary position, combined with Turkey’s long-standing sympathy for Uighur separatism, has created tension between Beijing and Ankara. Reports have surfaced of Turkish intelligence recruiting exiled Uighur militants into jihadist groups within the Syrian opposition to fight against the Assad regime, drawing Chinese interests deeper into the prolonged crisis.
China’s current government, led by President Xi Jinping, is flexing its regional muscles. But a globalized Chinese presence also means the spread of an indigenous extremism. The full impact of this proliferating Uighur militancy on China’s global role remains to be seen.
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