--- Manoj Saxena
Uighur Muslims in a traditional bazaar in Kashgar, Xinjiang (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons).
Xinjiang—China's only Muslim majority province—has historically fallen only under sporadic Chinese rule. The Turkic speaking and largely Islamic Uighur people native to the region have asserted their autonomy throughout history and there have been short spells of independence in the region. The Uighurs are a distinct minority in China and their culture and customs differ significantly from those of the Han Chinese majority. However, since its incorporation into the People's Republic of China between 1949-50 the area and its people have been recognized as a part of the Chinese state by the international community, although some non-state Uighur organizations continue to favor independence and separatism.
The Uighurs generally adhere to the liberal Sufi sect of Islam and until recently the separatist movement in the province was characterized by a Pan-Turkic sentiment. The Uighur people have also traditionally been known to indulge in alcohol and music. However, at least since the 1990s there has been a sharp decline in the secular and liberal sentiment of the people in Xinjiang. This decline in secularism has been coupled with a rise in Islamist belief, which has understandably worried policymakers in Beijing.
Some of this shift towards radicalization can be attributed to a global rise in Islamic radicalism in general but there are other factors to consider here. The Strike Hard campaign of the 1990s led to widespread discontent and alienation among the Uighurs. As a part of this campaign religious rights of the Uighurs were severely restricted and several people faced criminal charges for acts ranging from carrying Islamic literature to 'spreading rumors'. These harsh measures aimed at pacifying the largely-Muslim population may have achieved just the opposite, and may have contributed to the radicalization of a society which has traditionally been somewhat ambivalent to the extremist interpretation of Islam.
Therefore, the situation in Xinjiang presents unique features. The first is the nature of the stringent Chinese response in an area where people may have been alienated but still do not present a threat to national unity on the scale of other notable separatist movements—such as the insurgencies in Chechnya or Sri Lanka. The justification for the Uighur call to arms itself has been questioned, especially given the nature of violent attacks on the Chinese civilian population. Also, the role of the external actors—both state and non state—is also important to note here since many countries may have criticized China's human rights record in the province but none have come forward with a full support for separation of Xinjiang from China. There has been some marginal support for an independent Xinjiang from non state actors but these actors have largely included ineffectual pressure groups—often of questionable reputation—or extremist militant organizations. Ultimately, few see the Uighur insurgency as a freedom struggle.
The September 11 attacks on the United States of America fundamentally altered the way the world perceived terrorism in the name of religion. China supported President George W. Bush's war on terror right from the onset and voted in favor of anti-terror resolutions in the United Nations. It further froze the assets of jihadist operatives in Chinese banks and even briefly supported the US in its intelligence gathering efforts. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks a number of countries began intensifying their own counter-terrorism measures and China—along with Russia and India—was among the leading states in this regard.
According to Yitzhak Shichor, the People's Liberation Army had begun to move massive military equipment and manpower to Xinjiang as early as September 18, 2001. In a display of urgency some of the troops were supposedly shifted from the Sino-Indian border and deployed to Xinjiang during this movement. Shichor notes that public displays of Muslim prisoners and, in some instances, quick execution sanctioned by the state occurred as early as September 26, 2001. In a rather telling reaction even the United States refused to return Uighur detainees held in Guantanamo Bay to China in 2004 on grounds that they may face a quick trial and execution.
Other notable measures that Beijing undertook in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks included a re-calibration of some aspects of its foreign policy and a withdrawal from its stance of tolerating Islamist movements in its neighborhood, in particular in India. China's position on the Kashmir issue has in recent years been that of encouraging a peaceful bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan—a marked departure from its previously held position of notionally supporting a Pakistan sponsored 'freedom struggle' in the region. The rise of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the existence of militant training camps in Pakistan's Waziristan region may have added to Beijing's consideration. Andrew Small observes in The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics that two high profile ETIM leaders—Abdul Haq al Turkistani and Abdul Shakoor Turkistani—were both killed in Pakistan not by the Pakistan security forces but by US drone strikes.
Beijing has also been active in foreign intelligence gathering and surveillance. Andrew Small notes that in 2010, a vigilant intelligence intervention by the UAE and Chinese intelligence led to the sentencing of Uighur terror suspects Wimiyar Ging Kimili and Mayma Ytiming Shalmo in Dubai. Both these men had trained in Pakistan based terrorist training camps and were planning to strike the Dragon Mart in Dubai with explosives—an attack which would have resulted in mass casualties on foreign soil had it been successful. Overall, since the war on terror became a global phenomenon Beijing has used this opportunity to legitimize its crackdown not only on armed separatists but anyone in the province who is seen a challenge to state authority.
However, some measures taken by the Chinese authorities become perplexing when their effectiveness in terms of counter-terrorism is questioned. During the ongoing month of Ramadan—a holy month of fasting for observant Muslims—there have been allegations of widespread repression of religious freedom in Xinjiang. It has been reported that the largely Muslim residents of the province are being denied the freedom to wear veils, observe fasts, attend prayers, and read religious books during Ramadan. This has led to resentment and a situation where actions intended to curb extremism may ultimately end up promoting it. Furthermore, these actions are in violation of Article 36 of China's 1982 constitution which guarantees the right of religious activities to all citizens of the country.
In many ways the present crackdown on Uighurs is an evolution of the Strike Hard, Maximum Pressure campaign and these measures are likely to endure in the future. Beijing may try to strengthen and consolidate its hold over Xinjiang by keeping a well-organized PLA presence and supporting an influx of Han Chinese migrants from other provinces to alter the Muslim-majority demographic of Xinjiang—an experiment which has seemingly worked in the formerly Buddhist-majority area of Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).
The Chinese state apparatus also has tools other than pure hard power at its disposal but thus far they seem to have been deliberately underutilized. China is ideally suited to make the people of the province stakeholders in China's rapidly advancing economic progress. However, this has not yet happened and the Uighur population has suffered from income disparity, racial discrimination, and the province itself continues to perform well below the national standards in terms of education and healthcare.
As long as the Chinese authorities continue to take actions that are seen to be against the interest of the Uighur identity and the way of life there will be unwanted repercussions not only from within but from outside. Currently the Uighur militants exist only on the fringes of the global jihad and neither Al-Qaeda nor IS have made massive inroads into the region. However, in the past seemingly innocuous movements such as the civilian-led call for autonomy in Kashmir were also hijacked by the global jihadist tide and eventually turned violent. This may very well turn out to be the case with Xinjiang if the present cycle of detachment is allowed to persist.
Ultimately, the challenges in Xinjiang are a heady mix of nationalism, Islamism, underdevelopment, alienation, and apathy. There is no pure military solution for solving this complex blend of problems. The authorities in Beijing and Urumqi should address these issues in a manner which actually mitigates extremism and discontent, instead of taking provocative steps which may end up causing grievances and liquidating the moderate character of the Uighur people.
For now the world has only taken note of the human rights record and has not extended any moral and diplomatic support to the separatist movement itself. However, all this may change if the harsh and ongoing Chinese state response continues. Time is right for China assimilate the people of Xinjiang into the national development process without crushing their unique culture and way of life. Any failure to do so might result in the emergence of another massive Islamist insurgency in Asia — an occurrence that will not be in the interests of China or its neighbors.