A seemingly obsessive fear of Uyghur nationalist and religious sentiment has prompted Chinese leaders to contemplate military involvement in Syria and Afghanistan and risk international condemnation for its massive repression in its north-western province of Xinjiang, involving the most frontal assault on Islam as a faith in recent history.
Chinese fears of Uyghur activism threaten to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its policies are likely to prompt jihadists, including Uyghur foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, some of whom are exploring new pastures in Central Asia closer to China’s borders, to put the People’s Republic further up their target list.
Up to 5,000 Uyghurs are believed to have joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq in recent years, including the Islamic State, whose leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, listed Xinjiang in 2014 at the top of his list of countries that violate Muslim rights.
Uyghur fighters speaking in videos distributed by the Islamic State have vowed to return home to “plant their flag in China.” One fighter, addressing evil Chinese Communist infidel lackeys,” threatened that “in retaliation for the tears that flow from the eyes of the oppressed, we will make your blood flow in rivers, by the will of God.”
Maps circulating on Twitter purporting to highlight the Islamic State’s expansion plans included substantial parts of Xinjiang. Al Qaeda echoed the Islamic State’s statements by condemning Chinese policy towards Xinjiang as “’occupied Muslim land’ to be “recovered (into) the shade of the Islamic Caliphate.”
China’s concerns of a jihadist backlash go beyond fears of political violence. They are driven to a large extent by the fact that Xinjiang is home to 15 percent of China’s proven oil reserves, 22 per cent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear arsenal,.
Yasheng Sidike, the mayor of the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi and city’s deputy Communist Party chief, in a signal of what re-education means in camps in which, according to the United Nations, up to one million Uyghurs, a Turkic minority, and other Muslims have been detained, recently argued that Uyghurs were “members of the Chinese family, not descendants of the Turks.”
Mr. Sidike went on to say that “the three evil forces, using the name of ethnics and religion, have been creating hatred between ethnic groups and the mania to conduct terrorist activities, which greatly damage the shared interests of Xinjiang people.” Mr. Sidike was referring to China’s portrayal of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism as three evils.
The Communist Party’s Global Times asserted earlier that the security situation in Xinjiang had been “turned around and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated. Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang… Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya,’” the paper said.
Witness statements by former detainees of the re-education camps reported that they constituted an attempt to brainwash inmates into accepting loyalty to the Communist Party and China’s leadership above their religious beliefs.
The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan. China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged Uyghur jihadist assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets.
Five Chinese mining engineers were recently wounded in a suicide attack in the troubled Pakistan province of Balochistan, a key node in the US$ 50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to link the strategic port of Gwadar with Xinjiang and fuel economic development in the Chinese region. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) rather than Uyghurs.
At least one Uyghur was involved in a 2016 suicide bombing of the Chinese embassy in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek while a Uyghur gunman killed 39 people in an attack on an Istanbul nightclub in January of last year.
Chinese fears of renewed jihadist attacks on Chinese targets in China and beyond are heightened by anti-Chinese sentiment in Central and South Asia fuelled by groups effected by the crackdown in Xinjiang as well as broader unease with the fallout of Chinese-funded projects related to China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative.
Major political parties and business organizations in the Pakistani province of Gilgit-Baltistan threatened earlier this year to shut down the Pakistan-China border if Beijing did not release some 50 Uighur women married to Pakistani men from the region, who have been detained in Xinjiang.
The province’s legislative assembly unanimously called on the government in Islamabad to take up the issue. The women, many of whom are practicing Muslims and don religious attire, are believed to have been detained in re-education camps.
Concern in Tajikistan is mounting that the country may not be able to service its increasing Belt and Road-related debt. Tajikistan was forced in April to hand over a gold mine to China as remuneration for $300 million in funding to build a power plant. Impoverished Turkmenistan may have no choice but to do the same with gas fields.
The emerging stories of Kazakhs released from re-education camps and the granting of asylum in Kazakhstan to a Chinese national of Kazakh descent spotlighted the government’s difficulty in balancing its need to be seen to be standing up for its people and accommodating Chinese ambitions in Central Asia.
In a sign of the times, Russian commentator Yaroslav Razumov noted that Kazakh youth recently thwarted the marriage of a Kazakh national to a Chinese woman by denouncing it on social media as unpatriotic.
Concern that Uighur militants exiting Syria and Iraq will again target Xinjiang is one likely reason why Chinese officials suggested that despite their adherence to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others China might join the Syrian army in taking on militants in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
Syrian forces have bombarded Idlib, a dumping ground for militants evacuated from other parts of the country captured by the Syrian military and the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in advance of an expected offensive.
Chinese participation in what likely would be a brutal and messy campaign in Idlib would be China’s first major engagement in foreign battle in decades.
China has similarly sought to mediate a reduction of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to get them to cooperate in the fight against militants and ensure that Uyghur jihadists are denied the ability to operate on China’s borders. It has also sought to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Chinese officials told a recent gathering in Beijing of the Afghan-Pakistan-China Trilateral Counter-Terrorism dialogue that militant cross-border mobility represented a major threat that needed to be countered by an integrated regional approach.
Meanwhile, China has reportedly started building a training camp for Afghan troops in a narrow corridor that connects the two countries that would be home to some 500 Chinese troops.
China agreed two years ago to fund and build 11 military outposts and a training facility to beef up Tajikistan’s defense capabilities along its border with Afghanistan that hosts a large part of the main highway connecting Tajikistan’s most populous regions to China.
China has since stepped up the sharing of intelligence with Tajikistan on issues related to political violence, religious extremism and drug trafficking.
The Chinese defense ministry, moreover, announced in April that China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan would perform joint counterterrorism and training and exercises that focus on real combat experiences.
China and Afghanistan also agreed last year to lay a cross-border fibre-optic cable that like in the case of Pakistan could pave the way to export China’s model of a surveillance state to Afghanistan.
Chinese counterterrorism cooperation with various Muslim nations could be put in jeopardy by an increasing number of media reports spotlighting the crackdown in Xinjiang. Muslim governments, who have remained conspicuously silent, are likely to be further embarrassed if Western criticism of the crackdown snowballs.
A bipartisan group of US members of Congress recently called on the Trump administration to sanction Chinese officials and companies involved in the crackdown and mass detentions. The administration may have less compunction about confronting China as its trade war with the People’s Republic escalates.
“We believe that targeted sanctions will have an impact. At a time when the Chinese government is seeking to expand its influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, the last thing China’s leaders want is international condemnation of their poor and abusive treatment of ethnic and religious minorities,” the members of Congress said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore