Geopolitics on the rocks

Giorgio Cuscito

What China’s anti-terror campaign can’t solve in Xinjiang

East Asia

China has been intensifying repression against ethnic Uyghurs as to pacify its westernmost region and prevent terrorism from interfering with the next Communist Party Congress. But such a crackdown could further ignite tensions and boost jihadist recruitment

China’s anti-terror campaign in Xinjiang is underway and getting harder than ever. Beijing is adopting new security measures and deploying more security forces as to strengthen its control over the region, gateway to Central Asia and home of the Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic minority. In the past years Beijing has blamed numerous attacks occurred in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on Uyghur militants belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is reportedly linked to al-Qaeda.

Since the start of the anti-terror campaign in 2014, the number of reported incidents has decreased, but the issue at the root of Xinjiang’s instability has not been solved. Being the problematic cohabitation between Uyghurs and ethnic majority Han Chinese, which has spurred violent episodes and caused hundreds of deaths. While Beijing has often been accused of using the terrorist threat as an excuse to “sinicize” the region and marginalize Uyghurs.

China’s president Xi Jinping recently declared that the "great wall of iron to safeguard national unity, ethnic solidarity and social stability should be fortified in Xinjiang” [1]. In the short term, Beijing’s goal is to prevent Xinjiang’s unrest from interfering with the XIX Chinese Communist Party (CCP) National Congress, scheduled for next autumn.

China’s anti-terror crackdown

The most recent terrorist attack took place at the end of February in Xinjiang’s Hotan Prefecture. Here, three knife-wielding terrorists (reportedly Uyghurs) killed five people before being shot dead by the police.

Chinese authorities have been flexing their muscles since. Last March a great military rally took place in Urumqi (Wulumuqi in Chinese) and about 10,000 troops, armored vehicles and helicopters marched into the streets of Xinjiang’s capital. Chen Quanguo, Communist Party secretary in the region, said that is necessary to “bury the corpses of terrorists and terror gangs in the vast sea of the people's war” [2]. After the mass rally, 1,500 troops were deployed to several Xinjiang towns, namely Hotan, Kashgar and Aksu, considered by the Chinese government as the “frontline” in the struggle against terrorism.

Most recently, the Hotan Prefecture decided to offer a reward up to 5 million yuan ($726,744), to those who report and provide information on terrorist activities. While the Bayingol Prefecture ordered that by July 30th all vehicles must install the Beidou satellite navigation system (China’s answer to the American GPS). The decision was taken to track the movements of citizens and to prevent terrorist attacks.

In Xinjiang, the 2016 was marked by an unprecedented boost in surveillance capabilities. About 32,000 security related positions were advertised on the Chinese Internet, more than a three-fold increase over 2015 [3], and roughly 89% of the new hires were associated with the so-called “convenience police stations”. Those are bulletproof installations being built in Xinjiang since August 2016, after being introduced to Tibet (where until 2016 Chen Quanguo was the Party secretary) to bring “zero-distance” between police and population.

On April 1, the first region-wide legislation devised for combating extremism came into effect. As it aims to prevent the spread of extremist ideas [4], this regulation has nothing to do with the counterterrorism law China adopted in January 2016, mainly focusing on terrorist attacks. The regional legislation provides instead a list of 15 banned behaviors; some of them were already forbidden in some parts of Xinjiang, such as wearing a long beard or the Islamic veil. Moreover, the new legislation makes it unlawful not to associate with people from other ethnic groups or applying the concept of halal, the Islamic dietary law, to items other than food.

Uyghur jihadists are also active outside of China. According to Beijing, 300 Uyghurs have joined the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq; i.e. for the past years the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, ETIM successor) has been fighting against the Damascus regime with the support of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. About 3,500 Uyghurs are currently located in a village close to Jisr al-Shughour, which was captured in 2015 by a coalition of Islamist insurgents, including the TIP [5].

At the end of February, the Islamic State posted a video of a Uyghur militant threatening China, accusing TIP of apostasy and beheading an alleged “informant”. The video also shows Uyghur fighters on the battlefield and in training camps. The IS propaganda incites Chinese Muslims (roughly 23 million people) to rebel against Beijing, but to date no activity by IS fighters has been reported in China.

In the last years, Uyghurs have joined jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq by journeying through Central or Southeast Asia and Turkey. That is why Beijing has repeatedly accused Ankara of helping jihadists reach the Middle East by handing out fake Turkish passports.

China doesn’t want to declare its own “global war on terror”, rather it is willing to work within multilateral organizations (namely the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and bilateral agreements to defend its business and citizens abroad and to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning home.

To that end, recently Syrian president Bashar al-Assad confirmed to Phoenix TV (a Chinese television based in Hong Kong) that Syrian and Chinese intelligence have joined forces to gather information on Uyghurs travelling to Syria.

In the summer of 2015, Thailand’s authorities deported nearly 100 Uyghur terrorist suspects back to China, instead of allowing them to reach Turkey for asylum. A decision which ignited protests outside the Chinese embassy in Ankara and at Thailand’s consulate in Istanbul. Soon after, a terrorist attack occurred next to Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine, a popular destination for Chinese tourists. Twenty people were killed, among them five Mainland China’s nationals and two Hong Kong citizens. Bangkok claimed that the bomber was a Uyghur, while the attack was probably conceived in retaliation against China-Thailand cooperation on terrorism.

Recently posted pictures on the Internet show China’s military vehicles on the move into Afghan territory. Despite denying the presence of its troops in Afghanistan, Beijing confirmed Chinese-Afghan joint law-enforcement operations to be underway. In a place like Afghanistan, military operations and law-enforcement are very close activities. Besides, the Chinese government is striving to play the role of mediator in Afghanistan-Taliban negotiations along with Pakistan and the United States.

The bombing attack reportedly carried out last summer by ETIM on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek (Kirghizstan, home to a large Uyghur community) highlights how cooperation between China and Central Asian countries is much needed, as turmoil in those countries is closely linked with Xinjiang’s.

Roots of Xinjiang’s unrest

Xinjiang’s stability is essential for PRC’s national interests at home and abroad. That is the westernmost region of the PRC, mostly comprised of mountains and desert, rich in oil and gas, and accounting for 17% of China's total territory. Most importantly, it has long been the “buffer region” protecting China’s heartland (located in the Eastern part of China and populated by the Han majority) from a potential land attack coming from the West.

At the same time, Xinjiang is the gateway to Central Asia, which with its hydrocarbons contributes to quenching PRC’s thirst for energy. Xinjiang is crisscrossed by pipelines bringing Central Asia’s oil and gas to China’s heartland. Moreover, the region is an essential hub for the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which could involve more than 40 countries and international organizations in the whole Eurasian continent, while connecting China to Europe through infrastructural and commercial projects.

Uyghurs descend from those Turkish tribes who moved from Mongolia to the Tarim Basin in 860 A.D. In 1884, they were subdued by the Manchus (Qing Dynasty), who called their territory Xinjiang, meaning “New Frontier”. In 1933 and in 1944, Uyghurs tried to gain independence by creating the East Turkestan Republic, as “Turkestan” literally means “land of Turks”. In 1949, the newly proclaimed People’s Republic of China took over Xinjiang and put an end to separatist aspirations.

Uyghurs feel culturally linked to Turkey, which has always been a major destination for Uyghurs willing to leave China. But throughout the decades Turkey’s ideological and material support to Uyghurs’ aspirations has never turned into an effective backing to the separatist movement, as Ankara cannot afford to disrupt its relationship with Beijing.

However, China’s government worries about the promotion of “pan-Turkism” by Erdogan and tries not to associate the word “Turkestan” to Turkey. As a matter of fact, in the Chinese language the most common transliteration of “land of Turks” is not Tuerqisidan, based on Turkey’s modern name (in Chinese Tuerqi), but Tujuesidan. Tujue was the name used by the Chinese empire to identify the aforementioned Turkish tribes who lived in Mongolia [6].

Since 2000 Hans’ presence in Xinjiang has dramatically increased, strongly encouraged by the Chinese government. Hans are now concentrated in the northern part of Xinjiang (along with other minorities), where the bulk of natural resources is located. Tensions between Uyghurs and Hans have often turned into violent skirmishes, this way paving the way to the rise of the ETIM. About 200 people died in 2009 during the Urumqi riots.

Since then, police recruitment and surveillance capabilities have increased year after year. In 2014, several terrorist attacks took place in Xinjiang and - for the first time - in other parts of China as well, namely Beijing, Kunming and Guangzhou. The Chinese government blamed them on ETIM declaring the “people’s war on terror” [7], combining mass surveillance through CCTV cameras, Internet monitoring and social provisions to “de-radicalize” Xinjiang.

At the same time, the Chinese government is investing heavily to modernize the region. Last year, Xinjiang’s GDP grew by 7.6%; while urban and rural residents’ disposable income rose by 8.3% and 9% respectively. In 2017 the region aims at a more than 7% growth rate [8]. Within the BRI framework, this year Xinjiang is scheduled to spend 29,4 billion US dollars on road construction, exceeding the total amount spent on roads between 2011 and 2015 [9]. However, economic growth is essential but not sufficient to make the region stable.

Waiting for the XIX National CPC Congress

If necessary, Chinese authorities are ready to act forcefully as to maintain stability in Xinjiang and keep potential unrest from interfering with the next CCP National Congress. The most important political event of 2017, the Congress will open Xi Jinping’s second mandate as president and define the composition of the next CCP Politburo Standing Committee. If the most powerful decision-making body of the Party is composed by politicians loyal to the president (recently acknowledged as the “core” of CCP), Xi will probably succeed in adopting those reforms needed to modernize the Chinese economy.

In the long term, Xinjiang’s anti-terror campaign won’t stamp out the social discontent which is at the root of regional conflict. Beijing must necessarily find ways to improve Uyghur-Han coexistence without disrupting common religious practices and Uyghur traditions. To pacify Xinjiang, political inclusion of the Uyghur minority as well as economic development are strongly needed.

Otherwise, unrest and violence in the region could feed anti-Islam sentiment in the rest of PRC and stoke tensions with Muslims belonging to other ethnicities such as the Hui, who mostly live in the Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, Henan, Hebei, Shandong, Yunnan, Xinjiang regions, and are much more integrated into Chinese society. Such a trend could increase radicalization of China’s Muslims and make jihadist recruitment far easier.


[1] “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech during Xinjiang delegation study and deliberation had a warm response” (习近平总书记参加新疆代表团审议时的重要讲话引起热烈反响), Xinhua, 11/3/2017.

[2] “The autonomous region holds oath-taking rally to fight terrorism and maintain stability” (自治区举行反恐维稳誓师大会),, 27/2/2016.

[3] A. ZENZ, J. LEIBOLD, “Xinjiang’s rapidly evolving security State”, Jamestown Foundation, 14/3/2017.

[4] “Xinjiang to launch anti-extremism regulation”, Global Times,9/3/2017

[5] C. LIN, “If Assad asks, China can deploy troops to Syria”, Times of Israel, 19/9/2015.

[6] Y. SHICHOR, “Ethno-Diplomacy: The Uyghur Hitch in Sino-Turkish Relations”, East-West Center, 2009.

[7] “Struggling to build a socialism made of unity, harmony, prosperity, civil progress, peaceful and contentment life and work in Xinjiang” 奋力建设团结和谐繁荣富裕文明进步安居乐业的社会主义新疆, People’s Daily, 26/5/2014

[8] “China's Xinjiang resolutely fights terrorism as risks remain: officials”, People’s Daily, 13/3/2017.

[9] “Xinjiang starts key highway renovation projects”, Global Times, 24/3/2017.