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Chinese Uyghurs: International Terrorists or a Terrorised Minority?

23 Dec 2019
By Matthew Wilson
Uyghur women hold up pictures of their detained relatives. Source: Amnesty International

The Chinese government has gone on the offensive to justify its mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It may be hoping to deflect international criticism by highlighting the threat of terrorism.

This article was originally published on Australian Outlook on 23 April 2019.

The Chinese government has continued to defend its controversial policy of detaining Chinese Uyghurs. In recent weeks, it has taken international journalists to tour detention centres in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. This follows the release of a policy paper in March touting the arrest of thousands of terrorists in Xinjiang. Such moves are intended to highlight the need for the detainment centres to contain the threat of Uyghur terrorism and to counter the international outcry over the mass detainments. In the face of continued Western criticism, China has remained steadfast. This has left ambiguity as to what options the West has left to leverage its concerns as China seeks to legitimise its actions. It has also left Chinese Uyghurs abroad and in China with an uncertain future.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) utilises Maoism and the philosophy of President Xi Jinping to promote social cohesion and restrict individual freedoms. The CCP has justified such restrictions by promoting China as a safe and secure country where people live and work in peace. In this way, the CCP has functioned as an absolute authority and been able to exercise control over its citizens.

In the sparsely-populated, resource-rich Xinjiang region, the Turkic Uyghurs are the majority ethnic group. The Uyghurs primarily practice Sunni Islam and are ethnically split between Eurasian and East Asian descent. The Xinjiang region has been their ancestral homeland for thousands of years and the Uyghurs have long tried to defend their distinct identity against Chinese rule.

Cultural repression and fanning the flames of terrorism

Since the incorporation of Xinjiang province into the People’s Republic of China, the CCP has promoted the migration of ethnic Han Chinese to the region. This migration serves to strengthen the border against Russian and Central Asian influence, as well as conducting surveillance on Uyghur activity.

The CCP is alleged to have implemented mass imprisonment policies and placed more than one million Uyghurs in re-education camps. As Chinese Uyghurs continue to face cultural repression, tensions have increasingly given way to rebellion and, in extreme cases, terrorism. This has come about as more radical elements in the Uyghur community fight asymmetrically to struggle free from an oppressive and powerful Chinese state.

Persecution extends to the wider Uyghur community living outside China, with dual nationals of Australia reporting abuse and detainment when travelling to China. In Australia, there is a population of approximately 4,000 Uyghurs. They are reluctant to speak out about the situation in Xinjiang for fear family members still in the region will be placed in detention.

Transnational terrorism in Xinjiang

The CCP has regularly utilised the threat of international terrorism to justify harsh restrictions against the Chinese Uyghur community. The appearance of a small number of Uyghur fighting in Afghanistan and the exposure of Uyghur to more radical elements in the international Islamic community have increased fears of potential terrorism in Xinjiang.

The notion of “terrorism” is viewed differently in China than it is in the West. The CCP views acts of political dissent, protest and cultural expression as forms of terrorism, capable of undermining CCP legitimacy. But, even by Western standards, China is experiencing terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. The Chinese, internationally recognised terrorist group Turkistan Islamic Movement (TIM) has conducted more than 200 terrorist attacks in China. The TIM cite their main goal as the establishment of an independent state for the Uyghurs. Cases of radicalisation have grown in the Xinjiang region as TIM militants have found senior roles in transnational terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). These terrorist organisations have increasingly targeted the Uyghurs for recruitment, condemning repressive CCP policies and attempting to lure Uyghurs to battlefronts in multiple regions.

China’s increased international security involvement?

In its efforts to reduce separatist ambitions, the CCP has inadvertently stoked the fire of a proud people whose rebellion is historically documented. What was originally a separatist movement in Xinjiang has now become serious transnational terrorism, as an increasing number of Chinese Uyghurs seek to escape alleged persecution. Transferable skills learned by international terrorists across different battle theatres could be damaging in China. The creation and use of improvised explosive devices and weaponised drones in the Middle East, and the urban warfare skills demonstrated in the IS takeover of the Philippine city of Marawi, have grave implications for the stability of the Xinjiang region if used by returning foreign fighters. With the heavily documented collaboration of TIM and other Salafist terrorist groups in the Syria civil war, China must now look far outside its borders to ensure international terrorists do not return to China to commit acts of violence.

China has been proactive in pressuring smaller states to include it in any dealings relating to the Uyghurs and terrorism abroad, as well as demanding detained Chinese Uyghurs be repatriated. China has used the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to coordinate with regional partners, including Russia, to promote stability in central Asia and coordinate on terrorism. By utilising the SCO, China can set the agenda and pressure its neighbours to withhold support for Uyghurs and to assist in monitoring the movements of the Uyghurs abroad.

China and Western states conduct minimal collaboration on terrorism and share very little intelligence. Western intelligence agencies and alliances, including the Five Eyes, each have a combination of parliamentary or congressional, independent and judicial oversight. The CCPs intelligence agencies operate often without such oversight, making collaboration difficult in the face of vocal US criticism of the CCP’s human rights abuses. The United States has raised concerns over the treatment of the Uyghurs as well as the CCP’s sweeping new terrorism laws. These laws offer little transparency and can easily be tailored to repress political expression and minorities. The CCP responds to perceived human rights abuses and perceived grievances as outside interference. They have often painted themselves as a victim of terrorism, not an oppressor.

In the past, the CCP has publicly acknowledged its desire to share intelligence with France outside traditional intelligence sharing agreements like the Five Eyes alliance. In January 2018, President Xi met with France’s President Emmanuel Macron and the two countries released a joint statement pledging to work together on security and terrorism. The CCP has continually voiced its support for France in the face of continuing terrorist attacks. The CCP is seeking Western support for its own domestic terrorism concerns. Although France and China have not signed an official agreement, the inclusion of terrorism in the joint statement and China’s statements in support of France’s own fight against terrorism could be a sign the CCP is willing to accept the oversight and accountability that comes with sharing intelligence with Western partners if it receives valuable compensation.

China’s partnership with other states draws more attention to the Xinjiang region and makes it increasingly difficult to deflect from human rights abuses. However, like in the Syrian civil war, the CCP will use the appearance of radical factions to provide legitimacy for policies that potentially disenfranchise elements of its population. The CCP’s alleged actions are perpetuating a cycle of disenfranchisement within their ethnic Chinese Uyghur populations, leaving many more susceptible to radicalisation. For Australia’s Uyghur population, concerned over their ancestral homeland and families abroad, their circumstances are dire. Australia and other Western countries are in no position to place real pressure on China over human rights abuses. Instead, they are taking a more conciliatory tone with the aim of improving an already strained relationship.

Matthew Wilson holds a Bachelor of Education from the University of Canberra and a Graduate Diploma in International Relations from Deakin University. His research interests include US hegemony and transnational terrorist organisations.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.