China’s Xinjiang terror threat: real or exaggerated?

Photo: Cantetik2/Wikimedia Commons

By Claire Heffron

China’s war on terror is contentious, delicate and uncertain.

China has suffered several attacks in the past few years, which it has classified as terrorist attacks. The incidents had been blamed on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group dedicated to the independence of the Chinese province of Xinjiang. A car crash at Tiananmen Square in 2013, described by police as a suicide attack, was blamed on Islamist elements from Xinjiang.

Britain recently added the ETIM to its list of terrorist organisations. This has pleased China, which has demanded Western backing in its fight against terrorism. Western nations have long been reluctant to share intelligence with China, or to otherwise cooperate, when it comes to counter-terrorism in Xinjiang. China has provided little evidence to prove ETIM’s existence and citing worries about possible human rights abuses.

Many Uyghurs, the natives of Xinjiang province, have resented the invasion of the ethnic Han Chinese forces of China for centuries. The Uyghurs are also concerned that they are being cut out of the region’s resource-driven economic boom.

Academics say the Uyghur movement, which is aimed towards independence of East Turkestan and establishment of democracy, so surely that’s justified? The Chinese say the Uyghur movement is unwarranted and denounce them as terrorists. But Uyghurs separatists say they are freedom fighters, and that China’s government is violating their human rights.

According to The National Interest, China’s government has retorted with an “ideological assault and security crackdown on the so-called ‘three evil forces’ of ethnic separatism, religious radicalism and fierce terrorism.”

Western countries have long been reluctant to share intelligence with China or otherwise join forces once it involves counter-terrorism in Xinjiang. China’s government has shared very little information about the ETIM.

Hundreds have died in violence in recent years in Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur individuals. China blames the bloodshed on religious militants and separatists, human rights organisations say the unrest is a reaction to China’s unwelcomed policies.

“Regrettably, some western countries not only fail to acknowledge these East Turkestan terrorist groups as prohibited,” the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, said in a recent commentary this month.

China criticised

China has long accused the West of not recognising it as a victim of terrorism and radicalism the way the West has made itself out to be. “In their eyes, only terrorist attacks that happen on Western soil can be called acts of terrorism,” a China Daily editorial protested.

Many observers have criticised the Chinese military and police for abusing human rights. It is unclear in what way the international community stands on the question of whether China is suppressing the Uyghur minority, or whether China is itself a target of Uyghur militants.

The US State Department, in its annual report on terrorist acts around the world, stated that there was an absence of information from China concerning incidents that China has referred to as terrorist acts.

It has additionally criticised Chinese restrictions on religious expression and daily life in Xinjiang, such as China’s implementation of a ban on veils for girls.

A representative for the globe Uyghur Congress, Dilxat Raxit, said the most Uyghur exile cluster, had given China the pretence it required to “increase its suppression on Uighurs”.

Some foreign academics and terrorism specialists are asking whether the ETIM actually has sufficient influence and organisational ability to direct attacks within China. Nevertheless, in other countries though, the presence of Uyghur fighters in Syria has been reported by multiple sources.

Raxit said, “In China, any Uyghurs that are sad with China’s systematic policies of suppression is a measure all accused of terror, however China is incapable of providing any proof to get a clarification.

International pressure

Chinese state media has suggested that as many Chinese Muslims may have joined Islamic State. Some experts have disputed this fact, but a recent report by the think tank New America has found evidence of fighters from Xinjiang among its ranks.

Beijing has continually condemned Islamist militants and urged the world to step up organisation in combating Islamic State, though it has been unwilling to get involved on the ground in Syria and Iraq where the group is mainly active.

Has China joined the war on Islamic State? Experts say China is already fighting Islamic State, but not with troops in direct confrontation. Islamic State-related terror organisation is active in western China, so China’s security agencies are already fighting an international brand of terrorism.