This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...
How is China dealing with the challenge of jihadi violence? Depending on whether the threat is perceived as internal or external, different approaches are being used. Governments have a range of options to deal with terrorism and jihadism, but these can be distilled into two primary approaches: conciliation or confrontation. While conciliation seeks resolutions to outstanding grievances, confrontation aims only to prevent these grievances from turning into actions. Across these poles, governments can pursue a range of strategies, from protection, policing, and politics to peace-building and psychology.
To date, the Chinese approach has used these different strategies but not always at the same time or place. Instead, Chinese strategies have been influenced by whether the terrorist threat is perceived to be domestic or foreign. Internally, the Chinese approach has focused on protection and policing, resulting in confrontation with the Uighur minority in the far western province of Xinjiang. Externally, it has been less confrontational, with a preference for political and peace-building approaches.
Confrontation at Home
Domestically, China’s greatest challenge comes from the Uighur movement and its more militant strains in the far western province of Xinjiang. The population identifies less with China and more with its Turkic ethnic and Muslim religious identities. Xinjiang has long held a distinct identity, despite being forcibly incorporated into the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) after 1949. Within the Uighur population, there is a wide range of preferences and objectives, ranging from cultural distinction to greater autonomy, either within China or independent of it—with a small minority favoring an Islamic state. Similarly, only a limited segment of the population—including the East Turkestan Islamist Party (ETIM) and its successor, the Tukestan Islamist Party (TIP)—have advocated violence to advance their goals.
Since 1949, China’s principal approach in Xinjiang has been a policing-oriented strategy. It has cracked down on dissent in the region while, at the same time, pursuing assimilationist policies that have increased the number of Han Chinese migrants to Xinjiang. Today, around 45 percent of the province's population is Uighur and 40 percent Han Chinese. Alongside this policy, and since the 1980s, Xinjiang has been subject to China’s development strategy, which has focused on building up the province’s industrial and agricultural sectors. The process acquired a more institutionalized format through the Great Western Development Campaign in 2000, which has been subsumed into the more recent "One Belt, One Road" program to link China with Central Asia and the Middle East. But because the measures have focused on Chinese unity and privileging the Han Chinese population, it cannot be said to have been conciliatory toward redressing Uighur concerns.
The Uighur-Chinese conflict has undergone rhetorical change since 9/11, even as the policing and protectionist strategy has continued. Until 9/11, Beijing framed Uighur discontent and separatist ambitions as a local problem. However, after 9/11, China presented the issue as part of the global jihad movement. Critics saw this as a move to unify the Chinese population by labelling the Uighurs as a "suspect community." Beijing’s reframing was condoned by the international community when the United Nations and the United States labelled ETIM as a terrorist organization. Similarly, Beijing gained regional support for its actions from Central Asian governments, with whom it had cultivated closer security cooperation and ties since the 1990s. These governments extradited Uighurs considered to be terrorists by China, despite criticism from their own Uighur populations.
But in labelling the threat as part of the global war on terror, Beijing also inadvertently opened the door to jihadist elements in the Uighur population to seek ties and common cause with global jihadist actors, including al-Qaeda. Yet, the immediate effect of this reframing was a weakenining jihadist threat rather than a rising one. In 2003, a Pakistani mission assassinated ETIM’s emir, Hasan Mahsum, which helped diminish Uighur separatist activities.
In 2008, Uighur militancy flared up again. TIP became more visible and active, distributing Islamist literature, much of it in Arabic. TIP made several threats during the Beijing Olympics and claimed responsibility for bus bombings in Shanghai and Yunnan province. In 2009, the Uighur issue gained more international attention following a series of riots between Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang and Beijing’s strong response suppressing them. The TIP emir, Abd-al-Haqq Turkistani, called for actions against not only the Chinese state but Chinese interests everywhere. Domestic terrorism occurred in isolated incidents across the country, reaching a peak in 2014, killing around 200 (although half of those killed included the attackers themselves). Two of the highest-profile cases that year were an attack in Kunming station, where eight assailants wielding knives killed 31 and injured more than 140 people, and a bombing attack in the Xinjiang city of Urumqi, which left 39 people dead.
Avoiding Conflict Abroad
Internationally, China maintains a strong preference for state sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of other countries. However, since the 1990s China has become an increasingly important economic power, with commercial interests and investments abroad. China has a high demand for commodities and energy supplies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and even maintains control of oil fields in two of the latter region’s most volatile countries: Iraq and Syria. In the Middle East alone, Chinese investment and contracts amounted to $115 billion in the 10 years preceding 2015. This trend looks set to continue with the expansion of China’s "One Belt, One Road" strategy into the region: during President Xi’s visit to the Middle East in January, 2016, $55 billion was set aside for aid, investments, and loans for development and infrastructure in the Middle East. But one consequence of these growing links has been increased Chinese exposure to jihadi threats,which may eventually challenge its Westphalian view of the world.
So far, China has avoided any direct military involvement abroad, especially in the Middle East. China’s unwillingness to act as a global policeman has gained it support from leaders in the Middle East, whose regimes also see China as a source of investment, a strong consumer of energy exports, and a potential counterweight to the United States. Instead, Beijing has emphasized "political," rather than military, solutions. Indeed, following the instability associated with the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the most notable Chinese action was its use of its nearby warships to evacuate Chinese and other nationals from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015.
Beijing’s preference for official relations has buttressed its support for the Assad regime in Syria and its opposition to foreign intervention. At present, it is the only member of the P5 on the U.N. Security Council that has not intervened militarily in Syria. Yet, the Syrian civil war has enabled the rise of Islamist militant groups like the al-Qaeda-backed Nusra Front and ISIS, both of which have acquired growing numbers of Uighur supporters; in the last two years, the number of Uighurs believed to have joined these groups has grown. A recent survey suggests that around 300 Uighurs have made the journey to Iraq and Syria, motivated more by the discrimination they face at home and the desire to find a new one than by Islamist ideology. This contradicts Chinese claims that they are driven by a commitment to religious extremism.
Notwithstanding Uighur intentions, has their greater presence in the Syrian conflict led to a change in Chinese policy toward the region? In December 2015 a counter-terrorism law was passed that would authorize the Peoples’ Liberation Army (P.L.A.) to engage in anti-terrorism actions abroad. Also, earlier in the year, China established its first overseas naval base in in Djibouti, which may complement its involvement against piracy off the Horn of Africa. Although it is in its early days, the base will significantly enhance Chinese projection abroad, should it choose such an action. Also, by early 2016, Chinese marines were reportedly training in the deserts of Xinjiang, perhaps as practice for expeditionary missions.
Finally, the rapid rise and territorial expansion of ISIS over the past two years has captured international attention. In July 2014, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, condemned China’s treatment of Muslims. While Al Baghdadi’s words may have been primarily concerned with recruitment, they highlight the change in jihadist thinking on China. During the 1990s and 2000s, al-Qaeda was prominent in the global jihadi movement. Its leaders saw their principal enemy as the United States and believed that China could be a potential ally to help bring it down. That view was helped by Chinese emphasis on non-intervention and limited involvement outside of the economic sphere. But since the mid-2000s, other jihadists have begun to see China as a growing danger, partly because of perceived U.S. decline as well as China’s support for local repressive regimes and its labelling of the Uighur issue as part of the global war on terror.
China’s responses to jihadist threats are varied. But the main determinant of that response seems to be whether it is a domestic or foreign threat. Domestically, there is little engagement with the grievances of the local Uighur population in Xinjiang. The result is a coercive policing strategy toward the Uighur population in Xinjiang and a protective approach to prevent terrorist attacks carried out by Uighurs in the wider country. At the same time, it is important to note that not all Uighurs may be labelled as jihadists; but this is the label that Beijing has adopted as a means of managing Chinese unity in the period since 9/11.
Although some Uighurs have become jihadists and have linked up with international groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, many have simply wanted to escape from Chinese repression at home. Of those who are actively involved in the conflict, Jenine Liu suggests that their capacity to return home and carry out attacks against targets within China may be limited. This may be attributed to the more authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime, including tighter travel restrictions, curfews, and bans on religious activities. Of course, this could change, especially if groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS are able to improve their recruitment and attract sympathisers within China who are prepared to carry out attacks.
Yet, although Beijing is unwilling to engage with Uighur grievances at home, abroad it is more prepared to adopt the political route, mainly through official contacts at the state level. Political instability and regime weakness in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have provided space for Islamist militancy to take root—even as China expands its economic interests in such places. Yet, this does not mean that an expanding economic role will necessarily lead to greater military involvement. Indeed, it is worth considering the historical experience of the United States in the first half of the 20th century, when, despite being a global economic superpower, it deferred to the European powers on strategic issues. Similarly, while today the United States remains tied to the Middle East (despite its supposed ‘pivot’ to East Asia), and Russia exerts itself in Syria, it is not certain that Beijing has any incentive to move away from what Obama has labeled as a "free rider" position in the region.
Chinese "free riding" has benefited the country because it has allowed non-interventionist China to be seen as less central to jihadists' concerns—especially when compared to the United States. Moreover, following Osama bin Laden’s assassination in 2011, many assumed that al-Qaeda’s attention would move away from attacking the American "far enemy" and refocus on those local regimes that repressed their populations in the Middle East—a development that has become increasingly stark in the wake of the regional instability unleashed by the Arab uprisings.
But while jihadists’ attention may be focused on attacking governments in the region, Beijing should neither be complacent nor continue its current policies against the Uighurs at home. As Chinese interests expand and its ties to such regimes grow, it is likely that Beijing will find itself in the jihadists’ firing line, not just as collateral damage, but as a target. In this respect, ISIS leader Baghdadi’s criticism of China and call to arms may shift from symbolism to reality, with Chinese interests and citizens attacked both at home and abroad. But whether Beijing will take the bait and shift towards a greater policing role abroad (as it presently does at home) remains an open question. Indeed, it might take an act similar in scale to that of 9/11 to transform attitudes in the Chinese leadership and population.
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