China’s latest move against Uyghur secessionism may be unwittingly fostering the ideologies and terrorist violence that it seeks to suppress, Joshua Tschantret writes.
China’s new policy of confiscating passports is merely its latest effort to tighten its grip over the Northwestern province of Xinjiang. Since 1996, the Chinese government has launched a series of oppressive “strike hard” campaigns in the region to target the so-called “three evils” of separatism, terrorism and fundamentalism. The Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group, have been the principal target of these crackdowns. Rather than meting out solely selective punishment, there is ample evidence that China has used the threat of terrorism as a pretext to collectively repress the Uyghur. Mass arrests and arbitrary restrictions against religious practices are now a recurrent feature of life in Xinjiang.
Repression in Xinjiang has become increasingly onerous under the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the arrest rate in the province nearly doubling in 2014. Although this is perhaps an unsurprising trend under the Chairman of Everything’s leadership, China’s increased zeal in applying strict counterterrorism measures, of which the passport confiscations are undoubtedly part, is also likely calculated to take advantage of an auspicious international climate to implement further crackdowns. National security concerns offer a reasonable cover for the government to continue consolidating social control, and international efforts to curb the flow of foreign fighters to Syria provide a suitable opportunity. This would not be unprecedented. China tried a similar manoeuvre in the aftermath of 9/11 when it framed its battle against Uyghur separatism as part of the international war on terrorism.
Claims that Uyghur militants are linked to transnational jihadist groups have, however, been highly exaggerated. For one, discontented Uyghurs have traditionally framed their conflicts with the government as a local, separatist struggle to establish an “East Turkestan” state, rather than as part of a broader jihadist movement. China’s post-9/11 counterterrorism tactics were supposedly intended as an attack on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist organisation, but there is considerable scepticism about whether the organisation existed at all. Official reference to the ETIM was not made until after the 9/11 attacks, when China retroactively attributed past ethnic disturbances to the elusive group. But at the time, even regional officials touted the absence of any terrorist activity in Xinjiang.
Allegations of extensive Uyghur involvement in ISIS are equally questionable. In 2014, the Global Times, a pro-government periodical, reported that around 300 Turkestan rebels had fled to join ISIS. Experts, however, were quick to declare that this figure was “implausibly high,” and that no more than 20 to 30 were likely to have made the journey to Syria. This unofficial estimate would make Xinjiang equivalent to Ireland in terms of the total number of foreign fighters produced.
If China is using the ISIS threat as an opportunity for repression, then we can glean insights into the potential consequences from its similar attempts following 9/11. While initially successful in quelling collective action, it is doubtful that these measures proved effective in the long run. In 2008, at the time of the Beijing Olympics, an unprecedented string of terrorist attacks was carried out in Xinjiang. These attacks were unlike the violent incidents that took place in the 1990s. First, they were innovative. Multiple suicide bombings were used for the first time. Securitisation in Xinjiang simply compelled radicals to find new and destructive ways to strike “hard targets”. Second, terrorists have since started to target civilians, a tactic that Uyghur radicals had previously avoided. Heavy securitisation renders military and state apparatuses harder to hit, making already vulnerable civilians more tempting targets. And, third, the use of suicide bombings indicates that the attackers were at least inspired by jihadist methods.
China once again risks exacerbating the problem it is purportedly fighting. New restrictions stand to amplify the already strong resentments that many Uyghur harbour against the government, while the small minority of violent radicals will remain undeterred. To circumvent restrictions, terrorists can shift further toward targeting civilians using improvised and difficult to detect weapons. Many of the deadliest recent attacks have been committed with knives, including one incident that, according to Chinese media, was orchestrated when the perpetrators discovered they were unable to leave China to fight abroad. If true, it is hard to imagine how passport restrictions will reduce violence.
Even more disconcerting, China’s implicit message that every Uyghur is a potential ISIS recruit could convince more individuals that they should ally with jihadists and consume their propaganda. Not only does this mean that extremists will learn from foreign fighters, but it also risks radicalising a new generation into an ideology that was formerly alien to Xinjiang. Uyghur secessionism poses no serious threat to China’s territorial integrity. By overreacting to dissent and exaggerating Uyghur ties to jihadists, China may be unwittingly fostering the insidious ideologies and terrorist violence that it seeks to suppress, and all without the need for any Uyghurs to travel abroad.