Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Uyghurs, China, and Islamist Terrorism

Xinjiang is the largest region of China and it borders the countries of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia. A little less than half of the province’s population (8 million of 19 million people) is made up of the Uyghur ethnic group. The Uyghurs are a Turkic people who practice the Muslim faith—in China’s population of 1.384 billion people Muslims make up approximately 1.8 percent of the people. Much attention has been paid to Beijing’s crackdown in the region with reports of over a million Uyghurs being sent to camps and various population control mechanisms being emplaced. According to reports from Beijing, since 2014, the government authorities in Xinjiang have “destroyed 1,588 violent and terrorist gangs, arrested 12,995 terrorists, seized 2,052 explosive devices, punished 30,645 people for 4,858 illegal religious activities, and confiscated 345,229 copies of illegal religious materials.” But what is really happening there?

While the plight of the Uyghurs has raised many concerns by human rights observers and others, why haven’t the troubles of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang attracted more attention from Salafist terrorist elements?  In order to seek answers to these questions, the FPRI’s Program on National Security convened a roundtable of a diverse group of subject matter experts to discuss various elements of this topic. Michael P. Noonan, the program director, led a discussion with FPRI Senior Fellows Colin Clarke (author of After the Caliphate), Jacqueline Deal (the president of Long Term Strategy Group), June Teufel Dreyer (professor at the University of Miami and author of, among other books, China’s Forty Millions), and Barak Mendelsohn (associate professor at Haverford College and author of Jihadism Constrained).   

Michael P. Noonan: First, I want to thank all of you for agreeing to take part in this roundtable.

Perhaps we can start off with a discussion of Xinjiang and the Uyghurs. June and Jackie, what can you tell us about the Uyghurs themselves and a brief history of Xinjiang and its incorporation into modern China? Who are the Uyghurs? What form of Islam do they practice?

June Teufel Dreyer: Who are they? What form of Islam do they practice? The group now identified as Uyghurs originate from a collection of ethnic groups who are sedentary Muslims. They are predominantly Sunni, but there are also Sufi groups (representing the more mystical side of Islam).  The degree of religious observance varies: for example, in Kashgar (southern Xinjiang) one is more likely to see women wearing headscarves than in the north.  Many Uyghurs do drink alcohol—and use drugs. Pressure from the party/central government seems to have induced at least some Uyghurs to become more observant.

An East Turkestan Republic was founded in the late 19th century — note that this wasn’t “Uyghurstan.”   Previously, there had been only light and intermittent control by the Chinese (dynastic) government; as the age of imperialism began to be a concern, the territory was formally incorporated into the Qing empire as “Xinjiang,” or “new territory,” in 1884. Its leader during the Republican era, Sheng Shicai, a Tatar, paid nominal adherence to the Kuomintang of China (KMT) government; he acceded to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1950.  There was a good deal of Soviet influence in northern Xinjiang. As much a nationalistic party as a communist party, the CCP was at pains to claim for China all territories that had been part of the Qing empire.  In 1955, the territory became the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), with a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commander there, Wang Enmao, becoming First Party Secretary (i.e., the real power holder) and Saifudin, a Moscow-trained Uyghur, the governor. It has never actually had any degree of autonomy.

Jacqueline Deal: First-order questions about Xinjiang include, what is the size of its Uyghur population, and what do demographic trends suggest about the situation there? Official Chinese census results from 2000 estimated that the Uyghur population was just over 8 million. This figure implies that the Uyghur population grew far more slowly over the preceding half-century (under 1.5% per year) than did culturally comparable populations; for example, the population of Saudi Arabia was roughly equivalent to the Uyghur population of Xinjiang in 1950 but then grew 3.9% per year. The Middle East as a whole grew 2.7% per year over this period. If the Uyghurs had grown at the same rate as the broader Middle East population, they would have numbered 15 million in 2000 — almost double the official tally. 

It might be tempting to ascribe this divergence to the impact of repression on Uyghur procreation rates. But the One Child Policy carved out exemptions for ethnic minorities. The other option is that there are in fact many more Uyghurs in Xinjiang than the official numbers suggest. Over the past decade, Chinese Communist Party officials have imposed forced abortions on pregnant women when Uyghur communities exceed local birth quotas. Deflating the reported numbers potentially facilitates such coercive population control along with the internment of millions of Uyghurs. If those who disappear into camps were never counted, how will the world know that they are gone?

Noonan: With that introduction out of the way, we can turn our attention to Beijing’s policies toward Xinjiang and the Uyghurs there. For Beijing is this simply about control and sovereignty? In other words, is the treatment of the Uyghurs there about maintaining the view of states as inviolable black boxes with the power to control the territory and people there? Are there strategic minerals or other resources there that make control paramount? Or is this simply about maintaining steady control in order to fend off the whirlwind of a loss of control in a country with fissiparous potentialities?

Dreyer: Beijing’s policies have several motives. Sovereignty is important. The XUAR’s inhabitants have been intermittently restive, typically in response to some party/government policy like imposing family planning or curtailing religious observances.  The rise of militant Islam elsewhere coupled with the disintegration of the USSR, with a number of Muslim-majority states on the XUAR’s border enhanced Beijing’s concern with keeping the area tightly linked to what might be called China proper.

Strategically, the area is also important.  As you said, the XUAR borders eight countries. It’s an important segment of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, which intends to link China to Europe and beyond through a fanciful re-creation of an ancient silk road.

The XUAR is said to have a “black-white” economy: oil and cotton, both of which are important to the PRC’s financial well-being. Both sectors are controlled by Han Chinese.

Deal: There are clearly domestic and international drivers of the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to Xinjiang. Local resources have been a draw to Communist regimes since before Stalin assisted Mao with Xinjiang’s conquest at the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War. More recently, Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) program envisions Xinjiang as Beijing’s gateway to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. This reflects both confidence and insecurity; OBOR is a new kind of Chinese empire, driven by global power ambitions, including the search for the resources, markets, and technology required by the PRC’s economy and military. As discussed in the last chapter of China’s Changing Family Structure, today’s outward push is also a new solution to the CCP’s old problem of securing border areas populated by ethnic minorities.

Noonan: Dating back to 2000s there were some acts of political violence and a small number of attacks committed by Uyghurs there. Some estimates claim that several thousand Uyghurs have gone to fight in Syria and other conflicts. How should outsiders read this? It seems that, just as human rights observers view with concern events in Xinjiang, the global militant Salafi movement would also have interest in developments there. Do groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS have an eye on Xinjiang? Would groups want to expand there?

Dreyer:  Uyghurs have been found fighting for Muslim extremists causes, and Beijing persuaded the US State Department to declare the East Turkestan Islamic Movement a terrorist organization.  Independent scholars disagree, saying that at most a handful of ETIM members are terrorists.  At least some Uyghur extremists have certainly been trained in Pakistan, despite the vaunted “all weather friendship” that exists between the two countries. And certainly militant Islam aspires to win the allegiance of the Uyghurs as well as the other Muslim groups who live in the XUAR (Kazakhs being the most numerous of these).  But, to your final question, there is little hope that expanding its influence there would mean decoupling the XUAR from China: control is simply to tight, and vigilance too great.

Colin P. Clarke: We know that in the past, groups like al-Qaeda have referred to the Uyghurs in their propaganda, directing ire toward China for its treatment of these ethnic and religious minorities. I would expect Xinjiang to become an even more significant grievance for jihadist groups in the near future. The imprisonment of between 1 and 2 million Uyghurs in concentration camps (the Chinese government deems these “vocational” centers) could become a rallying cry for transnational terrorist groups. The issue is compounded by China’s growing global presence, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or “One Belt, One Road,” which could make Chinese businesses, properties, and citizens vulnerable to attacks. There have already been several cases of kidnappings of Chinese businessmen in Pakistan.

Deal: The flip side of Michael’s question is that immediately after the 9/11 attacks, PRC strategists identified the diversion of US defense resources to conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia — away from East Asia. While some worried about the subsequent American troop build-up in countries bordering Xinjiang, most Chinese defense intellectuals celebrated the two-decade “period of strategic opportunity” that this diversion created for the CCP. A 2013 textbook for mid-career to senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers even boasted that the fact that Washington considered Beijing a partner in the war on terror prevented Americans from seeing the PRC as a threat or rival.

Barak Mendelsohn: Muslims in general and Muslim states in particular have shown little interest in the plight of the Uyghurs. But one would have expected the jihadis, with their emphasis on helping Muslims under duress wherever they are, to show greater interest in events in Xinjiang. Surprisingly, despite an ideology that requires attention to the Muslim Uyghurs and the potential to score points in Muslim public opinion worldwide, jihadis have been largely quiet about the Chinese concentration camps and brutal repression of fellow Muslims. Back when Myanmar authorities were massacring the Rohingya, jihadis at least sought to use the atrocities to rhetorically promote their agenda even as they did nothing to actually stop the anti-Muslim violence. In the case of the Uyghurs we see even less rhetoric, let alone action.

On the face of it, the question of China’s treatment of Muslims could be a way for a jihadi outfit to distinguish itself from jihadi competitors. China could be easily portrayed in similar vein to how jihadis characterized both the Soviet Union and the US: ideological aggressive giants hostile to Islam but unable to stem the jihadi rise and ultimately to keep their empires. It is therefore puzzling that we have yet to see a transnational jihadi group that would make China its claim for jihadi market niche. The answer is probably that jihadis have enough other locations, especially in the more important region of the Middle East, to operate, whereas at least in the short-term China offers little prospect of success.

Noonan: Last question: but is such expansion even possible there? Is Beijing simply able to exert too much control (and this) over the region? Or do Beijing’s holistic elements of power cast a shadow of deterrence or potential deterrence to the expansion of Jihadist elements there? Does the extensive use of surveillance and population control measures blunt the potential for foreign fighters to return?

Dreyer: Why don’t other Muslim companies support the plight of their co-religionists?  In the case of Saudi Arabia, the sharp criticism it has gotten from the West over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder has surely pushed it closer to Beijing, who will certainly not criticize the Saudi record on human rights.  Other countries, like Pakistan, rely on China for economic assistance, and in the case of Pakistan, for arms purchases.   Turkey has spoken up in support of the Uyghurs, as fellow Turkic Muslims.

Clarke: China is doing everything in its power to marshal emerging technologies, including biometrics and artificial intelligence, to track, monitor, and surveil its citizens. Authoritarian countries that are willing to disregard human rights can be effective in domestic suppression, even as this approach generates deep-seated grievances over the long-term. One of my major concerns is that China is going to export its model of “automated authoritarianism” to other autocratic governments and even possibly some democracies. I wrote about Chinese counter-terrorism policies for a piece in Slate, over the summer where I touched upon some of these issues and concerns. 

Mendelsohn: Jihadi violence has affected Xinjiang but its scope was rather narrow, the attacks sporadic and the actors perpetrating them unsustainable in the face of the Chinese state’s repressive apparatus and surveillance might. Thus, whereas China offers an obvious case for jihadi mobilization, in reality operating within China is extremely difficult and the prospects of strategic success are too low to justify focusing energy on attempts to build a jihadi infrastructure. Jihadis may carry out some attacks, and even kill a bunch of people, but they cannot expect to produce strategic effects given China’s effective control over news reports and the Chinese public’s extremely limited power to shape regime’s policy. In fact, reflecting the sense of futility fighting the Chinese state – even years before technology significantly bolstered its surveillance apparatus – most Uyghur jihadis chose to leave China. It was not only because they sought to help their Muslim brothers in Afghanistan or Syria but primarily because they lacked the ability to operate in Xinjiang. It is unlikely that these volunteers will ever return home or successfully establish an active outfit to fight the Chinese authorities inside China. 

Noonan: Thank you Jackie, June, Colin, and Barak for your insights on this important question of the Uyghurs. I appreciate the context and analyses that you all brought to this topic.