China has recently been subject to terrorist attacks by its Uyghur Muslim minority, most notably in Tiananmen Square in October, 2013. International opinion doubts that the attacks were related to Islamic militancy, while Beijing is insistent that Uyghur jihadists are to blame. Is Beijing now facing its own war on terrorism? Or is China putting the Islamic cart before the Uyghur horse? How Beijing handles the Uyghur issue may be key to China's future relations with Islamic states and Muslims worldwide as the spectre of Islamic militancy in China looms larger, Paul Cochrane in Beirut reports.
On 29 October, a Uyghur man, accompanied by his wife and mother, rammed his Jeep through the barriers at Tiananmen Gate, wreaking death and destruction in the symbolic heart of the capital. All three occupants burned to death when the vehicle caught fire.
It was a startling act in one of the most surveilled areas of Beijing, and the authorities were quick to link the attack to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a shadowy organization that wants independence for the Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic-speaking people from the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Some two weeks later, 11 people were killed in an attack by armed Uyghurs on a police station in Serikbuya, some 400 km southwest of Urumqi, the capital of the North-Western region.
The incidents have put the Uyghurs under the spotlight as part of the “Three Evil Forces” (terrorism, separatism, and extremism) policy to be contained by Beijing, with the Tiananmen incident the most significant involving the Uyghurs since major demonstrations in Urumqi in 2009.
But was the attack in Tiananmen of an Islamic bent, or instead connected to Uyghur grievances over Beijing's policies in Xinjiang? Beijing however has not been forthcoming in laying out the evidence, making it difficult for observers to gauge the truth.
“There is significant doubt out there about the claims of the Chinese government, not just from human rights activists, but also from the U.S. State Department and academia,” said Henryk Szadziewski, Senior Researcher of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington D.C. “In relation to the broader claim from the Chinese government that the Uyghurs are moving towards militancy, we need more information than we are getting, and claims surrounding the ETIM have not been corroborated.”
More forthcoming information on the incident and the connection to the ETIM would assuage such doubts internationally, as well as to prove to Uyghurs that the attack did have an Islamic bent and is not being utilized for an unwarranted clampdown on Uyghur Muslims.
“You don't put curtains around an incident like in Tiananmen, instead you let the lenses of the world see if it's true and have an independent investigation so there is not so much suspicion on both sides,” said Dru Gladney, an expert on China and Professor of Anthropology at Pomona College, California.
What observers are finding hard to swallow is that the Tiananmen incident was not an individual attack – like many other incidents that have occurred in the country - but an orchestrated operation linked to an organization like the ETIM. “Whats seems un-credible is that it was an organized attack by ETIM. It didn't have any signature of a coordinated attack but rather the hallmark of a psychotic, crazed individual,” said Gladney. “That is what is puzzling about China portraying it as a terrorist threat, as no attacks have the signature of Al Qaeda or the like, as there has been no large infrastructure attacks on airports, power plants or installations.”
Furthermore there are doubts that the ETIM exists at all, which the US took off its list of terrorist organizations in 2008, after listing it in the wake of the 11 September, 2001 attacks. “Terrorist analysts say ETIM did this and did that, but I have never seen primary sources that it exists, and human rights groups say it doesn't either, probably quite rightly,” said Jacob Zenn,
an analyst of Eurasian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation and an expert on Islamic terrorism.
If the group does exist, analysts believe it has limited operational capacity.
“From what I see it is not an organized or concerted terror organization of which Uyghurs are a part of. Those attributed to ETIM, if it exists, are very unsophisticated, and don't show any real sign of premeditated or organized attacks. A lot of the grievances or violence this summer were locally based, like land grabs and restrictions on religion, as there is no system where people can air those grievances. The idea that such violence is organized by outside forces is dubious,” said Szadziewski.
This is not to suggest that there is not growing discontent among the Uyghurs that erupts into sporadic violence, as the recent attacks more than highlight. Uyghur demands for greater autonomy and separatism have grown stronger in recent years amid widespread feeling that Xinjiang's ethnic populace is not getting as good a deal as it could from the central authorities. As in many regions around the world, the situation is reflective of a clash of ideas and cultures between urban centers and rural peripheries, where getting economic and social development right has proven fraught, whether in the West, the Muslim world, Russia or indeed China.
“In my opinion, there is a genuine movement among Uyghurs, but it is not a single one, there are many. Some are political, others have a more religious nature. Whether there's a terrorist threat or not I can't say, but I don't think there is any imminent threat for China,” said James Frankel, an expert on China and Associate Professor, Department of Religion, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
With the Uyghurs not as culturally assimilated into mainstream Han Chinese culture as the Hui Muslims, Uyghurs feel that they are being unfairly singled out as a terrorist threat, and compounded by being Muslim. Such vilification is termed Islamophobia – fear of Muslims as the “other.” But such Islamophobia can cause unintended consequences, as it could feed into the narrative being pushed by radical Islamists that there is a war on Islam. The media in China has largely been responsible for allowing such Islamophobia to manifest in the wake of the Tiananmen attack.
“My concern is the way the attack was reported, that the government allowed this hysteria and undocumented accusations to run rampant in the media and social media, as it further marginalizes the Uyghurs and makes the situation worse,” said Gladney.
The situation in Xinjiang is a Catch 22 for China and the Uyghurs, with neither side able to “win” outright. Beijing will not give greater autonomy, yet alone allow a separate, independent state, as that could set the precedent for other problematic regions like Inner Mongolia and Tibet, while Xinjiang is an important source of raw materials and geostrategically crucial as it borders the Central Asia states. But by not addressing core Uyghur grievances risks further attacks, and possibly in the future, more definitive “textbook” Islamic terrorism.
To Gladney, the Uyghur cause is not an Islamic one and furthermore, Uyghur Islam is not conducive to the kind of extremist Sunni Islam apparent in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria or Iraq today, which for instance considers music, dancing and saint worship as un-Islamic. “Many of the hallmarks of Uyghur identity are an anathema to Jihadi groups as they are mainly Sufi or infused with Sufism such as tomb patronage and respect for saints. They also exalt in their own culture, in dance and the epic Muqam songs,” said Gladney.
However, this can change and appears to be happening, similar to how elements of the Kashmiri Muslim community - which had followed a “lighter,” less dogmatic version of Islam - were radicalized in the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over the mountainous region.
Gladney added that there been a reported rise in conservatism among Chinese Muslims and Uyghurs in particular, “although that is true globally. The government is clearly worried, with a great deal of fear and anxiety about radical Islam spreading in China.”
Zenn thinks that Uyghur separatist tendencies will take on more of an Islamic tone as nationalism is not as popular a rallying theme in the Islamic world. “It is about Islamo-nationalism, and if an organization says it wants to be separatist and secular, it doesn't have the same appeal. An Islamic state does (have appeal), and I think that is the way the Uyghurs are going,” he said.
China is home to 21.6 million Muslims - 1.6% of the population, and 1.4% of the world's Muslims - according to an official census, while other estimates put the number as high as 100 million. Whatever the exact figure is, it is a significant number. Uyghurs number around 10 million, with the remainder primarily Hui Muslims. The Hui, as noted, are better integrated into mainstream China, and have not posed problems while Beijing has held up the Hui for the world to see as evidence of its benign policies towards Muslims in China. “Some Uyghurs have conformed, and others not, and that is also where tensions come from. China rewards those that conform but similarly China has to have a method to deal with those that “corrupt national unity,” as that often involves curtailing rights,” said Frankel.
The Uyghur issue could be an Achilles heel for Beijing internationally if a perception develops that China is cracking down on Muslims, as happened in 2009. While only Turkey officially spoke out – reflective of China's good relations with Muslim countries in general – there was response from the religious community. “No other country spoke out, but some members of the Iranian religious elite made statements, although not on behalf of the government,” said Frankel.
Furthermore, according to a leaked US Embassy cable, “two Islamist parties in Algeria, the Movement for Society and Peace (MSP - part of the governing coalition) and Ennahda, sent delegations to the Chinese embassy to voice their concern over the treatment of the Muslim Uyghur community in China. This was followed by Algeria's Higher Islamic Council publicly denouncing the 2009 crackdown.”
Analysts suggest that Muslim states are not likely to voice any criticism in the advent of any future clampdown to not jeopardise economic or political bilateral ties - Turkey included which has strengthened relations, including militarily, this past year - but the risk lies with how non-state actors and Muslim public opinion will react.
“Now that China is rising to the level of world power, I don't know whether it is ironic or predictable that some of these non-state organizations that claim to represent Muslims see China as another power that subjugates Muslims,” said Frankel.
While there is the argument that radical Islam has decreased in recent years, with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 a factor in that, on the other hand arenas like Syria and Iraq show that Islamic extremism is very much alive and kicking. Indeed, the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has propelled political and militant Islam back into international politics. Yet while China has tried to stay out of the MENA's messy politics and adopt a more neutral stance over the conflict in Syria, Beijing's support for the regime of Bashar Assad has not gone unnoticed.
Indeed, China's support for Syria means, by proxy, that it is against Islamic rebel groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al Nusra Front. “This has already been brought it up in a Jihadist video,” said Zenn. “I think there will be blow back on the “Arab Street” or “Islamic street” from what China is doing. I wouldn't be surprised if Chinese workers or diplomats come under fire around the Islamic world.”
Earlier this year, a YouTube video surfaced of a Han Chinese convert to Islam – who had fought in Libya and Syria – telling Beijing to end its support for Assad or “all Islamic countries of the world will unite to impose economic sanctions against the Chinese government.” He went on to say that Beijing has destroyed “the traditional friendship between the Chinese and Arab people” because China along with Iran and Russia “sell weapons and provide financial assistance to the Assad government.”
The ingredients would seem to be there for China to become a target of Islamic groups domestically and internationally. “I think China has the advantage right now of being a spectator, but it can't for too long. There was a period when the US was not aware or bothered by Islam either,” said Frankel.
At this juncture, a question to raise is whether state actors would be willing to utilize Islamic groups against China. If history is anything to go by, the West, its Middle Eastern allies and Pakistan have used Islamic groups for their own ends, from false flag operations to trying to undermine the political status quo.
China however has tight connections with the nations most involved in political and militant Islam, from the two Wahhabi Islamic monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to Sudan and Syria, while also having strong relations with the only Islamic republics in the world, Iran, Pakistan, Mauritania and Afghanistan. Given the amount of trade with such countries – with China a major buyer of energy in particular – there would appear little appetite to sour relations by utilizing Islamic groups for leverage.
“We know there are Al Qaeda sympathisers still in Saudi Arabia, but what influence they have in deals between Beijing and Riyadh is anybody's guess. I think on a state level, you will not see the Saudis really antagonize Beijing in that way, because the volume of trade is so great,” said Gladney.
Unless relations deteriorate with current allies, the immediate outside risk would appear the US and India. While the US has a history of working covertly with Islamic groups, its current position is to contain China militarily, primarily via Japan and Taiwan, and through strengthening military relations with India. The US has not yet had any cause to seek to undermine China via the Xinjiang arena, but Washington's support for the World Uyghur Congress is a bone of contention, which Beijing considers a terrorist organization that could be used as political leverage.
As for India, its external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), has been involved for decades in Afghanistan to undermine its nemesis Pakistan. Given India and China's often tense relations (the two did go to war in 1962), leverage could be utilized by RAW against China if relations deteriorated. For instance, according to a 2009 US Embassy Cable quoting Beijing University Islamic Studies Professor Wu Binbin, “Uyghur extremists had previously received training from the India-supported Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.” RAW was also covertly involved in supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in their separationist war against the Sri Lankan state in the 1980s. This does not suggest that Delhi would use such tactics against China via Islamist groups, but it does demonstrate that India's intelligence service has the capabilities to do so.
Conjecture aside, the primary threat comes from non-state actors in the Middle East, and more closer to home, Central Asia, which shares a 4,300 mile border with China. As veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid observes in Descent Into Chaos: “Central Asia, but especially Uzbekistan, remains a powder keg,” and there is a need “to pay much closer and better attention to the region to contain the fallout from any political or social explosion there. Central Asia is the new frontier for Al Qaeda, and at present there is no leadership in Central Asia effective enough to resist it.”
What will play a major factor in how the situation may play out is the future of Afghanistan once the US and NATO roll back their operations in the country in 2014. Indeed, China views relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan through the lens of its concerns about stability in Xinjiang. “I think China is trying to anticipate these issues by stepping up work in the MENA, with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as with Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Szadziewski. “The withdrawal from Afghanistan is key, how Beijing handles that and its approach to the Islamic world. They are at a cross roads right now as China may have to get more involved in security in unstable areas.”
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan's membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement has eased concerns of Islamic militants basing themselves in these countries for cross-border attacks. Pakistan however has not always acted as Beijing has wanted.
“Pakistan is a big ally of China but at the same time has been unable or unwilling to kick out Uyghur militants. At some point push might come to shove and China will have to try and make Pakistan do something about it or else do it themselves, as in 10 years they may have good drone capabilities,” said Zenn.
Ultimately, it would appear in Beijing's long-terms interests to deal with the Uyghurs in a pragmatic and not antagonistic fashion to avoid providing fertile ground for radical Islam to take hold. An irate Uyghur population is a thorn in China's side, but an irate Uyghur population with a global Islamic cause to rally around would be a knife in China's side. China does not want to become a target for global jihad as its influence expands around the world.
Photo by Paul Cochrane, Tiananmen Square.
Photo by Paul Cochrane, Tiananmen Square.