Xinjiang, in China’s northwest, is vulnerable to ISIS, according to Zhang Chunxian, the populist party chief of the far-flung province, who stated publicly for the first time that Uighurs, a Turkic, mostly Sunni minority group there, have been joining the self-declared Islamic State group.
“Some Xinjiang residents have crossed the border illegally to join IS,” he said. Zhang also announced that a Xinjiang terrorist cell made up of militants who had returned from the ISIS front has been disbanded. The official offered no evidence for his claims.
“To break the case, to reduce human loss and casualties and ensure security, sometimes you have to keep some things confidential for a time,” he said. Just a week later, flyers were found distributed among Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong, encouraging them to pledge allegiance to ISIS and stage attacks in Xinjiang.
There are more than 10 million Uighurs in China. Most live in Xinjiang, where they are the dominant ethnic group. For centuries Xinjiang (which means “New Frontier” in Mandarin) underwent shifting periods of autonomy until being officially absorbed into the Chinese polity under the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. In 1955 Maoist China established control over the far-flung region. Soon after, Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnic group, began migrating to the new Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in droves.
Encouraged by the government, the Han migrants were lured by new agricultural and industrial towns built in the north by the Xinjiang Production and Development Corp, a quasi-military entity. The Uighurs reside mostly in the south.
Xinjiang, nearly the size of Iran, has proven an increasingly difficult place for Beijing to govern, which projects the province as a hotspot for the “Three Evils”: “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.”
Conversely, the Uighurs accuse the government of actively degrading their cultural identity and restricting their economic opportunities. Some call for independence.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Beijing began aggressively positing Xinjiang as an emerging terrorist haven to the international community. Ten days before the tragedy, the Xinjiang party chief had stressed that the province was “not a place of terror.” Beijing began claiming that some Uighurs had ties with international terror networks, including al-Qaida and the Taliban, and that it was embroiled in its own “war on terror.”
The government implemented a number of invasive “strike hard” counter-terrorism campaigns in Xinjiang, flooding the province with security forces, checkpoints, metal detectors and CCTV cameras. Meanwhile, Han-Uighur relations continued to deteriorate. The water boiled over the pot in 2009 when several days of mass rioting in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi left at least 200 people dead.
Beijing responded swiftly, arresting thousands and shutting off the internet in the province for nearly a year. It has since increased its security efforts in Xinjiang, beefing up even more as well as investing heavily in its extraction-heavy economy and promoting trade relations between Xinjiang and bordering Central Asian states. Beijing’s officially stated goals in Xinjiang are stabilization and development.
While cadres claim government measures are affecting progress, critics point to a litany of human rights violations in the province, including tough curbs on religious expression and the hundreds of Uighurs killed and imprisoned in alleged counterterrorism raids.
To be sure, China’s domestic terrorist threat isn’t imaginary. 2014 saw an uptick in deadly attacks on civilians in China. In March a ghastly knife attack by a coed group of Uighurs at a train station in Kunming left 29 people dead. The following month an attack on an Urumqi train station killed three and the month after that a bombing attack at a crowded Urumqi market left 30 dead. And with the US pullout from Afghanistan, which shares an alpine border with Xinjiang, China’s gateway to the Muslim world isn’t getting any safer. Furthermore, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, in a recorded message released last summer included China in a long list of countries where Muslims were suffering, adding that believers in these countries could “await the rescue of the soldiers of [ISIS] and anticipate their brigades.”
Beijing is right to be worried about militant extremism. But crying wolf over a Uighur-ISIS link may be an exaggeration.
“The scope of ISIS in Xinjiang is still not clear,” said Liang Zheng, a professor at Xinjiang University in Urumqi who studies Islamic extremism among Uighurs. “It is highly likely that some Uighurs who have made it to Syria and ISIS have come back,” he says. “But for now, the threat is mostly ideological.”