The recent attacks in France, Germany, and Belgium have received media attention, but there is little known about terrorist activity within the borders of China. Some estimate that ISIS has recruited thousands of Chinese citizens. Yet most domestic attacks go unreported to preserve the authoritarian power of the government and to convey an image of safety to the international community. The controversy not only stems from the attacks going unreported, but also from the government’s lack of clear boundaries between a peaceful domestic protest, violent radicalism, and separatist movements.
Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, gained domestic media attention during the 2009 Urumqi ethnic riots, during which 197 were killed and 1,700 were injured. There have been several attacks since then – one in 2014 killed 31. In 2015 ISIS recruited Xinjiang residents to fight in Syria. Attacks in China have no known links to ISIS. However, tensions between the Han majority and the Uyghur minority did not begin as a result of radical extremism. In fact, it is only an exaggerated connection between the ethnic groups and terrorist organizations that tainted the region and its people.
Xinjiang, meaning ‘new frontier’ in Mandarin, shares a large border with many Central Asian countries and it has a unique ethnic composition. 45% of the province is populated by Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, outnumbering the Hans, which otherwise comprises 92% of the Chinese population as a whole. Unlike China’s Eastern provinces, Xinjiang is populated by a large number of Sunni Muslims.
In the early 20th century, the region declared independence, but was brought under the control of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Officially, China recognizes 55 minority ethnic groups and to keep tensions to a minimum, the Chinese government has emphasized the importance of inter-ethnic harmony. However, this is often seen as an attempt at cultural assimilation as well as an attempt to cement authoritarian power in China’s outer reaches, such as Xinjiang. There are several organizations that are advocating against the government’s curtailing of Uyghur rights.
A number of the advocacy movements have been listed as terrorist organizations by China’s Ministry of Public Security. Some of these organizations have no apparent violent intentions, for example the World Uyghur Youth Congress, which receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, an NGO which promotes democratic institutionalization.
While the Chinese government rejected the notion of linking terrorism with any specific ethnic group in an official statement in 2003, in practice there is evidence that shows otherwise.
In an article CNN’s Michael Clarke reveals that the government uses the fear of terrorism to increase its power. The target of the newly heightened control and tightened security measures is the Uyghur minority. Some of them have to provide a DNA sample, a fingerprint and a three dimensional image when applying for passports and other legal documents.
While the threat of terrorism is real in China, the Uyghur minority seems to have become the victim of a complex series of historical events. An article written by The Diplomat
warns against the conflation of peaceful domestic movements, terrorist activities, and the Uyghur ethnic minority. Untangling the government’s motives from the ever present threat of terrorist attack may be a difficult goal to achieve.