By Henry Srebrnik [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
In April of 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a “people’s war” to make “terrorists” feel “like rats scurrying across the street.”
To whom was he referring? Nationalists among the country’s Uyghur minority who are fighting for a greater measure of freedom.
So it’s no surprise to learn that the Beijing regime has ramped up its repression of the Uyghurs, who number some 11.3 million people, living mostly in far western Xinjiang.
In December 2015, China’s National People’s Congress passed the country’s first counterterrorism legislation.
The law carried sweeping provisions, enabling China’s various counter-terrorism organs to identify and suppress individuals or groups deemed to be “terrorists.” It allowed the army to undertake counter-terrorism operations abroad.
A Turkic Muslim ethnic group, the Uyghurs have never reconciled themselves to Han Chinese overlordship.
What Beijing refers to as the “East Turkestan terrorist” threat to China was framed and understood by Beijing in primarily nationalist terms.
But after 2001, they began to label Uyghur opposition as “religious extremism” linked to transnational jihadist organizations.
The discovery of Uyghurs at guerrilla camps in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion of 2001 highlighted the fact that some had been lured by a more fundamentalist form of Islam.
China’s publication of its first official account of Uyghur “terrorism” in Xinjiang in January 2002. It claimed that “East Turkistan terrorist forces” had been responsible for over 200 “terrorist incidents” between 1990 and 2001 that claimed the lives of 162 people and injured 440.
Since 9/11, China has consistently blamed two Uyghur militant groups, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), for major terrorist attacks. ETIM was singled out as being “supported and directed” by Osama bin Laden.
ETIM functioned in Afghanistan from 1998 on and established links to al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) during that time. It ceased to exist after the death of its leader, Hasan Mahsum, during a Pakistani military operation in Waziristan in October 2003.
TIP, based in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, emerged as a successor organization to ETIM in 2007.
Protests began in March 2008 in the region’s main city, Urumqi, and Hotan, and spread to Kashgar and elsewhere through the summer, coinciding with the Olympic Games in Beijing. There were reports of bus bombings and attacks on police stations.
In July 2009 bloody clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi prompted the Chinese government to send large numbers of troops to patrol the streets.
In April 2013 there was a sudden upsurge in violence, when the authorities accused separatist “terrorists” of attacks in Kashgar that left 21 dead. There was further violence in the summer and in 2014.
China has deployed the issue of Uyghur terrorism to legitimate, both domestically and internationally, the implementation of repression of Uyghur opposition in Xinjiang.
The broad definition of extremism and separatism has resulted in the disappearance, jailing, execution, or forced attendance at re-education classes, of tens of thousands of Uyghurs charged with endangering state security.
Beginning in the early 1990s, Beijing made the issue of Uyghur “separatism” or “splittism” a key concern in its bilateral and multilateral diplomacy with the new states of Central Asia.
The linkages between ETIM and TIP with jihadist groups in Afghanistan and Syria played a central role in cementing Beijing’s agenda within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
In practice, this has amounted to the organization’s almost exclusive focus on regular joint military and counter-terrorism exercises, judicial cooperation on the extradition of suspected “terrorists”, and information sharing.
So China’s approach to the Xinjiang and Uyghur issue has played an important role in undergirding domestic stability and shaping its relations with Central Asia.
About 50,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey. Most migrated there after Xinjiang’s absorption into Communist China in 1949.
Turkey has expressed a strong concern for the fate of the Turkic Uyghurs, stemming from its ethnic and cultural affinities with the Uyghurs and a perception of them as an “authentic” Turkic people suffering under Chinese rule.
The East Turkestan Liberation Organization, allied with ETIM, was established in Turkey in the late 1990s.