Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Repression in China and Its Consequences in Xinjiang

Kilic Kanat on Uyghurs and the PRC

Assistant Professor, Penn State University, Erie
Uighur people (C) walk near police as they form a line across a street on July 8, 2009 in Urumqi, China. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)
Uighur people (C) walk near police as they form a line across a street on July 8, 2009 in Urumqi, China. (Guang Niu/Getty Images)

A series of violent incidents in China involving Uyghurs has focused increasing attention on the Turkic Muslim minority group and on the religious and political situation in their homeland, China’s vast northwestern province known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or East Turkistan). The incidents have included an increasing number of ethnic clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, explosions and Chinese military operations in XUAR, and a number of high-profile incidents involving Uyghurs. The attacks include a car attack at Tiananmen Square in 2013 as well as a violent knife attack in 2014 on passersby at the train station in Kunming that left 29 dead and 100 injured. A number of observers have seen in these attacks evidence of growing radicalization among Uyghurs.

There is no dispute that the Uyghurs as a people have grown increasingly disgruntled and shown their anger and resentment toward the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) and its policies. Some marginal groups even started to resort to violence in the region. The question is why. For many years, PRC authorities painted Uyghur political activism and the growing unrest in the XUAR as the work of radicalized groups. However, such claims have historically rested on dubious evidence. Moreover, there has always been a compelling case that it is Beijing’s repressive policies—not the transnational jihadist movement or the extremist ideology that drives it—that is the primary cause of the tensions and conflict in Xinjiang today.

Since coming to power, President Xi Jinping has deepened the PRC’s crackdown on Uyghurs in a variety of ways. For years, the PRC’s “Western Development” projects have marginalized the indigenous Uyghur populations of East Turkestan by inviting large-scale Han Chinese migration, forcing the Uyghurs’ cultural assimilation, and placing restrictions on religious and political freedoms. Meanwhile, PRC authorities have prosecuted Uyghur dissent and activism as manifestations of extremism, separatism, or terrorism. Even the moderate dissenter Ilham Tohti, a professor of economics and a winner of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, was jailed by the PRC on charges of inciting separatism, mostly because of his work and public statements that focused attention on the social and economic dimensions of the conflict in XUAR.1 The Chinese government, moreover, has systematically curtailed freedom of the press and basic liberties for Uyghurs. It has tightly controlled the information that comes out of the XUAR, especially about the violent incidents that have racked the region. Without an opportunity for political dissent, Uyghurs have come to feel more disenfranchised and pessimistic about their future in China. The absence of any political space or platform to express their legitimate grievances combined with the deterioration of economic and political conditions in XUAR are marginalizing increasing numbers of Uyghur youth and, in some instances, motivating their radicalization.

The purpose of this study is to show that the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang and rising rates of violence involving Uyghurs have been primarily the result of Chinese policies. In particular, the PRC’s policies have stamped out religious freedom and weakened indigenous and moderate religious practices among the Uyghurs. This, in turn, has been radicalizing conservative Muslims in the XUAR and leaving others who would like to leave but cannot vulnerable to exploitation by radical groups. The aggressive responses of the Chinese government to religious movements and growing grievances in the region have further fueled the conflict. Nor has the Chinese government shown any intention to take a different approach to resolving the problem. As a result, Beijing’s repressive policies combined with its intransigence and refusal to address the religious, economic, and cultural causes of the unrest in XUAR are likely to contribute to greater radicalization among Uyghurs. This will, among other things, continue to create opportunities for radical groups to penetrate and take root in the region and this could make the PRC’s fears over radicalization among Uyghurs in XUAR a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The Urumqi Riots and Their Impact

Although the conflict between Uyghurs and Han Chinese has persisted for decades, international attention to the problem has been scant. The last time the XUAR, the home of more than 10 million Uyghur Muslims, captured international headlines was during the July 2009 clashes that broke out in Urumqi, the regional capital. The clashes started as a protest about authorities’ indifference to the Han lynching of Uyghur factory workers in Shaoguan.2 The incidents quickly became a violent confrontation when security forces used excessive force against Uyghurs with the help of Han Chinese civilians. The official number of fatalities from the incident varies from 192 to several hundred, and we may never know for certain how many people died. However, the sheer number of documented Uyghur roundups and forced disappearances3 after the incident demonstrates that the PRC’s flagrant abuse of power is ongoing. Furthermore, the degree of top-down discrimination against Uyghurs in their own homeland was made clear by the fact that most Uyghurs allegedly involved in the ethnic clashes were given criminal sentences without due process while few Han Chinese received the same treatment in the aftermath of the events.4

During and after the clashes, the government closed off the region to international observers for months. Officials expelled foreign journalists, disrupted Internet access and cellphone reception, and limited news from the region to the PRC’s state-run media.5 The Chinese government spokespeople blamed events on the so-called “three evil forces” (separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism) and they said “radicals and separatists” were responsible for causing the clashes.6 Instead of investigating the local sources of the conflict, the media coverage inside the PRC blamed the clashes on the insidious involvement of the external separatist forces. In fact, in the post-9/11 world, the PRC has repeatedly blamed the growing unrest in XUAR on radical groups—a stance that in the post 9/11 climate, other governments have not sought to challenge.

But the social media and YouTube footage of the 2009 clashes that spread across the world shattered the PRC’s claims that jihadism was the source of the conflict. The media provided instead evidence of large-scale police brutality, discrimination and lynching by Han Chinese population and revealed the social and economic roots of the conflict. For starters, there was no sign of religiously-driven radicalism during the demonstrations. The incidents took place in the northern, provincial capital of Urumqi—not in the countryside or the Southern provinces of Xinjiang where religiosity and conservatism are more prevalent. Uyghur Muslims constitute only 10 percent of Urumqi’s population, which is largely secular. Nor was there a religious symbol or slogan that revealed a connection between the demonstrations and any external organization or network. Subsequent interviews of those involved in the clashes found that most of the participants were not members or sympathizers of radical groups and organizations with direct links to external networks, as China claimed, but primarily educated, young people of the most Westernized city of Xinjiang.7 Finally, the Beijing government has provided no evidence to support its earlier claims that the protests were motivated by radical groups. Instead, interviews in the XUAR proved that the demonstrations were mostly local expressions of political and economic grievances. Protesters cited the high unemployment rate, the destruction of historic cities, such as Kashgar, increasing Han urban migration to XUAR, and the cultural assimilation policies of the Chinese government, besides relative indifference of the security forces for the attack of Han Chinese mobs to the Uyghurs in Shaoguan as the causes of their discontent.

Attentive observers of the conflict reject the oversimplification of the government’s narrative, instead putting forth a complex mélange of causes that stem from social and economic discrimination, forced assimilation, and religious repression at the hands of the government.8 Their analysis, however, has not led to any revision of Chinese polices. The Chinese regional and central governments continue to regard the issue primarily as an “Islamic threat”, and they maintain their heavy-handed policies to address the problem. Moreover, because the government tends to see religion and religiosity as the only variable that explains the problem in the XUAR and terrorism as the only tactic used for redress, the religious freedom of conservative Muslims has become the primary target of repressive Chinese policies.

The Repression of Religious Freedom

East Turkestan has never been religiously free under modern Chinese rule. Since the establishment of PRC rule in the region in 1949, Beijing has followed a policy of religious repression that has aimed to encourage the full assimilation of Uyghurs with the Han Chinese migrants. A major report produced by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China documents the Chinese policies:

Documents obtained and interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch reveal a multi-tiered system of surveillance, control, and suppression of religious activity aimed at Xinjiang’s Uyghurs. At its most extreme, peaceful activists who practice their religion in a manner deemed unacceptable by state authorities or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials are arrested, tortured, and at times executed. The harshest punishments are meted out to those accused of involvement in separatist activity, which is increasingly equated by officials with “terrorism.” Because of fears in Beijing of the power of separatist messages, independent religious activity or dissent is at times arbitrarily equated with a breach of state security, a serious crime in China and one that is frequently prosecuted.

At a more mundane and routine level, many Uyghurs experience harassment in their daily lives. Celebrating religious holidays, studying religious texts, or showing one’s religion through personal appearance are strictly forbidden at state schools. The Chinese government has instituted controls over who can be a cleric, what version of the Koran may be used, where religious gatherings may be held, and what may be said on religious occasions.9

The report further revealed the problems with China’s broad legal definitions of “religious crimes” and the harsh, indiscriminate punishments for those convicted of “illegal religious activity” in the region. With the implementation of a 2005 Religious Affairs Regulation, the PRC took religious repression to a new level. The Uyghur Human Rights Project outlined the practical ramifications of this directive in a report and argued that of the 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China, the Uyghur people face the most severe restrictions. According to this report:

Religious leaders, such as imams, are required to attend political education classes to ensure compliance with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regulations and policies; only state-approved versions of the Koran and sermons are permitted, with all unapproved religious texts treated as “illegal” publications liable to confiscation and criminal charges against whoever was found in possession of them; any outward expression of faith in government workplaces, hospitals and some private businesses, such as men wearing beards or women wearing headscarves, is forbidden; no state employees and no one under the age of 18 can enter a mosque, a measure not in force in the rest of China; organized private religious education is proscribed and facilitators of private classes in Islam are frequently charged with conducting “illegal” religious activities; and students, teachers and government workers are prohibited from fasting during Ramadan. In addition, Uyghurs are not permitted to undertake Hajj, unless it is with an expensive official tour, in which state officials carefully vet applicants.10

The government has adopted these policies mostly out of its belief that the way to generate “social harmony” in XUAR is to stop the practice of religious freedom. Islam and its rituals—especially dietary restrictions—have drawn important divides between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, just as they have helped protect and reinforce the Uyghurs’ sense of themselves as a separate nation within China. Most significant, the religious revivals that have periodically emerged in the region have adopted a more culturalistic character. They have attempted to preserve, promote, and protect Muslim Uyghur identity from the impact of globalization and the PRC’s state-led campaigns to Sinicize them. Most of these movements had local Islamic roots and native-born religious leaders who were educated and trained in East Turkestan. In the past, the leaders of these revival movements had been careful to remain unassociated with external groups and not to get involved in political matters in order to be able to continue their activities.

Most of the Uyghur revivals in East Turkestan—for example, the Meshrep movement, a cultural gathering of Uyghur youth—began not as political movements but as moral reform movements that aimed to improve the ethics of the society, encourage the revitalization of Uyghur social codes and traditions and protect and promote Muslim Uyghur identity. Historically, another significant goal of Uyghur Islamic movements has been to provide basic religious education to Uyghur youth in the absence of any formal religious institutions. These efforts to promote religious education became popular among Uyghurs starting in the mid-1980s and ultimately turned into a target for the Chinese government in the 1990s. The PRC’s subsequent attacks on and repression of local religious leaders, their institutions, and their students contributed to the increasing politicization of religious movements.

During the PRC’s campaign against religious education in the 1990s, Islamic scholarship started to go underground in East Turkestan. The crackdown on Uyghur religious leaders and institutions in particular created a vacuum of religious authority in the region. The persecution of local leaders sparked small-scale protests and clashes that Chinese authorities then blamed on “radical groups”. The central government reacted to these incidents by further limiting religious freedoms. In response, demands for religious freedom increased even among the secular segments of Uyghur society.

While religious repression of Uyghurs intensified, Chinese policies in the region exacerbated other grievances. For example, the relentless Han migration to the XUAR combined with the preferential treatment that these newcomers received from local PRC administrators magnified a growing rift between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. In the late 1980s, this added a new dimension to the conflict that generated a new wave of Uyghur opposition to Chinese rule. Instead of trying to understand the local sources of the conflict, however, the Chinese government stifled all forms of opposition. It feared that it was losing control of strategically vital territory to a rising tide of Uyghur irredentism. The PRC’s fears only worsened when the Central Asian Republics became independent from Russia in 1991 and, after this, ethnic conflict erupted in the Balkans. Fearing the “Balkanization” of its own territory, the PRC took measures to prevent the proliferation of any religious and political activity in the XUAR that might challenge its rule.

Fears of ethnic irredentism and disintegration led the Chinese government to perceive Uyghur demonstrations as an existential threat to China’s territorial integrity. Xinjiang thus came to occupy a central role in the PRC’s national security agenda. Anti-terror and anti-separatist operations became the backbone of handling the Uyghur question, and this only incited ethnic hatreds and made it easier for Beijing to ignore more sensible calls for social and economic reform. The government’s actions only further radicalized Uyghur dissent groups, which then began to question the effectiveness of peaceful strategies such as non-violent protest or formal communication with the Chinese government.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, religious repression in Xinjiang caused many Uyghur youth to leave the region and seek religious education from external sources. Initially, there were only a few destinations outside the XUAR for those who wished to receive religious education. As there was no religious educational infrastructure in post-Soviet Central Asia, the Uyghurs’ only real viable options were Turkey and Pakistan. Some of the Uyghurs who went to study in these countries came back to East Turkestan with a different set of attitudes toward the nexus of state, society, and religion. Many of these new Uyghur approaches reflected the outlooks of the foreign countries in which their advocates studied. In the 1990s, the Chinese government increasingly came to fear Uyghurs who pursued study in Turkey, a country where there is both an active network of Uyghur nationalist diaspora organizations and a tradition of reconciling Islam with secular-civic democracy. Simultaneously, many of the Uyghurs who left for Pakistan returned to Xinjiang more radicalized. Their influence, however, was minimal in Xinjiang because they lacked support among ordinary Uyghurs. But the radical agenda of these returnees made an impact on a segment of the society that was increasingly pessimistic the PRC regime would pursue a more just and equitable policy in the XUAR.

These new dynamics began to create new rifts among the Islamic scholars in East Turkistan. For instance, disputes began to emerge between different Uyghur groups in regard to religious practices, such as nezir, which is a “feast organized to commemorate the dead and regular attendance at the cemetery to pray on behalf of the deceased.”11 The disputes that emerged over these practices reflected the deepening theological divisions between the adherents of indigenous Uyghur Islam, which is a version of Sunni Islam heavily influenced by Sufi brotherhoods and local traditions,12 and the increasingly Salafist-influenced versions of Islam that came from outside East Turkestan. Importantly, the repressive policies of the Chinese government have aimed to uproot the traditional Islamic infrastructure and movements, and this has done more than anything to weaken the capacity of indigenous Islam to resist penetration from abroad. Furthermore, despite the emergence of important religious and political differences among the Xinjiang Muslim population, the PRC’s response to the “Uyghur Question” has been uniform and systematic; it has moved to suppress all expressions of Uyghur religiosity as one in the same. In fact, the Chinese government has continued to target all groups working on religious education in the region, regardless of their overall societal or political goals.

The PRC’s aggressive policy of restricting religious freedom has in turn generated a large-scale reaction within Uyghur society. In the 1990s, the amalgamation of ethnic, cultural, economic, and religious grievances within Uyghur society created the foundations for widespread unrest in the XUAR. In reality, the rapid spread of unrest across different regions and city centers of the XUAR was the result of many factors and localized struggles; they did not stem from any single centrally-organized movement, whether nationalist or religious. As a whole, however, Uyghurs from all segments of society and walks of life came to express in the 1990s their political frustrations with Chinese rule much more vocally than previous generations did.

Notwithstanding the number of violent clashes in the XUAR in the 1990s, radicalization remained a largely marginal phenomenon in Uyghur society. It certainly paled in comparison with the radicalizing trends that took root in nearby countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. Generally speaking, mainstream Uyghur groups were peaceful and avoided any form of violent confrontation with Chinese authorities. In fact, many of the incidents that the Beijing government portrayed as examples of religiously-inspired violence were instead driven by police brutality. For instance, in two major incidents—the 1991 protests led by Zeynidin Yusuf in Baren Township of Akto County, and the 1995 demonstrations in Hotan—Uyghurs assembled to demand greater religious freedom, but PRC security forces responded with cruelty. When the international media learned of the incidents, the PRC blamed the clashes on “religious zealots who wanted to establish an Islamic state inside Chinese territory.” But a little more digging would have uncovered that the major cause of these riots was local dynamics, including increasing government repression of religious freedoms.13

The Ghulja Incident

Ethnic tensions in East Turkestan took a further turn for the worse in February 1997, when Chinese security forces raided the mosques and houses of the city of Ghulja on the holiest day of the Muslim year and detained dozens of Uyghur women. The following day, the Meshrep, or traditional gathering of Uyghur youth, organized a protest in the city center against the detentions. The demonstrations turned violent when Chinese authorities once again used excessive force and arrested protesters. Many protesters were systematically tortured and executed in detention without due process of law.14 When the international media picked up the news of the violent crackdown, Chinese authorities tried once again to portray the events as a fundamentalist uprising against the PRC itself. After the fact, the PRC has officially described the Ghulja events as a terrorist action perpetrated by “Eastern Turkistani Terrorist Forces.”15 The subsequent crackdown in the area and witch-hunts led to the death and flight of many Uyghur youth. Major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International released reports that documented the gross human rights violations that had essentially turned the city into an open-air prison. According to Amnesty International:

Since 1996, the government has launched an extensive campaign against "ethnic separatists," imposing new restrictions on religious and cultural rights and resorting increasingly to executions, show trials and arbitrary detention to silence real and suspected opponents.

The official reports about "separatists and terrorists" obscure a more complex reality in which many people who are not involved in violence have become the victims of human rights violations. Over the years, attempts by Uyghurs to air their views or grievances and peacefully exercise their most fundamental human rights have been met with repression. The denial of legitimate channels for expressing grievances and discontent has led to outbursts of violence, including by people who are not involved in political opposition activities.16

According to this report, thousands of Uyghurs were rounded up after Ghulja incident, and those detained were:

tortured, some with particularly cruel methods which, to Amnesty International’s knowledge, are not being used elsewhere in the People’s Republic of China. Political prisoners held in prisons or labour camps are reported to be frequently subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. Some have reportedly died of ill-treatment or neglect in detention.17

The PRC’s crackdown in Ghulja spread to other cities and towns of Xinjiang in the final years of the 1990s. Fearing government retribution, many Uyghur youth tried to flee the country, but they had few options for asylum abroad. A few hundred of these Uyghurs were able to cross the border to the newly independent Central Asian states. The influx of political refugees from China impacted the development of Uyghur nationalism in these countries. In Kazakhstan, for example, there is a sizable Uyghur population, and the arrival of Uyghurs from Xinjiang spurred a cultural and ethnic revival among Uyghur minorities.

The growing Uyghur nationalist movement in Central Asia also began making connections with the Uyghur diaspora groups in Western countries and in Turkey during this period. Despite their best efforts, the movement initially failed to develop a strong presence in Western countries—in part because of the small size of the diaspora in the West, but also because of the limited communication between the Uyghurs of Central Asia and Western Europe. During the mid-1990s, however, some activists in Germany launched a new organization, the Eastern Turkistan European Union, which provided a good bridge between Uyghur organizations and human rights groups in the West and began to act as a major hub for Uyghur refugees seeking asylum. The German Uyghur group provided more prompt and accurate information to human rights organizations and the international media. As a result of these increasing connections between Uyghurs based in Europe and Central Asia, Central Asia also became a major center for information about Xinjiang.

At the same time, a second group of Uyghurs from East Turkestan found their way to Turkey, where there was an existing Uyghur diaspora of around five thousand Uyghurs. Uyghurs who fled to Turkey from Xinjiang became exposed to a pan-Turkic form of nationalism. Although the Uyghur connection to Turkey was weaker than and not as well-organized as the one formed with Europe, the Chinese government came to perceive it as a unique threat. Indeed, PRC officials had not forgotten that the founders of the Eastern Turkestan Republic of 1944 were mostly Uyghurs who had been educated in Turkey and who had brought their vision of pan-Turkism back to East Turkestan. The PRC’s fears were compounded by the widespread public support that the Uyghur struggle enjoyed in Turkey. It is important to remember, however, that these pro-Uyghur groups were politically moderate; their aim was to improve the lives of Uyghurs in East Turkestan through the reform of PRC—not through separation from it. Moreover, these Turks strongly opposed the use of violence to achieve these political ends.

Nevertheless, the PRC’s growing fears of the “Uyghur Threat” led Beijing to seek to export its repressive policies to its Central Asian neighbors. After the fall of the Soviet Union, China’s increasing economic and political power in the region provided it with an opportunity to project its power deeper onto the Eurasian landmass. Through bilateral agreements and, later, through the multilateral framework provided by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (the “Shanghai Five”), the Chinese government secured the cooperation of Central Asian governments in a bid to suppress Uyghur nationalism. Authorities from Bishkek to Astana cooperated with the PRC in forcibly limiting the activities of Uyghur groups and, under certain circumstances, they allowed for the extradition of refugees back to China. As a result, most Uyghur organizations in these countries were forced to close, and their members fled to evade persecution by regional authoritarian regimes. Thus, through political pressure and economic incentives, China succeeded in cracking down on Uyghur movements in Central Asia.

In the aftermath of the Ghulja incident, when pressure on Uyghurs in Central Asia was high and migration to Turkey was cumbersome because of the geographical distance, some Xinjiang Uyghurs chose to move to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The harsh terrain that these countries share with the western reaches of China made passage to them difficult for asylum seekers, but it also meant the refugees were protected from the Chinese security forces that pursued them. Those who escaped to Afghanistan found themselves under the rule of the Taliban, which in general allowed Uyghur groups to stay in Afghanistan as long as they abided by the rules of the regime. In due course, some Uyghurs from East Turkestan became more exposed to the radical ideology of the numerous criminal and terrorist organizations that had taken up residence in Afghanistan. The most prominent of these groups was the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which was headed by the Hasan Mahsum and sought to overthrow Chinese rule in Xinjiang and establish and an independent Eastern Turkestan.

Discord Between Al-Qaeda and Uyghur Groups

Authorities in the PRC make the claim that ETIM and connected Uyghur groups who oppose Chinese rule in East Turkestan share deep ideological and organizational linkages to Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist networks. As a result, Beijing has appealed to the international community to help thwart the activities of these Uyghur organizations. However, contrary to the claims of the PRC regime, there is evidence to suggest that Uyghurs actually had no affiliation with Al-Qaeda before the September 11 attacks.18 Indeed, the Uyghurs who fled to Afghanistan from China were considered outsiders by the radical groups there. In addition, most Uyghurs did not receive the same Salafist religious education that others in Afghanistan received. Those Uyghurs who were indoctrinated were relative newcomers to radical Salafist ideology, and they never advanced to leadership positions in the movement. In a 2003 interview, deputy chairman of ETIM Ablajan Kariaji revealed the sharp disagreement that emerged between Uyghurs and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda:

In 1999, Mr. Kariaji says he and a half-dozen others went to Kandahar for an audience with Mr. bin Laden. In a lengthy speech, the Saudi militant spoke about oppression of Muslims in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Chechnya. He didn't mention Xinjiang, Mr. Kariaji recalls. Mr. Kariaji says he went away disappointed. "We had deep differences with the Arab fighters," he says.19

The Uyghurs’ focus on the liberation of East Turkestan made them an almost unwanted presence in the camps of Afghanistan. Moreover, the Uyghur groups that were in Afghanistan did not participate in a single attack—not even one for their own nationalistic cause—from the late 1990s until the fall of the Taliban regime.20 Indeed, the Public Security Department of the PRC has never accused ETIM or any Afghanistan-trained fighters of any attacks during this period.21

After September 11, the Uyghur-Al-Qaeda split became more pronounced when Uyghur groups, especially ETIM, denounced the event as an unjustified attack on innocent civilians. In a rare interview, ETIM leader Hasan Mahsum responded to questions by condemning the 9/11 attacks. Hasan Mahsum furthermore denied any form of relations with the Taliban. He said, “The East Turkestan Islamic Party hasn't received any financial assistance from Osama Bin Laden or his Al-Qaeda organization. We don't have any kind of organizational links with Al-Qaeda or the Taliban."22 Mahsum distinguished his organization from the other groups operating in Afghanistan by arguing that ETIM’s goal was to end tyranny and repression in the Uyghur region of China. In the interview, Mahsum claimed that the real terrorists are those who oppress and kill their own citizens, and he explicitly accused the Chinese state of this crime, citing the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 and the PRC’s systematic attacks against Uyghurs.23

Mahsum’s statements were reiterated by other ETIM leaders and together these represented a clear effort to distinguish ETIM from other radical and jihadist groups operating in Central Asia. However, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, these differences were largely ignored by international media and by foreign governments. In fact, the PRC was quick to declare ETIM a terrorist organization, and the U.S. and the UN followed suit in return for Beijing’s support for the Global War on Terror. The PRC initially saw this decision by the West as a green light to ramp-up not only its efforts to crush Uyghur nationalism, but also to silence prominent Uyghur activists both at home and abroad.24 In reports prepared by the Chinese government, a number of human rights organizations based in Western countries were added to the official terrorist list.25 For instance, the PRC report called “Eastern Turkistani Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity,” included such mainstream human rights organizations as the World Uyghur Youth Congress, headquartered in Germany, and some prominent Uyghur human rights activists, such as Dolkun Isa and Omer Kanat.26 Later on, the Bush administration emended its approach and tried to clarify the distinction between terrorism and peaceful protesters in Xinjiang, but this had little effect on PRC or its policy.

Before 9/11, in 1996 the Chinese government had launched a “strike hard” campaign against the so-called “three evil forces” of separatism, fundamentalism, and terrorism.27 The definitions of these three evils, however, were kept so broad that they allowed Beijing to persecute any Uyghurs who dared to call for more rights or who refused the forced assimilationist policies propagated by Beijing. The international environment and paranoia over jihadism in the aftermath of 9/11 helped the PRC to frame the conflict and unrest in the XUAR as a struggle against religious radicalism instead of a conflict created by PRC’s own repressive policies. In one of the PRC Propaganda Department’s better-known efforts to sway international public opinion, it released an English-language video called “The Sinful Faces of East Turkistani Terrorist Forces.” In the video, detained ETIM members admit to seeing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. However, the video fails to provide any evidence of the ETIM’s connections with al-Qaeda.28

Since 9/11, the PRC’s definition of “religious extremism” has in practice come to be broadened in XUAR to include almost all forms of religious activity. For instance, a new law in 2014 prohibits Uyghur men from having beards, and another law bars Uyghur women from wearing headscarves in public.29 Yet another law encourages citizens to inform on their neighbors to the authorities. As the prominent expert on the region Nicholas Becquelin has stated, the Chinese government’s audacity to maintain these policies publicly demonstrates its resolve to restrict basic freedoms and liberties.30

In a recent report, the Norwegian Peacebuilding Research Center mentioned some of these restrictions and their effect on ethnic relations in China. According to this report, the PRC-imposed restrictions include:

increased surveillance of Muslims during Ramadan (especially of students and those who work in state institutions, who are prohibited from fasting or attending mosques) and the banning or heavy policing of cultural events with a religious component (such as the festivals that occur at the shrines of local saints). There are also arrests of imams, closures of mosques, and, recently, prosecutions for spreading material promoting ‘religious extremism’ on the Internet.31

As the PRC has tightened its grip across Xinjiang, it has simultaneously deepened its efforts to suppress Uyghur activism in other countries, most prominently by strengthening its ties to Central Asia and Pakistan. Those who have found asylum in neighboring countries through official channels have often been captured and detained. As a result, Uyghur refugees who have already fled have tried to avoid extradition by depending on shadowy organizations. This has created a population of thousands who wish to flee but have nowhere to run. Most of these Uyghurs are stuck in authoritarian countries between XUAR and the more democratic countries that they are striving to reach. With few options to choose from, many Uyghurs have paid exorbitant fees to be smuggled out of these countries while others have been recruited by radical organizations. Likewise, those who were smuggled out of China to other Asian countries, such as Cambodia and Vietnam, were often sent back by local authorities for fear of Chinese reprisals.32 Those Uyghurs who have been unable to escape the PRC’s crackdown now face a dire and worsening situation. In addition to political and religious restrictions, the deteriorating social and economic conditions in the XUAR have led many Uyghurs to abandon hope that they will find a political solution with Beijing to their plight.33


Violent clashes between Chinese government forces and Uyghur activists in the XUAR and elsewhere have increased dramatically over the last year. Three incidents in particular have become the subject of some international attention, although to this day the Chinese government has failed to make public what it knows about them. The incidents included the 2013 attack in Tiananmen Square in Beijing perpetrated by a Uyghur family (husband, wife, and mother of husband; the family’s motivations have never been clarified); a Uyghur-led attack on the train station in Kunming for which we have only the account of the Chinese security forces and which left 29 innocent dead and more than 100 injured; and a recent bomb attack in Urumqi market, which killed 31 and wounded more than 90 people, the biggest of such incidents in the XUAR itself.

The Chinese government does not deny the growing trend of violence. But it has consistently conflated these attacks and the growing instances of demonstrations against state-sponsored repression with transnational terrorist activities. Indeed, the PRC has tried to link each of these attacks to international networks of terrorism and ETIM.34 But evidence for such claims is presently lacking. Rather than being spurred by radical ideology, it appears the main motivation for these attacks is the anger that many ordinary Uyghurs experience living in China and the growing despair they feel in knowing that the PRC will not reform its policies.35 At the same time, the lack of any hard evidence proving these attacks were premeditated and inspired by transnational terrorism raises questions about the truthfulness of Chinese officials’ claims.

Since the Chinese government has suppressed and tightly controlled information about these incidents, it has been difficult for independent researchers to discern the real motivations behind these attacks. What is clear is that the PRC’s repressive policies have alienated and marginalized more conservative religious segments of Uyghur society, all while Beijing’s discriminatory economic and cultural practices further aggrieve secular Uyghurs. Because of their international isolation, and with little recourse to secular politics based on nationalism or human rights, larger numbers of Uyghur youth have become more susceptible to radicalization emanating from abroad. Nevertheless, though some radicalization of Uyghur society has evidently occurred, the Chinese government has actively inflated this threat to justify suppression of Uyghur national identity and politics.

The PRC’s repressive measures tightened once again during the month of Ramadan in 2014, as Chinese authorities told Uyghurs to ignore religious customs and demanded that all party members, civil servants, students, and teachers not observe Ramadan. Officials also forced Muslim restaurant owners to remain open and reminded state-run media that observing Ramadan was a violation of Communist Party discipline.36 Once Ramadan began, several Uyghur students told the BBC that they were forced to eat meals with their professors to demonstrate they were not observing Islamic dietary restrictions.37 This situation has only further increased the tension in the region.

Because of the dearth of reliable information, it is difficult to assess the degree to which radicalism could come to transform the conflict between Uyghurs and the Chinese government in the future. However, the lack of external Western support for Uyghur rights and the absence of any meaningful pressure on the Chinese government has meant the Uyghurs are increasingly isolated and alone.38 Moreover, the failures of the Western democracies to speak against the injustice in the XUAR is emboldening the PRC to continue its “strike hard” policies and also contributing to the growing disillusionment within Uyghur society. With no options for making a better future for themselves in their homeland, a new generation of Uyghurs will increasingly find themselves squeezed between a repressive Chinese government and the temptations of radicalism.