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China’s Islamic Frontier By: Robert T. McLean
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, July 11, 2006


On June 27 the government of Uzbekistan transferred Huseyincan Celil, now a Canadian citizen, to Chinese custody to await execution. While authorities of the People’s Republic of China charge that Mr. Cecil is guilty of killing Chinese delegates in Kyrgyzstan in 2000, the evidence suggests that Cecil was in fact in Turkey at the time under the direction of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The Toronto Star noted that the man “was sentenced to death in absentia for founding a political party to work on behalf of the Uighur people in Xinjiang province.” Beijing’s insistence on the execution of a man who is likely to be purely a human rights activist is not difficult to explain, but rather illustrative of the anxiety the Chinese Communist Party maintains over the country’s Muslim west.

If China’s west is to be won, it will largely take place in the following decade. The Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur Region, located in China’s northwest, is home to approximately eight million Uighur Muslims – there are several million Hui, Kazakh, and Tajik Muslims as well – and is the likely flashpoint should any ethnic separatist movement threaten the mainland’s territorial integrity.  The region’s most radical group, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), not only has ties to al-Qaeda, but is also providing the government in Beijing with a pretext for solidifying their control over the province’s Uighur population.

The vast majority of the limited debate that has occurred in the United States on this matter has mistakenly focused on the question of whether the Chinese do indeed have a terrorist problem, and in either conclusion, whether the CCP has manipulated the situation to consolidate their hold on the country’s restive population.  While both issues must be taken into account when examining the situation in Xinjiang, the aspect that best encompasses the question of China’s Islamic west is the frontier factor.

 

The total population of Xinjiang remains relatively sparse.  Of China’s 1.3 billion people, only about 20 million live in Xinjiang despite the fact that the province constitutes about one-sixth of China’s total landmass.  The region’s expanding importance to China’s economy, the Islamic presence in the region, and the threat of separatist and terrorist organizations have led Beijing to conclude that the country’s northwestern frontier must be tamed. 

 

The government’s handling of their Muslim citizens in the Chinese west has been both authoritarian and effective.  Under the “Strike Hard” campaign begun in the mid-nineties, those who have studied in madrassahs abroad are monitored by Chinese authorities, and all material considered subversive is confiscated at the border from those returning from the Central Asia or the Middle East.  Executions of suspected terrorists are frequent, while arrests are often made for the slightest potential infraction.  Last year more than 18,000 were arrested in Xinjiang for what Beijing classifies as “endangering state security.”

 

As is the case with all religions in China, few decisions by Muslim leaders are made independent of CCP interference.  There is one Islamic seminary in China and all imams must be graduates of this state-run institution.  Imams are employees of the state and few actions are conducted without supervision by the official security apparatus or their informers.  Such efforts are not limited to Chinese territory.  About 350,000 Uighur immigrants live in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and Beijing has called on these Central Asian states to maintain a firm control of these populations to ensure that none come to pose a threat to China’s hold on Xinjiang.

 

The People’s Republic of China is among the world’s foremost violators of human rights.  This has created a dilemma for Washington in both conducting the war on terror and in its relations with Beijing.  In a diplomatic row between the two countries in May, Chinese officials harshly condemned the United States’ decision to send five Chinese Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay to Albania rather than back to their home country.  Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao revealed his displeasure when he noted: “This act by the US and Albanian sides is a gross violation of international law and we are strongly opposed to this.”  Pressure from Beijing was so strong not to accept these Chinese citizens that Albania was the sole country of more than twenty not to be intimated by the PRC’s demands.

 

In a piece in The Wall Street Journal on June 27, Uighur human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer detailed the nefarious methods used by the PRC in maintaining their uncontested authoritarian rule over Xinjiang.  Ms. Kadeer was arrested in 1999 for sending newspaper clippings to the United States and planning to meet with a U.S. congressional delegation in the Xinjiang capitol of Urumqi.  After the Bush administration secured her release in March 2005, a stern warning was issued.  “Before I left Beijing, Chinese officials warned me that if I spoke out against the plight of the Uighurs, my children and my business would be ‘finished,” wrote Kadeer.  Earlier this month Chinese authorities followed through on their word when they beat Ms. Kadeer’s children – allowing the female to call the mother during the beatings so she could hear the suffering – and latter arrested the three on charges of “plotting to split the state” and tax evasion. 

 

While China’s leadership may falsely categorize those seeking human rights and greater autonomy as terrorists, and their methods of control fail to follow acceptable norms, it is clear that the PRC faces a real and legitimate terrorist threat.  Islamists in Xinjiang maintain extensive ties to international terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda.  The leading terrorist organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), maintains communications with jihadist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Some of its more experienced members fought with the mujahadeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and safe houses and cells have been uncovered everywhere from Germany to Pakistan.  In fact, in late June, Chinese diplomats in Pakistan wrote the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they had information that members of ETIM were operating in Pakistan and maintain plans to kidnap them. 

 

Not only do Xinjiang Islamists operate in a diverse variety of states, but foreign extremists have sought refuge in the radical sectors of China’s Uighur community as well.  Chinese authorities have captured Taliban militants in Xinjiang, and there have been reports that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan maintains a cell in the province.  It is also worth noting that outside terrorist groups come to Xinjiang not because of a perceived regional lawlessness, but because they expect to find elements in the Muslim community that will harbor them. 

 

Extremist groups in Xinjiang also look to foreign terrorist organizations to draw inspiration for their propaganda efforts.  According to Rohan Gunaratna and Kenneth George Pereire in the most recent issue of the China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, “ETIM, and associated groups, have learned from groups, such as the Chechen terrorists, to exploit Western human rights and humanitarian associations, to assist various activities.”  Thus, the organization’s principle propaganda outlet is strategically based in Munich where the group hopes to capitalize on European liberalism.  

 

On occasion ETIM has released videos that appear to emulate those produced by al-Qaeda.  Footage of the airliners crashing into the World Trade Center has been celebrated in these videos and one such propaganda piece claims that the group has brought down a Chinese plane.  While this claim has not been substantiated and is likely a fabrication, some analysts believe that the PRC’s efforts to contain ETIM’s profile – as well as limit the dissemination of information that could discourage human and capital investment in the region – provide for the possibility that such an event could have occurred.

 

The Chinese labeled ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism, and extremism may be a burden to the leadership in Beijing, but they also play to the CCP’s benefit.  Chien-peng Chung, an Assistant Professor of Politics at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, noted in CEF Quarterly: “For all their collective malfeasance, it must be admitted that the ‘three evils’ offer rather good mass media propaganda for the PRC government to keep ethnic demands on the defensive, dismiss foreign scrutiny … and perhaps most importantly, sustain the unity of the Han Chinese ethnicity.” 

 

The Han Chinese – the national majority constituting 92 percent of China’s population – are just beginning to settle China’s northwest in large numbers, but the demographics of Xinjiang have already greatly been altered in the last half-century.  As was noted by the BBC, in 1950 Uighurs made up 94 percent of Xinjiang’s population, whereas today they are estimated to be just less than half.  Nevertheless, Chinese officials maintain that they possess no plans to dilute the influence of Muslim Uighurs in the province as one official recently suggested: “There's very little difference in the ethnic balance between now and the early 1950s,” and Beijing’s encouragement of westward migration “certainly isn’t an issue of moving Han people to Xinjiang.” 

 

Beijing’s lack of sincerity in their statements regarding the demographic implications of the Han Chinese settlement of the country’s northwest frontier is an inevitable result of the government seeking to avoid alarming Xinjiang’s Uighurs.  The state has taken measures to contain any such future developments where “reactionary” elements may attract widespread support.  This is largely being accomplished by Han migrations to Xinjiang.  As Chien-peng Chung stated in his aforementioned work, “the government has been promoting an unstated but deliberate policy of ethnic encirclement by authorizing Han settlements in neighborhoods separate from, but close to, Uighur” communities. 

 

The emphasis on maintaining a firm grip on the situation in Xinjiang is not only aimed at preventing a popular secessionist movement, but it also represents a concerted effort to ensure the economic stability of the region.  The province of Xinjiang is becoming increasingly important to China’s economic growth, and its geographic location bordering Central Asia and Pakistan ensures the region’s vital role as a gateway for energy resources.  While the Xinjiang is a significant producer of domestic coal and oil, it is also essential for the expanding quantities of oil and natural gas imported from Central Asia that must pass through the province on their way to China’s high consumption eastern cities.  With Beijing’s efforts to secure energy resources across the globe, it is doubtful they will ease their grip on Xinjiang anytime soon.

 

China is settling its west and is likely to achieve success in bringing both economic prosperity and repression of regional autonomy to Xinjiang.  Beijing and the region’s Islamic terrorists will continue to clash, and as Henry Kissinger stated during the Iran-Iraq War, it’s a shame they both can’t lose.  But one thing is for certain: there will be many more Huseyincan Celil’s caught in the struggle for China’s Islamic frontier.

 

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Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.


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