This Peace Brief discusses the threats to China, its response, and how these might affect its participation in global counterterrorism efforts.
Over the last two decades, Chinese citizens, businesses, peacekeepers, and government facilities have been targets and victims of international terrorism. This year, for example, two Chinese teachers engaged in Christian missionary activities were executed by IS in Pakistan. They also worry that external funding will be funneled to Islamic insurgency groups within China by sympathetic outside groups. Beijing is concerned that Uighurs will join transnational terrorist organizations and return to China radicalized and ready to disturb the social order.
China has long expressed concern about the effect that international terrorism might have on potential domestic insurgency in Xinjiang. More specifically, China is concerned that Uighurs could join IS and other terrorist groups as foreign fighters in Syria and Southeast Asia and then return to China and encourage violence at home. Another major concern in relation to international terrorism is regional stability in the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and South Asia.
Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) Narrative
These regions are key to resource security for China and provide significant market opportunities for Chinese businesses state-owned and private in a wide variety of sectors. More than 70 percent of this oil originates in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. These regions are also major markets for Chinese exports of both goods and services and increasingly important investment opportunities. Finally, Beijing increasingly needs to protect its citizens and businesses overseas.
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Each additional violent incident perpetrated by an international terrorist group increases that pressure. Still, for almost four years after the attacks on September 11, , President Bush and other administration officials tended to praise the PRC's diplomatic and other support for the war against terrorism. Since , however, U. In September , Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick acknowledged that "China and the United States can do more together in the global fight against terrorism" after "a good start," in his policy speech that called on China to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the world.
Since the summer of , U. Congress has oversight over the closer ties with China and a number of policy options.
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The Uighur community is now in the news again, albeit in a very different way—as victims of what is widely regarded as China's worst human-rights violation since the days of Mao Zedong. The United States today is not buying that justification, with senior Trump-administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, publicly criticizing Beijing for its oppression of the Uighurs. Most recently, Pompeo has accused China of "being in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.
U.S. Terrorism Policy Paved the Way for China’s Repression
By the time the 22 Uighurs were first taken into American custody in late , there had been a number of Uighur attacks against ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang, including bus and market bombings. There have been more such attacks since, some of them very bloody.
Western scholars of Xinjiang, however, attributed these attacks to mounting Uighur frustration over the mass migration of Han Chinese into their traditional homeland, as well as severe Chinese repression of Uighur discontent, including peacefully expressed frustration.
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China itself for a long time treated its Uighur problem as a local matter, not a product of international jihadism fomented abroad. For a while, the U.
They said that they had gotten training on small arms and Kalashnikov rifles while they were there, and acknowledged meeting a man named Hasan Mahsum , who founded ETIM. Some of the prisoners readily acknowledged in that initial questioning a hatred for China because of its oppressive policies in Xinjiang, but said that they felt no animus toward the United States.
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One of the men making that claim, Abu Bekir Qasim, a year-old from the northern Xinjiang town of Ghulja, told me in a Skype interview that he left the province in , going first to Kyrgyzstan before heading to Pakistan, from which, like many Uighur exiles, he hoped to make his way to Turkey. Upon arriving in Pakistan, Qasim learned that he would have to wait in the country for at least two months to get a visa to travel through Iran, and Pakistan was expensive.
Read: China is treating Islam like a mental illness.