April - June
The second quarter of 2017 saw few relevant political developments in Xinjiang. Nonetheless, more information came to light regarding China’s cooperation with international partners on counter-terrorism issues.
On 8 May, the Syrian Ambassador to China, Imad Moustapha, said that there are up to 5,000 ethnic Uighurs fighting in Syria, however the exact number could not be verified. The ambassador added that China and Syria exchange information ‘and a little bit more than information’, a possible reference to practical co-operation between the two nations with regards to tackling terrorist groups.
On 13 May, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. During the meeting, Xi told Erdogan that they should deepen security and counter-terrorism co-operation ‘to promote even greater development of relations’. Many Chinese Uighurs, a Turkic ethnicity, have attempted to settle in Turkey, with unknown numbers crossing over from Syria.
During the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing in March, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that Xinjiang is an important ‘security barrier’ and that a ‘great wall of iron’ should be strengthened there to help safeguard social stability, ethnic solidarity and national unity. Cheng Guoping, State Commissioner for counter-terrorism and security, called the East Turkestan Independence Movement ‘the most prominent challenge to China's social stability, economic development and national security’. Ahead of the conference, a video released by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, showed Uighurs training in Iraq and men speaking the Uighur language vowing that blood ‘will flow in rivers’ in China.
Chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Shohrat Zakir, said at the NPC that Xinjiang has been ‘resolutely and forcefully’ fighting terrorism over the past year. Later in the month, state media reported that the number of violent terrorist incidents fell in 2016, however exact figures were not provided. Zakir added that the region aims at exceeding 7% economic growth in 2017, compared to the 7.6% achieved in 2016. Beijing sees economic growth as the long-term solution to the region’s unrest. On 18 January, the Xinjiang government announced it would spend RMB 200bn (US$29.2bn) on building and improving roads in the region in 2017.
The Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for ‘separatism’, was awarded the Martin Ennals Award human-rights prize in Geneva on 11 October. Beijing said Tohti’s case ‘has nothing to do with human rights’ and that there was ‘clear evidence of wrongdoing’. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, attended the event, which a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said was ‘a serious breach of the aims and principles and United Nations charter’ and ‘an interference in China's internal affairs’.
In a 26 November speech to the National Congress of the Chinese Islamic Association, Wang Zuoan, the head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, said religious extremism was spreading eastwards from Xinjiang to ‘inland provincial areas’. He called on Chinese Muslims to oppose religious extremism.
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region became the first Chinese province-level administration to introduce a regional interpretation of the counter-terrorism law that came into effect on 1 January, providing more detailed regulations on how security forces can deal with suspected terrorist offenses.
The new rules were in line with President Xi Jinping’s 21 July speech at a mosque in Ningxia province, home to many of the Hui Muslim minority, where he said that Muslims must ‘resolutely oppose illegal religious infiltration activities’ and promote social harmony. Xi emphasised that both endemic and foreign religions will continue to flourish in China.
On 29 August, Chen Quanguo replaced Zhang Chunxian as head of the Communist Party in Xinjiang. Hong Kong-based press reported that Zhang was replaced due to a perceived failure to stem terrorist attacks, despite his success in achieving high rates of economic growth. China has focused on economic development as the long-term solution to extremism in Xinjiang; Vice Premier Wang Yang called for measures to ‘eradicate’ poverty in the region for the sake of stability during a visit in September.
China continued diplomatic activity linked to counter-terrorism and regional economic growth. This was given extra impetus by the suicide attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 30 August. Details of the incident are covered in the Military & Security section of this report.
The UK officially designated the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP, also known as ETIM) a terrorist group on 15 July. On 26 July, Xi Jinping met with US National Security Adviser Susan Rice in Beijing. According to a US official, they discussed ways of improving cooperation on counter-terrorism. Also in July, Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan thanked the visiting Afghan chief of army staff, Gen. Qadam Shah Shaheem, for his country’s work in combating ETIM and supporting Chinese core interests. Afghan authorities are known to notify Beijing whenever Uighur militants are arrested in Afghanistan. Soon after Shaheem’s visit, Chinese state media reported that China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan were to set up a security alliance to combat terrorism.
On 3 September, Xi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hangzhou, agreeing to deepen anti-terror cooperation. This is notable as many Uighurs emigrate to Turkey, where they have ethnic links; some of these Uighurs cross the border from Turkey to become foreign fighters in Syria.
Political developments in Xinjiang centred on foreign and economic policy following the promulgation of a new anti-terrorism law at the end of 2015. The exception was a new white paper on religious freedom in Xinjiang published on 2 June, which insisted that there is no discrimination based on religion in the region.
In April, Xinjiang companies signed deals worth an estimated US$2 billion with Pakistan during a visit by Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian. This followed the agreement to set up the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor last year, itself an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Deals worth a similar amount were signed during Zhang’s visit to Kazakhstan in early May.
Meanwhile, following protests from Beijing, India cancelled the visa of Dolkun Isa, the chairman of the Germany-based dissident organisation World Uyghur Congress, a week before he was due to visit the country on 30 April.
China’s engagement in the peace process in Afghanistan is partly driven by the conflict in Xinjiang, which borders northeastern Afghanistan. Kabul’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah reaffirmed Afghan support for China’s efforts to combat the East Turkestan Islamic Movement during a visit to Beijing in May.
‘The atmosphere for religious extremism weakened markedly’ in 2015, Xinjiang Communist Party head Zhang Chunxian said in his new year’s speech. The conflict did appear to stabilise, but authorities continued to strengthen counter-terrorism policy in the face of continued risk from terrorism. A document released at a political conference in Beijing on 22 January called on authorities to ‘firmly curb terrorist activities in [Xinjiang], prevent these activities from spreading inland, and prevent violent terrorist attacks in large and medium-sized cities’.
At the same time, Beijing continued efforts to speed up economic development in the region, with poverty identified as a root cause of the violence. Xinjiang authorities announced that they would spend RMB 110bn (US$17bn) on 100 projects for ‘improving livelihoods’ in the region, and Premier Li Keqiang said on 10 March that Xinjiang has an ‘especially important strategic position’, telling regional officials to ensure young people have ‘something to do and money to earn’.
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region marked its sixtieth anniversary on 1 October. Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said in a speech to mark the occasion that long-term stability and security are the government’s top priorities for Xinjiang, and that ‘counterterrorism is the focus of our current work’. The Communist Party head in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, said on 4 November that ‘south Xinjiang is the central battleground for fighting terrorism and threats to stability’, and that he would strengthen ‘exchanges and blending’ between ethnic groups, as well as Mandarin language education.
Officials signalled a hardened attitude to dissent among their own ranks. The former editor of Xinjiang Daily, Zhao Xinwei, was expelled from the Communist Party on 2 November for ‘public opposition’ to the party line on separatism, extremism, religion and other issues, and for ‘improperly’ discussing policies. He was also to be prosecuted for corruption. Later in November, the head of Xinjiang’s Commission for Discipline Inspection, Xu Hairong, said some Communist Party members in the region had been ‘swayed’ by ‘pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism’ and participated in terrorist activities. Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun said officials should be held accountable ‘in accordance with law and Party discipline’ if they did not perform satisfactorily in anti-terrorism work.
China adopted its first counter-terrorism law on 27 December, to take effect from 1 January 2016. It included a new definition of terrorism as ‘any proposition or activity – that, by means of violence, sabotage or threat, generates social panic, undermines public security, infringes personal and property rights, and menaces government organs and international organisations – with the aim to realise certain political and ideological purposes’. There is a clause banning the spreading of false information about terror attacks, and the dissemination of details about actual incidents. The law also enables the government to freeze the funds of suspected terrorism financers.
In foreign relations, Gen. Fan Changlong, the vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, met with Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif in Rawalpindi in November. Gen. Fan reportedly expressed deep appreciation for Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts and fighting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Pakistan has repeatedly claimed to have ‘eliminated’ ETIM in the country, although Uighur militants are still thought to be active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two days after the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the G20 summit in Turkey that ‘cracking down on ETIM should become an important part of the international fight against terrorism’. India and China agreed to establish a communication channel for the exchange of intelligence on terrorist groups on 21 November.
While ETIM’s status and involvement in international terrorism is unclear, there were indeed further signs that the conflict in Xinjiang is having effects across borders and further afield. On 18 November, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, said in its Dabiq magazine that it had executed a Chinese hostage, whose captivity was revealed in September. In December, ISIS released a recording of a chant in Mandarin Chinese urging Muslims to ‘take up weapons and fight’. The Turkestan Islamic Party, which consists of Uighurs from Xinjiang, is known to be fighting alongside the al-Qaeda-connected Jabhat al-Nusra group in Syria. Meanwhile, in late November Thailand indicted two Chinese Uighurs on murder charges for involvement in the 17 August bombing of the Erawan shrine in Bangkok, and Indonesian authorities arrested an Uighur described as a potential suicide bomber along with eight other terrorist suspects planning an attack in Jakarta.
A Xinhua article published on 13 November said nearly one million Xinjiang residents have gained access to electricity in the past five years, with plans to reportedly invest a further $31bn in building power grids in Xinjiang over the next five years, as part of the Silk Road Economic Belt regional strategy.
In the period between July and September, security and human-rights issues in Xinjiang became increasingly internationalised, with Thailand and Turkey playing significant roles. Uighur refugees often travel through Southeast Asia in an attempt to reach Turkey, where there is popular sympathy for the plight of fellow ethnic Turkic people.
The 17 August bombing of the Erawan shrine in Bangkok, which killed 20 people, appeared to have been carried out by a network of Uighurs and Turkish nationalists. Several Uighurs were arrested in Thailand and Malaysia, and key suspects were traced to Turkey. Many suspects remain at large.
The incident followed Thailand’s repatriation of 109 Uighurs on 9 July, for which it was strongly criticised by the international community. China’s Ministry of Public Security claimed that the repatriated group were on their way to join the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) after being recruited by gangs or ‘stirred up’ by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or the World Uyghur Congress, an activist organisation based in Germany. Thirteen are said to have been implicated in ‘terrorist activities’ before fleeing China and a further two to have escaped detention.
According to the ministry, Uighurs who enter Turkey after being given Turkish identity papers by Turkish embassies in Southeast Asia are often sold to ISIS or other militant groups as ‘cannon fodder’. State news agency Xinhua said the deportation was ‘nothing but a legitimate and necessary law-enforcement cooperation mission’. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in China for a state visit on 29 July, but it was not clear whether progress was made on bilateral tensions over China’s treatment of Uighurs.
During a visit to Beijing on 12 August, Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain said ‘almost all’ Uighur separatists in Pakistan had been ‘eliminated’ in military operations. China and Pakistan also signed 20 agreements worth an estimated $1.6bn in Karamay, Xinjiang. The agreements form part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will run from Gwadar port in Pakistan to Kashgar, included in China’s One Belt, One Road regional strategy.
Meanwhile, China requested assistance from the United States in fighting ‘the East Turkestan terrorism forces’ in a meeting between the Chinese foreign ministry and the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism on 4 August. In a rare visit to Xinjiang by a foreign politician, the United Kingdom’s Chancellor George Osborne visited Urumqi on 23 September to promote British-Chinese economic ties.
In domestic developments, Beijing passed a new national security law on 1 July. The text is written in general terms, providing room for interpretation for authorities. It does not mention Xinjiang explicitly, however Article 28 speaks of increasing capacity to handle terrorism and extremism, and ‘strictly punishing violent terrorist activities’.
The head of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party, Liu Qibao, urged further promotion of patriotism in Xinjiang and said ethnic minorities should be encouraged to embrace modern civilisation while preserving the ‘best parts’ of traditional culture. At a conference in Beijing, officials said on 23 September that they will continue to provide economic aid for Xinjiang in order to promote stability. The assistance is meant to create jobs, improve infrastructure and education, and strengthen counter-terrorism capabilities.
On 24 September, Beijing issued a white paper entitled ‘Historical Witness to Ethnic Equality, Unity and Development in Xinjiang’, which argues that Xinjiang is a success story of regional autonomy and ethnic unity. The chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Shohrat Zakir, said terror activities in Xinjiang have been ‘curbed’. Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, carried out a week-long visit to the region ahead of the XUAR’s 60th anniversary on 1 October. Yu visited Kashgar’s Elixku township in Yarkand (Shache county) as part of his trip. Elixku was the site of a clash in July 2014 that left at least 96 dead.
A number of agreements with neighbouring countries showed the importance of Xinjiang to the Chinese government’s regional economic and security strategy. President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan on 20 April, signing an agreement to invest $46bn for the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a network of roads, rail and energy pipelines that will run from the Pakistani port of Gwadar to Kashgar in Xinjiang. Xi also praised Pakistan’s counter-terrorism operation in North Waziristan, Zarb-e-Azb. Uighur militants are thought to be based and receive training in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told Xi that ‘Pakistan considers China's security as important as its own security’.
The CPEC is closely related to China’s One Belt, One Road strategy for integrating regional trade and investment. On 8 May China and Russia agreed that they would coordinate the development of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, using the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a platform for dialogue. The long-term goal is to build a ‘common economic space’.
Beijing wants Xinjiang to be a regional economic hub as China looks to become the dominant economic power in Central Asia. This requires both domestic and regional security measures; Chinese forces once again participated in joint drills with neighbouring countries, including an anti-terror exercise in Tajikistan on 6 June and a joint law-enforcement exercise on the Kyrgyzstan border that began on 16 June. On 14 June Xinjiang Communist Party head Zhang Chunxian said there had been ‘escalated infiltration and sabotage activities from foreign hostile forces that are disguised as religion’ in Xinjiang. Ties between Uighur militants and transnational jihadists remained rare, but two alleged Chinese members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) were arrested while attempting to enter Turkey from Syria on 7 April.
In further economic developments, a new city was formally opened in Xinjiang on 12 April, built and run by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Kokdala, in Ili prefecture, is the eighth such city in Xinjiang. The XPCC is a state-owned economic and paramilitary organisation unique to Xinjiang. On 27 May the Asian Development Bank said it would offer China a loan of US$150m for infrastructure projects in western Xinjiang.
The secretary general of the Xinjiang provincial government, Aimjan Maimaitiming, came under investigation for ‘discipline violations’ – official language for corruption – on 28 June.
Legislators in Beijing reviewed the second draft of a proposed anti-terrorism law on 25 February 2015. It defines terrorism as ‘any speech or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage or threat, generates social panic, undermines public security, and menaces government organs and international organisations’. In a change from the first draft, ‘thoughts’ were no longer considered terrorist activities. Terrorism cases have generally been dealt with under criminal law, but anti-terror legislation was proposed last year.
The National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s annual parliamentary session, began in Beijing on 5 March. At the NPC, Shohrat Zakir, the acting chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s government, who was appointed on 31 December 2014, said that Xinjiang had remained stable. Some 58 fatalities, most of them Uighurs, and about a dozen violent incidents were reported this quarter.
In economic developments, People’s Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan said on 16 February that China had launched a US$40 billion ‘Silk Road’ infrastructure fund to boost business in regions along the road. Xinjiang Communist Party head Zhang Chunxian said Xinjiang will be a ‘core area’ of the Silk Road Economic Belt regional economic strategy. Customs statistics showed that trade between Xinjiang and Russia had more than tripled in 2014, to US$2.15bn. However, reports suggested that a US$400bn deal with Moscow signed in 2014 to build a pipeline and supply Russian natural gas to China may be postponed, with Moscow keen to shift to a shorter, cheaper gas pipeline to Xinjiang.
Reuters reported on 19 February that the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military organisation and the largest employer in Xinjiang, was resisting a Beijing policy to end stockpiling of cotton. The stockpiling has artificially inflated prices, which has attracted Han Chinese immigration to the region. The high prices have also kept employment higher than would otherwise be the case. Meanwhile, two state-owned banks were to open in southern Xinjiang to help development. Southern Xinjiang is majority Uighur, poor and a frequent location of violent incidents.
Beijing continued its efforts to build anti-terrorism cooperation with its neighbours. China has become a key player in the Afghanistan peace process, as it sees instability and jihadist militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan as threats to its own security. East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) fighters are thought to have trained in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Kabul has provided China with information on Uighurs members it has arrested. Beijing has reportedly leant on Islamabad to support talks between Kabul and the Taliban. Beijing said on 26 March that it was ‘willing to deepen cooperation with Pakistan in anti-terrorism, maritime security and military technology’.
A spokesman for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference said on 2 March that an ‘anti-terrorism cooperation mechanism’, mainly aimed at ETIM, had been established with more than ten partner countries exchanging information. Beijing also committed to providing US$150,000 of summer and winter uniforms for Tajikistan’s border guards, and on 10 February it was reported that China and Indonesia had reached an agreement to cooperate in fighting online terror activities.
According to China’s Legal Daily, 355 officials in Xinjiang were investigated for breaching party discipline – often code for corruption – in 2014.
Xinjiang Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian said on 3 October that a tough crackdown on terrorism, as well as education and deradicalisation, are needed in Xinjiang. The statement was in line with previous high-level political pronouncements on Xinjiang, and was made after three violent months from July–September.
Shohrat Zakir, an ethnic Uighur, was appointed as the acting chairman of the Xinjiang regional government on 31 December. His predecessor Nur Bekri was promoted to the National Energy Administration. Other policy developments included the announced strengthening of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC); the XPCC is an economic, administrative and paramilitary organisation with authority over several towns and settlements in Xinjiang.
China continued to build relations with neighbouring countries to combat terrorism. China and Uzbekistan agreed to increase security cooperation on 14 October. Six days later, a trilateral dialogue between Afghanistan, China and Pakistan recommended that the countries establish a joint counter-terrorism task force to share information, intelligence and coordinate policy. China also pledged to provide Afghanistan with RMB 1.5bn (US $244m) in foreign assistance over the next three years.
China and Kyrgyzstan held joint border security drills in Artux (Atushi), Xinjiang on 3 November. Additionally, the president of Tajikistan and China’s deputy public security minister discussed cooperation on security and law enforcement, including protecting the Tajik-Afghan border, and a high-level meeting between the Chinese and Pakistani militaries took place in Beijing on 5 November.
Minister for Public Security Guo Shengkun began a tour of the region at the end of November that included Afghanistan, where he signed an agreement on cooperation against terrorism, and Uzbekistan and Pakistan, were anti-terrorism cooperation was discussed. State Councillor Yang Jiechi visited Kyrgyzstan on behalf of President Xi Jinping on 29 December.
China also received a boost from US President Barack Obama during the APEC summit in Beijing in November. Obama said terrorist groups should not be allowed to establish safe havens in China, and urged cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts, in particular stopping foreign fighters and funding.
A number of economic developments demonstrated the region’s importance to China. President Xi pledged $40bn for a Silk Road Fund to improve connectivity with neighbouring countries through infrastructure. Beijing aims to make Xinjiang the financial hub of the new Silk Road economic belt, proposed by Xi in 2013.
An 11.6 billion tonne coal field was discovered in Hami prefecture in October, while 573,000 tonnes of the rare earth element molybdenum were discovered in northwest Xinjiang. A high-speed railway between Urumqi and Hami was then launched on 16 November. It will eventually connect with Lanzhou, and from there the rest of China. Construction also began on a new railway link between Xinjiang and Qinghai province, part of recent improvements in connecting Xinjiang with the rest of China.
China and Russia signed an agreement to supply gas from western Siberia to China on 10 November. The required gas pipeline is likely to cross the border in Xinjiang.
The mayor of Hotan was placed under investigation in October for ‘serious discipline violations’, likely referring to corruption.
The prominent Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, who was arrested in January, was sentenced to ‘indefinite detention’ – potentially life imprisonment –on charges of separatism on 23 September. His personal property was also confiscated.
The official news agency Xinhua quoted what it said was evidence from the trial, including videos in which he allegedly said that the Chinese government is a ‘devil’ to Uighurs and that he admired ‘people who fight with violence against violence’.
As an academic working in Beijing, Tohti was known as a moderate critic of Beijing’s Xinjiang policies. He argued that repressive policies were counterproductive, but was not known to advocate separatism. He ran a website, Uighur Online, which was closed down by authorities in 2008.
Despite living in the capital, Tohti was tried in Urumqi –Xinjiang authorities apparently received a green light to sentence him, perhaps due to the increase in violence in Xinjiang this year. Ahead of the trial, which began on 17 September, a lawyer for Tohti said she had been forced to withdraw from the case following government pressure on her law firm.
Tohti’s sentence, which he said he would appeal, was condemned internationally, including by the United States. The sentence demonstrated the difficult climate for those who espouse even moderate disagreement with official policy. Under President Xi Jinping, there appears to be a zero-tolerance approach to even moderate dissent uttered in public fora.
Officials were also punished; 17 officials and police officers were held accountable for a series of serious violent incidents. The Communist Party chief of Yarkand (Shache) County, where at least 96 people died in an incident on 28 July, was fired from the party.
In a policy pronouncement on 11 September, China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the prosecutors’ body, said it would prioritise counterterrorism. All prosecutors are now expected to ‘fast-track’ cases involving terrorism, religious extremism and arms and explosives manufacturing. On 12 September three people were sentenced to death for their role in the terrorist attack on Kunming rail station on 1 March. Another suspect received life in prison.
Xinjiang is seen as a gateway to Central Asia, and the region’s strategic importance to Beijing was displayed in several ways. China gave non-lethal aid worth over US$160,000 to the Kyrgyz State Border Service on 31 July.
On 11 September, President Xi arrived in Tajikistan for a two-day Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit that would expand cooperation on economic and security measures. China is the largest foreign investor in Tajikistan, and is the country’s biggest trading partner. Xi suggested at the summit that the SCO initiate a consultation for an anti-extremism convention that would call for increased cooperation on the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, extremism, and separatism. He also called for studies on a potential mechanism to combat terror-related activities online.
After the summit, construction began in Tajikistan on Line D, a fourth gas pipeline from Central Asia to China. In late September, the city of Horgos was officially established on Xinjiang’s border with Kazakhstan. It is expected to be a highway and railway hub for trade with Central Asia.
A number of deadly incidents and a sharp increase in fatalities raised uncomfortable questions for the security-focused government in Beijing. On 22 May, a terror attack in Urumqi left 39 people dead when attackers drove cars into a crowded market, throwing explosives. Less than a month earlier, on 30 April, the last day of President Xi Jinping’s tour of Xinjiang, the railway station in the regional capital Urumqi was attacked by suspected terrorists. Three people – two perpetrators and one civilian – were killed and 79 injured as the perpetrators attacked the crowd with knives and set off explosives. The Turkestan Islamic Party claimed responsibility for the attack.
The timing of the railway station attack must be interpreted as a direct challenge to Xi’s authority. Beijing’s approach remained a mixture of security measures and developmental policies, though security remains paramount. Uighur insurgents appeared to reject this policy by again attacking the rail infrastructure that is both symbolic of and essential to economic development and integration with Central Asian markets, which Beijing sees as strategically important.
During his 27–30 April visit, Xi said he would use a ‘strike-first’ strategy against terrorism in Xinjiang, while implementing policies to improve ethnic harmony and reduce wealth inequality between ethnic Han and Uighurs. An appraisal of the trip by state news agency Xinhua said the underlying causes of the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism were poverty, unemployment and inequality, and that ‘development is the key to addressing all issues in Xinjiang’.
Examples of development measures included a 6.6% increase in regional government subsidies for poor families in Xinjiang, and an announcement that attending high school would be free of charge in southern Xinjiang, which is mainly inhabited by Uighurs. Construction on a rail link from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan began on 11 April.
At the end of May, Xi chaired a central work conference on the region’s development – the second such conference since 2010. While Xi called for mutual understanding and respect among ethnic groups in the region, he maintained that Beijing’s strategy in Xinjiang has ‘proven to be correct and must be continued in the long run’.
Local party leaders focused on the security angle. Writing for Xinjiang Daily on 7 April, regional government chairman Nur Bekri urged readers to ‘resolutely eliminate the tumour of extremism’, and blamed the unrest on incendiary Islamist rhetoric. In a May newspaper article, Xinjiang party secretary Zhang Chunxian declared a ‘people’s war’ on terrorism, saying the struggle will be long, complicated and intense. Whether it will be successful is unclear; many Uighurs appear to feel disenfranchised and economically marginalised.
On 14 June, ten officials were punished for taking part in religious activities or making speeches that violate Beijing’s ‘ethnic policy’. Observers said authorities used to turn a blind eye to mosque attendance among Communist Party members, but are now tightening control.
President Xi Jinping called for 'all-out efforts' to bring to justice those who killed 29 people and injured 143 in a brutal attack on Kunming train station on 1 March. Four of the perpetrators were killed by police during the incident and another four were in custody soon afterwards.
No group claimed responsibility, but the emir of the Turkestan Islamic Party, Abdullah Mansour, praised the attack, and the authorities acted as if they had sufficient evidence to prove that separatist Uighurs from Xinjiang were culpable. The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), led by the exiled Rebiya Kadeer, condemned the incident.
The capital of Yunnan province, Kunming is thousands of kilometres from Xinjiang. There were concerns, particularly after an attack on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October 2013, that this might signal an escalation of simmering Uighur violence.
The BBC and other media reported a profound sense of ‘national outrage and grief’ being expressed on the Chinese internet and elsewhere, meaning it will be easy for authorities to make the case for stronger security and legal measures in the attack’s aftermath.
Even before the Kunming massacre – with several earlier violent attacks – the Xinjiang government had been saying that it would double its anti-terrorism budget to combat the 'three evil forces' of terrorism, separatism and extremism. On 28 February, Chinese media reported that Beijing was considering anti-terrorism legislation; criminal law is normally applied to suspected terrorism cases in China. The proposed law could inflame sentiment in Xinjiang if it provides for further restrictions on daily life or increased powers for the security forces.
Reports said that 11 Uighurs had crossed into Kyrgyzstan in January – where they were shot as ‘terrorists’ by authorities, although they may have been refugees. The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which Kyrgyzstan is a member, later agreed to share their lists of websites used for terrorism, separatism and extremism.
Beijing continues to see Xinjiang as its gateway to trade with Central Asia, perhaps hoping that economic development will strengthen its legitimacy in the province. A ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ agreement was signed by 24 cities in eight countries in January to promote cooperation and development. However, development – perceived by Uighurs to favour ethnic Han people – does not address other equally important roots of the conflict, including inequality, human rights and severe state-imposed constraints on local culture and religion. There are signs that the government recognises this: on 22 January a Xinjiang official declared that ethnic traditions in Xinjiang must be respected.
January – July
The Chinese government became increasingly concerned by the activities of separatist groups in Xinjiang, especially when reports emerged that some members trained in Syria. The threat was met by heavy-handed policing, coupled with measures that limited the religious practices of Muslim Uighurs.
Campaigns to limit the legal scope of religious activity continued in 2013, with Ramadan once again prohibited for those under the age of 18. All Uighur students were required to attend mandatory ‘political study classes’ on religion during their summer holidays, which coincided with Ramadan. Further actions preventing religious women from wearing veils in certain places and requiring men to shave their beards attracted criticism locally as well as internationally. Local criticism and protests over restrictive measures was met with a zero-tolerance approach to dissent from law enforcement.
As a result, numerous Uighur civilians were arrested and detained for voicing discontent either by way of protest or online. Those online were accused of promoting ‘racial hatred, jihad and holy war’. Chinese authorities said that these measures are not only to promote security in the region but also to encourage citizens of Xinjiang to change their attitudes towards the government’s policies on ethnicity and religion. Human-rights groups labeled the government’s actions as ‘open discrimination’.
Disputes over land issues continued. Radio Free Asia reported at the beginning of June that Chinese authorities were forcibly seizing farmland in Baykol, a village in northern Xinjiang. Farmers were reportedly forcibly removed from properties and detained after they refused to accept compensation less than one-tenth the market value of their properties. In February, sources claimed that authorities in China were forcing Uighur farmers to provide free labour or face fines of approximately 1,500 yuan. According to farmers in Hotan province, free labour was being touted by the government as part of an effort to promote ‘national unity’. Human-rights organisations denounced it as sheer economic exploitation. Farmland in Xinjiang is being cleared to make way for industrial development and mining which forms part of Xinjiang’s rapid growth as an economic hub for Western China. This, in turn, is part of a larger picture of economic cooperation with regional partners to curb separatist sentiment and enhance diplomatic ties.
The Chinese government continued to use authoritarian measures against the Uighur population in Xinjiang province in 2012. Authorities called for an increase in stability in the region and maintained efforts to encourage economic growth while continuing its zero-tolerance approach to dissent. In November, the governor of the province said that sporadic terrorist attacks will not change the overall stability in the region and that the fight against separatism will be ‘long-term, complicated and fierce’. The Chinese government has actively sought the support of its regional neighbours in ending separatist activities.
The government continued campaigns, including public lectures, aimed at garnering support among locals for Chinese rule. Public lectures have been organised in every village and residential community in Xinjiang to encourage agreement with the government’s religious policies and to discourage illegal activities. Concurrently, Beijing plans to increase security in the region. The number of police officers in the region is expected to be increased by 8,000 and the security budget will be booted by 11.5% to US$111 billion for 2012, a budget increase predominantly aimed at containing unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Uighurs continue to hold protest both in Xinjiang and Beijing. Their demands vary from the return of land they say was illegally taken from them, to petitions for greater civil and political rights. In November, as many as a thousand protestors gathered in demonstrations at the Zhenping county offices in Henan province. The demonstrations, which left as many as 50 injured, were sparked when a Han Chinese man reportedly lifted the veil of a Muslim Uighur girl. Outside China, the World Uyghur Congress, the foremost organisation of exiled Uighur groups, continued its campaign to raise awareness, holding a meeting in Tokyo in May. As part of the meeting, the organisation called for the political independence of the Uighur people and an improvement in the region’s human-rights situation.
Following the announcement in 2011 to turn Urumqi, the province’s capital, into an international trade centre, economic developments have continued and in July, the government said that the region had undergone 10.7% economic growth, 2.9 percentage points higher than the national average. In September, Premier Wen Jiabao described Xinjiang as the ‘bridgehead’ for trade ties with Eurasia whilst opening the second China-Eurasia Expo, held in Urumqi and in December a second cross-border railway between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan was opened.
The government has invested significant effort into enhancing regional ties as a means of repressing any separatist movements. Chinese authorities have conducted a number of counter-terrorism exercises with members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and have gained assurances from authorities in Afghanistan, Turkey, Tajikistan and Pakistan that their governments will make efforts to oppose and prevent anti-China separatist activities.
2011 saw the Chinese government implement increasingly repressive measures against the Uighur population in Xinjiang province. In January, authorities in Xinjiang announced that they would be installing tens of thousands of security cameras in Urumqi, and new controls on the content of text messages sent to mobile phones were implemented. Banned terms included “Xinjiang independence” and “anti-corruption”. The move was followed by a crackdown on Uighur-language publications. The government simultaneously launched a propaganda campaign of its own, producing videos and printed material calling for a boycott of exile-produced material. In July, the authorities deployed large numbers of riot police in Xinjiang on the second anniversary of the ethnic riots which took place there. The measures were allegedly undertaken to avoid a repeat of the incident.
It was announced in March that Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi was to be turned into an ‘international trade centre’ by 2020. The plan included a new rail link with central China, a new airport terminal, and possibly a new airport in an effort to strengthen links between Urumqi and inland Chinese regions as well as areas in central and west Asia. Following the announcement, senior Chinese leader Zhou Yongkang called for better restoration and protection of cultural heritage in northwest Xinjiang. This was seen as an attempt to help promote social cohesion in the multi-ethnic region. In June, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region received approval to establish its first bonded zone at Alataw Pass, the country’s largest land port. The new bonded zone was intended to evolve into a comprehensive free trade zone integrating trade, processing and logistic services from central Asian countries. This was one of many initiatives announced to promote economic development in the region.
China’s efforts to exercise control over the Uighur minority extended beyond its borders. In January, three Uighur businessmen with Turkish citizenship were detained by authorities in Tajikistan. It is believed that the detentions were the result of Chinese pressure. German federal prosecutors announced that they were charging a 64-year old German man identified as ‘L’ with spying on ethnic Uighur exiles on behalf of China’s intelligence services in April. Prosecutors alleged that L passed information about Munich’s Uighur community to the Chinese intelligence services between April 2008 and October 2009. This incident served as another example of the Chinese government’s attempts to repress the Uighur community living outside its borders. During a visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to Beijing in May, Chinese officials urged Pakistan to take action against Uighur rebels from Xinjiang who they believed to have escaped into Pakistan in previous years.
Following the release of a US State Department report, which criticised the Chinese government’s human-rights record in Xinjiang, the Chinese foreign ministry said that the US should stop interfering in the internal affairs of other nations and using human rights as an excuse to do so.
The situation in Xinjiang remained calm in 2010, especially in comparison to the widespread and violent riots of 2009. The only significant incident occurred in August when a Uighur man using a three-wheeled vehicle detonated explosives in a crowd in Aksu, about 650 kilometres west of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, killing seven people and injuring 14. Most of the victims were Uighur police officers and paramilitary guards. The police said six people were involved in the attack, of whom two died during the attack and four were detained. Aksu was reportedly put under lockdown while armed police, special police and armoured cars patrolled the streets, although Xinjiang government spokeswoman Hou Hanmin denied this claim.
Speaking a few days before the attack, Xinjiang Governor Nur Bekri said that ‘separatism in Xinjiang has a very long history, it was there in the past, it is still here now and it will continue in the future’. He added that China faced a ‘long and fierce and very complicated struggle’ in Xinjiang.
Leading up to the one-year anniversary of ethnic riots in July 2009 that killed almost 200 people in Xinjiang, Chinese police said they had broken up a terror ring in the region. Ten men belonging to a group suspected of having planned attacks in several cities were arrested and explosives seized. Those arrested were suspected of planning attacks in the southern part of Xinjiang and were believed to be behind an attack in Kashgar in 2008 in which 16 police officers were killed.
Meanwhile, a Uighur man with Norwegian citizenship admitted on 28 September to plotting to blow up the Chinese embassy in Oslo. He was arrested with two other suspected terrorists. World Uighur Congress (WUC) President Rebiya Kadeer condemned any violence and said she fully supported the Norwegian government’s efforts to investigate suspected terrorist activity. However, she also urged Norway and the international community not to perceive all Uighurs as terrorists, stressing that the Chinese government has been oppressing Uighurs for six decades.
China and Turkey carried out joint air force exercises in September at the Konya base in Anatolia, the first such drill between Beijing and a NATO country. Further exercises are expected in October. While the exercise did not directly impact the situation in Xinjiang, it did show that Turkey’s strategic interests supersede its concerns regarding the Chinese government’s approach to the unrest in Xinjiang and its treatment of the Muslim Turkic minority. In 2009 Turkey openly condemned the violent measures taken by the Chinese government to stop the riots in Xinjiang. On the other hand, Ankara also recently twice refused to issue a visa to Kadeer.
China reacted to the Swiss offer to grant asylum to two ethnic Uighur Chinese from Guantanamo Bay by saying it would undermine relations between the two countries. The Swiss government responded that the decision to grant asylum was based on humanitarian concerns. While China maintained the two men were members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, listed by the UN as a terrorist group, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said in February that the men posed no security risk. The two were captured in Afghanistan along with 20 compatriots but were no longer classified as ‘enemy combatants’, according to Widmer-Schlumpf.
The Chinese government reacted swiftly to the inter-ethnic violence that broke out in Xinjiang in July 2009. President Hu Jintao flew home from Italy before the start of the G8 summit in L'Aquila, and thousands of paramilitary police were deployed to the regional capital, Urumqi. According to official figures, 197 people were killed and more than 1,700 injured before calm was restored. There was little international criticism of China's actions in bringing the unrest under control. Despite public demonstrations in Japan, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the only national leader to seriously object, calling the crackdown 'genocide'. The Algerian-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) did, however, call for reprisals against China. Beijing accused exiled businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress (WUC), of 'masterminding' the violence – a claim she denied.
The riots in Xinjiang followed a year of tight security around the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The violence was sparked by an event 1,800 miles away, when clashes between Han Chinese and Uighur workers at a toy factory in Shaoguan city, in Guangdong province in China's south, killed two people and injured 118 on 26 June. In Urumqi on 5 July a Uighur demonstration about the factory brawl turned violent, as protestors attacked the city’s Han residents and Han citizens retaliated. On 7 July, hundreds of Uighurs took to the streets to protest the arrests of 1,400 of their fellows, but encountered a counter-demonstration of Han Chinese armed with iron bars and machetes. An overnight curfew was imposed in Urumqi and Internet access in the city was blocked. Twenty thousand armed police restored order by 9 July, but tensions remained.
In September, there were a series of needle stabbings in Urumqi, with an estimated 530 people, mainly Han Chinese, reportedly admitted to hospital with injuries from syringes. An extra five people were killed and 14 injured when thousands of Han Chinese gather to protest over the stabbings.
The authorities said anyone found guilty of killings would be executed. In November, eight Uighurs and one Han Chinese were put to death in connection with July's clashes. This was followed by death sentences for a further eight people in December and the arrests of another 94.
Turkish PM Erdogan's description of what was happening in Xinjiang in July as 'genocide' created tension with China, which denied the charge. Turkey shares linguistic and religious links with Uighurs, and Turkish nationalists see Xinjiang as the easternmost frontier of Turkic ethnicity. By contrast, governments in China's Central Asian neighbours largely supported Beijing's stance, although Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan did evacuate citizens from Xinjiang during the riots, and there was a large demonstration in August in Kazakhstan, which is home to 300,000 Uighurs. On a visit to China in August, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari also expressed his support for Beijing's policies in Xinjiang.
China expressed 'strong dissatisfaction' with Japan's decision to grant a visa to exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer in July, and repeatedly complained to Australia when it allowed her to attend the Melbourne Film Festival in early August, to introduce a documentary film about her life. Kadeer also addressed Australia’s National Press Club in Canberra.
Throughout, Kadeer called for more international pressure to save China’s ethnic minorities and urged the Chinese people to be sceptical of the Chinese government’s versions of events. She is based in Washington DC, and when US President Barack Obama visited Beijing in November he was asked by his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, not to support 'any East Turkestan forces'. In September, Kadeer was denied entry to Taiwan on the grounds that her visit would be against the national interest. That same month, South Korean immigration authorities prevented Dolkun Isa, the WUC's secretary-general, from visiting Seoul for the World Forum for Democratisation in Asia.
The WUC, an umbrella group of the Uighur diaspora, said after the July riots that it opposed all forms of violence. However, in mid July, China was forced to warn its citizens in Algeria about possible attacks by AQIM in retribution for the government crackdown in Xinjiang. Other extremist groups, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party, urged Muslims to retaliate for what it called its ‘massacres’ against Uighurs. This prompted China and its Central Asian neighbours to tighten border controls and increase intelligence cooperation against the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
Another senior al-Qaeda leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, released a statement in October that it was the duty of all Muslims to stand by their 'wounded and wronged brothers' in Xinjiang. He urged Uighurs to launch a media campaign to raise awareness about the July events.
The Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, said in August that the riots represented a failure of Beijing’s minority policies. However, Beijing's actions in dealing with the Xinjiang violence did not meet the same degree of international condemnation that accompanied the 2008 uprising in Tibet. Some commentators attributed this to the Uighurs' lesser profile on the global stage. Others noted that whereas it had sealed off Tibet from foreign journalists, Beijing had offered to assist the media in reporting from Xinjiang, thus conveying an image of greater transparency.
There were 42 reported fatalities in the conflict between the Chinese government and Uighur separatists from China's autonomous Xinjiang Province in 2008. This represented a severe increase on the previous year, which can be explained by the unrest over the summer linked to the Beijing Olympic Games. According to the Procurational Daily, China arrested almost 1,300 people for terrorism, religious extremism or other state security charges in 2008 in the western region of Xinjiang, where ethnic Uighurs continued to complain for political and religious repression. The Procurational Daily said that the arrests followed China’s intention to “maintain social stability” for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in August.
In March, Bekri, the governor of China’s Xinjiang autonomous region claimed that the authorities had foiled a potential attack, although he revealed no details of the event. The attack was alleged to have taken place on a China Southern Airlines flight from Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, in direction of Beijing. Reuters reported that inflammable material had been found in the aircraft's toilet, while a local report claimed a stewardess had smelled petrol. Bekri claimed the attack aimed to "create an air disaster", suggesting the destruction of the aircraft.
As the Olympics Games approached, large numbers of Uighurs were arrested in Xinjiang. Chinese officials further tightened security as they feared that Uighurs would use the upcoming games to stage protests or terrorist acts. Seeking to put a positive spin on instability in the region, the Vice Governor of Xinjiang said violence was isolated and the province was still ready for investment. In May, Beijing asked Kyrgyz security officials to keep an eye on its Uighur population during the run-up to the games.
In June, the World Uighur Congress organised a protest in Brussels to coincide with the Olympic torch relay through Xinjiang. Hoping to avoid international criticism, as well as local protests, organisers in China held the relay a week early and told local citizens to stay away. The Uighur rally in Brussels went ahead as scheduled.
The summer saw several attacks my militants, the most serious of which took place on 4 August when 16 policemen were killed by two assailants in a grenade and knife attack on a border post in the city of Kashnar.
On 10 July, a group of US lawmakers belonging to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus expressed concern that Beijing was using Olympic security concerns to justify crackdowns on Uighurs in Xinjiang. Authorities replied that Uighur militants posed a real threat to the games and the prevention of attacks was a priority for heightened security. While the games proceeded without incident, the tension between China and Western nations remained. On 12 September, Nuer Baikeli, the governor of Xinjiang, accused Western countries of inciting regional unrest.
Over the summer, Uighurs held at Guantanamo Bay scored a major legal victory when, on 23 June, a US federal appeals court ruled that one of the 17 Uighurs held at the detention base had been improperly labelled as an ‘enemy combatant’ when he was arrested. According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) source cited in the report, Chinese Uighurs held at Guantanamo were kept awake, deprived of food and held in cold conditions prior to questioning by Chinese officials. The report also accused US officials of allowing Chinese agents to abuse detainees. A US district court said it was wrong for the Bush administration to continue holding the Chinese Muslim Uighurs, as it had no evidence against them. But the White House appealed in October, saying the original ruling - the first of its kind - could set a dangerous precedent.
There were 18 reported fatalities in 2007 in the conflict between the Chinese government and Uighur separatists from China's autonomous Xinjiang Province. All occurred in a Chinese raid on an alleged Uighur terrorist camp close to the Pakistani border on 9 January. Song Hongli, director of the general office of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, said that the raid had targeted a training camp run by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Police found 22 grenades and material for 1,500 more. The camp was located in the Pamir Plateau, a sprawling high-altitude section of Xinjiang near the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.
No major political developments were reported during the year. However, obtaining information is difficult. As in previous years, the Uighur population continued to demand independence and religious freedom, while the Chinese government sought regional support for its policies against the Uighur separatist movement. Ismail Tiliwaldi, chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, said in March that the opportunities for terrorist activity in the region had declined considerably over the previous months.
Though the actual number is uncertain, some estimates suggest 100-200, a small presence of Uighurs are believed to be fighting alongside the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in South Waziristan. These include fighters who joined the IMU in the early 2000s and retreated with the Taliban following Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Chinese government took a number of law-enforcement actions against suspected Uighur militants. On 17 April, a Xinjiang court sentenced the son of a prominent Uighur activist to nine years' imprisonment on charges of instigating and engaging in secessionist activities. Two days later, Huseyin Cecil, an Uighur-Canadian, was sentenced to life for alleged involvement in terrorist activities.
China continued to play a leading role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The grouping acted as an effective mechanism through which China was able to link Uighur separatism to a wider regional threat from Islamic extremism. At a meeting of SCO defence ministers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, at the end of June, the SCO again stated that the group's activities were solely for anti-terrorism purposes. At the annual summit of the SCO, held in Bishkek in August, the presidents of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan signed a 'Long-Term Agreement on Neighbourly Relations'. The group was joined by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (Iran has observer status in the SCO).
In a rare call for international support, Uighur separatists appealed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to lobby for human rights and the Uighur minority during her visit to Beijing in August. There was no public response.
There were no reports of armed violence between the Chinese government and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation (ETLO) in Xinjiang in 2006, and no major political developments were reported. However, obtaining information is difficult. The Uighur population continued to demand independence and religious freedom, while the Chinese government proceeded to seek regional support for its policies against the Uighur separatist movement.
In the late autumn, China received support from the government of Kazakhstan, which declared the ETLO a terrorist organisation and banned its activities on Kazakh territory. Human-rights organisations, meanwhile, continued to accuse the Chinese government of suppressing the Uighur population, claiming that there was little evidence to support the Chinese government’s depiction of the Uighur population as terrorists, or as having links to terrorist or separatist groups.
Chinese authorities remained concerned about the Taliban’s ties with Islamic extremist groups advocating independence for China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In mid-November, some analysts observed that, although Uighur separatist sentiment and militancy have subsided in recent years, the influx of cheap Afghan narcotics could reignite separatist feeling. However, there has been no indication of this in Xinjiang as yet.
There were no reports of armed violence between the Chinese government and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation (ETLO) in Xinjiang in 2005. The Chinese government attempted to achieve regional support for its policies towards Uighur separatism, most notably labelling Uighur separatist movements as terrorist groups. In particular, it used the Shanghai Corporation Organisation (SCO) to generate such regional support, and to encourage other SCO governments to clamp down on separatist activity in their own countries. The SCO, comprising of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is widely seen as a forum for China to strengthen its strategic clout in Central Asia. The Chinese government has stated that it believes that Uighur movements receive financial support from kindred communities in the Central Asian states.
Although the emphasis was on diplomacy, government raids continued. A series of raids between 11 and 13 May targeted Uighur-owned businesses in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang, including one owned by a high-profile human-rights activist, Rebiya Kadeer. Kadeer was released from detention and reunited with her family in the US on 17 March. In an apparent attempt to silence her, several relatives and employees in Xinjiang were detained. On 11 May, 100 Chinese security agents attempted to arrest Kadeer’s son, Ablikim Abdiriyim; he reportedly evaded arrest.
Tensions increased in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) as preparations began to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its incorporation into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 1 October 2005. The period around the anniversary saw a series of visits by senior PRC officials, including Vice-President Zeng Qinghong and Politbureau member Luo Gan. Official celebrations were marked by claims of success for the PRC’s ‘ethnic policies’, and for religious rights in the province. These claims are disputed by international human-rights groups. At the end of September, the exiled World Uighur Congress (WUC) warned the PRC that its policies towards Uighurs risked turning the area into a ‘time bomb’. The US responded to the statement by warning American travellers of potential attacks in the region.
The Chinese government’s efforts to combat separatist groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) remained political and rhetorical in 2004, with considerable pressure being put on neighbouring countries to brand some of the Uighur separatist groups ‘terrorist organisations’. The Chinese government also tried to ensure regional cooperation in fighting separatism and often linked it to terrorism. In mid-December 2003, China released its first-ever list of domestic terrorist groups. Among the Xinjiang-based organisations listed were the East Turkistan Information Centre, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organisation (ETLO) and the World Uighur Youth Congress.
Neighbouring countries have been willing to cooperate with China and have branded some Uighur separatist groups as terrorists. In late November of 2003, Kyrgyzstan, encouraged by the Chinese government, did exactly this and banned their members from operating on its territory. It is estimated that around 50,000 of some ten million Uighurs live in Kyrgyzstan. China also forwarded its list of domestic insurgents to the Pakistani government and asked for Islamabad’s help in containing any of the groups that have links or operations with insurgents in Pakistan.
On 10 March, the Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah met in Beijing. Their discussions on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and the ‘one-China’ policy included talks on the continued efforts to constrain the East Turkestan ‘terrorist forces’. The Government of China also sought cooperation with the Russian Federation, and on 14 October, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao signed a joint declaration pledging mutual support in the fight against separatism.
About a month before, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao urged closer cooperation between the states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to tackle terrorism and economic stagnation. During a meeting in the Kyrgystan capital Bishkek, Jiabao told leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that terrorism, separatism and extremism constituted a major threat to regional peace and stability. The Chinese government also alleged that some of the Uighur separatist groups had links with al-Qaeda. Some of these groups were believed to have received funding and training from al-Qaeda and planned acts of sabotage and terror in pursuit of their goal of establishing an independent state in Xinjiang. On 3 September, Politburo member Wang Lequan officially claimed that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, operating in Xinjiang Province, was linked to al-Qaeda.
Regional cooperation went beyond political commitments on separatist issues in 2004 and included joint military exercises. On 29 July, Chinese and Pakistani military authorities announced that they would conduct a joint exercise from 4-7 August. The operation, to be held in Xinjiang’s Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County, aimed to increase the two countries’ cooperation on terrorist, separatist, and extremist activities. On 12 August, China completed a joint military exercise with Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgzstan. The operation, which took place in Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, was held under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and focused on strengthening regional cooperation in counter-insurgency. Efforts were focused on hostage-rescue and anti-terrorist exercises, deploying joint elite special forces teams and sophisticated equipment from various armed services branches of each country.
Trade and development remained a focus for regional cooperation during the year. On 1 September, Vladimir Putin’s plenipotentiary representative in the Siberian Federal District, Leonid Drachevskiy, led a 260-man trade delegation to Urumqi, the administrative centre of the autonomous region of Xinjiang, for an international trade fair. Talks focused on further integration within the region.
Development projects continued in the XUAR during the period. Work continued on the west−east gas pipeline, running from Xinjiang to Shaanxi province and on to the eastern provinces of Anhui, Henan, Jiangsuand and Zhejiang. The pipeline is scheduled to open in January 2005. Once the project is completed, the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang province will become the primary source of natural gas for the central eastern region. In late December, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev announced that his country would begin supplying hydroelectric power to the XUAR. China has also proposed the construction of a highway from Xinjiang to Lake Issyk-Kul, a tourist area in northern Kyrgyzstan. In February, the Xinjiang regional government said that it would spend approximately $ 6.02 million on preparing transient workers for infrastructure, healthcare and tourist jobs. The regional authorities also reported that the development of approximately 8,700 private-sector businesses in the XUAR in 2003 had resulted in an injection of an additional $1.9 billion capital into the regional economy. Many of the projects address infrastructural needs such as water conservancy, communications, and railway highway construction. Industry and Commerce Administration officials attribute the growth to simplified approval procedures.
On 6 March, the Chinese government auctioned off the mining rights for seven mines in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region for US$22 m. Since opening mining rights to the public in December 2003, people have been allowed to conduct mining of the 138 varieties of mineral resources, such as mica, Chile saltpetre, nickel and coal. Extraction and exploitation of oil and gas resources are, however, exclusively reserved for the central government.
Port administration authorities in Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region also announced the opening of China’s first border trading port with Tajikistan. Scheduled to open on 25 May, the Kalasu Port will allow for the passing of people, goods, and vehicles between the two countries.
During the year, non-governmental organisations maintained their efforts to draw the attention of governments to human-rights violations in the XUAR. On 3 March, Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman jailed for endangering China’s national security, had her sentence shortened. A prominent member of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang region, Ms. Kadeer was charged in 2000 with passing information to foreigners and attempting to promote separatism and overthrow of the Chinese state, and was sentenced to eight years in prison. On 24 September, she won the Oslo-based Rafto Foundation human rights award. A spokesman said that she had won the prize because “she has distinguished herself in the struggle for the rights of the Uighurs and against social and economic marginalisation.” The Foundation urged her unconditional release.
On 13 July, non-governmental organisations reported that a Uighur activist, Kuerban Tudaji, had been executed. He had been sentenced to death a month earlier for allegedly manufacturing explosives, firearms and ammunition for the purposes of encouraging separatist and terrorist activities between 1998 and 2000. Amnesty International expressed concern that the defendant may not have received a fair trial and asked for the legal authorities to present the evidence used against him. A US-based religious group, the China Aid Association, claimed on 21 July that about a hundred Christian leaders had been arrested after a retreat in Xinjiang. Apparently, approximately 200 Chinese police officers detained and questioned the group on its activities in the province, resulting in the arrest of at least 30 individuals.
Later in July, further reports emerged that at least 20 other Uighur men had been jailed during the month, for between three and ten years, on suspicion of separatist activities. On 3 September, it is announced that Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have sentenced more than 50 people to death in what they describe as ‘a war on terrorism’.
Towards the end of the year, reports emerged reporting the violation of the right to religious freedom when on 17 November, it was alleged that senior officials in Xinjiang Province ordered local officials to report anyone thought to be fasting during Ramadan. Restaurants that would usually have been closed during the daylight hours during Ramadan were reportedly forced to stay open and Uighur exiles have claimed that it is common for Chinese employees to take their Uighur workers out for large lunches during the Islamic Holy month.
There have been sporadic protests against the central government in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. On 16 June, hundreds of citizens protested outside government offices in Yili county, objecting to plans to displace about 18,000 farmers, forestry workers and herders to make way for the construction of a reservoir and hydropower station around the Tekas river. At least 16 protestors were arrested by local police.
Clashes were reported on 1 November between the Muslim Hui minority and Han majority in Henan province. It is believed that up to seven people were killed and up to forty more were injured. The violence, the worst seen between Hui and Han communities in many years, reflects incidents seen in the troublesome separatist conflict in Xinjiang province and is likely to compound fears among the Chinese authorities of continued unrest, particularly among the country’s Muslim population. It is unknown whether the incident in Henan province was linked to the Uighurs, however, eight days later riot police in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou clashed with a crowd of approximately 70 Uighur Muslims following a dispute in a market place in the city. Several people were apparently hurt in the incident.
In 2003, the Chinese government reached several political and military milestones in its battle against Uighur separatists in Xinjiang. Although terrorist attacks have declined significantly since 1998−99, groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation (ETLO) have come under continuous government pressure. Increased cooperation between Beijing and Washington in the ‘War on Terror’ has also had an impact on the Uighur separatists. There were no reported incidents of separatist attacks, but concern that Uighur separatists were collaborating with al-Qaeda prompted political action from the US and the United Nations (UN).
China has used the US-led War on Terror as a pretext to suppress Uighur groups calling for independence in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Since September 2001, Chinese authorities have cut back sharply on freedom of religion in Xinjiang, shut down mosques in the province and relocated members of its Islamic clergy for ‘political education’. Beijing’s ‘struggle against separatism’ includes the routine suppression of any forms of potential opposition, including dissenting views expressed in music and poetry.
On 10 March 2003, Chinese authorities sentenced Uighur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer to eight years in prison under Article 111 of the Chinese criminal code, accusing her of ‘ignoring the law of the country and giving information to separatists outside the borders’. Kadeer was detained on 11 August 1999, en route to a meeting with a US congressional delegation to discuss the status of political prisoners in Xinjiang.
On 12 August, China completed a joint military exercise with Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgzstan. The operations, which took place in Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, were held under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and focused on strengthening regional cooperation in counter-insurgency. Efforts were focused on hostage-rescue and anti-terrorist exercises, deploying joint elite special forces teams and sophisticated equipment from various armed services branches of each country.
On 15 December, the Chinese government released its first-ever list of domestic terrorist groups. Among the Xinjiang-based organisations listed were the East Turkistan Information Centre, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organisation (ETLO) and the World Uighur Youth Congress. The government has alleged that some of these groups have received funding and training from al-Qaeda, and that others have planned acts of sabotage and terror in pursuit of their goal of establishing an independent state in Xinjiang. The Chinese government sought the help of its neighbours in repressing Xinjiang separatist movements during the period. After issuing its list of domestic terrorist outfits, Beijing asked Islamabad to restrict activities by any of these groups inside Pakistan. In December, Pakistan said that it believed that Hasan Mahsum, the leader of the ETIM, had been killed in an October raid on the Afghanistan−Pakistan border.
Development projects continued in the XUAR during the period. Work continued on the west−east gas pipeline, which runs from Xinjiang to Shaanxi province and on to the eastern provinces of Anhui, Henan, Jiangsuand and Zhejiang, and which is scheduled to open in January 2005. Once the project is completed, the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang province will become the primary source of natural gas for the central eastern region. In late December, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev announced that his country would begin supplying hydroelectric power to the XUAR. China has also proposed the construction of a highway from Xinjiang to Lake Issyk-Kul, a tourist area in northern Kyrgyzstan. In February, the Xinjiang regional government said that it would spend approximately $ 6.02 million on preparing transient workers for infrastructure, healthcare and tourist jobs. The regional authorities also reported that the development of approximately 8,700 private-sector businesses in the XUAR in 2003 had resulted in an injection of an additional $1.9 billion capital into the regional economy.
Throughout the year, Beijing demonstrated its continued willingness to cooperate with its neighbours in cracking down on Uighur separatists. Members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) participated in a military exercise with their Kyrgyz counterparts in October 2002. The manoeuvres were intended to enhance coordination between the two neighbours in their battle against Uighur separatists, who have used the region as a base for operations inside Xinjiang as well as against targets in China. In early December, Russian President Vladimir Putin spent three days in Beijing meeting with Chinese leaders. Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin signed a joint declaration to enhance strategic ties between the two countries.
On 26 August 2002, the Department of State announced that it was adding the ETIM to its list of foreign terrorist organisations. On 12 September, the UN adopted a recommendation put forward by the governments of Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and the US, adding the ETIM to its own official list of terrorist organisations. The February 2003 visit of the US Department of State’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Ambassador J. Cofer Black, to Beijing resulted in formal American praise being extended to China for its supporting role in the War on Terror.
Beijing’s support for Washington’s ‘War on Terror’ was based on the expectation that, in turn, the US would give its backing to the Chinese fight against Xinjiang’s Islamic separatists. According to Beijing, the latter were probably trained in Afghanistan and, therefore, were part of a greater international terrorist network. However, despite the apparent warming of relations between the two countries, US President George W. Bush reminded Beijing that ‘no government should use the fight against terrorism as an excuse to persecute minorities within their own borders’. Several weeks later, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, similarly warned China not to use the War on Terror to justify human-rights abuses in the country.
Nevertheless, at the end of October 2002, the authorities in the XUAR launched a new campaign against the Uighur separatists. Strike Hard, Severe Suppression is essentially a tougher version of the previous Strike Hard operation. The Public Security Bureau stepped up its daily raids against suspected radicals and ‘splittists’. Around 2,000 madrasas (religious schools) were closed down nationwide on the grounds that they were not operating in accordance with standards set by the Chinese Islamic Association. This was followed in December by revision of China’s criminal laws, which allowed for greater use of the death penalty in relation to terrorist actions that threatened national security.
In November and December, the Chinese government released evidence that terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda were working in Xinjiang. Vice Premier Qian Qichen reported that approximately 1,000 Chinese Muslims had been trained in al-Qaeda-run camps in Afghanistan, while Zhu Bangzao, director and spokesman of Foreign Ministry of China, stated that ten Central Asian organisations were actively trying to end Chinese rule in the region. In December, the Chinese government published a report on terrorist incidents in Xinjiang from 1990 onwards. The report noted that 40 people had died and 330 had been injured in these incidents. On 21 January 2002, the Chinese State Council issued a report entitled ‘East Turkestan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity’, which asserted that Uighur separatist groups, particularly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, had received money, weapons and training from Osama bin Laden after meeting with the al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan in early 2001. The fatality figures in the January report differed from those in the December report, stating that 162 people had been killed and over 440 injured in the period between 1990 and 2001. The document listed four types of attack: bombings, assassinations, assaults on official institutions and crimes involving poison and arson. The documents also highlighted the establishment of training bases for terrorists, and the plotting of riots and disturbances.
In 2001, China continued to focus on gaining the support of its Central Asian neighbours for its campaign against Uighur separatists in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Traditionally, Beijing has been careful to cultivate good relations with these states.
A German-based group advocating a peaceful solution in the troubled region, the East Turkestan Information Centre (ETIC), reported that a leading resistance fighter, Abduhelil Abdulmejit, had died in custody in mid-October. He had been imprisoned in 1997 following an uprising in Yilin (near the border with Kazakstan) that had resulted in the deaths of to 100 people. The Chinese government claimed to have executed the leader of the East Turkestan Islamic Party of Allah, Alerkan Abula, in January 2001, after he was found guilty of attempting to assassinate government officials.
Members of the Uighur community, Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldash established the Islamic Movement of Turkestan in May 2001, with the aim of ‘Islamizing the territory from China’s Xinjiang region to the Caucasus’. After Namangani allegedly crossed from Afghanistan into Tajikistan to set up a base, China responded by sending three planeloads of military equipment to Kyrgyzstan. The Shanghai Five reconvened on 15 June 2001 and broadened its membership to include Uzbekistan, forming the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO’s primary objective is to crack down on regional Islamic fundamentalism, particularly pertinent to China and Russia. On 18 June, China offered Kyrgyzstan eight million Yuan (approximately $1 million) in military support.
In August 2001, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held military exercises near Kashgar in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), involving fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, armoured vehicles and as many as 100,000 troops. Shortly after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC on 11 September 2001, the Chinese government put the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) on alert, since it was concerned about ‘efforts deemed to undermine social stability’, such as terrorist activities. Consequently, the PLA’s Lanzhou Military Region, which is responsible for Xinjiang, deployed more troops and newly formed crack units to the potentially restive westernmost parts of the province. These areas have the largest Uighur populations.
Since the bombing of Afghanistan commenced in October 2001, the Beijing government has detained 2,500 separatists and religious activists, and has reinforced its borders with Afghanistan, Kazakstan and Tajikistan. The military has maintained its operations in the XUAR; crack counter-terrorism forces in the Chengdu Military Region (Leopard Unit) have started exercises in nearby Sichuan province; and PAP units continue to conduct 24-hour patrols in Urumqi and other cities in the province.
Although there are not many details available in relation to high-profile Uighur separatist groups, organisations are known to include the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation (ETLO) the Revolutionary Front of Eastern Turkestan, the Organisation for the Liberation of Uighurstan, the East Turkestan Islamic Party of Allah, and the Grey Wolves.
Domestically, the most significant event in 2001 was the launch of another two-year-long anti-crime campaign in April, entitled Strike Hard. In Xinjiang, Strike Hard has been especially relentless in regard to the ‘three evils’ of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism. Principal targets are ‘splittists’, dissidents, underground church members, ‘religious extremists’ and ‘violent terrorists’. Amnesty International reported in July 2001 that the first three months of Strike Hard had resulted in more executions and death sentences than in the rest of the world in the past three years. According to publicly available reports, China carried out at least 1,781 executions and passed 2,960 death sentences. The national campaign is an effort to make ‘conspicuous progress’ against crime in view of the country’s pending entry to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and its bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. The government has also been eager to display its less forceful means of winning over the Chinese Muslim population. The government set up a China Islamic Association, ostensibly to ‘help the spread of the Koran in China and oppose religious extremism’. This committee of imams was supposed to compile and give inspirational speeches and evaluate sermons. In reality, the central administration closed down unauthorised mosques and forced imams to attend political indoctrination classes.
Another tool used by the Chinese government to crack down on Uighur separatists is economic development. Through the Western Development Xibu da kaifa initiative − established to put the under-developed west on a par with the richer east − it seemed that the Chinese authorities were attempting to placate ethnic groups. Coupled with the government’s transmigration policy and accusations that Uighurs and Kazakhs are being denied new job opportunities in favour of the Han Chinese, observers have claimed that the scheme does not contribute to tackling the problem of simmering ethnic and religious conflict.
So far, there has been little Western criticism of Beijing’s handling of the troubled region. This could be attributed to Western concerns about regional stability and not jeopardising business opportunities in a potentially mineral-rich area. Yet, it is also difficult for outside parties to obtain independent and reliable data on the region, due to the tight rein Beijing has on the media and the public. The subjugation of the Uighur separatists thus looks set to continue.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has accused China of ‘training’ imams, effectively an attempt to use their religious authority to affect the behaviour of the Chinese Muslims. Amnesty International also accuses the Chinese government of forcing Muslim pupils not to fast during Ramadan, and arresting thousands of people in Xinjiang. The US Department of State, in its 2001 annual report on international human-rights abuses, also singled out China for gross human-rights violations over the year, particularly in Xinjiang. Both Amnesty International and the Department of State remarked that small numbers of Uighurs were engaged in low-level bombing campaigns, but that this did not justify the human-rights abuses in the province.
On 5 July 2000, the Shanghai Five (China, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan) convened in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and set up a joint anti-terrorist centre to combat incursions by Muslim extremists. A pledge to crack down on liberation movements, terrorism and religious extremism indicated that the group is concentrating on security within and along member states’ borders. The members plan to hold annual meetings of their defence and foreign ministers, to cooperate militarily by conducting joint training exercises, and to exchange information. Chinese President Jiang Zemin said: ‘we should strengthen mutual support in safeguarding the national unity and sovereignty of our nations and resist all kinds of threat to the security of the region’. Uighur separatists are known to have close connections with émigré groups in several of these countries. This constitutes a double-edged sword for China and for the other member countries of the Shanghai Five. It is in China’s interest to have stable borders and to confront a minimal separatist challenge. A degree of border instability, though, gives China more control over the other, militarily weaker members of the Shanghai Five, as well as the ability to take more abrasive action in Xinjiang. In a region that has porous frontiers and is home to some radical Islamic factions, it is to Beijing’s advantage, therefore, to maintain good relations with its regional partners. At the same time, the presence of Uighur separatists allows the other members of the Shanghai Five to secure aid from China. That Uighur separatists have been crossing into other parts of Central Asia seemingly became evident when Kyrgyzstan announced the arrest of ten members of the Uighur Liberation Front for acts of ‘terrorism’ committed in the country on 10 July 1999.