Sunday, May 29, 2022

Xinjiang, Uyghur jihadists, and China’s conquest of the West

Rivers of ink have been spilled to explain the nature of jihad and its expansion into the Middle East, but jihadism is spreading throughout the Islamic world and even reaches China, which is inhabited by a Turkic Muslim ethnic group, the Uyghurs. With a deep nationalist sentiment whose strength has shifted towards patriotic and nationalist identitarianism and Islamic radicalism, the latter have been detected fighting in Syria and Afghanistan. Once these fighters return to Xinjiang, China may have a serious internal problem.

At the outset, we are obliged to place ourselves in the historical, ethnic, political, and geographical context. The basic premise is the conflict over the political control of this region, where we find two diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive conceptions due to the normal capitalization of the conflicting parties over the control of the area.

The first is found in the Uyghurs

They make a national reading of the presence of their ethnic group in the area by reinterpreting past history and linking themselves to the independent and exclusive political projects that were formed in the region during the periods of Chinese withdrawal of power from Central Asia. They also make an interpretation of the situation of ethnogenesis in the region using modern criteria, i.e., in an anachronistic way, establishing links with the ancient peoples who inhabited the Xinjiang region.

Moreover, the term “Uyghur” disappeared in the 15th century and was revived at the beginning of the 20th century when, belatedly, nationalist movements arrived in the region due to its proximity to the Russian territories of Central Asia.

Likewise, although the Uyghurs are presented as an ethnic minority, this is not entirely true because this population group, of 9 million people, is the undisputed majority in the region, in addition, we find half a million members in the diaspora.

It should not be forgotten that this people has its singularities, like all people, which distinguish it from the rest of the populations in the area. From the outset, we can establish the first racial classification of the Uyghur. This ethnic group is Turkic, of Altaic language, Central Asian culture, and Sunni Muslim religion. So they are differentiated from the Han Chinese (majority Chinese).

Opposite to this idea is that of the Chinese who refer to the historical presence of imperial Chinese governments in the region. Governments that had effective and administrative control over the area but, due to its frontier nature, control was often lost as in the period between the Tang and Qing dynasties, where China did not have effective control over those regions. However, they understand that Xinjiang is one of the historical Chinese regions like Tibet, Manchuria, or Inner Mongolia.

China, therefore, faced with the rise of nationalism and especially jihadism among the Uyghurs, was quick to make diplomatic moves in favor of the United States after 9/11, joining the war against terrorism, supporting in the UN Security Council the sanctions proposed by Washington and giving its cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

China made these diplomatic moves with the clear intention of gaining international support in order to control its internal conflict, that of Xinjiang with the Uyghur Islamists. Once the Beijing-Washington anti-terrorist alliance crystallized, the United States did not hesitate to put the Uyghur nationalist movements on the lists of terrorist groups.

However, this was the Bush era, when China was not a particular threat to U.S. power.

The international jihadist front and the current situation

The religious conceptions of jihad take precedence over the ethnic or cultural origin of the combatants, leaving the doors to jihadism open to any Muslim ethnic group in the world.

While it is true that the Uyghurs had been detected fighting in the jihad against the Soviets, they would not be detected again in significant numbers in any armed conflict in the Middle East until the Syrian War where they were detected clearly linked to DAESH and in Afghanistan linked to ISIS-K.

The call that the Jihadist groups made in Syria to obtain Muslim fighters throughout the world had an effect and Muslims from all over the Ummah and from European countries began to come. They come from Indonesian fighters to Africans, Chechens, but also French fighters (France is the European country from which the largest number of Mujahedeen fighters come). And, obviously, Uyghurs who have been detected in increasing numbers in the area, even bodies of Islamist fighters with Chinese passports have been found.

For China, this may pose a serious problem as isolated Uyghur terrorist groups have been aligning themselves with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and others with the Islamic State and thus establishing military, logistical, and financial interdependence with other Turkic Islamist groups such as Turkmen Islamist movements or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

In view of this, the tension in Xinjiang is on the rise. A few years ago Uyghur groups attacked in Beijing and leaked images of terrorist training camps for Uyghur men, women, and children in a clear statement of intent. At the time China did not hesitate to raise the terrorist alert in the region, which is now under close surveillance by intelligence officials.

This has resulted in an iron grip on Xinjiang society, where major economic activities take place (it is China’s gateway to the Central Asian market and the first commercial port to Europe); it is estimated that one-third of China’s oil and two-thirds of its coal is located in Xinjiang, not to mention gold, copper, uranium, etc… at the same time it is a military test area and a strategic war zone.

This control has led China to send members of the Han ethnic group to Xinjiang in order to compensate the region ethnically with economic and social benefits in a sort of Chinese conquest of the West, since the campaign is not only counter-terrorism but, more importantly, to “pacify” a rich and extremely important region for Beijing using the model already successfully tested in Tibet.

And that has implied the persecution of all Uyghur ethnic elements such as the monitoring of clothing, number of prayers per day, civic behavior, and personal, work, or business relationships they maintain. This control seeks to establish profiles of dangerousness to attack any enemy of the state without the need for them to be terrorists.

China, due to its air-tight political system, does not tolerate outbursts, especially in sensitive areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, where any movement or personal manifestation of nationalism or regional identity is already suspect. However, China is on a tightrope when it comes to controlling these movements since its struggle to defend freedom of worship and the integrity of the state translates into a vocation to control dangerous cultural forms. Before, and still today, it was the Buddhist Lamas and now it is the Muslims and Catholic Christians, also dominated in China by the Communist Party.

In this sense, China has decided to re-educate the most fractious elements of Uyghur society through a network of internment camps where members of nationalist, separatist, and Islamist organizations are held as prisoners, a “totum revolutum“. The truth is that China’s pressure in the region is quite strong and has so far managed to contain political and jihadist movements with this effective combination of intelligence work, infiltration of organizations, classification of threats, and detention of enemies for security of the state.