On Wednesday, amid renewed tensions in Hong Kong, Chinese state media announced that the mastermind behind deadly attacks in the Xinjiang region was seeking to establish an Islamic state – echoing the motives of radical militants fighting in Iraq and Syria. The statement comes two days after a regional court sentenced 12 people to death for a July attack in Xinjiang that left nearly 100 dead.
Beijing has been grappling with a resurgence in violent extremism in the far-western province as well as clashes between China’s minority and predominantly Muslim Uighur population, which is based in Xinjiang, and the majority Han Chinese living there. Critics insist that a repressive state policy that contributed to the “Hanization” of the region — 40% of the Xinjiang population is now Han Chinese — and marginalized the Uighurs both culturally and economically is to blame for the rising tensions. Rights groups point to the wave of death sentences and detentions as evidence of a state campaign targeting the Uighur minority. In a statement released Tuesday, the World Uyghur Congress noted, “The increase in frequency of these trials and sentences signals that the state has stepped up its one-year anti-terror campaign by exhibiting excessive force against its population.” (The life sentence given to dissident Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti for separatism prompted a similar outcry.)
[See Blouin Beat’s RED ZONE 2014: Xinjiang]
But the official explanation for the unrest, which has bled over into the rest of China in recent months, remains Islamist extremism. Beijing has long sought to equate its campaign against Xinjiang separatists with the global war on terror, in much the same way that Russia’s President Vladmir Putin has done so with militants in the Caucasus. As a result, the Chinese government has been able to justify its heavy-handed crackdown on the Uighur separatist movement – albeit with middling success. Activists at home and abroad continue to call Beijing’s tactics into question, criticizing in particular a state blackout on independent reporting in Xinjiang.
Now however, with the rapid spread of ISIS in Iraq, Beijing has a chance to further bolster its narrative of homebred Islamist extremism. In July, shortly after ISIS militants began their rapid-fire campaign through northern Iraq, China’s Middle East envoy stated that as many as 100 Chinese nationals, largely from Xinjiang, were fighting alongside extremists in Syria and Iraq. In the coming months, look for similar statements to conflate the Uighur separatist movement with the radical elements du jour. Here, China has found a way to not only deflect from its bad press elsewhere (i.e., Hong Kong) but also to cover all manner of sins in a problematic region.