China’s Muslim-dominated Xinjiang region has made its way into the international spotlight after a recent spate of high profile confrontations between the Chinese state and its Uighur inhabitants. An apparent suicide attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October was held up by authorities as evidence of the rise of terrorism in Xinjiang, while deadly clashes in Kashgar earlier this month mark the latest escalation of long-simmering tensions between authorities and the ethnic minority group. The alarming acceleration of these confrontations has set the stage for Xinjiang’s increasing significance as a point of concern for Beijing in the coming year.
The sectarian strife between Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslim inhabitants and its steadily growing Han Chinese population has its roots in long-standing economic and cultural issues in the region. The rapid “Hanization” of Xinjiang — where over 40% of the population is now Han Chinese — has contributed to the sense of marginalization among Uighurs who have had increasingly more stringent restrictions placed on their cultural and religious expression.
This dynamic, a byproduct of China’s broader efforts to develop the strategic, resource-rich area, has laid the groundwork for some of the conflicts that have emerged between the government and the Uighurs. The perception that the Chinese state has privileged Han migrants at the expense of the ethnic minority has helped to fuel separatist sentiment, something which has become particularly pronounced since the 1990’s. As Xinjiang shares a border with five Muslim countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan), the persistent fear that shared religious ties would be exploited by these foreign powers has factored into Beijing’s policy calculations.
Though this fear readily explains the heavy-handed limitations placed on Islamic religious expression, the specter of transnational Islamic militancy has also served as a convenient means of suppressing separatist sentiment in Xinjiang. By conflating the long-existing Uighur separatist movement — fueled by mainly legitimate grievances against the state — with Islamist terror (and amplifying the threat posed by groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), China has been able to justify their crackdown on Uighur separatism as a part of the global war on terror. Framing it this way has also allowed Beijing to preempt efforts by neighboring Muslim countries looking to support secessionist movements by linking the fight against militancy to similar ones happening across its border.
However, the robust crackdown that has been necessitated by this approach to the Uighur issue increasingly appears to be breeding the very problem the Chinese government says it has been fighting all along. With reports of Uighurs fighting alongside the opposition in Syria, it is likely only a matter of time before actually radicalized fighters return to the area. And they will arrive in an environment perhaps more receptive to their militant tactics than ever before, especially following the offensive in Kashgar which left 14 Uighurs dead. The potential for the Xinjiang issue into escalate for Beijing into something similar to what Russia has been dealing with in the North Caucasus is apparent. If the Tiananmen attack is anything to go by, China may have just turned a localized conflict into a national issue — one that’s only set to further intensify.