Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 6

By June Teufel Dreyer

Reports that Chinese responded with laughter to pictures of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are bewildering. More Chinese nationals perished in these attacks than when the United States accidentally bombed the PRC’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Moreover, available evidence strongly indicates that the perpetrators of the attack on the World Trade Center were Muslim fundamentalists–and China has its own problems with such groups. The epicenter of the mainland’s concern is China’s northwest, where the great majority of the country’s 20 million Muslims live, and in particular in Xinjiang province. Though classified as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, its inhabitants regularly complain that they have no meaningful autonomy and are in fact more closely controlled by the central government than areas populated by Han Chinese. From Beijing’s point of view, careful scrutiny is justified. The natives are restless, and have a long history of violent resistance to Han control. The province is China’s largest administrative unit, is one-sixth of the PRC’s total territory, has rich petroleum deposits and produces most of the country’s cotton.


Known to Chinese for centuries simply as “the Western regions,” Xinjiang was designated a province only in the late nineteenth century. The major impetus for changing its status was fear that the expanding tzarist empire, already contending with Great Britain in the “Great Game” in Central Asia, planned to annex the territory. Before it could be brought under Chinese control, one of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty’s leading generals had to suppress a massive Muslim rebellion that convulsed northwest China for more than a decade, and to destroy an East Turkestan Republic headed by Turkic Muslim chieftain Yakub Beg. The name Xinjiang itself means “new territory.”

Making the area a province did not end its rebellious tendencies. A new East Turkestan Republic was established in 1933, and put down with considerable effort. It reappeared in November 1944, not coincidentally on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The ETR’s leaders claimed to be the spiritual heirs of Yakub Beg, and received aid and support from the Soviet Union, with which the province shared a long border. China’s Kuomintang government attempted to deal with the ETR enclave by incorporating its leaders into its formal power structure, along with the Soviet influence they represented.

The Chinese Communist Party essentially did the same, while trying to wean the area away from the Soviet sphere of influence. When Sino-Soviet tensions were at their height, there were several skirmishes on the border, and radio broadcasts by Uygurs and Kazakhs who lived in the Soviet Union urged rebellion against the Chinese. By the 1980s, Sino-Soviet tensions had abated enough for border trade to resume. As well, China, anxious to cultivate ties with the oil-producing states of the Middle East, eased its controls on the country’s Muslim population. By chance, this occurred at the same time as a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim world. Reports began to circulate of weapons hidden in crates of machine tools and lumber coming into Xinjiang, and of Hamas and Hezbollah operatives entering to instruct their co-religionists in how to use the weapons. In 1989, almost unnoticed because of foreign preoccupation with events at Tiananmen Square, several thousand Muslims demonstrated in Xinjiang’s capital city, Urumqi. Peaceful protests against the publication of a book offensive to their religion soon turned violent. At the same time, Muslim rebellions broke out in two other provinces, Qinghai and Gansu, over other grievances.

The centrifugal forces that Islam exercised on China were significantly enhanced when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Six Muslim states were among its successors, three of which–Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan–abut Xinjiang. A fourth, Uzbekistan is nearby. The province also shares borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Mongolia and a small sliver of Russia. In 1990, residents of Baren Township in Akto County rose up in protest against the destruction of illegal mosques, with the riots quickly spreading to at least six other cities. The official death toll was twenty-two; eyewitnesses estimated it at three times that many. Local television announced that a group called the Islamic Party of East Turkestan was responsible for the well planned and carefully organized attack on the party and socialism. It did not mention that the Han Chinese population had been a target. The following years saw several repetitions of such demonstrations, with other groups claiming credit or being blamed, depending on the viewpoint of the beholder.

Worried party/government sources noticed that the attacks were becoming increasingly sophisticated. When cornered by the military, the terrorists would commit suicide rather than risk capture. Those who were deemed too friendly with the Han Chinese authorities, including imams, began to be attacked as well, with some killed and others hideously mutilated. In March 1997, Islamic terrorists carried their protests outside of Muslim areas for the first time, when a time-bomb exploded on a crowded bus in central Beijing. Taxi drivers in the capital and other major cities, usually eager for fares, became reluctant to pick up people they suspected of being Muslims. In this period, the official media began to accuse pro-Islamic separatist groups of having joined forces with similarly-inclined Tibetans and those propounding the independence of Taiwan. They have also stated that Osama bin Laden has trained Chinese Islamic terrorists in camps in Afghanistan.


Party and government have fought back in various ways, including:

— rewarding informers who provide information on the terrorists and their sympathizers. The terrorists, who regard such people as traitors to their religion, have been known to retaliate against not only the informers but their family members, thus deterring those who might be tempted to tell what they know.

— tailoring the nationwide “Strike Hard” campaign against crime and corruption for Muslim areas so as to emphasize convictions of alleged terrorists and their sympathizers.

— drawing Russia and the four Muslim successor states of Central Asia into an alliance whose aims include the suppression of terrorist activities as well as mutual economic development. Russia’s problems with Chechnya are well known; the legitimacy of the governments of the Islamic states is fragile and several have their own problems with religious fundamentalists.

— increasing the flow of Han Chinese immigrants to affected areas.

The incidence of reported terrorist incidents has gone down in the last four years, though the underlying causes seem to be increasing. Natives, even those who are not militant, are upset by the entry of more Han Chinese, regarding it as ethnic swamping. An ambitious program to develop the infrastructure of Western China, in order to reduce the growing income gap between it and the country’s east coast, will provide the terrorists with tempting new targets, including rail lines, dams, and power plants.

China fears that the success of the September 11 attacks will embolden its Islamic terrorists into copy-cat activities. Its options in dealing with this are limited. If, as Indian intelligence has reported, the PRC has supplied Osama bin Ladin’s jihadis with arms funneled through the Taliban government, the contradictions appear even greater. Perhaps China hopes that befriending bin Laden will ensure that the weapons will be used only against Western enemies. But it cannot be sure. Although Beijing may be pleased that the terrorists have taught America a lesson, it continues to be concerned with the growth of Muslim fundamentalism. To side with Washington in any meaningful sense is also fraught with peril. To back American demands that Taliban hand over bin Laden or, worse, to support military action against Afghanistan, would go against everything that the PRC has said about the inviolable prerogatives of the sovereign state. It would also provide a precedent for action against China if it should invade Taiwan. Should U.S. actions involve the use of bases in Pakistan, Beijing fears an American presence in South Asia that could last years. Yet to tell Pakistan not to allow the U.S. military access to its territory would drive the United States closer to India—a rapprochement that China is already worried about.

Beijing appears to be opting for a least common denominator policy: urging that the American response be channeled through the United Nations and backing Taliban’s refusal to turn over bin Laden unless sufficient evidence of his guilt is produced. As the Chinese leadership well knows, the composition of the UN makes a strong stand on virtually any issue nearly impossible. Moreover, it is unlikely that any level of proof would prove satisfactory enough to the Taliban’s leaders to turn over bin Laden. In trying to be all things to all people, Beijing may fail to satisfy any of the aggrieved parties. And the threat of domestic Islamic terrorism will continue.

June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science at the University of Miami.