Uyghur Separatism And China’s Crisis Of Credibility In The War On Terror

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 3

Like Washington, Beijing is determined to stay the course in its war on terror. The release of China’s first terror list on December 15, 2003, was a demonstration of its resolve to become vocal about its crackdown on the Uyghur Muslim population of Xinjiang. Emulating the U.S. version released shortly after September 11, 2001, the Chinese list included four groups and eleven individuals and was accompanied by stern demands for help from other nations in fighting groups whose demands for the secession of Xinjiang from China proper predate the U.S.-led War on Terror by 245 years. The “most wanted” groups listed by the Chinese were the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, the Eastern Turkistan Liberation Organization, the World Uyghur Youth Congress and the East Turkistan Information Center.

Beijing has done little to explain the reversal of its former tight-lipped position on Xinjiang to its current international outcry for help against terror. Instead, it was quick to link Osama Bin Laden to the training and funding of these groups and others but did little to prove its claims. While this failure to distinguish between separatism and international terrorism hardly redresses China’s crisis of credibility, it serves as a reminder of how the truth can be reversed in China.


Osama Bin Laden did not inspire separatist violence in Xinjiang as China’s Ministry of Public Security claimed when it released the terror list. The story began much earlier. In 1759, China’s Qing dynasty first annexed Eastern Turkistan, which it renamed Xinjiang [New Frontier], and the demands for independence have not stopped since. Rebellions in 1815, 1825, 1830, 1847 and 1857 paved the way for the rising of Yakub Beg as a military leader who founded his conservative Islamic rule in Xinjiang between 1866 and 1877. When Beg finally laid down arms in 1877, the seeds for an independent state in present day Xinjiang were already planted. Twice the Eastern Turkistan Republic was re-established: From 1931 to 1934 and from 1944 to 1949. It is the second republic that has been repressed for some forty years by China’s rulers, despite initial promises by Mao Zedong in 1936 to guarantee “absolute freedom of belief for the Muslim people [in China]” in return for the pledge of their famed combat skills.

Once in power, that promise was kept only for the ethnic Chinese (Hui) Muslims, while the Uyghur and other (Turkic) Muslims in Xinjiang were antagonized as a result of their strong nationalist tendencies. Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in China since then has been a story of constant reversal of policies, ranging from assimilation and rehabilitation to oppression and cruelty, and Xinjiang’s Muslims have suffered the most. Beijing’s current move to use the pretext of the U.S.-led war on terror to justify its ongoing oppression of Muslims’ religious freedoms in Xinjiang is but the latest–not the last–attempt to re-make the truth about Xinjiang. This move has been noted as a cause for concern in the U.S. International Religious Freedom Report for 2003, although subsequent developments in the context of the war on terror marked a reversal of policy by the United States.

Xinjiang Today

Uyghur emigre communities around the world support a number of Uyghur political organizations in exile. On the whole, these groups are small, unthreatening, and dispersed in a manner that makes it impossible to speak of a powerful Uyghur movement that could aspire for an independent state. The danger their presence constitutes, from Beijing’s standpoint, is that they represent a reminder of the dispute over a territory that holds the strategic key to Central Asia. Additionally, Xinjiang is home to a variety of rich natural resources, including China’s largest oil and gas reserves, which makes it a star attraction for foreign investment.

Current and future plans include energy pipelines, railways, and major investment projects that may involve further relocations of millions of Han Chinese to Xinjiang to dilute the remaining 40 percent Uyghur presence. The post-Soviet Central Asian states, ruled by Muslim minorities, and the domino effect of disintegration in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are additional reminders for China that if one part goes, other parts of multi-ethnic China–Tibet included–may follow. Beijing is therefore likely to use any excuse to justify its firm grip over Xinjiang; the War on Terror happens to be a most convenient and timely one.

Beijing’s policy of Strike-Hard in dealing with Uyghurs in Xinjiang has continued to demonstrate that violence only breeds violence. Militant Uyghur groups that may have received training in Afghanistan stand accused of a long list of attacks throughout the 1990s and beyond. Indeed, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement appears to have operated in Afghanistan. Others, such as the Turkey-based Organization for Turkistan Freedom is held responsible for numerous attacks against Chinese interests at home and abroad. As Beijing chose to continue ignoring the Uyghurs’ legitimate demands for religious freedom and equal opportunities, it was only a matter of time before the adverse effects of such misguided policies would occur.

This show of force is hardly out of character for Beijing. In 1979, it assisted the United States and its allies in their effort to help bring down the former Soviet Union by facilitating the involvement of Uyghurs in the Afghanistan Jihad. This very battlefield that later resulted in the creation of al Qaeda has also served as a training ground for Uyghur militants who witnessed how their fellow Central Asian Muslims, the Afghans, subsequently enjoyed their rightful religious freedoms. Instead of being rewarded similarly for having played a significant part in this effort to bring down the Soviet Union, the Uyghurs were once again ignored.

U.S. Involvement

Washington and Beijing have been able to set aside their once-thought irreconcilable differences and have allowed their common concerns about terrorism to facilitate greater cooperation. Washington, as part of its own war on terror, has reversed its former position of discouraging Beijing from using its own anti-terror policies to prosecute Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It also included the East Turkistan Islamic Movement in its list of terrorist organizations and has–jointly with China, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan–in September 2002, requested the United Nations (1267 Sanctions Committee) to add the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement to its list. In return, Beijing has supported two UN resolutions condemning international terrorism. It has also allowed American input into vetting Chinese banking systems, to intercept any possible funding for terrorist groups, and in establishing further control over export of missile technology out of China. Such measures are indeed effective if considered in light of Washington’s determination to win its global war against terror, and of Beijing’s resolve to keep Xinjiang under Chinese control at any price.

U.S. involvement in questionable anti-terror measures that are designed to further prosecute the Uyghur Muslims indiscriminately will only result in creating further dissent and possible escalation of violence in and out of China. Washington must not spread its forces or rhetoric too thinly at fronts where its presence may indeed not be serving the goals of its own war on terror. If history teaches us anything, oppression of religious freedom only sends the oppressed underground where radicalism, and subsequent violence, are brewed. For its part, it is high time Beijing began to address the causes of Uyghur discontent, many of which are a by-product of decades of China’s inconsistent policies toward Islam and Muslims.


Al Qaeda, unlike most of the Uyghurs, will remain in the headlines for the foreseeable future. While we think of the most effective methods of combating international terrorism, we must not lose sight of hard questions about the root causes of religiously motivated violence. How significant are socio-economic grievances in decisions by suicide bombers to die in order to kill others in Washington, New York, Iraq, Palestine, or Xinjiang? Has the world done enough to stop such horrific murders being committed in the name of religion? The war on terror may well be gathering momentum, but how long can Americans, Chinese, and others live in a world at war? Until answers are found, the blowback effect of the 1979 Afghanistan jihad looks set to remain on the agendas of the United States and its allies from that earlier conflict, China included.

Ahmed Lutfi is a London-based terrorism analyst.