Xinjiang Crackdown and Changing Perceptions of China in the Islamic World?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 16

The outbreak of ethno-sectarian unrest in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) between members of the local Uighur community, an ethnic Turkic population that is predominantly Sunni Muslim, and ethnic Han Chinese, China’s majority ethnic group, has largely subsided on the surface.  The hostilities began on July 5 during a public demonstration by Uighur college students and others in the provincial capital of Urumqi to protest the deaths of two Uighur factory workers in a brawl in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province.  The demonstration eventually spiraled into a riot against local Han Chinese citizens (See "The Xinjiang Crisis: A Test for Beijing’s Carrot-and-Stick Strategy," China Brief, July 23). Approximately 200 Han Chinese and Uighurs have been killed and over 1000 injured.  Thousands of rioters from both sides have also reportedly been detained.  Most estimates of damage to public and private property hover around $15 million (Xinhua News Agency, July 8).  

Given the extent of the violence, the residual domestic impact of the riots on ethno-sectarian relations and stability in Xinjiang is cause for serious concern in Beijing.  Also, because of global media coverage of the hostilities, Beijing is wary about once again becoming the target of scrutiny by international human rights groups and major powers over its treatment of ethnic and religious minorities and political dissidents.  The widespread comparisons of the crisis in Xinjiang with the uprisings in Tibet in 2008 and Tiananmen Square in 1989 in media and activist circles, for instance, are not sitting well in Beijing (ISN Security Watch, July 23).  In addition, because of the political sensitivities surrounding China’s treatment of its Muslim community, China is also worried that the recent crisis will tarnish its reputation in the Middle East and the greater Islamic world.    

Views from the Muslim World

In light of the recent events in Xinjiang, observers of China’s increasingly expanding and multifaceted relationship with the Middle East and the greater Islamic world are asking whether the crisis in Xinjiang will affect how key Muslim countries view China.  In spite of scenes of unrest and a heightened awareness of the Uighur predicament, the official reaction of most Muslim countries to the crisis, particularly that of Arab countries in the Middle East with a vital stake in maintaining friendly relations with China, has been muted (al-Jazeera [Doha], July 7).  Similarly, despite being home to sizeable ethnic Uighur communities of their own that maintain close links to their kin in Xinjiang, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, have followed suit by keeping silent.  The fact that the Uighur predicament is largely overlooked internationally outside of narrow activist circles has also contributed to the overall silence regarding the recent hostilities, making it easier for governments to avoid the issue.  Unlike the plight of the Palestinians, who live under Israeli military occupation—an issue that resonates deeply across the Middle East and the greater Islamic world as well as in human rights circles—the Uighurs are generally ignored (The Associated Press, July 14; al-Jazeera, July 7).  In fact, the extent to which key Muslim countries, including Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state, tried to distance themselves from any association with the Uighur cause in China is striking.  A July 12 statement by Indonesian Ambassador to China H.E. Sudrajat illustrates this trend: "What happened in Xinjiang is China’s internal affair.  We respect China’s sovereignty over the region and will never meddle in the problem."  He also provided insight into at least one of the reason’s underlying Jakarta’s position: “The two countries have agreed to respect each other’s sovereignty and refrain from interfering in each other’s internal affairs" (Kompas [Jakarta], July 13) [1].  

In contrast, the official reactions of major Muslim countries following the controversial publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed in a negative light in European newspapers in 2005 prompted an outpour of condemnations by key Muslim leaders and religious figures.  The storm over the publication of the cartoons also provoked a series of diplomatic crises, economic and cultural boycotts, and public demonstrations in autocratic countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan where mass expressions of any form of organized dissent are typically suppressed by authorities.  Remarkably, only Turkey and Iran have issued strong rebukes over China’s handling of the recent crisis and its treatment of the Uighur community (Financial Times [London], July 14; Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 15; Tehran Times, July 15).  

The official silence from major players in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world reflects the importance of China as a key regional and global actor.  In spite of Beijing’s record of repressing its own Muslim community, perceptions of China tend to be highly positive on both the state and popular levels among Muslims in the Middle East and beyond [2].  Spurred on initially by its drive to secure sources of energy and new markets for its goods, China has made tremendous political, economic and cultural inroads in the Middle East in recent years.  For many Muslim countries, China is a crucial source for investment and a reliable customer for oil and gas and other natural resources.  In spite of their close ties to the United States, autocratic regimes in the Middle East, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, also look toward China for diplomatic cover and to serve as a check on what they often see as Washington’s overbearing influence in regional affairs [3].  Similarly, Cairo and Riyadh, among other autocratic regimes in the region, see strong ties to Beijing as a way to offset widespread domestic opposition to their relations with Washington and to counter the popular perception among Arab and Muslim publics that they exist to further U.S. (and Israeli) imperial interests [4].  This support is crucial considering the widespread popular opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world.  In addition to the value they assign to strong trade relations with Beijing, Muslim countries such as Indonesia with a history of ethno-sectarian strife also look to China for support in repelling criticism from the United States and international institutions and activists regarding their approach to dealing with  politically sensitive domestic issues such as minority rights.  In this regard, Jakarta’s support for Beijing during the Xinjiang crisis is logical (Kompas [Jakarta], July 13).

Moreover, predominantly Muslim countries in Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan with significant Uighur populations of their own and a history of ethnic and sectarian tensions see the crisis in Xinjiang as a serious threat to their own domestic stability.  Kazakhstan, for instance, is home to at least 300,000 ethnic Uighurs, representing the largest ethnic Uighur community outside of China.  Kyrgyzstan is home to another 60,000 ethnic Uighurs while approximately 6,000 ethnic Uighurs live in Tajikistan (The Associated Press, July 14).  Cultural and economic ties between Chinese Uighurs and their ethnic kin in neighboring countries help maintain a strong sense of Uighur identity.  The trade volume of Xinjiang with neighboring countries topped $14 billion dollars in 2008, helping make Urumqi the most prosperous city in the region (Xinhua News Agency, July 15).  In addition to prioritizing their growing economic and diplomatic relations with China, the Central Asian republics fear that their own Uighur citizens may one day follow in the footsteps of their kin in China and agitate for more rights.  Evidence of widespread outrage among the Uighur diaspora in Central Asia is a case in point.  While refraining from mobilizing public protests out of fear of provoking the ruling regimes into a violence crackdown, ethnic Uighur groups in Central Asia have issued letters to international bodies such as the United Nations (U.N.) condemning China’s actions (The Associated Press, July 14).  Prominent Uighur activists have also gone so far as to single out the Central Asian republics for actively colluding with China to suppress Uighur identity and culture in the region (al-Jazeera, July 7).  Like their counterparts in the Arab Middle East and other major Muslim countries such as Indonesia, the Central Asian republics are firm in their support for China amid the crisis.  

A strong rebuke by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a July 10 press conference, where he labeled China’s actions in Xinjiang a “near genocide,” broke the official silence among key Muslim countries regarding the events in Xinjiang (See "Ankara’s Reaction to Xinjiang Crisis Raises Bilateral Tension," Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 15).  In spite of burgeoning Sino-Turkish trade ties, Turkish Industry Minister Nihat Ergun went as far as to call for a boycott of Chinese products in a sign of solidarity with the Uighurs, although he later retreated from that position.  Ankara also threatened to raise the issue of Xinjiang at the United Nations (Financial Times, July 14).  Turkey’s reaction to the crisis is rooted in a complex set of factors.  In addition to sharing the Islamic faith, Turkey shares ethnic, linguistic, and cultural ties with the Uighurs.  Turkey’s reaction to the crisis was also prompted by the de facto leadership role it assumed among ethnic Turkic peoples in the Caucasus and Central Asia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.  In this regard, Turkey sees itself as a sort of guardian of Turkic rights.  Unlike in other countries, where Uighurs and their supporters have been banned from staging public demonstrations, members of the Uighur diaspora and other supporters have staged a number of protests in Turkey in front of Chinese diplomatic missions (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul] July 26; Christian Science Monitor, July 14; The Associated Press, July 14).  The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamist-oriented party, in Turkish politics also shaped Ankara’s approach to its dealings with issues affecting Muslims outside of its borders, prompting a more activist approach to the crisis in Xinjiang by Ankara.  Turkey also probably sees the crisis in Xinjiang as an opportunity to showcase its growing international profile.  The tensions stemming from the Xinjiang crisis in Sino-Turkish relations may go as far as to impact Beijing’s efforts to sell Ankara its HQ-9 high-altitude air defense system and further cooperation in the defense sector between China and Turkey.  China’s HQ-9 system is currently competing with systems offered by both the United States and Russia (Defense News, July 20).
While Turkey’s reaction to the crisis in Xinjiang may be at least partially explained by cultural, historical and geopolitical reasons, many observers were surprised when Iran’s clerical establishment issued its own condemnation of China’s actions.  On July 14, Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani called for the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and other international institutions to intervene on behalf of the Uighurs.  He also added: “We just thought that only the bullying West violates Muslims’ rights and deprive them of their basic rights but reports from China indicate that in that part of the world the unprotected Muslims are being mercilessly suppressed by yesterday’s communist China and today’s capitalist China” (Tehran Times, July 15).  Other prominent Iranian clerics made similar comments (Press TV [Tehran], July 13).  

Significantly, official criticism of China out of Iran has been coming from the clerical establishment.  Nevertheless, the timing of the criticism, given the ongoing post-election turmoil, is also curious, since China has refrained from criticizing Tehran’s suppression of opposition elements.  In contrast, statements from diplomatic and elected officials about the crisis in Xinjiang have tended to be more measured.  While expressing concern for the plight of Muslims in China and calling for peace and calm during a July 12 telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, for instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also added that the meddling of “Western governments” was to blame for the crisis (Press TV, July 12).  Iranian government officials also had to defend themselves from a barrage of criticism from influential clerics who accuse the state of failing to do enough for the Uighurs.  Among other things, a number of senior clerics have suggested that the Iranian state is operating a doubled-standard in its approach to the crisis in Xinjiang and relations with China compared to its actions related to Palestine and other issues important to Muslims (Press TV, July 27).

The apparent disconnect between certain key members of the clerical establishment and the state appears to represent a major dilemma for Tehran.  Both Iran and China maintain close diplomatic, economic and military ties.  Moreover, as Iran continues to face increasing pressure from the United States and Israel regarding its nuclear program, it likely sees China as a deterrent to any potential U.S. or Israeli military action due to Beijing’s major stake in Iranian energy resources.  The decision by key clerics to speak out against China may represent an effort on their part to reach out to Muslims across the globe by showcasing Iran’s credentials as an advocate for Muslim rights during a period where the Islamic Republic appears to be under siege from hostile forces operating within and outside of its borders.  The official stance of the political establishment, however, while keen on showcasing Iran’s religious credentials, also likely calculates the importance of maintaining strong Sino-Iranian ties during this crucial period in the Islamic Republic’s history.  Going out of its way to lambast China over the crisis in Xinjiang is not in Iran’s interest.

Al-Qaeda Enters the Fold

While key Muslim heads of state have largely remained silent about the events in Xinjiang in order to remain in China’s good graces, al-Qaeda’s Algerian-based North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has singled out China for its actions by announcing its intent on July 14 to exact revenge against China and its interests.  Among other things, AQIM declared its intent to attack Chinese workers in North Africa.  Beijing has warned its citizens working in North Africa and elsewhere to remain vigilant.  Approximately 50,000 Chinese workers are estimated to be working in Algeria alone (People’s Daily Online, July 15; The Times [London], July 15).  This threat is reportedly the first time al-Qaeda or an al-Qaeda-affiliated movement threatened China directly.  

Radical Islamist militants often claim to act on behalf of oppressed Muslims.  As a result, regimes viewed as illegitimate, corrupt, despotic, and beholden to U.S. and other foreign interests are often targeted for their perceived complicity in the repression of Muslims.  The overall silence from key Muslim countries regarding the plight of the Uighurs out of deference to Beijing is a case in point.   While al-Qaeda’s primary targets remain the United States and U.S. interests and allies abroad, the crisis in Xinjiang has at the very least presented Islamic militants with another opportunity to further their cause, this time at the potential expense of China.   


While it is clearly in China’s interest to resolve the crisis in Xinjiang on terms that promote long-term reconciliation and stability and address the legitimate grievances of the Uighur community, the recent violence will have little impact on Beijing’s relations with the Middle East and wider Islamic world.  Turkish and Iranian criticism of China, which at this point has amounted to little more than rhetoric in the first place, will likely prove to be an exception rather than a precursor of future trends.  In the long run, China’s diplomatic and economic clout is too important to ignore.  International human rights groups and Uighur advocacy organizations operating in the diaspora, however, may become emboldened by the recent events to step up their campaigns to pressure Beijing to improve its treatment of ethnic and sectarian minorities and political dissidents.  For now, China appears to have weathered the storm of criticism in the world of international Muslim opinion.  The realities of Chinese political and economic power and a new geopolitics are working in China’s favor, especially on the state-to-state level.  The emergence of future crises in Xinjiang, however, may not prove to be as benign for domestic stability and China’s position in the Islamic world.    


1. Uighur activists have noted the stark contrast between U.S. rhetoric and media coverage regarding the post-election turmoil in Iran and Washington’s reaction to the violence in Xinjiang.  Rebiya Kedeer, an influential Uighur activist living in exile in the United States, stated that she was “perplexed and disappointed” by what she labeled as Washington’s “somewhat cold” reaction to the crisis.  Meanwhile, China’s vice foreign minister Wang Guangya, commenting on Beijing’s reaction to the U.S. position on the crisis “expressed our appreciation for the moderate attitude of the United States so far” (Agence France-Presse, July 29).
2. For public opinion polling data indicating favorable Arab and Muslim perceptions of China versus unfavorable opinions of the United States, see “2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll,” University of Maryland (with Zogby International), March 2008,
3. Chris Zambelis and Brandon Gentry, “China Through Arab Eyes: American Influence in the Middle East,” Parameters, Vol. 38, Iss. No. 1, Spring 2008, pp. 60-72, at
4. For Arab and Muslim public opinion polling data regarding perceptions of the United States and U.S. foreign policy, see “2009 Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey,” University of Maryland (w/ Zogby International), May 2009,