by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Xinjiangnet.com.cn
RECENT DECLARATIONS by the Islamic State (IS) that it will target China in retaliation for its oppression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang will probably only be met by further Chinese restrictions on the region. This will only raise dissent against China from the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region. As is also the case with the US and its foreign interventions with the purported aim of curbing Islamic terrorism, the efforts of state actors to crack down on terrorism or violent forms of political dissent oftentimes only prompt further blowback. Broadly, this contributes to to a vicious circle of heavy-handed attempts by state actors to crack down on terrorism in a region through force, which actually only contribute to the growth of terrorism.
Apart from that violent incidents against the government break out in Xinjiang regularly, due to dissatisfaction with China’s rule, China fears that Xinjiang attempting to break away from China and become independent. The region is differentiated from other parts of China because of its majority Uyghur population. Uyghurs are not Han Chinese and they are majority Muslim. China has long attempted to pacify Xinjiang through economic subsidies to encourage settlement, the stationing of large amounts of troops in Xinjiang, and encouraging Han migration to the area. This is with the hope that Uyghurs’ separate sense of identity can be broken up through greater Han settlement in the region. Knowing that the sociological tendency is for emphasis on ethnic identity and that calls for separatism tend to rise in times of a weak economy, it is also hoped that keeping the area economically satisfied will pacify residents of Xinjiang.
Ironically, China does not fit too well into IS’ claims that it is resisting “western civilization,” seeing as China has also positioned itself in past decades as being at odds with the western-dominated international community. Even in the age of China’s economic and political rise, in which China is a large and unavoidable player in the international community, China oftentimes still positions itself as outside the purview of western civilization and, in that way, exempt from the rules and regulations which govern western countries and their behavior. This would be China’s way of claiming a form of exceptionalism for itself which, at heart, is not so different from America’s own claims about American exceptionalism. Large states, that is to say, empires, tend to behave similarly in the international sphere.
Nevertheless, it is somewhat surprising IS did not take aim at China earlier. Again, China is repressive in its treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority in the Muslim majority region of Xinjiang and has been for a long time. China, for example, several months ago seized the passports of all residents of Xinjiang in order to limit the movement of Uyghurs within China. China also ordered all residents of Bayingolin Mongolian Autonomous Prefecture, which also has a high Uyghur population despite its misleading name, to install GPS systems in their car so that the government could track then more easily. In February, China held a military parade of over 10,000 armored troops and vehicles in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, as a heavy-handed show of force which is also illustrative of China’s authoritarian, repressive approach to its treatment of the people of the region. Chinese authorities also violate the religious practices of Uyghurs, force them to work on Muslim holidays, and force Muslim shopkeepers to sell tobacco and alcohol.
Whether IS intends to take concrete action against China or whether this is simply more grandstanding by IS as part of its propaganda efforts remains unknown. IS very likely hopes to expand in China and, as mentioned, China’s harsh actions in the region against Uyghurs create the conditions which could possibly allow for IS to grow.
However, we may note that since the beginning of the American global “War on Terror,” China has seized upon the claim that it is fighting Islamic fundamentalism in Xinjiang to justify its repression of Uyghurs. In most cases, this seemed to be China using the specter of Islamic fundamentalism to justify domestic repression, rather than the genuine presence of IS in Xinjiang.
China drawing on the American discourse of the “War on Terror” to justify its domestic security policy is reflective of the means by which, while claiming that as a nation it is fundamentally something different from western countries, in truth China largely has its eyes set on America as the nation-state it wants to emulate as world superpower. Furthermore, China embraces language used by America to justify its foreign policy in order to justify its domestic policy in terms of the suppression of Xinjiang because America still broadly sets the terms upon which the nation-states of the international community conduct their business, regardless of the talk one increasingly hears about a global decline in American power in recent years. This phenomenon continues in the present. For example, China has justified tightening restrictions on Xinjiang in recent weeks by citing Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” in the United States.
But, for IS to now concern itself with China, this may in some way be things coming full circle, in a darkly ironic matter. This would be a dilemma that China has itself invited through its restrictions on religious freedoms and its ethnic discrimination towards the Uyghur residents of Xinjiang. Since possible terrorist actions from IS will only be met with further force, China will be unable to accomplish its goals of pacifying Xinjiang, and restrictive policies on residents of Xinjiang will only continue to be justified by China through a never-ending “War on Terror”.