China’s “War on Terror” in Xinjiang
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China’s “War on Terror” in Xinjiang

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On July 1, The Global Times, a tabloid operated by the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, suggested that China’s restive Xinjiang autonomous region was under threat from separatist fighters battle-hardened by recent combat in Syria. While not making a direct Syria link, another report in the People’s Daily referred to recent civil strive in Xinjiang as perpetrated by terrorists “in and outside the country”.

Separatist activity has long been a feature at the ethno-geographic margins of mainland China. In the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, uprisings, riots and civil violence have met with successive waves of crackdowns for decades. The labeling of such violence as acts of international terrorism, however, is a relatively recent feature of Beijing’s stance on ethnic strife.

Conflating international terrorism and domestic separatism

“Terrorism” entered Beijing’s domestic separatism vocabulary with 9/11 and then-president Jiang Zemin’s decision to support the U.S. global war on terror.

In a message to President George W Bush on September 11, 2001, Jiang condemned the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, pledging cooperation with the U.S. to combat terrorism. China’s ostensible support for U.S. retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan constituted a significant break from its standard foreign policy line and was the first time since the Cold War that Beijing had condoned U.S. military strikes in another country.

This unprecedented support came with fine print, though, with Beijing calling on foreign governments to outlaw four Uighur groups that it had designated as terrorist organizations. According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, international terrorists had trained Uighur insurgents, and so “the fight against separatists in Xinjiang is part of the fight by the world against terrorism.” Both the U.S. and UN Security Council obliged Beijing’s request, classifying a handful of Uighur organizations as terrorist groups.

China’s ostensible support for the U.S. had been driven by key foreign policy goals. At the time, Jia Qingguo of Peking University wrote that, “at the end of the day, China does hope that Washington will adopt a fairer and more sympathetic approach towards the Taiwan and Xinjiang separatist issue.” Writing for Eurasianet, Antoine Blua commented, “the hope in Beijing is that the emergence of a new ‘enemy’ in the American collective conscience will help reduce anti-Chinese sentiment in Washington.”

Casting China as a “victim” of global terror

In late 2001, the Chinese government estimated that approximately 800 Chinese citizen Uighurs had received military training in Al Qaeda camps in northern Afghanistan. This figure is widely regarded as inflated.

In May 2008, the People’s Daily ran a story accusing the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) of operating terrorist training camps in India with help from al-Qaeda. Calling the TYC a “terror group worse than Bin Laden’s”, Chinese authorities laid the blame for the March 14, 2008 Lhasa riots on the group and claimed to have confiscated from them hundreds of small arms and bomb-making material.

Facing potential Tibet-related boycotts of the Beijing Olympic Games in October of that year, Beijing had moved quickly to avoid an international public relations disaster. Authorities branded the riots the “3/14 incident”, a name that gave additional significance to the event within China and that provided a mnemonic to 9/11 more broadly.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing’s attempted demonization of the TYC as terrorists failed to resonate with international audiences. Rather, as Warren Smith writes in his book Tibet's Last Stand?: The Tibetan Uprising of 2008 and China's Response, it was international sympathy for China over the Sichuan Earthquake and “an illusion that China’s professed willingness to dialogue about Tibet was sincere” that was responsible for ending the Olympic boycott threats.

Nevertheless – and as the recent commentary on violence in Xinjiang suggests – linking local separatist movements with international terrorism is a strategy that Beijing continues to find useful.

On the one hand, this strategy attempts to undermine sympathies for separatists among international audiences, casting them as part of a global terror network rather than as bullied ethnic minorities. On the other hand – and just as importantly – the strategy frames the Xinjiang issue to domestic audiences as being fuelled by the agenda of sinister external forces as opposed to being a case of citizens taking up arms against the state.

Back in 2001, when then Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, visited Beijing, she called on China not to use the war on terror to restrict civil liberties and discriminate against ethnic minorities. For the Uighurs of Xinjiang at least, it would appear that China’s “war on terror” continues.

Nicholas Dynon is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University and is coordinator of the Line 21 project

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