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‘Striking hard’ with ‘thunderous power’: Beijing's show of force in Xinjiang

Beijing appears either unwilling or unable to perceive that its hard line in Xinjiang is providing fertile conditions for the extremism it so fears.

 A Mosque in Urumqi, Xinjiang, 2016 (Photo: Getty Images/Zhang Peng)
A Mosque in Urumqi, Xinjiang, 2016 (Photo: Getty Images/Zhang Peng)
Published 22 Feb 2017   Follow @meclarke114

Last weekend Chinese authorities conducted mass parades of thousands of security personnel and military equipment in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The parades, described by the Global Times as anti-terrorism 'oath-taking rallies', were conducted in the major southern cities of Kashgar and Khotan as well as the provincial capital, Urumqi. According to the region's Deputy Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary Zhu Halian, the rallies demonstrate China's resolve to use 'thunderous power' with 'guns by our bodies, knives unsheathed, fists out and hands extended' to 'strike hard' at Uyghur terrorists throughout the region.

Some observers have argued that this signals a new 'scorched earth' counter-terrorism policy in the region, prompted by an increase in terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. While there has certainly been an uptick in violence (data compiled by Marc Julienne and Moritz Rudolf for the 2010 and 2014 period showing that terrorist attacks either in Xinjiang or linked to the region claimed the lives of 468 people and injured 548 others) this show of force, and the rhetoric surrounding it, should not be seen as the beginnings of a 'new' counter-terrorism strategy but rather as the intensification of a decades-long approach to Uyghur opposition and militancy.

Crucially, Beijing's approach has been conditioned by the region's traditional role as a liminal ethnic and geographic zone at the heart of the Eurasian landmass between the margins of Russian and Chinese expansion. Since 1949 the CCP has pursued a muscular strategy of integration defined by tight political, social and cultural control (including via Han Chinese domination of the regional government, regulation of religion and outright suppression of dissent), and encouragement of Han Chinese settlement. This has been coupled with a state-led economic development strategy to transform the region into a hub of Eurasian economic connectivity.

Ultimately this strategy has rested on the assumption that if the fruits of economic development and modernisation can be delivered to Xinjiang, then not only will the Uyghur acquiesce to rule from Beijing, but the region's historical marginality will finally be overcome to the benefit of the PRC. President Xi Jinping himself made this explicit in April 2014 when he asserted that the 'long-term stability of the autonomous region is vital to the whole country's reform, development and stability, as well as to national unity, ethnic harmony and national security'. The integration of Xinjiang is thus imperative not only to combat the 'three evil forces' of 'separatism, terrorism and extremism' (i.e. Uyghur separatism/terrorism) but also to achieve the 'China Dream' of great 'national rejuvenation'.

The major pillars of Beijing's counter-terrorism strategy in Xinjiang are guided by this overarching imperative, and has led to the effective securitisation of Uyghur identity both domestically and within China's foreign policy.

First, and foremost the party-state is intent on not only combating overt incidences of 'terrorist' violence through kinetic measures but also by ever-deeper penetration of the region's society by its apparatuses of political and social control. The authorities have in recent years implemented a system of comprehensive 'everyday' surveillance spanning both high- and low-tech methods. At the high-tech end of the spectrum, Xinjiang has seen the installation of China's 'Skynet' electronic surveillance system in major urban areas, providing police and security forces with high-definition video surveillance. Uyghur residents have also been required to provide bio-data samples when applying for passports.

Meanwhile the low-tech end of the surveillance state has rested on 'grassroots' measures such as the 'grid-style' (wangge hua) social management system, where communities are divided into specific zones and responsibility over social stability is assigned to a team of party members. Policing has also been significantly increased with authorities establishing in major cities such as the capital Urumqi so-called 'convenience police stations' (essentially mobile police stations) and increasing patrols of ethnically Uyghur neighbourhoods.

Second, the continued centrality of Islam to Uyghur identity has been increasingly identified by the CCP has a core obstacle to the integration of Xinjiang and a key site of its counter-terrorism 'struggle'. While the party has long been focused on controlling religion throughout the PRC, it is a goal that has been vigorously reaffirmed by President Xi. Thus, Xi exhorted the party in April 2016 to remain 'unyielding Marxist atheists' in 'religious work' and to focus on encouraging religious groups to 'merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture, abide by Chinese laws and regulations, and devote themselves to China's reform and opening up drive and socialist modernisation in order to contribute to the realisation of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation'.

In Xinjiang this quest for control has amounted to what Remi Castets has termed the 'juridification of religious activities'. This has been reflected in the promulgation regulations for the monitoring and education of imams and religious institutions, dissemination of guidelines for the identification of potential 'deviant' behaviours among believers, restrictions on religious dress including bans on the wearing of burqas, niqabs or hijabs, and regular campaigns against religious education, 'illegal' mosque construction, mosque attendance by persons under eighteen years of age, and the 'patriotic re-education' of religious leaders.

Third, Beijing has blamed the majority of attacks in the region on two groups based beyond Xinjiang: the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Although China has long claimed that Uyghur opposition has been supported by external forces, it was only after the events of 9/11 that it explicitly began to define that opposition as 'religious extremism' aided and abetted by transnational jihadist organisations such as Al Qaeda.

While it is clear that ETIM had a presence in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan from the late 1990s, it was only after the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the retreat of al Qaeda and other jihadist fellow-travellers to the 'Af-Pak' frontier, that links between the Uyghur militant groups and al Qaeda were consolidated. Since 2012 TIP has also developed a presence in Syria, fighting alongside al Qaeda's affiliates, Jabhat al Nusrah and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The threat posed by the linkage between TIP, al Qaeda and the Syrian conflict was underlined by the apparent Uyghur connections to the 30 August 2016 terrorist attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and the New Year's Eve nightclub attack in Istanbul, with both attackers believed to have been ethnic Uyghurs with links to Syria.

Beijing has used the threat of Uyghur terrorism to further its agenda within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and to deepen bilateral security cooperation with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Within the SCO, China has been successful in embedding what Nicole J. Jackson refers to as a 'statist multilateralism' through the consolidation of a 'shared discourse about trans-regional security threats' in the shape of the 'three evils' which privileges 'sovereignty, the protection of state borders and regime security' in order to protect and legitimise member states 'specific political institutions, (state-sponsored) domestic identities and interests'. This agenda has been reflected in practice through the SCO's almost exclusive focus on regular joint military and counter-terrorism exercises, judicial cooperation on the extradition of suspected 'terrorists', and information sharing. This has also permeated Beijing's efforts to grapple with Uyghur terrorism outside of the SCO process, with for instance its recent agreement with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan aiming to establish a 'quadrilateral mechanism' to 'coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training'.

Despite Beijing's best efforts however it remains confronted by a straightforward dilemma here: as it has intensified efforts to integrate Xinjiang and its people, so too has the threat posed both at home and abroad by Uyghur militancy increased. Beijing appears either unwilling or unable to perceive that its hard line in Xinjiang (including its willingness to deploy outright repression and overt instruments of political and social control) is providing fertile conditions for the extremism it so fears by providing an already marginalised ethnic minority population with motive and opportunity for the mobilisation of political violence.

In this light, Deputy Xinjiang CCP Secretary Zhu Halian's remark that measures such as last weekend's rallies have forced Uyghur terrorists 'to end of the road, like a cornered beast driven to desperate action' becomes tragically ironic.

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