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Xinjiang and terrorism (part 1): China's global narrative

Xinjiang and terrorism (part 1): China's global narrative
Published 2 Oct 2014   Follow @meclarke114

The ABC's Foreign Correspondent story 'Crackdown', about Beijing's renewed hard-line in Xinjiang and which on Tuesday night, has been the focus of considerable Chinese ire. The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday that officials from China's embassy in Canberra pressed the ABC's Managing Director, Mark Scott, not to air the story by the Beijing-based correspondent, Stephen McDonell. As pointed out in the SMH story, such pressure harks back to Chinese efforts in 2009 to have the Melbourne Film Festival pull a biopic of Uyghur exile leader, Rebiya Kadeer.

While the argument implicit in the story, that this latest incident threatens to negatively impact Sino-Australian relations, may be over-stated, this incident demonstrates the extent to which Beijing is committed to managing the narrative vis-à-vis Xinjiang and the Uyghur on the international stage. In this regard, recent developments in Xinjiang itself and in the wider Islamic world suggest that this will be an increasingly difficult task, with many potential pitfalls for Beijing. [fold]

The Xinjiang and Uyghur issues have been in international media headlines recently due to the trial and sentencing of dissident Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti. China's rhetoric regarding this is highly symbolic of not only its repressive tendencies in Xinjiang, but also some of the difficulties in attempting to shape international opinion. Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on 23 September for using his Uyghur and Chinese language website, Uygurbiz, to 'spread lessons containing separatist thoughts', incite 'ethnic hatred', and 'separate Xinjiang from China'. Observers, such as James Millward, have noted that Beijing's 'fruitless' repression of Tohti not only 'denied itself a critical Uighur viewpoint and an alternative approach to the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang', but also 'subjected itself yet again to international opprobrium' from Western governments and various human rights NGOs.

What has been missing from such reactions to Tohti's sentencing, however, has been comment on the verdict's pointed criticism of the academic for attempting to 'make an international issue' of Xinjiang and the Uyghur, by agreeing to interviews with foreign journalists and media organisations.

The irony here is that it is Beijing that has driven the internationalisation of the issue.

Beginning in the early 1990s Beijing made the issue of Uyghur 'separatism' or 'splittism' a key concern in its bilateral and multilateral diplomacy with the states of Central Asia. Governments in the region committed to a zero-tolerance approach to potential Uyghur 'separatist' activism in their countries as the bedrock of their expanding relationships with Beijing. This approach was also extended to China's relations with Turkey, where a major Uyghur population had migrated after Xinjiang's absorption into the PRC in 1949.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Washington's subsequent commitment to a 'war on terror', provided Beijing with a golden opportunity to convince the international community that its repression of Uyghur dissent was justified, as it too faced Islamist-inspired terrorism in Xinjiang. This initially bore fruit with the US State Department, which listed the 'East Turkestan Islamic Movement' as an 'international terrorist organization' in March 2003. Since that time Beijing has regularly sought to embed the Uyghur issue into the discourse of the 'war on terror', blaming the periodic violence in Xinjiang upon externally-inspired Islamist terrorism.

For evidence that this effort remains an ongoing concern, one should look no further than China's attempts over the past few months to link violence in Xinjiang to the Islamist threat du jour: the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. China's envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike,  stated on 23 July that after consultations with various governments in the region, including Iraq, he estimated that 'up to 100' Chinese nationals, mostly 'East Turkestan elements' were fighting with various Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq, including ISIS.

The Obama Administration's statement on Tohti's sentencing, in which it expressed not only its deep concern over his fate but also portrayed him as 'civil society leader' promoting inter-ethnic dialogue between Uyghur and Han, also drew a particularly strident response from Beijing linking the Uyghur, Xinjiang and the ISIS threat. The state-controlled Xinhua editorialized that such lauding of 'criminals as human rights fighters' demonstrated the West's 'deep-rooted belief that China has colonized Xinjiang' and its desire to 'hype Xinjiang-related incidents with the aim of making domestic issues international'. 'As the warplanes of the United States and its allies bomb the Islamic State', it continued, China's 'painstaking efforts to eradicate the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism in Xinjiang should have been viewed as part of the world's anti-terrorism endeavors. Ilham Tohti should be denounced as a criminal threatening the peace and security of a country'. 

Such posturing demonstrates Beijing's failure to recognise that its strategy of internationalising the Uyghur issue has now become a double-edged sword. Due in large measure to China's own strategy, the Uyghur issue has now undoubtedly become global.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Evgeni Zotov.

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