China’s growing problem with Islamic terrorism, up until now largely limited to attacks in the north-west province of Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people, just got a whole lot more complicated at the weekend with the deaths of three senior executives from a Beijing-run corporation in the attack and raid on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali on November 20.
This followed the murder last weekend of a Chinese national by Daesh (also called Islamic State or ISIS) and a rising number of terrorist attacks in other parts of Africa, where there are thousands of Chinese workers, by the Boko Haram group.
The Chinese government’s reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris, despite no Chinese being among the dead, was swift, merciless and, in many ways, predictable.
The ruling Communist Party decided to take vengeance on its own home-grown terrorists, Muslim citizens of Xinjiang, who have likely been radicalised by the Chinese government’s own oppression.
State-run Xinjiang Daily newspaper reported, in reference to a group that reportedly attacked a coal mine near the city of Aksu in September, killing dozens of people:
“After 56 days of continuous fighting, Xinjiang destroyed a violent terrorist gang directly under the command of a foreign extremist group. Aside from one person who surrendered, 28 thugs were completely annihilated.”
While it was busy executing its own citizens without trial, China joined the chorus of condemnation against Daesh (the Arabic acronym for IS that critics are increasingly preferring to use because of its added components of satire and outright mockery of the sect).
“The Chinese government strongly condemns this savage act devoid of humanity and will certainly bring the criminals to justice,” it said without a hint of irony.
“The Chinese government will resolutely oppose all forms of terrorism, and resolutely strike at any violent terrorist criminal activities that defy the bottom lines of human culture,” the statement said.
Yet there are plenty of people who would argue that the Chinese government itself, via its State Security Bureau, known by locals as the secret police, perpetrates acts of terror, “devoid of humanity”, against its own citizens, such as kidnapping (or disappearing critics) and holding them without trial using a range of well-documented forms of torture.
Furthermore, China has continually baulked at becoming involved in international military operations against Daesh and al-Qaeda despite its usual bombast. The government said in a statement:
“China will continue to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation with the international community to maintain peace and tranquility in the world.”
China has a relatively small Muslim population of about 24 million, or 1.8% of its 1.4 billion population, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Centre. The same study predicted that this would rise to 30 million by 2030.
Religion is booming across China, and Islam is no exception, with half its adherents estimated to be under 30.
Apart from the Xinjiang-based Uighurs, who number about 10 million, there are Muslim minorities right across China. About 12 million are the Hui — a remnant population of former Silk Road travellers and the Mongol Yuan empire — who are scattered throughout China in various ethnic tribes. For centuries they have kept low profiles; they are often not very religious and have assimilated. There are also about 2 million Kazakhs, mainly in Xinjiang, and about nine other of China’s 55 ethnic minorities who are generally treated as inferior.
The Uighurs are different. Ethnically Turkish, they speak a different language, use an Arabic script, and they eat different food, raise bears and wear headscarves.
Their treatment is right out of How to Suppress Minorities 101. Keep them poor with less education, less opportunity, give all the good jobs to the Han and ghettoise the Uighurs — cue further marginalisation and disenchantment.
The bubbling resentment came to the boil in July 2009 with pitched street battles between Uighur and Han that killed about 200 people in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi and the Uighur’s spiritual home Kashgar, Since then, China has finished mowing down ancient Kashgar, tossed hundreds of people in jail and sentencing scores of them to death, often in stadium trials reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
So it’s little wonder Xinjiang has in recent years proven such fertile ground for radicalisation, and as it borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s easy to slip across the mountains for training.
There are various estimates of how many people on both sides have been killed in terror attacks on Chinese soil in recent years, and it’s hard to know given the local media blackout on information and extreme difficulty for foreign journalists to get into larges swathes of Xinjiang. But their numbers have mounted into the hundreds.
The death of three executives from the China Railway Construction Corporation in Mali appears to have finally shaken China out if its slumber on the international fight against Islamic fundamentalists that seems certain to stretch on for decades. Its long-standing official policy of non-interference in other nations has long gone out the window, in any case (see North Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, etc). China’s leader Xi Jinping said:
“With no regard for human conscience and moral baseline, the terrorist organisation still carried out this cold-blooded and violent action.
“The Chinese government strongly condemns this inhuman action and will definitely hold the perpetrators accountable.”
But many people inside China will be hoping that the Communist Party, before meting out its unique form of justice to foreigners, can first end its own terror campaigns against its citizens. Its oppression is not just against the Uighurs but also against rights advocates, lawyers, academics, critics and thousands of others whose only aim is to try and make their country a place where things don’t get so bad that domestic terrorism becomes a real option.