Tracing China’s Pulse towards the Islamic Terrorism

What is the biggest threat on the world stage? Russia, China, North Korea, terrorism? According to Beijing, the US is the biggest threat to the world peace, while China’s far west region of Xinjiang hosts largest camp network of detained religious minority after Second World War. Since 2017, Beijing was continuously denied the existence of camps, while in 2020 it changed the tone and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide trainings for Muslim minoritiesand help protect the country from terrorism. Detainees are accused of harboring “extreme religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas. Throughout the three years, China never allowed journalists or human rights organizations inside XinJiang. However, in 2019, upon the invitation of Communist Party, experts from the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism visited the camp sites, what later was the subject of West’s deep concerns. The US and the EU sought to believe that Beijing used the visit to portray repression as legitimate counterterrorism.

Xinjiang is a major logistics hub of Belt and Road Initiative. All of which means China has increasingly tightened the grip since Xi Jinping’s came into power.  The article below presents the analysis of Chinese repressive policy towards the Muslim Uyghurs and the increasing threat of terrorism against Han population.   

Jihad Connections

In 1949, Mao Zedong’s communist party came to power and took control over Xinjiang (in order to prevent Russia from taking it over), historically also known as East Turkestan. As religion wasincompatible with Marxist ideology, crackdown quickly began and the party started to support mass migration of Han population to Xinjiang from different parts of the country. Throughout the last decades and especially after the launch of Silk and Road initiative, Party officials are frequently attacking Islam, while the vast majority of businesses started to be owned by Chinese. The government started to take over the agricultural lands and resources from local Muslim inhabitants,while the Han population migration to the region has become unstoppable.

Uyghurs started to see Hans as infidels who came to take their land, destroy autonomy andtransform the society. As a result, in February 1992 the region witnessed its first terrorist attack. Four explosions inside the buildings and two inside the buses claimed lives of 3 and injured 23. Four months later, another explosion by Uyghur separatists took place inside the hotel. After 9/11, the worries have been increased among the Communist Party and since then China embraces America’s global war on terrorism. Since the September 11 attacks, the PRC government has strengthened its involvement in multilateral and bilateral counter-terrorism efforts. As a result, Uyghur separatist movements have been labelled as terrorist groups by the United Nations, what in the long term granted Beijing the cart-blanche towards its Muslim population. In 2008, the government received the threat of terrorism during the Olympics. However, due to the Chinese duplicity and mendacity, it is unknown whether any attempt took place. The eruption of terrorist attacks in the region in 2010-2014, finally led the government to step-up the security. Xi Jingping’s came to power and tighteningpressure on Muslims in China went hand in hand. 

Even though, Uyghurs follow Sunni Islam, their extremism differs in overall approach and main objectives for the use of terror. After the new wave of terrorist attacks across Europe since 2015 and the raise of ISIS, Chinese authorities have been assured that Xinjiang was getting out of control and needed to be brought back in line. A year prior, the group of Uyghur terrorists went on stabbing rampage on railway station and killed 31 people, which started to fuel the government’s hostility towards locals. 2017 marked the beginning of mass crackdown on Uyghur population. Since, then China incarcerated over one million Muslims who are the subjects of slave labor, abortion, rape and cultural extinction. Due to raising terrorist attacks, the Muslim heritage is slowly started to whipping out from the region. Within the last 3 years, over 26 000 mosques have been destroyed in Xinjiang. Besides incarceration camps, Anti-Uyghur policies include the use of all available natural resources only by Han settlers. Xinjiang is the home of 40% of China’s coal and oil. While these create job opportunities and everyone benefits from the occasion, ethnic settlers are excluded from the job sector. As a consequence, the inequality and discrimination leads Uyghurs to take extreme measures. During the 2009 riots, over 200 people have been killed, while knife attacks have become one of themost cost-effective ways of terror inside the region. A handful of Uyghurs have also been recruited by ISIS, what causes the development of connections and recruitment of new operatives. 

Sources and Methods

Most information about the methods against Muslim minorities in the region came from survivors who break out and fled to abroad. The camp sites were located also by using survivor accounts, while precise geographical coordinates were obtained by Australian Strategic Policy Institute viaday and nighttime satellite images. They were particularly useful, as clearly showed areas that were newly illuminated locales outside of towns. The China Cables, a cache of classified government papers leaked in 2019 by exiled Uyghurs, provided the first official glimpse about rapes, torture and structure of the camps. 

They run on a points system. Meaning, inmates earn credits for ideological transformation, while adhere to a strict system of total physical and mental control. Even after completing the “education transformation,” prisoners are not freed, since they have to move into another camp where they face a further up to six months “labor skills training”. Survivor reports mention women suffering from infections, sexual abuses and shortages of water. They are allowed of weekly phone calls and a monthly video call with relatives as their only contact with the outside world. The camp staff itself is instructed to “never allow abnormal deaths of inmates” (a generic term for any death that can be regarded as the opposite of a natural death), as there have been multiple accounts where escaped female detainees at internment camps faced sterilization and rapes.

The entire region of Xinjiang is monitored by one of the most advanced surveillance systems in the world and every online activity of the citizens is tracked. Mandatory mobile surveillance appsregularly scan people’s devices and significantly decrease the chance of planning and receiving the consultations from outside. Due to the frequent stabbing the government now burns QR codes on all knives purchased by Uyghurs. The collection of DNA samples, as well as the use of technology to track their actions, effectively renders also those who are outside.


Since 2013, Chinese domestic security budget was doubled, in Xinjiang it was tripled. From arrests determined by algorithms (without a trial) to constant surveillance, the Chinese government pursues a policy of aggressive silencing, which created the most pressing human rights crisis of our time. The pressure campaign on Muslim society significantly raises the threat of Jihad inside China. Through early Islamic history into the present day, holy war is distorted by Muslim extremists as part of their violent campaign against the West. But transformation is an era, not an event. Duringthe last decade, the world witnessed the changes with an unprecedented speed and choosing the right strategies for a change is crucial. Islamist extremists justify radical actions in the sense of fighting for Allah for the wrongdoings of an adversary. On the other hand, Beijing’s extreme repressive campaign against its Muslim population awakens the very evil it created as a doctrine under the name “Three Evils.” The 2009 riots marked a turning point in Beijing’s attitude towards Uyghurs, whereas terrorist attack waves across Europe significantly strengthened Islamophobia among Party officials and ordinary citizens in China. Xinjiang is an important link to Belt and Road, but Beijing’s righteous hopes to eradicate terrorism in order to continue region’s development, progressed against civilian population and the destruction of culture. The economic benefits of regional developmentare entirely enough to enjoy proportionate work places and poverty alleviation, but the lack of political will and ignored international solidarity, comes in a shape of radicalization inside theMuslim Uyghur population.

Besik Chubinidze

The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Council.

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