Xinjiang, A Threat to Chinese National Security


Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is located in the Western province of People’s Republic of China (PRC). China-Xinjiang relations carry historical unstable roots since the Qing empire conquered the territory in 18th century. After liberating Xinjiang in 1949, Beijing launched a new integration and development campaign to prevent political and social upheavals. The central government at that time has chosen iron fist approach, and this has provoked a prolonged ethnical, cultural, separatist, and terrorist activities carried out by the minority, separatist Uyghurs. Beijing has heightened security after the 2009 violent riot, which utilized modern day terrorist tactics, borrowed from Al-Qaeda and global jihad. In response to Xinjiang’s turmoil, Beijing faced sine qua non to implement an integrated political, economic, and social policies that focuses more on incentives as oppose to hard-liner repressive policies. Nevertheless, Beijing’s Xinjiang policy is being challenged by number of factors, such as, police brutality of the Xinjiang natives, the influence of global jihad, like-minded Muslim separatists. Most importantly, the realization of the Uyghur natives realized Beijing’s ambition as an extractive institution to extract natural resources without any assurance of religious freedom, equal opportunity, and economic development. Post 2009 events demonstrate Beijing’s iron first while Uyghurs strengthen their determination for independence, and this escalation sheds a light on carefully enclosed Chinese national security issues.

Historical Outlooks

After its liberation of Xinjiang in 1949, Beijing’s focus was to establish a control system to constrain and steer Islamic religious influence by installment of integration approaches. Beijing’s top-down approach was directed from the Communist Party of China (CPC) and carried out by the hard-liner local authorities, People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the People’s Armed Police (PAP), and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). General Wang Zhen was appointed as the Head of the Xinjiang Military Area Command, a CPC hardliner.

From Beijing’s perspective, the integration policy had a potential, even though it was a double-edged sword, beyond the migration and job opportunity, CPC’s iron fist refrained many of the ethnic, cultural, and religious rights of the indigenous population. According to the CIA Fact Book, there are twelve or more ethnic groups in Xinjiang: Uyghur, Kazak, Hui, Kirgiz, Mongolian, Tajik, Xibe, Manchu, Ozbek, Russian, Daur, and Tatar.[i] The diversity of Xinjaing can be traced back to the Uyghur Empire in the Northwestern Mongolia during 744-840 C.E. Despite their own diversity, throughout the 1960’s to 1990’s Uyghur separatists carried out strings of violent attacks, riots, and uprisings in Urumqi, Khashgar, Yita, and Jiashi against the Chinese central government, all pursuant to independence.  Xinjiang’s separatist ideology and activities became more erratic and dangerous because of Beijing’s iron fist on ethnic, cultural, and religious rights. During Deng Xiaoping’s government, “One Child Policy” was first tested and implemented in Xinjiang as part of reducing the Islamic influence in the region.[ii] Consequently, these extreme measurements became the prerequisites of upcoming sporadic terrorist attacks against the Han government throughout the 1990s.

Eurasia during this time was experiencing a wave of communism, nationalism, separatism, and terrorism. Uyghur separatists carried out number of terrorist attacks in Yita (1960), Kashgar (1970), Jiashi (1980), and Urumqi (1990).[iii] In pursuit to independence, Uyghur separatists were heavily influenced by the Central Asian separatists, such as, Uzbekistan’s Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Georgia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s Mujahedeen. Following these regional instabilities, the mid-2000’s presented an outbreak of ethnic and religious conflicts not only in Xinjiang but in Tibet as well. In 2002, China’s Deputy Prime Minister claimed the U.S. government detained at least 12 Uyghur terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.[iv] We can conclude that China-Xinjiang’s security conundrum entered a new phase as Chinese national security threat starting mid-2000s.

On July 9, 2009, thousands of Uyghurs clashed with the PAP, killing 200 and injuring thousand others. [v] The July 9th riot struck Beijing’s policy makers because of three main reasons: 1) Uyghur separatists have used improved, modern-day terrorist tactics; 2) the general Uyghur population was outraged and supported anti-Han, anti-Chinese sentiment, 3) Beijing’s iron fist, “strike hard, maximum pressure” policy frameworks created a large gap between ethnic groups, demonstrates a backlash of the integration policy. In counteract, Beijing added new elements, such as, 1) Political integration by Chinese style administration, 2) Development of party structure that was dominated by the ethnic Han and, 3) Cultural assimilation through Confucian education and death penalty for separatists and their ideologies. The Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang, Li Zhi stated: “the riots included both Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese and all those “committed crime and cruel means will be punished at most severity, will be executed.”[vi] Beijing’s strategy towards Xinjiang was to pass legislative amendments to criminalize separatist, extremist, and terrorist ideologies, activities, and actions.

China’s Modern Day Counter-Terrorism Strategies 

Despite international controversy on the Chinese handling of its separatists and terrorists, some security observers view the Chinese hardline strategy as a successful model combating domestic terrorism. Recent counter-terrorism approaches include legislations, information sharing, and heavy monitoring of the area; including  legislations such as the banning the burqas.[vii] Beijing is heavily secretive on sharing information on domestic instabilities (especially terrorist activities), after 2009 violent riots, the crackdown on terrorism has intensified and used CPC media outlets as a political tool for its anti-terrorism campaign. For instance, Beijing’s central news outlet tackling a counter-terrorism operation as a way of seeking gratitude from the general-public.[viii] Lastly, China is devoted to Xinjiang’s security because the central government is responsible for overseeing, preventing any national security threats.

On June 2, 2016, The State Council Information Office of the PRC published a White Paper for Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang.[ix] The White Paper indicates eight areas where foreign and domestic policy framework is revised and reinitiated towards Muslim-friendly environment in the Uyghur Muslim communities in Xinjiang province. The White Paper predominantly refers to its Constitution to highlight religious freedom, protection of religious rights, while strictly prohibiting religious extremism. Beijing’s strategy towards Xinjiang is illustrated seven different areas:

  1. History of Religions in Xinjiang
  2. Protecting Citizens’ Freedom of Religious Belief
  3. Satisfying Believers’ Normal Religious Requirements
  4. Managing Religious Affairs in Accordance with the Law
  5. International Religious Exchanges
  6. Preventing and Combating Religious Extremism
  7. Active Role of Religious Circles.

The 2016 White Paper illustrates a new security elements that specifically targets Xinjiang’s indigenous population and demonstrates counter-extremist, counter-terrorism policy shifts. In the counter-extremism, counter-terrorism contexts of the White Paper, China refers to the United States, Europe, and other countries commitment against global religious extremism that led to transnational, global terrorism. This context underlines Beijing’s strategy to avoid human rights issues for death penalty, imprisonment, and torture. Furthermore, when discussing religious extremism, the narrative excluded the term “separatism” from all VII sections of the White Paper. Evidently, Beijing presents its intolerance of separatist idea, belief, and practice in Xinjiang.

As most recent events speak for itself, China calls for a “people’s war on terror” after February 2017 knife attacks.[x] As Beijing increases crackdowns on Uyghur activists and separatist, the Western province seem as a destabilizing factor and threatens China’s national security. As China’s political, economic, and military interests are expanding both regionally and globally, it is in China’s best interest to have stable prefectures, autonomous regions. However, the prolonged repression, brutality, unequal opportunity, social and economic gap between the Han Chinese and the Xinjiang natives will require more than just a reframing of its policy. Without a cohesive, sincere policy change, Beijing will face a greater threat to its regional ambition “One China.” Xinjiang, as a strategic location for PRC’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Silk Road economic initiative, ethnic, cultural, religious conflicts must be solved via these opportunities.

[i] CIA World Book, China. (Accessed April 7, 2017).

[ii] Avinash Godbole and Akash S Goud. “China’s Xinjiang Problem: The 2009 Riots and its Aftermath.” Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (2012): 4.

[iii] Yong, Liu. “An Economic Band-Aid: Beijing’s New Approach to Xinjiang.” China Security.  2010. Vol.6 No. 2, pp.27-40.

[iv] ICE Research Team on China and Xinjiang. (Accessed April 7, 2017).

[v] The New York Times, “Riots in Western China Amid Ethnic Tension.” July 5, 2009. (Accessed April 7, 2017).

[vi] The Telegraph, “Beijing Threatens Death Penalty for Xinjiang Rioters.” July 2009. (Accessed April 7, 2017).

[vii] Xinhua News Agency. “Xinjiang Legislature Approves Burqa Ban.” January 10, 2015. (Accessed April 7, 2017).

[viii] China Daily, “17 Officials Punished Over Deadly Attack in Xinjiang.” January 9, 2016. (Accessed April 7, 2017).

[ix] White Paper. “Freedom of Religious Belief in Xinjiang.” June 2, 2016. (Accessed December 8, 2016).

[x] BBC News, “All-out Offensive” in Xinjiang Risks Worsening Grievances. March 2, 2017. (Accessed April 7, 2017).

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Author

Bolor Lkhaajav

Bolor Lkhaajav is contributor at the International Security Observer. Bolor is a Master’s candidate in Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of San Francisco. Her background and research focuses on foreign policy, national security, and counter-terrorism policies. Since 2015, Bolor’s foreign policy research and analysis has been published in The Diplomat and a number of Mongolian scholarly publications. She is a former Hozint Security Analyst Intern. Bolor is a native Mongolian speaker, fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese, and intermediate level of Spanish.

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