Volume 18, 2009 - Issue 59: Unlocking Modern Chinese History: New Discoveries from Chiang Kai–shek"s Diary
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China"s war on terrorism is among its most prominent and least understood of campaigns. An indigenous insurgency with links to the global jihad has threatened the government"s grip on a massive region of northwestern China known as Xinjiang. Riots, bombings, ambushes, and assassinations have rocked the region under separatist and Islamist banners. China acted early and forcefully, and, although initially brutal, their efforts represent one of the few successes in the global struggle against Islamist terrorism. China"s campaign, which has reshaped local society and government institutions, has been so effective that scholars and statesmen now debate whether China genuinely confronts a terrorist threat from Xinjiang.

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Among the most prominent and least understood of campaigns in which the Chinese state is engaged is its war against terrorism. With links to the global jihad, an indigenous insurgency threatened the government"s grip on a massive swath of northwestern China known as Xinjiang, the ‘new frontier’ and the war"s primary theater. Riots, bombings, ambushes, and assassinations rocked the region under separatist and Islamist banners. One thousand of China"s Uyghurs, the land"s once predominant ethnic ‘minority’, trained in Afghanistan"s camps specifically to return home and wage a new jihad, a new fight against the Chinese government. China acted early and forcefully, preventing the nascent insurgency from gaining momentum and escalating into what could have become China"s Chechnya, Gaza, or Iraq.1 Because this campaign has been so effective, much of the debate today focuses on whether China genuinely confronts a terrorist threat.

China responded brutally, yet the counterinsurgency"s effectiveness increased as the brutality was reduced. Though greatly diminished in frequency, torture and summary executions reportedly persist;2 explicitly, these are symptoms of an un-free political system and are not the tactics which achieved success. While the Chinese campaign was brutal, the campaign"s effectiveness was due to social policies which reached deeply into society"s grass-roots and reshaped it from the bottom up. Society in Xinjiang today increasingly rejects insurgency as the path forward, quietly looking to a future tied to a changing Chinese state.

While there has been ongoing low level violence in Xinjiang since 9/11, Chinese government claims that this is the result of Uyghur separatists are suspect. In interviews Uyghurs, especially many young men with no love for the Chinese, reported being appalled by these attacks which several explicitly termed ‘a crime against humanity’. Some still harbor the dream of violent resistance against Chinese rule, yet anti-government violence is a reality in nearly every polity. Fundamentally, since the insurgency"s high water mark of 1997, Uyghur society as a whole has largely turned away from the path of violent resistance.

Internal unrest and the drive for stability is the primary concern of China"s leadership, and the state"s project in Xinjiang is a pillar of this effort. Chinese reportage on terrorism is notoriously problematic, at times imprecise or simply fabricated. Lacking press freedom and having strong disincentives for officials to report incidents which might reflect poorly on their job performance, anemic information-flow is a disease present to various degrees across the entire country though dramatic on issues of internal stability. With this in mind, let us now return to Xinjiang"s insurgency.


Insurgency in Xinjiang

Xinjiang"s insurgency is fundamentally indigenous, though like many similar fights it has reportedly received external support. Primarily, this support included the pre-9/11 training of some 1,000 Uyghurs in Afghan and other camps and perhaps included modest financing and material support. However, anti-government violence in Xinjiang has been a home-grown affair, dropping precipitously since around the Yining uprising of 1997 in which over 1,000 Uyghurs rioted and over 150 were reportedly killed by security force excesses.3 Since 9/11 reports of violence persist, yet are greatly diminished in scope and scale.

Understandably, in the wake of 9/11 much of the international discussion of terrorism focused on the most circumscribed and proximate of problems: the organization and its composite individuals which orchestrated the attacks. Unfortunately, this myopic analytic focus on al Qaeda distorted our understanding of the broader threat of the global jihad and its many local insurgencies. Al Qaeda is an important component of the phenomenon, yet to understand the phenomenon internationally and locally we must also look beyond the simple questions of institutional or material connections.

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Al Qaeda is at the forefront of a global insurgency, one linking many local fights against regimes perceived to be occupying or defiling Muslim lands. At first a rolodex of fighters and a network of terror cells, al Qaeda worked to inspire a broader uprising through terrorist attacks internationally and supporting indigenous local insurgencies. Today al Qaeda is less of an organization than a movement and a cause, unified by the dream of avenging Islam"s dignity through bloodshed.4

Al Qaeda attempted to set the world alight and topple unbelieving governments in order to establish its version of Islamic law across a large swath of Eurasia. In addition to being the last remaining superpower, casting a long shadow from actions in pursuit of various interests and values, the United States was attacked because al Qaeda perceived the USA to be a pillar of support for those governments al Qaeda wishes to topple. Building upon the self-perceived victory of the Afghan Mujahidin against the Soviet Union, al Qaeda established two operational tracks: terrorists and insurgents.5 Terrorists—fighters hoping to strike strategic blows through single attacks—integrated themselves into target countries, planning, supporting, or executing missions. Insurgents—fighters preparing for protracted guerilla campaigns—were trained by al Qaeda at camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan or within local arenas.

Where al Qaeda conducted terrorism itself, its support for local insurgencies proved to be a less dramatic though arguably more powerful political tool towards the group"s strategic goals. Funneling expertise, training, and support to local insurgencies brought the fight directly against governments ‘occupying’ Muslim lands.

Xinjiang"s insurgency is indigenous, yet it too has received external material and ideational support from the global jihadist movement, specifically from al Qaeda and the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was the most prominent al Qaeda ally in Xinjiang, though this group has been relatively silent since its leader and an unknown number of followers were killed in Pakistan in 2003. China asserts that the People"s Armed Police (PAP) in January 2007 raided a mining facility being used by terrorists with international ties near the country"s borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan; reportedly, 17 were killed. Over a year later, despite the release of photographs depicting grieving family and comrades surrounding a PAP officer reportedly killed in the action, a full accounting of the raid has yet to surface.6

According to the US Congressional Research Service, 22 Chinese Uyghurs were once imprisoned in Guantanamo.7 Perhaps five of these were Uyghurs who had visited camps but were far from hardened fighters, effectively abducted from Afghanistan and Pakistan by bounty-hunters who received some US$5,000 a head. Ten are believed to have been training to return to Xinjiang. Seven are accused of being hard-core al Qaeda fighters, like mercenaries or adventurers searching for the appropriate venue to next ply their trade (see Figure 1).