BACKGROUND: Since the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, in which more than 200 ethnic Uighurs and Hans were killed, al-Qaeda and other militant groups, such as the Uighur-led Turkistan Islamic Party in Pakistan (TIP), have increasingly incorporated “East Turkistan” into their vision for an Islamic Caliphate. At the same, in China mistrust between Hans and Uighurs has increased as a result of the riots, even though Urumqi returned to stability and normalcy by mid-2010. Nonetheless, attacks in Xinjiang increased in 2011, with several mass-stabbings or car-rammings of Han Chinese pedestrians and clashes between Chinese security officers and Uighurs.
Since October 2013, the violence has escalated in several ways. First, on October 31, 2013 an Uighur family of three crashed a car into a gate in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, killing themselves and several tourists in a subsequent explosion. Then, in March 2014, a group of Uighur militants stabbed to death 29 pedestrians in a train station in Kunming, Yunnan Province after the group was reportedly rejected from crossing Yunnan’s border with Laos in order to reach Malaysia and possibly then to Turkey. In April 2014, two suicide bombers (or militants with explosives in their briefcases) detonated their explosives at the train station in Urumqi, killing themselves and injuring dozens of civilians. In a possible “copycat” of the Kunming attack, on May 6, 2014, a small group of Uighurs carried out another stabbing at a train station in Guangzhou, injuring several civilians. Finally, in the largest of all attacks, on May 28, several Uighur militants in cars drove down a market street in Urumqi, throwing explosives and detonating bombs, killing themselves and more than 30 civilians.
IMPLICATIONS: This most recent attack in Urumqi prompted President Xi Jinping to announce a one-year counter-terrorism crackdown. There is already palpable evidence of the crackdown on the streets in Urumqi, with armed personnel carriers patrolling major intersections and groups of uniformed soldiers with machine guns visibly carrying out patrols. Moreover, schools now have several security personnel with non-lethal weapons, such as clubs, outside of the entrance and are carrying out anti-terrorism drills to prepare for the possibility of a terrorist attack. In other cities, such as Beijing, there are now 30-minute lines to enter the subway because of new stricter security checks, while in Yili, northwestern Xinjiang, the Chinese government held a mass trial in a stadium on May 28, in which 55 people were sentenced to prison, including three to the death penalty.
Outside of China, it also appears that Beijing has leveraged its influence on Pakistan for the country to crack down on the TIP and other Central Asian militants on its territory. On May 23, Pakistan began shelling villages near Miranshah in North Waziristan along the Afghan border where, according to local intelligence officials, “foreign militants along with their families have taken refuge in recent years, including Chechens, Uzbeks, Chinese, Turkmen, Tajiks and Uighurs.” This likely included TIP camps, which have gained notoriety for featuring women and pre-teenage children in propaganda videos engaged in militant training with rocket launchers and AK-47s in the mountainous areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
China’s new crackdown on terrorists is having a wide impact on various sectors of society from schoolchildren in Xinjiang to commuters in Beijing, but will likely have the most significant – but least visible – impact on Uighurs in small towns and cities throughout Xinjiang. This is where Chinese soldiers will be searching for bomb-making equipment and propaganda materials that encourage violence of extremism. In Xinjiang, China’s crackdown is likely to be “offensive,” which, according to Chinese reports, resulted in the discovery of 1.8 tons of explosives in Hotan, southern Xinjiang and the break-up of a “terrorist gang” planning attacks in Xinjiang.
During Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang – which coincided with the attack on Urumqi’s train station and the separate beheading of three Chinese police officers in Korla – he emphasized in a conversation with ethnic Han schoolteachers that they should learn some Uighur language. Though some people interpreted this to mean that they should learn Uighur to better teach Uighur children Mandarin Chinese, it also likely represented Xi’s recognition that communication is a key obstacle to stable relations between Hans and Uighurs in Xinjiang. The language barrier is one factor that leads to the existence of separate Uighur and Han Chinese neighborhoods in Xinjiang, which undermines China’s mantra of a “harmonious society,” and also makes it more difficult for Han Chinese security officers to gain knowledge about grassroots Islamist networks in Xinjiang when patrolling in local villages. Therefore, if the crackdown leads to a renewed effort at improving communication between the security forces and Uighurs, as well as more generally between Hans and Uighurs and other minorities, it could also improve the overall security environment in Xinjiang.
Outside of China, a key aspect of China’s counterterrorism strategy is coordination with neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan, and regional institutions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). CICA held its summit in Shanghai at the time of the May 28 multiple car-bombing attack in Urumqi, marking yet another terrorist attack in Xinjiang that undermined a major political event for Xi. The transnationalization of terrorist networks in Xinjiang necessitates that China improves intelligence-sharing and military preparedness with other countries. While Pakistan appears to be responsive to Chinese pressure, it is unclear whether Kyrgyzstan, which has seen Uighur militant networks on its territory, has the capacity to counter such networks. This makes the SCO and CICA more important for coordinating regional security and training and will likely lead to a more prominent role for such institutions in the near future.
CONCLUSIONS: The increase in sophistication and likely also internationalization of Uighur militancy has led China to reassess its counter-terrorism strategy. The success or failure of this new strategy – judged in terms of whether attacks continue or decrease – will likely shape the legacy Xi Jinping’s first term in office and force China to recalibrate its relations with neighboring countries in Central Asia and regional institutions, such as the SCO and CICA, to ensure their participation in the crackdown on militancy. The stakes will be high for China, as the country can ill afford more instability on its western front while relations with Vietnam, other South China Sea countries, Japan and the Koreas on the eastern front are also becoming more volatile.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an analyst of Eurasian and African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation and non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai. He testified before the U.S. Congress on Islamist Militant Threats to Central Asia in February 2013.