Special Report: Who are the Uyghurs and why do they scare China?

Special Report: Who are the Uyghurs and why do they scare China?

Beijing has turned the Uyghurs into the boogeyman of Central Asia, and the focus of its Central Asian security framework, creating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the process. A special report by GRI Senior Analyst Jeremy Luedi.

Xinjiang and the Uyghur people have emerged as one of the greatest domestic and international security concerns for China. The emergence of a host of new Central Asian states following the dissolution of the USSR led China to shift its gaze westward. The combination of weak states, indeterminate borders, ethnic minorities and religious tension was one which greatly concerned Beijing. In response Beijing sought to normalize relations, regulate borders, increase regional engagement and finally establish security relationships.

Using the rhetoric of the ‘three evils’ – separatism, extremism and terrorism – China has sought to characterize Xinjiang as beset by ethnic nationalism informed by radical Islam spurring violent separatism. Beijing’s characterization of Uyghurs rests upon shaky foundations, hyperbole, and misinformation. Despite this, China has been extremely successful in persuading Central Asian states to adopt its norms and values regarding the Uyghur issue; facilitated in large part by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and its associated organs.

Collective identity, collective security

China sees the Xinjiang issue as a domestic concern which has become internationalized. China’s attitude towards Xinjiang ultimately stems from efforts to bolster ‘Chinese-ness’ in order to maintain nationalism. Such efforts are doubly important in border areas and other autonomous administrative regions such as Xinjiang.

To a large extent, much of the unrest in Xinjiang stems from Uyghur discontent about the pace of economic growth, inequality, and the encroachment of mass Han migration into the area. These sources of discontent have over the years led to a series of uprisings and riots in Xinjiang, notably in 1996 and 2009 (when 197 people were killed). Such unrest constitutes a direct threat to the CCP’s effort to realize Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society, harmonious world.”

Many Uyghurs do not self-identify with many of the key elements of ‘Chinese-ness’ as perpetuated by Beijing. Their status as non-Han individuals in many ways already positions them outside of Beijing’s vision of itself; namely as the successor of an expanded, Han dominated, Mandarin speaking, Central Kingdom. By not subscribing to these ideals, Uyghurs incur the wrath of the government which sees any renunciation of this vision of the Chinese state as a renunciation of the regime.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese authorities undertook various policies in order to pacify Xinjiang. The 1996 Strike Hard Campaign targeted what Beijing saw as ethnic separatism driven in part by anti-government political Islam. The heavy-handed nature of this response was largely due to the rapidly changing times. Internally, the Deng era reforms combined with increased travel to and from Central Asia, Han migration westwards, and rapid economic growth all created sources of tension.

Emergence of Central Asian states proves worrying

Externally, the collapse of the Soviet Union provided a new set of security challenges for China along its Western flank. However, a greater security challenge was the creation of a number of politically unstable and economically weak states on Xinjiang’s border.

During the Chinese Civil War, Xinjiang was independent from 1944-1949, styling itself the East Turkestan Republic. This historical legacy, combined with the “emergence of states named after other Central Asian peoples…did resound symbolically in Xinjiang, where by the early 1990s many Uyghurs were saying that there should be an independent ‘Uyghurstan’ to match,” according to James A. Millward in Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang.

Fearing another Tibet scenario, China sought to be proactivep; seeking to systematically undermine any real or imagined separatist movements in the region by focusing on the ‘three evils’. In 1996 Jiang Zemin (and Hu Jintao in 2004), stated that illegal religious organizations and ethnic separatism constituted the two greatest threats to China.

In 1996, during the same time as the Strike Hard Campaign, China began fostering security cooperation with Central Asia, forming thee Shanghai Five and later SCO.The ‘three evils’ have been honed and exploited by the Chinese leadership ever since in order to conflate the Xinjiang issue with greater instability in Central Asia.

Beijing touts spectres of Islamism, terrorism

China sees the issue of Islamic terrorism as directly related to, and informing, Uyghur dissidence in Xinjiang. Beijing holds Muslim Uyghurs collectively responsible for the refusal of a section of their community to conform to the CCP’s assimilationist aspirations. Furthermore, Gardner Bovingdon in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land argues that “Beijing’s obdurate insistence that all Uyghur independence organizations abroad (and even some that do not advocate independence) are ‘terrorist’ is the outward face of its strategy of refusing all compromise. This stance neatly complements the demonization of domestic Uyghur critics of Xinjiang’s policies as splittists, terrorists and religious extremists.”

This tendency towards over-generalization and hyperbole is further demonstrated by the claim by a 2002 State Council Information Office report that all 200 attacks during the 1990s were the product of a single coordinated group. This claim was patently false, due to the use of the ill-defined term ‘East Turkestan forces,’ as well as the fact that no Uyghur group claimed responsibility for any of the attacks. China also claims that in 1994 there were secret training camps in Xinjiang, which in the late 1990s allegedly moved into Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Similarly, China over-estimated the influence of Al-Qaeda in Xinjiang, after erroneously claiming that all attacks in Xinjiang were linked to said organization. After 9/11, Beijing sought to capitalize on the War on Terror to link all East Turkestan organizations to Al-Qaeda, despite being mostly inspired by secular or moderate Muslim ideologies.

Ironically, it was only after the 2009 riots and Beijing’s harsh repression of the Uyghurs that Al-Qaeda for the first time identified China as an enemy, with Abu Yahia Al Libi calling on Uyghurs to prepare for holy war against the Chinese government in Xinjiang. Worries over foreign Islamists has prompted China to increase ties with Central Asia, playing on regional concerns about Islamic terrorism. Terrorism and separatism have been conflated, because to China the two are one and the same.

After 9/11, China sought to characterize itself as a fellow victim of terrorism, in part to get Washington to list various Uyghur organizations as terrorist groups. China therefore expected the world to accept its post-9/11 crackdown in Xinjiang; an expectation which was affirmed by many Central Asian states. Consequently, after China’s declaration that “its fight against Uyghur separatism was part of the global war on terror, Central Asian government policies toward Uyghur separatism turned nearly as hostile as those of China itself.”

Fears over cross-border Uyghur sympathies

Despite concerns about foreign religious and political meddling in Xinjiang, the main area of concern for Beijing are the Uyghurs themselves, and the potential safe-haven role which neighbouring countries could, either intentionally or inadvertently, play. It was these various diaspora and exile groups that internationalized the Xinjiang/Uyghur issue in the 1990s.

Moreover, cross-border trade and connections concern the Chinese, as does the significant Uyghur diaspora in Central Asia, who have “organized, lobbied politicians and employed the Internet to publicize effectively their grievances to a global audience. As a result in the twenty-first century the Xinjiang region…looms larger in Chinese regional and international affairs than it has for centuries,” notes Millward. As a result the dominant narrative in Chinese Central Asian security relations has become the cutting of international links between Xinjiang’s Uyghur separatists and their kin across Central Asia.

China is concerned that Uyghurs in neighbouring states will sympathize with those in Xinjiang and offer assistance and refuge. China’s concerns are understandable, given the fact that Uyghurs are the seventh largest minority in Kazakhstan, where they enjoy genuine political and cultural autonomy; an independent community which could provide shelter to Xinjiang’s pro-independence activists.

Furthermore, alongside Central Asia’s 500,000 strong Uyghur diaspora, 25% of Uzbekistan’s 27 million citizens enjoy close blood ties with the Uyghurs. These numbers appear to show a strong base of support for Uyghurs in Xinjiang; and while this is certainly how Beijing views the situation, the reality is more complex.

Uyghurs in Central Asia can be divided into two groups; the mainly secular and Russified long-term residents of Central Asia, who are Europe-orientated and in many cases not preoccupied with the Xinjiang issue; and the recent arrivals from China. The latter group fled, mainly to Kazakhstan in the 1970s due to repression in China and it is this group, many still with family ties to Xinjiang that are primarily concerned with issues of independence and Uyghur nationalism.

China heads west, buys friends

Xinjiang borders seven countries, many with significant Uyghur populations, yet despite this vast and potentially sympathetic hinterland, Hastings marvells how “it is outstanding that Uyghur rebels seem to have been unable to take advantage of [this] fantastically long border.” This inability is the direct result of a concerted Chinese effort to engage Central Asian countries in order to root out and deny any safe-havens for potential Uyghur dissidents. Beginning in the early 1990s, China sought to normalize relations with the nascent Central Asian states by settling border disputes. China’s ability during the 1990s to convince these states to cooperate has been specifically linked to Uyghur separatism.

Beijing operated in a highly pragmatic way when dealing with these new Central Asian states. Despite having the means to dominate the demarcation discussions as well as the hard power to back up any land claims; in many cases China gave up on most of its claims, moves directly linked to settling the Uyghur question in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. China has since sought to use its economic clout and hard power to entice Central Asian leaders. Specifically, the political pressure that Beijing has exerted on Central Asian authorities in regard to the Uyghur issue is – according to most of Central Asian experts – such that China coerces these governments by directly applying pressure at the highest levels of state, with the capacity to buy-off political elites, including the presidential families. This tactic is significantly simplified given the high level of corruption in the region.

In 1994, Li Peng toured Central Asia promising economic aid to the struggling republics in return for assurances that they would not harbour Uyghur activists. The following year Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev and Jiang Zemin signed an agreement under which Kazakh security services would monitor Uyghur activities and share their findings with Beijing. Almaty made similar assurances in 1998 and the following year signed a $9.5 billion investment package with China.

In 1996, the same year as its Strike Hard campaign, China organized the creation of the Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan) which sought to target the ‘three evils’; threats which, according to China are  – in large part -perpetuated by the Uyghurs. Uyghurs minorities in Central Asian states had had uneasy relations with the larger ethnic groups, with Bovingdon noting that “in addition to pleasing China by clamping down on Uyghurs, Central Asian leaders found it quite convenient to blame ‘outsiders’ [i.e. non-Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, etc.] for domestic political problems […] Beginning in 1996, Bishkek, Almaty, Tashkent all stepped up the pressure on Uyghur organizations. In April 1996, a week before the inaugural meeting of the SCO, the foreign minister of Kazakhstan warned the Uyghurs of that country, that Almaty would tolerate no agitation for self-determination, condemning separatism as the ‘political-AIDS’ of the late 20th century.”

The SCO and spirited RATS

For China, the first and last objective of the SCO was to secure Xinjiang province from any Uyghur insurgency emanating from neighbouring countries. The Chinese government has expertly perpetuated concerns about the Uyghurs amongst Central Asian countries, to the point that “the whole region [is] concerned about growing Uyghur violence. Central Asian countries, especially those with sizable Uyghur minorities, already worry about Uyghur violence and agitation.”

Stephen Aris in Eurasian Regionalism: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization hits the nail on the head, when he writes that the SCO overwhelmingly owes its existence to the internationalization of Chinese domestic issues. The SCO is a result of Beijing’s concerns “which [were] a very strong motivating factor behind China’s promotion of the SCO mechanism…indeed [the] SCO can be seen to have its origins in China’s Xinjiang problem.”

Consequently, one can see how the establishment of the SCO and Chinese efforts against Uyghur unrest did not simply coincide in 1996. Similarly after the 9/11 attacks, the issue of terrorism reached even higher levels of importance for China. Soon thereafter, then Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji made two suggestions at the SCO conference: open the proposed SCO anti-terrorist centre tout de suite, and speed up the drafting of the SCO Charter.

The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) was created in 2002, and is a detailed multilateral security agreement between SCO member states. Specifically, the primary goal of RATS is to coordinate efforts against the ‘three evils’. While RATS engages in non-military actions, this does not mean that the forces involved are civilian ones. Under the RATS framework, Hastings notes that China conducted its first ever military manoeuvres with another country;

“Notably these were joint border security exercises with Kyrgyzstan, exercises that could only have been targeted at stopping the illicit movement of Uyghur rebels […] In 2003 and 2006 China conducted further military exercises with SCO members, emphasizing border security and attacks on mock terrorist training camps, in an apparent bid to build political support for cracking down on Uyghur rebels.”

United in spirit and suppression

Reference to the ‘three evils’ is explicitly made in the SCO Charter and it therefore confirms the subscription of Central Asian states these norms. As SCO members have adopted the so called ‘Shanghai Spirit’, this in turn has fostered consensus and allowed Chinese norms to take hold. Consequently, Aris shows that “within the SCO China can be secure in the assurance that its fellow members will not only accept each others’ characterizations of their various dissidents, but engage in practical national and multinational efforts to suppress such elements and keep all borders closed against them.”

The realignment of Central Asian policies regarding Uyghurs can be seen to develop over the years, for several incidents between 1997-2000 involving Uyghurs were swiftly put down by regional governments. China has made significant efforts to step up policy coordination with many countries in the region, notably Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

Consequently, Central Asian nations, notably Kyrgyzstan, have made several attempts to crackdown on Uyghurs on their own soil. Similarly, the struggle against “Uyghur Islamic separatists forms the strategic basis of military and political cooperation between Kazakhstan and China.” In addition, Millward has highlighted how various Central Asian governments have also curtailed the rights of “political assembly, and fair legal process for both their long-term Uyghur minority citizens and recent immigrants and sojourners.”

Playing the ‘Uyghur Card’

By introducing policies which crack down on supposed Uyghur subversives, Central Asian nations utilize the so called ‘Uyghur Card” – namely engaging in anti-Uyghur efforts in order to curry favour with China. This trend is reinforced by the lack of any condemnation or objection emanating from Beijing regarding the treatment of Uyghurs outside of Xinjiang. Unhampered by human rights concerns, China and Central Asian states engage Uyghur populations as they see fit. Consequently, of particular international concern remains “the return extraditions to China, of known Uyghur separatists from states such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan to face death penalties.”

An important tool in China’s arsenal against Uyghurs are its many extradition treaties, which allow the Chinese justice system and therefore Chinese security mechanisms access across foreign borders, in ways otherwise impossible. The mid-1990s saw Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan cooperate with extraditing Uyghur suspects to China at Beijing’s behest, and since then China has also signed extradition treaties with Tajikistan, Pakistan and Nepal, in efforts to “target alleged Uyghur terrorists residing in those states.”

Extradition treaties are one of China’s most effective means to influence Central Asian policies and to apply pressure on governments. Aris explains that China exerts this pressure via the SCO, as seen in 2005, “when the director of the SCO regional anti-terrorist unit, Vyacheslav Kasymov accused Kazakhstan of harbouring terrorist organizations within its territory…[consequently] Kazakhstan tightened up its security with regards to such extremist groups, largely in response to pressure from China about the activity of Uyghur separatists on the Kazakh side of the Sino-Kazakh border.”

China’s reach becomes international

Kazakhstan’s quick about-face is important, because Kazakhstan, unlike some other states in the region is not threatened by large-scale violence, terrorism or separatism. Kazakhstan’s policy reversal is therefore doubly important because it demonstrates the clout China exerts in the region via the SCO; corralling states to support policies, which, while espoused as international, remain largely domestic Chinese issues.

Similarly in August 2009, under pressure from China, the Kyrgyz government arrested Dilmurat Akbarov, the chairman of the Kyrgyz Peoples’ Uyghur Friendship Society Ittipak, and his deputy Jamaldin Nasirov. Akbarov’s group was protesting Chinese actions in Xinjiang during the 2009 unrest, and his arrest coincided with the Chinese crackdown during the same period.

The case of Huseiyn Celil also offers a stark example of exactly how far China’s reach extends. Celil, a Canadian citizen and Uyghur political activist, was arrested in, and extradited from, Uzbekistan to China while visiting his family in March 2006. Celil’s arrest was made at the request of the Chinese government, and Uzbekistan extradited him despite an outstanding death sentence to China, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2006.

According to China, Celil allegedly belonged to the East Turkestan Liberation Organization. China ignored efforts by the Canadian government to secure his release, arguing that they did not acknowledge his Canadian citizenship, claiming that he left Xinjiang illegally as a refugee in the early 1990s.

Chinese concerns regarding Xinjiang and its Uyghur population have resulted in the region and its people becoming one of Beijing chief domestic and international concerns; and the primary leitmotif in its dealings with Central Asia. China successfully managed to institutionalize its own norms in the SCO, and utilize said organization’s various mechanisms to internationalize its anti-Uyghur efforts. The creation of security cooperation and extradition treaties have allowed Beijing to surmount the hurdles posed by weak states and the hard law of national sovereignty.

By co-opting neighbouring countries, Chinese “justice” has been able to seamlessly traverse borders to apprehend those it views as dangerous. Yet in the process of doing so, the rights of all Uyghurs, not just those in Xinjiang have been eroded as part of China’s hyperbolic reaction to a questionable threat.


GRI ‘Special Reports’ are in-depth, long-form articles on political risk events around the world. Employing their local expertise and world-class risk training, our experts dig deep and thoroughly examine political risk events for our readers.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

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