Counterproductive counterterrorism.

Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China's Fertile Ground for Islamic State

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Three hundred Chinese citizens, members of the country's Uighur ethnic group, have recently traveled to the Middle East to join Islamic State. Those Uighurs are part of a broader Muslim migration, spurred by a government crackdown, away from China's western province of Xinjiang, where Muslims have lived for over 1000 years. Although they were designed to dampen Islamic separatism, Chinese policies in the region are creating fertile ground for Islamic extremism.

In 1949, 82 percent of the people living in Xinjiang were Uighurs. In the decades since, a government-sponsored influx of Han Chinese has changed the province's ethnic makeup. By 2010, Xinjiang’s 10 million Uighurs accounted for just 46.3 percent of the population, according to that year’s census.

Uighurs claim that the government favors Han when handing out licenses to start businesses or use the region's natural resource such as coal, oil and gas, and iron ore. Uighur resentments have turned violent. During the 1990s, and again in the late 2000s, ethnic riots and protests were frequent. Street violence in July 2009 was the deadliest in China since the Cultural Revolution, resulting in the deaths of more than 180 people, mostly Han.

In response, the Chinese government began a crackdown that has yet to relent. Over the past year, especially, the Chinese government has focused on Uighurs' practice of Islam as a potentially subversive threat.

In July, during Ramadan, the state not only prohibited the religiously prescribed fast, but coerced many Muslims to eat. For example, some university students were forced to eat lunch with their professors. Beards and mustaches have been banned. Women are barred from wearing veils and head coverings in public in much of Xinjiang -- including, as of Feb. 1, in the provincial capital, Urumqi.

The crackdown is happening in parallel with the rise of conservative Islam, according to several reports. It may also be contributing to it. Only a decade ago, the veil was rare in Xinjiang; these days, it’s become a popular symbol of religious devotion and political disobedience.

Terror is increasingly common, too. In March 2014, knife-wielding Uighurs killed 31 people and injured 140 in a train station in Kunming, 1,500 miles southeast of Urumqi. On Monday, Radio Free Asia reported that a suicide bomber had killed eight in southern Xinjiang the previous week. Government retaliation for attacks has been brutal. In August, Chinese state media reported that police officers had “gunned down 59 terrorists and arrested 215 others” in response to a late July terror attack that killed 37 civilians and injured 13 others.

Many Uighurs are choosing to emigrate. Last month Bloomberg News reported that there were 260,000 Uighurs living in Kazakhstan, driven there from Xinjiang by a search for religious freedom. Likewise, the news website Al-Monitor reported that there are “about 6,000” Uighurs living in poor conditions in Turkey.

Among these emigrants are the 300 Uighurs whose destination has been the Islamic State. The Al-Monitor report, for example, highlighted the story of a Uighur family that had gone to live in Islamic State -- and then fled back to Turkey when they didn't like what they found there. They have no plans to go back to China.

That probably won’t reassure Chinese authorities determined to make Xinjiang -- and China -- safe from the threat of Islamist terror. Other Uighurs who spend time in Islamic State, after all, might take a path that leads home.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net