Beijing's well-documented heavy-handed response to the recent upswing in violence in Xinjiang has been one contributor to the internationalization of the Uyghur issue which I argued in part 1 of this post. President Xi Jinping's call for a 'people's war' to make terrorists 'like rats scurrying across the street' has resulted in an increased security presence in the region, including mass arrests of suspected 'terrorists' and their sympathizers and regular house-to-house sweeps in search of suspected militants.
Thousands of Chinese Communist Party cadres have been dispatched to the countryside to 'educate' the population regarding the threats of Islamism and the virtues of 'ethnic unity' and 'stability'. In parallel, the authorities have fallen back upon their default strategy for combating Uyghur dissent: attempts to control Uyghur religious and cultural practices. Since the beginning of this year there has been renewed emphasis on long-standing policies such as restricting religious observance by state employees, Party members and the young, and attempts to limit outward expression of Islamic identity such as beards and headscarves.
Predictably, such policies have been counter-productive with many Uyghurs increasingly adopting such outward markers of their ethnic identity as a symbolic form of resistance to Chinese rule.
More significantly, these policies increasingly appear to be backfiring on Beijing's management of the Xinjiang and Uyghur issues internationally. Beijing's approach is now being questioned not only by Western governments and human rights organizations but creating dilemmas for it in the Middle East. China has long fostered pragmatic ties with major states in the region based not only on China's growing energy demands and economic clout but also its role as a foil to the meddlesome tendencies of the West, and the US in particular.
However, its role (alongside Putin's Russia) in the provision of diplomatic, military and economic support to the Assad regime in Damascus puts it in a difficult position with some of its key partners in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who have clearly backed those opposing Assad. Beijing's motives for backing Assad's regime have largely stemmed from its broad interest in undermining Western-led doctrines of intervention and the potential implications for Xinjiang should Assad's Syria fall and create an Islamist haven.
Yet China's support for Assad and its own hard line toward the Uyghur has made it a target. In an address in Mosul on 4 July, ISIS' self-styled 'caliph', Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declaimed that 'Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine' and a host of other countries before exhorting his supporters to take up the fight to such 'oppressors'. Here, then, China's repression of the Uyghur in Xinjiang and its role in the fractured Middle East have intersected to embed the Uyghur issue firmly into the discourse of globally-oriented Islamism.
This poses significant dilemmas for Beijing's foreign policy and its approach in Xinjiang. Does China now, in light of the apparent threat posed by ISIS to China and the reported involvement of Chinese nationals, reassess its approach to the Syrian crisis, including consideration of deeper cooperation in international efforts to combat ISIS? A changed approach would undermine much of Beijing's strategy in the region that has focused on China's adherence to principles of non-interference and its role as a counter-weight to the US. In the context of Xinjiang, will Beijing recognise in time that its hard line is giving oxygen to the type of radical Islamism that it fears the most?