China's government announced this week that militants from its fractious western region of Xinjiang are leaving the country to seek training from the Islamic State (IS).
Since the 9/11 attacks, China has claimed to be the victim of a sustained terrorist campaign by "religious extremists," who it has said have links to the Taliban and al Qaeda. In support of this claim, it has cited a string of violent incidents targeting Chinese civilians over the last year, including the killing of 29 people by a knife-wielding gang in Kunming in this past March. The government has used these episodes to justify a religious crackdown on the predominantly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang.
The disclosure that some of China's citizens are looking to connect with IS echoes fears expressed by other nations that combatants trained in Iraq and Syria might return to their countries and launch attacks at home. The Global Times, a state-run newspaper in China, quoted an unnamed anti-terrorism official as saying that militants from Xinjiang "not only want to get training in terrorist techniques, but also to expand their connections in international terrorist organizations through actual combat to gain support for escalation of terrorist activities in China."
Many scholars have heavily criticized China's earlier claims of links between Uighur terrorist groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and "hostile foreign forces." James Millward, a Georgetown University professor specializing in Chinese and Central Asian history, argued in a 2004 study that the Chinese government's characterization of the threat posed by organized Xinjiang militants "contains much inaccurate, questionable, or contradictory reporting and slanted conclusions reflecting ulterior agendas."
Besides their uncertain capacity to plan and carry out attacks, even the existence of groups like ETIM has been questioned. Although 22 Uighurs were interned at Guantanamo after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, none appear to have been linked to al Qaeda and all have since been released. Many academics and human rights campaigners have argued that the Chinese government's strenuous invocation of the international terrorist threat is designed to deflect attention from the legitimate grievances of Uighurs, which include economic inequality, cultural and religious repression, and a lack of political representation.
"Identifying these external 'provocations' remains important to the narrative about Uighurs perpetuated by the Chinese state," Sean Roberts, director of international development studies at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, told VICE News. China's government, he said, "suggests its policies are gracious and generous to the Uighurs and immune of criticism. Thus, if Uighurs are resisting the Chinese state, it must be due to external forces seeking to destabilize what is harmonious and prosperous. Now that the international community's imagination has been captivated by the Islamic State, it does not surprise me at all that the Chinese government is seeking to link IS to Uighurs."
Given China's apparent history of exaggerating such ties, it's reasonable to wonder about the merit of this latest claim. There does appear to be evidence suggesting the presence of Chinese citizens in IS-controlled areas, however.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, acknowledged "videos, photos, and other material that seems to show them out there."
"It seems credible to believe that they are fighting alongside ISIS given some of the locations that they appear to be fighting," Pantucci told VICE News, referring to an alternative name for IS.
In late July, China's former special envoy to the Middle East declared at a news conference that roughly 100 Chinese combatants were training or fighting in the Middle East. Earlier this month, Iraq's Defense Ministry released photos of what it said was a captured Chinese man who had been fighting on behalf of IS.
Roberts said that the presence of Chinese nationals in IS isn't surprising, given that "disenfranchised youth and adventure seekers from all over the world are joining this group." He noted that while the Chinese government has for some time been warning about the participation of Uighurs in the Syrian insurgency, the fighter that was caught in Iraq appeared to be ethnically Han Chinese.
"To date, I have heard no substantiation that Uighurs are joining IS," Roberts said.
Experts have also challenged the Chinese government's claims about Xinjiang militant groups being connected to IS.
"There is no publicly available evidence that ETIM or any of the other Uighur militant organizations have any official connections to IS," Philip Potter, an assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia who has closely monitored the risk of terrorism in China, told VICE News.
"As I read it, the concern of the Chinese government is more at the individual level than the organizations," he added. "Given that there were Uighur militants operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, it would be surprising if some of them did not make their way to Syria and Iraq."
Potter noted that the tally of 100 Chinese fighters in the Middle East from July seemed "a pretty low number, especially per capita, when compared to the number of fighters coming from places like the UK and France."
Even if it is confirmed that Uighurs are indeed fighting with IS, this doesn't necessarily mean that they are from Xinjiang.
"Some may have made the trip from Xinjiang," Pantucci said, "but they could also be from the not insubstantial Uighur diasporas elsewhere around the globe — in particular in Turkey. This all needs to be borne in mind alongside the huge excitement and draw that there is towards Syria/Iraq/ISIS amongst the broader Sunni Muslim community."
While China's latest assertion about links between its citizens and international Muslim extremist organizations remains as yet unsubstantiated, it's significant that it was delivered during the same week that the government announced the sentencing of the Uighur economist Ilham Tohti. He received a life sentence for inciting "separatism," though his defenders note that all he had actually done was encourage a discussion of the regional grievances motivating violent outbursts like the Kunming attacks.
"The best thing would be for the authorities to take a step back and examine what drives people to such desperation in the first place," Tohti remarked late last year, after a suicide car crash in Tiananmen Square was attributed to Uighur extremism.
By sentencing a peaceful critic of its policies so harshly, China's government clearly intends to signal that it will not tolerate opposition to its policies in Xinjiang. But if the government continues to reject any form of dialogue between disenfranchised Uighur communities in Xinjiang and itself, the threats it claims to face could become even greater than it already fears.
Nick Holdstock, news.vice.com