The slick, cynical online magazine of the so-called Islamic State ran a one-page ad in its September edition announcing that a Norwegian and a Chinese hostage were up “for sale.” In its latest edition, with the Paris attacks on its cover, the magazine ran another ad with photographs of the two men, each of them apparently shot in the head. “Executed,” it proclaimed, “after being abandoned by the kafir nations and organizations.”
China’s President Xi Jinping reacted swiftly to the killing of a citizen identified as 50-year-old Fan Jinghui. On Thursday, Xi “strongly condemned” the murder, the first by that group of a Chinese national.
“China firmly opposes terrorism of all forms and will resolutely crack down on any terrorist crime that challenges the bottom line of human civilization,” Xi said in a written statement.
Prior to Fan’s murder, Beijing had been carrying out what looked like a carefully crafted diplomatic offensive to obtain help from the international community to put down a growing insurgency in what it calls the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Many of the local inhabitants, Turkic Muslims known as the Uighurs, demand independence from Beijing. They call their homeland in northwest China the East Turkestan Republic.
After the atrocity in Paris on Friday, November 13, Beijing wasted no time enlisting allies. “China is also a victim of terrorism,” said the dapper Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday at the G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey. “Double standards shouldn’t be allowed.”
His argument was that many Uighurs who have nothing to do with the so-called Islamic State are nonetheless Muslims and have become terrorists by opposing the central government in China, so other countries should join Beijing in opposing them.
The murder of Fan, a self-described itinerant who somehow drifted into the hands of ISIS, and now the taking of Chinese hostages in Mali shows that China is indeed a victim of terrorism. And the international community should help find Fan’s murderers and free the Mali hostages, but it should draw the line in assisting Beijing in Xinjiang.
Wang and Mr. Xi, while working the G-20 on the issue last weekend, both admonished other nations to look at the “root causes” of terrorism. That would be good advice for them as well.
Beijing says the Uighurs are “Chinese.” There is much debate over what that term encompasses, but in fact the dominant ethnic group in the People’s Republic—labeled the “Han”— share no common religion, traditions, language, culture or racial background with the Uighurs.
The Chinese solution is to assimilate Uighurs by eliminating what makes them immediately identifiably different, primarily their Muslim faith, which means Beijing has been engaged in a multi-decade struggle against Islam. The ugly campaign starts with the young.
Children in Xinjiang are not allowed religious instruction in mosques or other institutions. In school, they are enticed to break religious rituals learned at home. In the holy month of Ramadan, for instance, when the faithful are supposed to fast, teachers hand out sweets and food. Imams have been forced to tell children prayer is harmful, and they must take an oath not to teach religion to the young.
Adults are allowed to worship together, but Beijing tears down mosques and, in those it leaves standing, it controls religion tightly. In a hideous display, imams have been forced to dance in public.
Symbols of religion, like the star and crescent, are banned. So are other manifestations of piety. There is legislation against the wearing of burqas, veils that cover a woman’s face, in public in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. Prohibitions against veils and long beards are common throughout the region. In the city of Karamay, women in hijabs, or hair coverings, may not board buses.
Uighurs working for the government are prohibited from “worshipping openly” and participating in most forms of religious activity. The restrictions against religion, for both the young and old, have been continually tightened this decade.
Xinjiang—East Turkestan—is effectively under martial law, the region locked down and often off limits to foreigners. In what was once their land, the Uighurs, due to government-directed migration of the Han, are becoming a minority. The Uighurs constituted about three-quarters of the population before the Communist Party came to power there through invasion in 1949. At the turn of the 21st century, Uighurs still constituted the largest ethnic group—a few percentage points higher than the Han—but today Han settlers probably have surpassed them.
The Hans grab most of the economic opportunities, take the region’s considerable mineral and agricultural resources for the benefit of the rest of the country, and, despite calling the area “Autonomous,” directly rule Xinjiang. Uighurs, Amnesty International has documented, face pervasive discrimination in employment, education, and housing. The Chinese have razed traditional neighborhoods to eradicate Uighur culture.
In a very real sense, the Uighurs have been marginalized in their own land, and the repression is almost complete. As Nury Turkel, Washington, D.C.-based attorney and former president of the Uyghur American Association, told The Daily Beast on Monday, “China has made the Uighurs feel suffocated and hopeless.”
Hopelessness has led to violence. “There is not a day something is not happening in Xinjiang,” said Erkin Alptekin, an exiled Uighur leader, at the turn of the century.
Today, the violence is even more widespread. In Uighur areas, there are random stabbings, assaults on police stations, even insurrections lasting weeks. Sometimes, the violence spreads to other areas. Beijing blamed Uighurs for a knife attack that left 33 dead and more than 140 injured at the Kunming rail station in March of last year, but, due to state control of the media, most incidents remain shrouded in mystery.
In any event, Beijing knows an opportunity when it sees one. China’s Ministry of Public Security took an unprecedented step of publicizing on Saturday, during the G-20 meetings, a 56-day campaign against “terrorists” in Xinjiang.
Beijing’s attempt to ally itself with the victims of France may look like a ploy—Turkel correctly uses the phrase “false equivalency”—but the Chinese attempt this because it worked once before. Beijing was able to manipulate the Bush administration into, among other things, paying bounties to capture 22 Uighurs who had somehow escaped to Pakistan, detain them in Guantanamo Bay, and allow Chinese interrogators to torture them there. The Uighurs have since been released—after inexcusably long delays—because, despite what Beijing assured Bush, they were not fighting the U.S.
Nonetheless, there is a real danger Washington will once again turn a blind eye to horrific Chinese practices in Xinjiang and work with Beijing. After all, the Nelson Report, the influential Washington-insider newsletter, on Monday raised the “odious” possibility that President Obama is contemplating “allying with Putin and Assad to defeat ISIS.” Indeed, ISIS looks like it is drawing the Russian and American leaders closer. As a practical matter, these days no country can cooperate with Moscow without also working with Moscow’s new backer, Beijing.
As Alim Seytoff, the current president of the Uyghur American Association, wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Beast this week, a better course of action is for the international community to condemn Beijing’s “state terrorism” against the Uighurs and support their right of self-determination.
Beijing, as Seytoff tell us, is brutalizing his people. If America and the West want to convince the world’s Muslims that they are not waging a war against their religion, refraining from helping the Chinese government victimize the Uighurs would be a good place to start.