In 2014, Beijing launched a “people’s war on terror” in response to increasing incidents of violence in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. The campaign, which has been escalating since its inception, saw the introduction of increased surveillance and tracking measures following a deadly knife attack in Xinjiang last month, and the staging of a series of massive military rallies in cities throughout Xinjiang. Last Friday at a meeting of the legislative National People’s Congress, President Xi Jinping called for a “great wall of iron” around the troubled Xinjiang region. From Xinhua:
Xi called for safeguarding ethnic unity, and reinforcing solidarity between the military and government, soldiers and civilians, police and the public, as well as between the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and local communities.
Xinjiang is an important “security barrier” in northwest China which holds a special strategic position and faces special issues, Xi said, adding that governing the region well is of great significance.
He stressed that maintaining stability in Xinjiang is a political responsibility, and that stability-related issues must be handled in a thorough, timely and proper manner.
He called for efforts to make long-term strategies, strengthen the foundation, and achieve lasting peace and stability in Xinjiang.
Xi urged greater efforts to protect the environment and build a beautiful Xinjiang. “Let people of ethnic groups feel the Party’s care and the warmth of the motherland,” he said.
Xi called for comprehensively implementing targeted poverty alleviation policies and taking the poor areas in southern Xinjiang as the main battlefield in poverty relief. […] [Source]
Xinjiang scholar James Leibold commented that the recent military rallies in Xinjiang could be a means for newly installed Xinjiang Party chief Chen Quanguo, who may be tipped for a seat in the CCP Politburo at the leadership transition later this year, to impress Party bosses in Beijing. In coverage of Xi’s NPC comments at The Guardian, Tom Phillips provides further background on the situation in Xinjiang, and again quotes Leibold on the realpolitik he sees in Chen’s hardening security policies in Xinjiang:
Experts are unsure what has inspired the increasingly tough talk coming out of Xinjiang but James Leibold, a specialist from Australia’s La Trobe University, said politics was one likely explanation. Leibold said the region’s hard-line party boss, Chen Quanguo, who was recently posted to Xinjiang from Tibet, appeared to be angling for promotion to China’s top decision-making body later this year.
“Chen wants and expects a Politburo seat and cannot afford to look soft on ‘terror’ and weiwen [stability maintenance] work, so he is going to extremes to impress his political bosses back in Beijing,” he said. [Source]
Over the weekend, the Global Times reported on the recent Xinjiang police rallies as a “declaration of war” on terrorism. Global Times also translated and reposted an article from the state-run Beijing News (新京报) on efforts to stem the international inflow of arms, drugs, and terrorist media into Xinjiang. Since before the official launch of the ongoing anti-terror campaign, Chinese authorities have sought to tie domestic attacks to the global jihad movement. A 2016 report from a U.S.-based think tank claimed that over 100 Uyghurs had joined the Islamic State between 2013 and 2014. A video released late last month by the Islamic State reportedly featured militant Uyghurs threatening to return to China to “shed blood like rivers and avenge the oppressed.” In her regular March 13 press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying commented briefly on China’s opposition to “all forms of terrorism,” and China’s readiness to strengthen international security cooperation.
Several recent reports from the South China Morning post have focused on the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment in China alongside the official anti-terror campaign. In one article, Viola Zhou describes how members of the predominately Muslim Hui ethnic minority, who have been known to enjoy a far greater degree of religious freedom than their Uyghur counterparts in Xinjiang, are beginning to worry that their faith too may soon be targeted:
[..G]rowing Islamophobia in China has seen both groups [Uyghur and Hui] targeted by online attacks at a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric is on the rise across the world.
With the country’s top leaders repeatedly warning of the dangers of radical Islam, increasing levels of online hate speech are fuelling concerns that the heavy controls in Xinjiang could be extended to the Hui community in Yunnan.
[…] Although the authorities currently treat Hui and Uygurs in very different ways, many Han Chinese have come to view both groups as potentially threatening.
[…] On the Quora-like website Zhihu.com, photos of women dressed in black robes and veils in Shadian sparked a wave of Islamophobic comments, with users questioning why the counterterrorism measures in Xinjiang had not been implemented in the rest of the country.
“Why does the government turn a blind eye to all this?” one comment read. […] [Source]
Another report from Zhou further describes anti-Islamic online comments, and fears that the official tolerance of such online speech could encourage hate crimes in the physical world:
The growing popularity of anti-Islamic rhetoric, which is seldom challenged by state media or subject to the censorship for which China’s internet is famous, has sparked concerns that, left unaddressed, these tensions will spill over into real world conflict.
“Zhou”, a 23-year-old web developer in Qingdao, Shandong province, is staunchly anti-Muslim. He and his friends call themselves Mu Hei (Muslim haters) and refer to Muslims derogatorily as “greens”, a slur based on the colour’s symbolic significance in Islam. Zhou said he became Mu Hei because Islam was an “inhumane” religion that encouraged violence and repressed women.
Inflammatory comments Zhou has posted online include “let’s shoot down 100 greens” and “why not kill all the greens?”
“I wish there were no Muslims in the world,” he said, declining to give his full name because “the greens may come to chop me”. […] [Source]
Al Jazeera also reports on rising anti-Muslim opinion in China, citing other top officials’ recent comments that could foster public suspicion:
Officials from Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which has an ethnic Hui population that is predominantly Muslim, warned similarly this past week about the perils of “Islamic extremism”.
[…] Wu Shimin, a former ethnic affairs official from Ningxia, said that ideological work must be strengthened in the region to promote a Chinese identity among its Hui population, the descendants of Muslim traders plying the Silk Road centuries ago.
“The roots of the Hui are in China,” Wu said. “To discuss religious consciousness, we must first discuss Chinese consciousness. To discuss the feelings of minorities, we must first discuss the feelings of the Chinese people.”
[…] Mohammed al-Sudairi, a doctoral student at the University of Hong Kong, said “there’s a strengthening trend of viewing Islam as a problem in Chinese society.”
“Xi Jinping has been quite anxious about what he saw as the loss of party-state control over the religious sphere when he entered power, which necessitated this intervention. I don’t think things will take a softer turn.” [Source]
President Xi last year warned officials to “resolutely resist overseas infiltration through religious means and guard against ideological infringement by extremists.” In 2015, former Xinjiang Party chief Zhang Chunxian called for the “sinicization” of religion and the encouragement of patriotism in religious leaders.