How will the CPEC Affect the Xinjiang Conflict and Terrorism in China?

BY GAYATHREE DEVI K. T.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Initiative helmed by the People’s Republic of China proposes an array of infrastructure projects that connect the territory of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China to Pakistan. The move came as a surprise for two reasons. First, the XUAR is home to a protracted conflict between two ethnic groups in the region – the Uyghur Muslims and the Han Chinese. Experts on the conflict attribute the deepening friction between the two communities to the Chinese government’s systematic repression of the religious, cultural, and linguistic rights of the Uyghurs, which they allege continues to date, contrary to the Chinese government’s claims that the region has been stable as a result of its economic development. However, it is clear that tensions have not worn off despite the region being designated as “autonomous,” with secessionists calling for the creation of an independent nation called “East Turkestan”.

Second, the XUAR has been a soft target for terrorists since the 1990s even by the Chinese government’s own admission. The CPEC links the XUAR to Balochistan in Pakistan, a country that continues to face difficulties in foiling terrorist training camps within its borders and is fighting its own battle against extremism for years. As early as in 2001, the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations reported intelligence that extremist and violent “East Turkestan forces” were operating both from within and outside Chinese territory. What is striking about this statement is China’s open acknowledgement of the link between its “all-weather friend” Pakistan and the violence brewing at home. The statement identifies at least eight secessionist organizations as advocating violence, including the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Afghanistan and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) in Pakistan.1 It is well documented that many ETIM cadres receive shelter in Pakistan from local terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.2

The only other time China was forthcoming in recognizing the Pakistani link to the East Turkestan movement was in 2011, after a series of knife and bomb attacks shook the city of Kashgar in the XUAR and the ETIM claimed responsibility for the attacks. XUAR authorities claimed that the ETIM terrorists were trained in Pakistan, encouraging experts to believe that this unconventional yet specific accusation hinted at China’s growing impatience with Pakistan’s inability to control fundamentalists operating within its borders. But, notably, the statement came from authorities within the XUAR, and not from Beijing, giving little evidence of a change in Beijing’s diplomatic relations with Pakistan. In fact, a recent report suggests that China is going to great lengths to conceal Pakistan-related terror in the XUAR.3 Therefore, if anything, East Turkestan-related terror has only improved existing ties between the two countries and intensified their counter-terrorism cooperation.4

The CPEC, in a sense, may also be regarded as a move in the direction of resolving the Uyghur conflict.

As Abner Cohen sums up succinctly in his essay Two-Dimensional Man:

“Men may and do certainly joke about or ridicule the strange and bizarre customs of men from other ethnic groups, because these customs are different from their own. But they do not fight over such differences alone. When men do, on the other hand, fight across ethnic lines it is nearly always the case that they fight over some fundamental issues concerning the distribution and exercise of power, whether economic, political, or both.”5

As history would show, the schism between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese in the XUAR formed in response to state-sponsored migration of the Han into a region otherwise dominated by the Uyghurs and a systematic transfer of economic benefits to the Han. The establishment of the state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), for instance, set off a mass influx of the Han into the XUAR, because the XPCC listed Han ethnicity as an occupational requirement in hiring advertisements.6 Similarly, by the 1990s, the Han constituted about 95% of the technical workers in the Taklamakan Desert oil exploration program.7 This economic inequality is often touted as the root cause of Uyghur resentment, therefore, encouraging Beijing to regard economic development of the XUAR as the panacea for ethnic tensions there.

China’s obsession with the economic development of the region may also have been spurred by its strategic interest in the abundant natural resources and minerals of the XUAR and its proximity to Central and South Asian commerce and trade. Therefore, Beijing has been investing heavily in developing infrastructure in the XUAR since the 1990s, and the CPEC is yet another project in the same vein. The original documents of the CPEC project also reportedly reveal that the underlying purpose of the project is to integrate Pakistan’s economy and supply chain with the “Kashgar Prefecture in the XUAR, which suffers from a poverty incidence of 50 per cent, and large distances that make it difficult to connect to larger markets in order to promote development.”8

But, the fundamental question is whether economic development in a silo is sufficient to dispel ethnic tensions and work as a counter-terrorism strategy in the XUAR. On both counts, this isolated approach of the Chinese government fails. While Beijing claims that economic benefits have trickled down to the Uyghurs and stabilized the region in recent times, Uyghur activists and conflict analysts claim that economic inequalities persist in the region. For instance, even today, it is estimated that of the 2.6 million people employed in the XPCC, almost all are Han Chinese.9

Further, the counter-terrorism and security strategy adopted by the Chinese government (dubbed the “strike-hard policy”) in response to extremist violence that began in the 1990s has drawn much ire for its lack of regard for human rights. Over the years, the Communist Party of China reportedly censored mosques, banned fasting during Ramadan, and banned veils and beards. The “strike hard” policy triggered an unprecedented rise in incidents of police violence and arrests. Apart from encouraging regular raids of the homes of Uyghurs, Beijing also seems to maintain a system of mass surveillance and profiling, daily patrols in villages, cultural standardization, and verification of the identity of worshipers at mosques in the XUAR. These policies have only sustained Uyghur resentment, despite improvements in the Uyghurs’ economic status, if any. This has created a terrorist threat of greater proportions, with at least 3000 Uyghurs fighting in the ranks of jihadi organizations in the war in Syria.10 Since the conflict has deflected from its ethno-economic leanings to take on a fundamentalist character, mere emphasis on economic benefits through the CPEC project is an inadequate solution.

Interestingly, the fact that the CPEC links Balochistan — another disturbed territory — to the XUAR does not seem to concern Beijing. While this was odd, as more information emerged from the original documents of the CPEC project, it is clear that China has, in fact, doubled its counter-terrorism efforts through extensive surveillance even within the borders of Pakistan. A full system of monitoring and surveillance is proposed to be built in cities from Peshawar to Karachi, with 24 hour video recordings on roads and busy marketplaces, which will subsequently be extended to major cities such as Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi.11 Yet, early in August 2016, it was reported that terrorists attempted to sabotage the CPEC in a bomb blast in Quetta, Pakistan.12 Therefore, the Chinese government still has reason to be wary of potential spillovers of terrorism.

All in all, the CPEC in isolation is inadequate to resolve the Uyghur conflict, unless Beijing is able to create more economic opportunities for the unemployed Uyghur through the project and also revisits its “strike hard” policy in the XUAR.

Image source: wikimedia.org

About the Author 

Gayathree Devi K. T. is an intern with the Armed Conflicts Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.