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Uighur Conflict in China

Council  on Foreign Relations

Recent Developments

China’s crackdown on the ethnic Uighur minority intensified after the 2009 riots in Xinjiang region’s capital, Urumqi, which resulted in nearly 200 dead and more than 1,700 injured, according to Chinese officials. In 2014, China once again stepped up its security presence in Xinjiang following numerous knife and bomb attacks by separatists. Chinese authorities have also conducted mass arrests of Uighurs, including the high-profile academic Ilham Tohti in January 2014.

In August 2016, a suicide bomber rammed a truck filled with explosives in to the gate of Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, killing himself and wounding five people. Kyrgyzstan state security later identified the attack as a Uighur militant affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and said the attack was ordered by Uighur militants in Syria affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The attack marks the second instance of foreign spillover of Uighur-related terrorism in the past year, following an August 2015 bomb attack in Bangkok.

Background

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in Western China accounts for one-sixth of China’s land and is home to approximately twenty million people from thirteen major ethnic groups. The Uighurs—a Muslim and ethnically Turkic population—are the largest ethnic group in the region, numbering around ten million.

Tensions between China’s Uighur population and the Han Chinese ethnic group—which comprises the majority of China’s total population—in the Xinjiang region in Western China have resulted in demonstrations and acts of violence and terrorism since the 1990s. Though Uighurs claim to experience brutal repression in China, which fuels extremism, Beijing denies that it propagates any cultural or ethnic discrimination.

Predominantly Uighur separatist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) reportedly founded by Hasan Mahsum—a Uighur from Xinjiang—have committed acts of violence against both government officials and civilians. The violence has generally intensified in the past two decades as many Han people settled in Xinjiang.

Believed to have ties to al-Qaeda, ETIM has been sanctioned by the UN Security Council’s al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee and by the United States under Executive Order 13224, which both require freezing assets and denying material support to individuals and organizations with connections to terrorists. However, ETIM has not been officially designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

Concerns

A radicalized Uighur population poses direct terrorist risks to China and can potentially bolster support for other terrorist groups that directly target the United States. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened jihad in Xinjiang in support of the Uighurs, and Chinese officials have estimated that three hundred Uighurs have already joined the Islamic State. The Islamic State is now actively trying to recruit more Uighurs by translating its propaganda into the Uighur language.

 

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