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China's anti-ISIL rhetoric aims to globalize Uighur crackdown, say experts

Analysis: State media reports that 300 Chinese nationals are fighting with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria

Chinese officials are reportedly mulling military action against ISIL — an extremist group that Beijing now says includes a growing number of adherents from its embattled predominantly Muslim Uighur minority.

Beijing has been in talks of conducting airstrikes in support of Iraqi efforts against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIL) for months, with the foreign ministry in Baghdad appearing to confirm the development to the Financial Times on Friday.

The apparent promise of military intervention comes, analysts say, at a time when Beijing hopes to globalize support for a clampdown on China describes as Uighur terrorism.

Chinese officials say around 300 Chinese nationals are currently fighting with ISIL — three times the estimate of less than six months ago, Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times, geared toward international readers, reported in English for the first time on Monday.

And while details of the fighters’ identities had reportedly been unverifiable, officials have now apparently concluded that China's ISIL fighters are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — a group that since 9/11 has been deemed a Uighur “terrorist” organization by Beijing. Analysts have questioned the group’s existence, noting that nearly all information on the organization is funneled through Chinese officials and state media.

Human rights activists have called China's reports of a security threat a pretext to quell ethnic tensions in the restive, far-Western region of Xinjiang, the Uighur’s place of origin. Xinjiang, which abuts countries like Pakistan and natural resource-rich Kazakhstan, is of strategic importance to the Chinese state — particularly as Beijing continues to pen multi-billion business deals with those nations that would funnel much-needed oil and gas directly into the region.

Scores of Uighurs suspected of terrorism are thought to have died in extrajudicial killings this year in Xinjiang. And local authorities have enforced a slew of religious restrictions on the minority Muslims aimed at combating what they call religious extremism. Most recently, rights activists have condemned attempts by Chinese officials to bar Uighur women from wearing headscarves in Xinjiang’s regional capital of Urumqi and surrounding municipalities.

By connecting Uighurs to ISIL, China is seemingly dragging onto the international stage what had previously been a mostly domestic security issue, said Dilxat Rexit, a Sweden-based activist with the self-professed Uighur government-in-exile, the World Uyghur Congress. For its partners on the global stage, China is “trying to make it appear as though they don’t want to suppress Uighurs but have no other choice,” he added.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11, when the Chinese government tried to make connections between Uighur dissent in China and Al-Qaeda’s international Islamist movement,” said Sean Roberts, a George Washington University professor and Uighur affairs expert. “At the onset of the wars against militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration of former President George W. Bush pledged support for China’s crackdown on what it had called Uighur terrorism, but after analysts observed the dearth of evidence of Uighur terrorist groups not funneled through Chinese officials and media, Washington backed down from what had been mounting rhetoric against what China sees as its own homegrown security threat.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not immediately available for comment.

The new number of Chinese nationals fighting with ISIL — which analysts say remains to be substantiated by anyone but the Chinese government — comes amid sweeping efforts to galvanize international support for what Beijing has called a growing national security threat.

On Monday, at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — an economic and political partnership of China and Central Asian nations — Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev reiterated his support for China’s crackdown on armed Uighur fighters, accused of a series of attacks on public venues in China in recent years. The charges include a car crash that killed five at Tiananmen Square in October 2013.

The SCO “works to combat three evils of modern times — separatism, extremism and terrorism,” Nazarbayev said, according to a report by Russia’s TASS news agency, echoing Beijing’s exact wording on the fight against what it says is Uighur terrorism. Central Asian member states have in recent months reportedly repatriated Uighurs seeking refuge with their fellow Turkic Muslim neighbors in China’s neighboring countries.

Chinese military action in Iraq has yet to materialize. And strong economic and political partnerships with regional adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia may preclude China from making good on its reported promise to Baghdad. But the pledge of military action, a marked departure from China’s traditional policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign nations, indicates that the Asian superpower is willing to stretch the boundaries of its diplomacy-as-usual to garner international partners in what analysts say has become a “War on Terror” with Chinese characteristics.

“Linking the internal problems the Chinese state has with Uighur dissent to an international terrorist threat may give them some cover in terms of human rights violations within China,” Roberts said. 

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