Perhaps not widely known is the fact that Western China is home to millions of Muslim minority peoples, most identifying as Uighur.
Recently in China, officials stated that Islamic extremism is beginning to move out of Western China and into inland China where the overwhelming majority is Han Chinese. Although the officials gave no details as to which provinces had extremist activity, Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, told the National Congress of the Chinese Islamic Association, “We should let Muslims know the boundaries between legal and illegal religious activities, to enable them to say no to illegal activities.”
China is officially an atheist country, allowing only certain recognized religions to be practiced — and those practices, of course, are being overseen by the state. These limitations on religious practice have produced great tension between religious people and the Chinese government.
This tension has raised doubts regarding China’s claim of Islamist terrorism. A recent interview with Ahmatjan Osman, a Uighur and the exiled president of the East Turkistan government, gave much credence to this doubt.
In the interview, Osman discussed the tension-laden history China has had with the Uighur and their autonomous territory of Xinjiang. “The Chinese are conquerors. Our soil is oil rich. Seventy percent of Chinese oil is Uighur oil. China wants the land and the raw materials. They don’t need the people so they try to seize the land and break the people.
"They seek legal reasons to kill them…[The] Nineties saw the emergence of political Islam, with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Everything the Uighur did was considered terror. China established a new anti-terrorism law and used the police and army to oppress us. Every small thing was considered terror.
“Today, China says it’s fighting Islamic terror rather than anything nationalistic. If you are under 18, you are not allowed to enter a mosque. If you are a civil servant, you can’t enter a mosque. They encourage Chinese families to move into our region. Seventy years ago, there were 300,000 Chinese, today they are 50% of the population,” said Osman.
Given China’s obvious distaste for religion in general and its attempts to mold certain religions into something that will not threaten atheist Communism, it is not a far stretch to wholeheartedly believe Osman’s side of the story.
Osman continued,“We have some extreme elements who went to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, but they don’t represent us. The Chinese government turns a blind eye when the Uighur leave the country. From 2010 to 2015 more than 30,000 left because of persecution and pressure from the so-called imams.
"They ended up in Turkey and Syria. As the international community fights ISIS, they kill Uighur and that keeps China happy. China can also say that when it fights the Uighur, it fights international terror.”
This statement from Osman strongly suggests that not only is true extremist terrorism not present in China, but that China also, in a way, supports groups like ISIS because when Uighurs join the groups (perhaps due to the persecution they receive from the Chinese) they end up being killed.
While all of this make sense, even if we are to not believe Chinese officials when it comes to Islamic extremist terrorism, China could still be at risk for such activity. Geographically speaking, Western China is very close to the Middle East. China’s Western border lies next to the gate to the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries that house Islamic extremists.
So, while China ostensibly may be free from the Islamic extremist terrorism that the West has come to know all too well, this may not be the case for much longer.