US Risks Reigniting Islamic Extremism In Xinjiang

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Above photo: People at a night market in Kashgar, in China’s western Xinjiang region. An ancient trading center, Kashgar is now a key link in the BRI route to Central Asia. AFP.

Once again, the US uses long-standing problems such as the rise of extremism in Central Asia to create problems for its adversaries.

“Kashgar is a key location for the land and sea interface of the Belt and Road, connecting not only westward to West Asia, Europe, the Red Sea and Africa, but also southward to the Indian Ocean through the port of Gwadar,” said Professor Li Bo of the China Research Institute, Fudan University. It is, he told us, “a core area of the Belt and Road strategy.”

Kashgar, one of the westernmost cities in China, is the main urban area of southern Xinjiang. Traders from across Asia have assembled at its Sunday bazaar for 2,000 years.

More than 1,000 kilometers north of Kashgar is the town of Nur-Sultan, previously known as Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Here, in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke about the need for a “Silk Road Economic Belt.” This Belt would include trade deals and transportation networks, cultural interactions and political connections.

The project would become the One Belt, One Road initiative, which is now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s National Development and Reform Commission released a report in March 2015 that planned for six economic corridors, which would be funded by more than US$155 billion from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund.

Since then, many of these corridors, which run from China into Central Asia and also down through Pakistan and Afghanistan, have been completed.

Last December, a freight train traveled from Istanbul, Turkey, to Xian, China, covering 8,693 kilometers of this new Silk Road. The train carried Turkish appliances meant for the Chinese market.

Accusations by the US government and its allies of genocide and forced labor in Xinjiang have brought China’s westernmost province into the gaze of the international media. This approach toward Xinjiang defines the information war prosecuted by Washington.

In our conversations with Professor Li Bo and Professor Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University, as well as intellectuals from Kashgar and Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, we developed a storyline that includes the dynamics of Xinjiang’s social development, the threats of extremism, and the enfolding of its problems into the wider hybrid war unleashed against China.

Develop the west

“The economy of Xinjiang is not as good as that of the eastern coast [of China],” Professor Wang told us. This reality was understood 20 years ago when the Chinese government launched the Western China Development Program (Xībù Dàkāifā) in 1999.

In 2010, Kashgar was designated as a special economic zone, with the intention of drawing investment into southern Xinjiang to tackle high poverty rates and to shape the province into a gateway to Central Asia and Europe.

At the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, the delegates made Xinjiang’s development a priority. Construction of infrastructure, development of energy sources, linkage of Xinjiang’s economy with the BRI, and the development of talent emerged as the main avenues for the province, Professor Li told us.

In 2019, Xinjiang’s government announced that between 2014 and 2018, 2.3 million people had been lifted out of poverty and 1.9 million of them lived in southern Xinjiang, where the Uighur population is concentrated.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese government made an effort to find a way to improve life for farmers and herdsmen in the Taklamakan Desert of southern Xinjiang. This has helped to continue a pattern of lifting most of the 6.1% of the province’s population who were experiencing absolute poverty in 2018 out of that state (the poverty level decreased to 1.2% of Xinjiang’s population in 2019 and continues to trend downward).

“When I visited Xinjiang,” Li told us, “I was struck by the fact that the province is involved in a great struggle. This struggle is manifested in several ways: in the development of social and economic life, in the integration of minority ethnic groups into the broad social life of China, and in the difficult task of fighting terrorism.

Washington’s jihad

In August 2013, the 74-year-old imam of a mosque in Turpan, 200km east of Urumqi, was brutally killed by extremists. These extremists – likely members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) – killed Abdurehim Damaolla because he was part of the Islamic Association, which worked with China’s government to combat extremism.

Within Uighur society, a gulf opened up between the vast majority of the people who opposed radicalization along religious lines and those who joined the ETIM and the TIP.

The roots of the ETIM and the TIP go back to the 1960s and 1970s when Saudi Arabia’s World Muslim League began to proselytize a harsh version of Islam to counter communism. Those drawn to these views left Saudi-run schools – many in Pakistan – to join Washington’s jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

There, Uighur extremists joined other disaffected Central Asian militants to form various outfits that pledged jihad against communism.

When the USSR collapsed, these groups sought to use violence to advance their agenda against the post-communist states in Central Asia. The first among them was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which was affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Uighur militants joined the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the IMU, and the global platform known as Hizb-ut Tahrir (Party of Liberation). Extremists from Xinjiang cut their teeth on jihad in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and the Central Asian states.

Xinjiang first saw a major violent attack by these militants in the 1990s in Urumqi and in southern Xinjiang’s smaller towns. A major riot on July 5, 2009, in Urumqi led to the deaths of almost 200 people. Since then, there have been many smaller attacks.

“Uneven economic development,” Wang said, “is the basis for terrorism and extremist religious ideology.”

Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang government, concurs, and notes that his government has put forward an agenda to “root out terrorism.”

There is no point in merely treating this like a war, as the US did in Afghanistan. This is not a war that can be won by violence, Zakir said, but it must be won by education and by economic development.

Asked about vocational education, Zakir explained, “Some residents there [in Xinjiang] have a limited command of the country’s common language and a limited sense and knowledge of the law. They often have difficulties in finding employment due to limited vocational skills.

“This has led to a low material basis for residents to live and work there, making them vulnerable to the instigation and coercion of terrorism and extremism. There is still a long way to go for southern Xinjiang to eradicate the environment and soil of terrorism and religious extremism.”

New cold war

In 2011, then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton proposed a New Silk Road Initiative. The idea was for the US to use Afghanistan as the core of a north-south axis that would break the Central Asian states away from their links to Russia and China; this axis would orient these countries to South Asia and then to the United States.

Failure to settle the problems of Afghanistan led the US to abandon that project. Instead, it has turned its focus to undermining China’s BRI.

The information war now conducted against China centers on Xinjiang. Once again, the US uses long-standing problems – such as the rise of extremism in Central Asia (fueled to some extent by the US since the 1980s) – to create problems for its adversaries.

Officials in China tell us that the government has long ignored the economic development of Xinjiang and has not been able fully to handle the various grievances of the minority ethnic groups. But the answer to these problems is not to deliver Xinjiang to disaffected affiliates of Washington’s jihads.

As with Syria and Libya, Washington once more plays a reckless game with Islamic extremism.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.

Jie Xiong is a Chinese technologist, translator and editor. He has participated in the digitization process of multiple leading enterprises in China. He is a founder of Shanghai Maku Cultural Communications Ltd, a company that introduces China to Global South readers. He is a senior researcher at the Sichuan Institute for High Quality Development. He has written and translated more than 10 books. His latest translation is Cybernetic Revolutionaries.