From Asia TimesHardcore repression aimed at preventing jihad from taking further root among Muslim groups in China could spell bad news for the Silk Roads initiative
When the hype surrounding the Trump-Xi summit turns into a Mar-a-Lago fact on the Florida ground next month, both presidents are bound to agree fully on at least one issue: "Radical Islamic terror" -- as per Trumpian terminology.
As much as President Donald Trump has relied on a hyper-controversial Muslim "no-ban" ban that -- in thesis -- would restrict the meager inflow of potential radical Islamists to US territory, his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, meeting Xinjiang's lawmakers on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, has launched, to great fanfare, a "great wall of iron" to protect China's Far West.
The matter primarily concerns the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), active in Xinjiang, western China, which Cheng Guoping, the state commissioner for counterterrorism and security, describes as "the most prominent challenge to China's social stability, economic development and national security."
It's open to serious question whether the movement is really a cohesive separatist outfit, with or without Islamist overtones, or a figment of Chinese intelligence imagination.
The matter also concerns, predictably, Islamic State -- aka ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
That group recently released a video in Uyghur (the language close to Turkish, written in Arabic characters, and spoken by Xinjiang's Muslim), in which one sees jihadis practicing somewhere in Iraq before slitting the throat of an alleged informer. Jews and Christians are duly threatened.
But the crux of the video is 30 seconds containing a direct message to Beijing, promising to "shed rivers of blood and avenge the oppressed" in China.
Chinese intelligence does keep tabs on Uyghurs who have metastasized into jihadis across "Syraq" after making the journey illegally via Southeast Asia and Turkey. Beijing is as much alarmed at their eventual return home as Moscow is about Chechens and other Southern Caucasus jihadis.
Then there's a third, invisible, and most curious element. The Daesh video signals the excommunication of the Islamist Party of Turkestan (IPT), aka al-Qaeda in Xinjiang.
The IPT is based in Pakistan's tribal areas and has launched a number of attacks across the border over the past few years. Their aim is to install a caliphate in Central Asia, but paying obedience to Ayman al-Zawahiri, not to the self-proclaimed caliph in Syria/Iraq -- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
If this possible interpenetration of the East Turkestan Independence Movement, Daesh and IPT looks messy, that's because it is. But Chinese intelligence should know better. ETIM is a separatist movement. Daesh is hardcore jihad.
Daesh has set its sights on seducing voluminous packs of reservoir dogs not only from North Africa but also from Indonesia, Pakistan and, predictably, Xinjiang. There are at least 20 million Muslims in China -- when we add Uyghurs and Huis, another ethnic minority living mostly in Gansu province and parts of Yunnan; that's twice the population of Tunisia, a fertile Daesh recruiting ground.
Since 2014, Baghdadi has designated China as a jihad target. Daesh beheaded a Chinese hostage in November 2015. Daesh has released videos in Mandarin to seduce the Hui.
Yet the latest Daesh video is not a declaration of war on Beijing. It's a clever propaganda tool in essence designed to show Daesh keeps recruiting jihadis from all over the spectrum. Considering China's increasingly draconian Great Web Wall, virtually no one will watch the video across Xinjiang.
Between a separatist rock and a jihadi hard place
Chinese intelligence also remains extremely alarmed about Afghanistan, where Daesh roams free and cross-border Uyghur jihadis have been finding shelter and guns since the 1990s Taliban days. Beijing, along with Moscow, plans to tackle the complex ramifications via a more muscular, integrated role for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Still, the absolute key problem remains Xinjiang, and how to prevent Uyghur grievances from translating into jihadism. As Beijing-based researcher Gabriele Battaglia points out, Xinjiang's security policy rests in the hands of Chen Quanguo, "a hardliner with an economic background instead of a military one and the inventor of the 'grid management system' in Tibet."
That means hardcore "grid" repression tactics already in effect in Tibet, where Chen was Communist Party chief, are and will continue to be replicated in Xinjiang. And that will only reinforce the perception -- across the lands of Islam and certainly in the West -- that the Xi administration may be not exactly Muslim-friendly.
Things could get even messier if harsh controls in Xinjiang, as part of a uniform implementation of state policy, are extended against the Hui in the largely desert province of Gansu and mostly in multicultural, ethnically autonomous Yunnan. Unlike the Uyghurs, the Hui, whom I met in both Gansu and Yunnan during my previous Silk Road trips, are very well integrated with the Han Chinese.
What makes this whole drama so pregnant with meaning is its central role in the ultimate success or failure of the New Silk Roads -- aka One Belt, One Road (Obor) in their official, lost-in-translation terminology.
Trouble in Xinjiang spells out major trouble for Obor. Xinjiang, sparsely populated, sitting on vast reserves of unexplored energy, will be the privileged node connecting China to Central Asia in a maze of high-speed rail, pipelines and fiber optics. The capital, Urumqi, is being turned into an information-technology hub.
The financial stakes are staggering.
All bets are off on how Xi's Great Wall of Iron will smash separatism and/or jihadism combined with the "grid" implemented on the ground by Chen Quanguo. Beijing does not have much time to strike a fine, right balance; too much iron applied against the Uyghurs might just as well mortally wound the biggest infrastructure project of the 21st century.
Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia (more...)