Islamic Militancy and Separatism in Xinjiang

-P.B. Sinha, Research Associate, IDSA


On February 25, 1997, three bomb explosions in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority province in north-western China, shattered the calm that had descended on the country following the demise of Chinese Supremo Deng Xiaoping. The blasts occurred in three different buses on three separate roads, "Renmin" (People), "Youhao" (Friendship) and "Tuanjie" (Unity), of the city. Seven people were killed and 67 were injured.1 According to another source,2 the Urumqi bomb attacks caused nine deaths and injuries to 74 people. Neither the official media in Xinjiang nor anywhere in the country reported the incident. Although no one claimed responsibility for the blasts, it was clear that the local Muslim militants would have been behind the subversive act. The Urumqi explosions were the loudest confirmation of the rising pitch of Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in Xinjiang.

 Uighur Alienation and Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and Militancy

  Xinjiang (meaning "new frontier" in Mandarin), with roughly one-sixth of China's total land area, has today a population of only about 16.6 million. Of these, roughly seven million are native Muslim Uighurs, and Han Chinese comprise over six million. In 1950, roughly 15 per cent of Xinjiang's people were ethnic Chinese. Today their figure is 38 per cent, and the influx is expected to become a stampede when the planned east-west rail line to span the province is completed. While 40 years ago the population of Urumqi was only 20 per cent Han, now Han Chinese constitute 80 per cent of the capital's population.

Xinjiang became a part of China hardly a century ago, in the closing decades of the Ching dynasty, but not for long. Rebellions were frequent and the control of territory changed hands between the Chinese, the Russians and even self-rule by the Turkic inhabitants from 1944 to 1949. Communists completed the conquest of Xinjiang in 1949 and made it one of the five autonomous regions of China. But even after nearly half-a-century of Chinese rule, the Turkic speaking Uighurs could never be fully assimilated into Chinese society. The Han Chinese treat the Uighurs as ignorant babarians while the natives resent the Han settlers as arrogant trespassers. "Migration of Chinese is one thing Uighurs are very, very angry about," says Linda Benson,3 an American historian and leading specialist in the area. Naturally the native Uighurs feel that they would be drowned in the Han influx and would lose their identity.

Whatever economic development Xinjiang has recorded, the bulk of its benefit has gone to the Chinese settlers. While the standard of living of the Hans has risen manifold, that of the native Uighurs virtually remains static. Uighur workers complain that the settlers get all the desirable jobs. Most of the province's top posts are held by middle-class Uighurs, but everyone knows that it is their Han "assistants" who really wield power. The government has been giving new Mandarin names to the ancient ruins of Xinjiang as if to do away with the Uighur past of the territory. The feeling of being overwhelmed by the increasing number of socially and culturally different Han Chinese, and economic disparity between the natives and the settlers had been causing a deep sense of alienation and resentment among the Uighurs. This resentment got further deepened when the Uighurs viewed their neighbours in the newly independent Muslim republics of Central Asia. The anti-Chinese feelings of the Uighurs of Xinjiang found expression in their Islamic self-assertion under the impact of the expanding current of Muslim fundamentalism and militancy.

 Growth of Muslim Militancy and Terrorism in Xinjiang

  The beginnings of the impact of the surging wave of Islamic militancy on Xinjiang can be traced to the mid-1980s when a large Islamic militant force was being raised to wage a jehad against the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. A signed article in a Pakistani monthly, The Herald, informs that among more than 25,000 Muslim militants, many were Uighurs, who were trained by Afghan and Pakistani fundamentalists during the Afghan war in the Eighties.4 After an abortive Islamist uprising in the town of Baren in Xinjiang in 1992, in which 22 people were killed, China closed its road links with Pakistan for several months. In the second week of November 1992, Ibrahim Rouzi, Director of Xinjiang's Religious Affairs Bureau, ordered a government probe into the mushrooming of unauthorised mosques and Quranic schools in the region, which he said were "often opened with funds received from abroad."5 In late 1994, rioting broke out in Xinjiang over the publication of a book deemed to be critical of Islam.

According to the above mentioned article of December 1995,6 one of the Uighur youths, undergoing training in one of the madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan, had vowed that after he returned to Khotan, his hometown, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert in eastern Xinjiang, he would cleanse it of Communism. "My city is not Islamic. It is full of Communists who do not allow Muslims to study or pray. There is no school for Shariah," he said vehemently. "We want to make a new Islamic state for Uighurs and leave China," he added.

There are reports that Islamic fundamentalists have made the big cities like Taksu, Kuqa, Khotan, Urumqi and others on the Karakoram Highway their strongholds. On several occasions clashes have taken place between the police and local people in which bombs and grenades have been used.7

In 1996, there were several reports about clashes between Uighur Muslim separatists and the security forces in Xinjiang. The authorities, in 1996, stepped up a crackdown after a series of violent clashes, bombings and assassination attempts on officials and Muslim leaders regarded as pro-Chinese. Officials admitted the existence of an organisation fighting to establish an independent Eastern Turkestan. In an official Chinese campaign against crime and terrorism in Xinjiang, 2,773 people were arrested and more than 600 guns were seized between April and June 1996. An underground pro-independence group, based in Urumqi, killed six or seven people between February and June. Nine Muslim activists, armed with guns and home-made bombs, were killed in a battle with the police in late April in western Kuqa district.8

The developments in the beginning of February 1997 have clearly shown that the militant sentiment is at a high pitch and alienation and unrest among the Uighurs in Xinjiang is rising. A large number of young Uighurs, mostly aged 17 and 18 years, whose number has been variously given from 200 to 1,000, marched through the streets of Yining, a big town in Xinjiang near the Kazakhstan border, on February 5 and 6. They were shouting the praise of Allah and anti-Chinese and pro-independence slogans, and indulging in the murder of Han Chinese and arson. What was the immediate provocation for this march is not very clear. According to Ismail Cengiz, the Secretary-General of a pro-independence Uighur group based in Istanbul, the East Turkestan Immigrants Association, the protest march started when Chinese security forces arrested a group of women reading prayers in a house on February 4, a Muslim holy night.9 Another report,10 citing a Chinese source, says that the riot erupted after an Uighur criminal suspect resisted arrest by the Chinese police. Local authorities were forced to mobilise thousands of police and paramilitary People's Armed Police to quell the violence. The protesters clashed with the police. In the rioting, according to the official version, 10 Chinese were killed, including a Chinese police officer, and more than 140 injured, of whom 50 were wounded seriously. Among the injured were 12 police officers as well. Other sources gave the number of fatal casualties as ranging from 80 to 300. According to a German minority rights group linked to the United Nations, called the Society for Threatened People, the two-day rioting resulted in 200 ethnic Uighurs and 100 Chinese dead.11 Russia's news agency Itar-Tass, citing an Uighur newspaper in Central Asia, the Golos Vostochnova Turkestana (Voice of Eastern Turkestan), reported that in the clashes 55 Han Chinese and 25 Uighurs were killed and at least 550 persons were arrested.12 Other versions indicate that between 400 to 1,000 Muslim separatist were arrested. Residents of Yining reportedly informed that Chinese authorities sealed off the town and imposed a night curfew, adding that paramilitary police also began patrolling the streets.13 Later, a Xinjiang government spokesman, Liu Yisheng, said in a statement, "The two days of beating, smashing and looting were planned and inspired by a small number of enemy elements." The statement further said, "The protesters were trying to overthrow the political power of the people and split the unity of the fatherland."14

Post-riot reports inform that from February 6 itself summary trials of the apprehended Uighur radicals began and continued to take place every day. After the trials, six Uighurs were executed on February 6 itself, 30 on February 7, and by February 12, 100 Uighur Muslim separatists had already been executed in a swift and bloody retribution by the Chinese authorities.15 The brutal response of the authorities to the Yining incident does not seem to have deterred the Uighur militant activists. The triple blasts in Urumqi on February 25, 1997, prove it. The bus explosions in Urumqi appeared carefully planned and suggested that anti-Chinese Muslim militants in Xinjiang were becoming more organised and sophisticated.16

An idea about the growing strength and resourcefulness of Uighur Muslim militants can be had from the fact that they have now expanded their violent and terrorist activities even to Beijing. On March 7, 1997, a crudely fashioned bomb exploded during the evening rush hour in a bus in the Xidan district of Beijing. Thirty people were injured, two of whom were believed to have died subsequently.17 Some foreign news agencies have put the toll as high as three dead and 30 injured.18 Earlier, on March 5, a smaller bomb was triggered near a commercial building in Beijing's Chaoyang district, but no one was hurt in the blast, reported China News Service.19

The March blast(s) in Beijing have shattered the notion that China's capital could remain insulated from the ethnic trouble seething in faraway Xinjiang. What is more remarkable is the fact that the bomb blasts took place when the National People's Congress was meeting in Beijing surrounded by high security arrangements. The enhanced police presence was not sufficient to deter the bomb attacks.

In the few comments that the Chinese authorities made on the Beijing blasts, they tried to undermine their significance and denied that the Uighurs were suspects, but the special security precautions enforced in Beijing against ethnic Uighurs and their quarters in the capital left no room for doubt that Muslim militant-separatists from Xinjiang were being held responsible for the incidents.20 Later on it was confirmed by a statement relayed to a Taiwanese radio station by Xinjiang dissidents based in Turkey saying that exiled Uighurs in Kazakhstan orchestrated the Beijing blasts, and were prepared to carry out others. The radio report said the attack (of March 7) was in retaliation against China's "suppression of pro-independence activism" in Xinjiang, and the government's "refusal to seek compromise through dialogue."21

In the beginning of April 1997, armed clashes between Uighur rebel groups and armed Chinese militia were reported to have taken place in the arid desert area of Xinjiang which left a trail of death in their wake.22

The Uighur Muslim secessionist-exiles have set up committees outside China to publicise their people's plight and to seek support for their cause. One such committee is of the pro-independence Uighur group based in Istanbul with Ismail Cengiz as its Secretary-General. The United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan, led by Yusupbek Mukhlisi, is located in Almaty (Kazakhstan). In Washington, the Eastern Turkestan National Freedom Centre was founded by Anwar Yusuf in 1995. This group lobbies American members of Congress, maintains contacts with other exiled Uighurs around the world and publishes books and tapes on Turkic nationalism for circulation inside Xinjiang.23 Another prominent group is the Eastern Turkestan Union in Europe. Its Director, Erkin Alptekin, works closely with exiled Tibetans.24

Help and Support from Abroad

An American expert on China's ethnic minorities, Dru Gladney, after visiting Xinjiang around the time in 1996 when a number of bloody attacks by Muslim militants had taken place on their fellow Uighurs whom they accused of "collaborating" with the Chinese Communist government, remarked that he saw little evidence of ethnic tension or support either for separation or for fundamentalism.25 Gladney's hint, obviously, was that the Islamic separatist movement in Xinjiang was being inspired and funded from abroad. But the assessment of the American scholar appears only partly correct. The available reports clearly indicate that there is an Islamic revivalist ferment with secessionist tendencies in Xinjiang which is being aided and encouraged from outside.

The Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan, is one of several fundamentalist parties only too happy to train and help financially Islamists from Xinjiang. In December 1995, informs a Pakistani source,26 some 100 Uighurs, most of them under Jamaat sponsorship, were being trained at the Islamic University in Islamabad, the Syed Maudoodi International Institute at the Jamaat headquarters in Lahore and other madrassas across Pakistan.

According to the Xinjiang Daily, the local Muslims in Xinjiang were indulging in subversive activities on being instigated by foreign powers. The Chinese suspect that Afghans, Tajiks and Kirghiz Islamists, who at one point of time were mercenaries on the payroll of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's military intelligence agency, are instrumental in all this. Peshawar and its surrounding areas have well-organised networks for dispatching arms to the Muslim-populated areas of Xinjiang.27 Lately, Chinese sources are reported to be saying that Afghanistan's Taliban militia has been training Islamic fundamentalists and Tajikistan has been giving them arms to mount small-scale attacks against China's rule over the restive Xinjiang. Confirming this, a Russian intelligence source in Asia said that by training and arming fundamentalists operating in Xinjiang, the Taliban hope to destabilise neighbouring regions, thereby bolstering their own authority in Afghanistan.28 Latest available reports29 indicate that in aid and support of the Muslim rebels of Xinjiang, "Afghan militants have been operating" by their side. A Pakistani outfit, the Tablik-e-Jamaat, based near Lahore, has reportedly been running a "missionary operation" across the Chinese border.30

Chinese Response

Officially China has invariably denied the existence of any serious problem in Xinjiang. The official media has generally blacked out news about violent incidents perpetrated by Muslim separatists of Xinjiang. But, in fact, Beijing does regard Xinjiang as a hotbed of fundamentalism and militancy.

Broadly speaking, the Chinese have been adopting a two-pronged policy to meet the Islamic separatist threat in Xinjiang. The first part of the policy has been to settle Han Chinese in increasing numbers in Xinjiang with a view to reduce the original overwhelming preponderance of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs in the province. It appears that from the very time of incorporation of Xinjiang into the People's Republic of China, Beijing had foreseen a problem of the present kind emerging in Xinjiang in the future. Hence the "demographic inundation" of Xinjiang was started in the 1950s and it continues even today. In the 1950s, the Han Chinese constituted only 15 per cent of the total population of Xinjiang which has now gone up as high as 38 per cent. Since this policy has proved to be one of the catalysts strengthening the Uighur resentment and discontent under the banner of Islamic revivalist-militancy, the authorities, instead of reversing that "demographic inundation" policy, have resorted to ruthlessly crushing and suppressing the rebellious activities of Uighur Islamist-separatists.

The Chinese have retaliated by imposing curbs on religious worship, shutting down local publishing houses and bestowing broad police powers on a special military "rapid-deployment force" in Xinjiang. Devout Muslim Uighurs who attend prayer services face the threat of losing their jobs. No one but the province's official publishing house can publish books on Islam. In 1996, the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, had issued a 10-point battle plan calling for a purge of "all suspicious persons" from state and party jobs in Xinjiang.31

As noted earlier, in 1996, Xinjiang authorities stepped up a crackdown on Muslim militants and netted 2,773 people and more than 600 guns between April and June 1996. In May 1996, Chinese Chief of Staff General Fu Quanyou visited Xinjiang and pledged that the Army would build "A Great Wall of Steel" to safeguard the region.32 At one point of time, it is said, the Chinese authorities were of two minds about how to deal with the separatist problem in Xinjiang. The hardliners were for brutally repressing the Uighur rebellious activities. The others would have liked to open a dialogue with more moderate Islamist forces to divide the secessionist front. In a January 25, 1997, speech to Xinjiang's legislature, while reviewing the achievements of the government policy vis-a-vis Islamic militants in 1996, Abdulahat Abdurixit, Chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, claimed successes in fighting separatists and vowed a continued crackdown. "We severely attacked enemy forces' crazed violent activities, annihilating the enemy's effectiveness," he declared.33 The execution of about 100 Muslim secessionists in the wake of the February 5 and 6 incidents in Yining confirmed that the hardline policy had won the day. The Chinese have launched a big operation to flush out what they describe as "armed bandits," a term used to refer to armed Uighur Muslim rebels fighting for independence from China, said a recent report.34 The hardline policy towards Xinjiang separatist Islamists was endorsed by Qiao Shi, head of China's Parliament and number three in the country's political hierarchy. While on an unscheduled visit to Urumqi on April 13, 1997, Qiao said: "We must firmly oppose national separatism and religious extremist forces and safeguard the dignity of laws and the fundamental interests of people of various ethnic groups."35

China has also approached those countries which are believed to have been extending various kind of aid and assistance to the Uighurs. Since 1992, the Chinese government has frequently urged Pakistani authorities to crack down on religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami for indulging in training Islamic militants from other countries, including China. In 1992, China even closed its road links with Pakistan, mainly the Karakoram Highway, for several months. Consequently, Beijing's relations with Islamabad remained no longer what they used to be.36

China also warned the newly independent Muslim-majority republics of Central Asia against extending aid and support to the Uighur separatists. In 1996, some Central Asian Republics did promise not to abet the Uighurs in return for more trade with China.37 Recently, the Chinese authorities reached an agreement with the republics of Tajikistan and Kirghizstan to jointly oppose all forms of separatism and "attempts to stir up contradictions between nations, nationalities and religions."38 Reflecting their concern for the disturbing developments in Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities have also urged Pakistan to curb the Taliban's expansionist designs beyond Afghanistan,39 including Xinjiang where Afghan militants are said to be operating.

The Chinese authorities have also made symbolic gestures to placate the Uighurs. Recently President Jiang Zemin made a great public show of bonhomie by sporting an embroidered Uighur cap.40 But how far the above efforts would succeed in quelling the separatist urge among the Uighurs is open to question.


A China analyst has described the ongoing movement in Xinjiang as nationalistic and not fundamentalist.41 It means that the rise of Islamic fundamentalist fervour among the people in Xinjiang is merely a means for self-assertion of their distinct national identity by the Uighurs. But, in the ultimate analysis, it makes little difference in the situation. Even if it were the case of Islamic revival for its own sake, it necessarily implied separation from non-Muslim China. And, if it were the case of distinct Uighur national identity asserting itself under the banner of Islamic revivalism, even then the exclusion of the Han Chinese would be its salient characteristic. In both cases the urge for separation from China would be the logical outcome.

Obviously China can neither allow the secessionist movement of the Uighurs to succeed nor can it weaken its hold on Xinjiang. Any weakening on the part of Beijing could only encourage renewed unrest among other dissatisfied minorities in China, especially the Tibetans. Apart from historical symbolism, Xinjiang is of immense importance to China from other points of view. Beijing is investing heavily in trying to extract oil from Xinjiang's desert. China's two potentially most important oilfields are both in Xinjiang, in the Tarim basin and at Turpan.42 The country's economic planners expect that these untapped oil reserves will become a major source of power for Chinese industry. They envision the vast wheat fields of Xinjiang, possibly irrigated with water melted from neighbouring glaciers, to solve the impending grain shortage. Xinjiang, about one-sixth of China's total land area but inhabited by only about 16.6 million people, can provide breathing room for millions of Chinese from overpopulated regions.43 China would, therefore, do everything to suppress the Islamic secessionist movement of the Uighurs. The fact that, unlike the Tibetans, the Uighurs have no charismatic leader of the status of the Dalai Lama, and they are unorganised, scattered all over the world, apparently makes Beijing's task somewhat easy. But there is one problem which does create complications. The Uighurs have one big advantage, viz., their Islamic identity. Ruthless and brutal suppression, and bloodshed in Xinjiang would automatically incur the wrath of its friends in the Islamic world on whom China depends much for its oil requirements and its big power diplomatic status in the comity of nations. As soon as the news of the February 1997 Yining riots and the brutal response of the authorities began reaching beyond its borders, newspapers in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan denounced Beijing's handling of the Uighur unrest.44 This might be an important consideration obliging Beijing to tread the path very carefully and cautiously. But a soft approach to the Uighur movement might not be effective; it might even prove counter-productive from Beijing's point of view. On balance, therefore, it seems that China would adopt a hardline approach to deal with the problem of Islamic militancy and separatism in Xinjiang.

Erkin Alptekin, Director of the Eastern Turkestan Union in Europe, is said to have asked some young Uighurs of Xinjiang if their problem could be solved by peaceful means. Answering the question firmly in the negative, those young men themselves asked, "Do you want us to disappear through slow cultural assimilation or stand up and die like heroes?"45 Troubled times can thus be foreseen in Xinjiang.



1. Times of India, February 27, 1997.

2. "Regional Briefing," Far Eastern Economic Review, March 20, 1997.

3. Quoted in George Wehrefritz, "Troubled Frontier," Newsweek, February 24, 1997.

4. Ahmed Rashid, "The Chinese Connection," The Herald, December 1995.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Veer Arjun, June 6, 1996.

8. Asia Times, February 12, 1997.

9. John Leicester in an AP report, in Telegraph, February 12, 1997.

10. Asia Times, February 12, 1997.

11. Tribune, February 14, 1997.

12. Charles Hutzler's report for AP, in Telegraph, February 13, 1997.

13. Asia Times, February 12, 1997.

14. Ibid.

15. AFP report in Tribune, February 13, 1997.

16. Times of India, February 27, 1997.

17. "A Bomb in Beijing," The Economist, March 15, 1997.

18. "Danger: Hazardous Area," Time, March 17, 1997.

19. Ibid.

20. Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, "Asiafile," Tribune, March 28, 1997.

21. n. 17.

22. Jane's Defence Weekly, cited in Tribune, April 10, 1997.

23. n. 3.

24. Ibid.

25. "China in Transition," Far Eastern Economic Review, October 24, 1996.

26. n. 4.

27. n. 7.

28. Asia Times, February 12, 1997.

29. n. 22.

30. Asia Times, February 12, 1997.

31. n. 3.

32. Quoted in Asia Times, February 12, 1997.

33. Quoted in John Leicester's report for AP, in Telegraph, February 11, 1997.

34. n. 22.

35. Quoted in Beijing-datelined PTI report, in Tribune, April 15, 1997.

36. n. 4.

37. n. 3.

38. n. 22.

39. Ibid.

40. n. 20.

41. Cited in Asia Times, February 12, 1997.

42. Ibid.

43. n. 3.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.