Since March 2017, the autonomous region of Xinjiang has gained, once again, media coverage because of the continuous clashes between the local Uyghur population and the Chinese government forces. In more recent months, revelations about the existence of internment camps set up by Chinese authorities, where local population is confined and indoctrinated, have attracted world attention. Two years ago, Beijing sent ten thousand units of the PAP (People’s Armed Police) which joined the military forces already operating in the territory. The central government’s concerns over the region were also the result of the release of a video by ISIS, which showed images of Uyghurs engaged in military exercises with the objective to spread jihad in China. In relation to this, some investigations had subsequently highlighted the presence of about five thousand Uyghurs in Syria, who could then return to China to conduct terrorist operations. This regional issue proves to be one of the still unresolved problems of Chinese domestic politics and, if we consider that the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) passes through Xinjiang, then the situation becomes even more complicated, since domestic issues would definitely tend to overlap with international ones.
The case of Xinjiang is not new and has represented a political-cultural problem relevant to the stability of Chinese domestic politics for decades. The terrorist movement, which started its operational activities since the founding of the Chinese Republic in order to gain territorial independence, adopted its current name of Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement in the late 1950s. However, since the late 80’s and 90’s the movement has gained international acknowledgement after establishing deep links with other Central Asian and Middle Eastern terrorist groups – al Qaeda in particular – from whom it has received for years resources and training for the conduct of asymmetric operations.
After securing some material support, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union (an event which gave rise to various autonomous state entities in Central Asia but not in Xinjiang) the ETIM has begun since then to fight for some forms of independence, until reaching the current status of Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) through which it benefits some political autonomy, but not a formal independence.
Moreover, the vast fragmentation of society, mainly characterized by the so-called “oasis identities”, and the subsequent proliferation of militant groups with different objectives and strategic visions, have forced the ETIM to seek support from other regional terrorist groups. In addition to the already mentioned links with Al-Qaeda, the group also developed intense relations with the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan). On the one hand, the internal social fragmentation and the multiple terrorist references abroad undermined the cohesiveness of the ETIM’s political struggle. On the other hand, these features have also facilitated the development of the group's infrastructural network and operational flexibility, in addition to the fact that Xinjiang’s shares its border with eight states, three of which are Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, all countries with a considerable number of stronger terrorist groups within their borders.
ETIM gained significant symbolic successes in 2008-09 and 2013-2014, two years in which the insurgent group demonstrated an evolution at the operational level. In 2008-09, especially after the Olympic games, the ETIM conducted one of the most violent uprising against the central government, which ended in a bloodshed. After that, in the fall of 2013, a car crashed into the walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing, killing three people. In March 2014, however, the ETIM group showed that it had significantly developed its operational capacity, carrying out one of the largest terrorist operations outside its own region, killing 30 people at the subway of the Kunming city in the Yunnan province. Their operative and organizational strength has progressively expanded also because of the evolution of ISIS in the Middle East and Central Asia, which has gained some influence on the Uyghur independence movement in recent years. In fact, in August 2016 another important event occurred: the attack against the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan by Uighurs carrying Kyrgyz passport.
Throughout 2017, the low-intensity conflict continued with a certain regularity to the point that in early March Xi Jinping issued new territorial defense measures. Measures inevitably intertwined with the progressive evolution of the infrastructural network that connects China with the rest of Central Asia up to the heart of Europe.
The measures Chinese authorities have put in place must be analyzed both on the doctrinal and the operational level. Concerning the former, the regional government has promoted the application of a people’s war (人民战争 renmin zhanzheng) against terrorism, with the aim of releasing the force of the masses against terrorists. This measure, in line with the Chinese strategic thinking, has been repeatedly promoted by the new governor of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who was transferred to Xinjiang in the summer 2016 after his successes in repressing revolts in another turbulent Chinese province: Tibet. Here, Governor Chen has dusted off the principles of the people’s war, making it, in a short time, the main strategic doctrine. Specifically, one of the technical measures adopted concerned the creation and implementation, in 2013, of a new system of security and control of the territory: the grid management system (网络化治理体系 wangluohua zhili tixi). It consists of a capillary system of territorial surveillance in order to control on one hand those groups of people returning to China after being first exiled to India because of their support for the Dalai Lama, while on the other mobilizing the masses in favor of the Communist Party, sharing information and secrets to Beijing’s advantage. Therefore, in 2013 the Governor established the Red Armband Patrol (红袖标巡逻队 hong xiubiao xun dui), that is, the voluntary, semi-official and without-uniform groups of the Communist Party, which distinguish themselves for their famous red band on the arm, whose scope is scouring the streets of Lhasa and checking the people and vehicles of the area.
As a result, Chen reiterated the doctrine of People’s War in Xinjiang. As an example, on the streets of Urumqi, during a military parade of anti-terrorist paramilitary troops, Chen had declared that the ultimate goal of the anti-terrorist campaign would be to “bury the terrorists’ bodies in the vast sea of the people’s war.” Moreover, part of his military design for tackling the Xinjiang issue also responded to some personal political logic: after the success of his mandate in Tibet, Governor Chen hoped that by bringing to fruition his policy of pacification and stabilization (weiwen 维稳) in the Far West he would have been able to get the long-awaited seat inside the Politburo; an objective that he managed to reach after the 19th party congress held in October 2017.
At the operational level, Beijing introduced two measures. The first one, operative since February 2017, regarded the installation of the Beidou Chinese satellite navigation system in all the vehicles, in order to check the movements of individuals in the various areas of Xinjiang cities. All vehicle owners had to comply with these new regulations in the period between 20 February and 30 June 2017. Transgressors would have been denied access to gas stations. Beijing’s choice responds to a specific tactical logic: last year, the main terrorist attacks were conducted through the use of common means of transportation, such as cars and trucks (like those in Nice, Berlin and London). At the same time, the central government has obliged butchers and restaurants to engrave on every blade the QR code containing the owner’s identity card information, since most of the terrorist attacks carried out in China relied on the use of knives and blades. The other measure, introduced at the beginning of March 2017, concerned, in particular, the use of military transportation mechanisms that emphasized ground-air operations, able to guarantee operational flexibility. One case above all concerns the use of high-speed surveillance helicopters with the aim of intervening immediately in the areas most affected, especially in relation to the topographical peculiarities of the region.
All these measures, of course, shed light on the nature of the Chinese counter-terrorism doctrine for the region, which represents an inevitable expression of the larger counter-insurgency program. As highlighted above, China adopts a “bottom-up” system, through which to mobilize the strength of the masses against terrorism, so as to keep the concentration high on two crucial elements that characterize any anti-terrorist campaign and the Chinese one in particular: control of the people through a dense network of surveillance and mobilization of the masses. The groups already deployed in the area, such as the XPCC (Xinjiang People’s Construction Corps), also known as 兵团 bingtuan, that is, the paramilitary units responsible for bringing development in the region, have been directly engaged with the recent measures introduced by the new Communist party official. On the top of all this, the central government has now started to install several internment camps where local population is confined, indoctrinated and controlled. The political situation in the region will inevitably become more difficult to interpret, since the New Silk Road project is destined to exert an ever more decisive influence over local policies, security and counter-terrorism measures.