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The True Story of Xinjiang

May 08, 2021
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

As a result of its particular historical background and geographical location, Xinjiang in northwestern China is no stranger to terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism, all of which pose a grave threat to the safety and security of local residents.

By incomplete statistics, thousands of acts of terrorism were perpetrated in the region from 1990 to 2016, leaving thousands of civilians and hundreds of police officers dead. Before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the notoriously rampant terrorists in Xinjiang launched a spate of attacks that resulted in unbearably high casualties. On July 5, 2009, for example, a riot in the capital, Urumqi, killed 197 people and injured more than 1,700. In 2013, 15 were killed and two injured in an attack in Kashgar. And on May 22, 2014, terrorists in two SUVs plowed through crowds of shoppers in a street market in the capital and threw explosives during the attack, resulting in 39 deaths and 94 injuries.

Making matters worse, some terrorists expanded their reach far into other parts of the country under the auspices of international terrorist forces. Several people were killed or injured when an SUV driven by Uygur terrorists rammed through barricades in front of Tiananmen Square’s Golden Water Bridge in Beijing on Oct. 28, 2013. Then, on March 1, 2014, a group of knife-wielding Uygurs killed 31 passengers and injured 141 in a train station in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, in southwestern China.

The mastermind behind these high-profile events was the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM. This separatist group has attempted to divide the country through acts of terrorism and ultimately to build its so-called East Turkestan State. It is also an important component of the international terrorist network once led by Osama bin Laden. There was a special “China battalion” comprising 320 ETIM members when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. The group’s main sources of funding included capital supplied by al-Qaeda and the proceeds from organized crime, including drug trafficking and robbery.

In 2002, the ETIM was designated by the United Nations as a terrorist organization, and like many other countries, the United States approved.

To protect the safety and security of local communities, Xinjiang has engaged in an anti-terrorism and de-radicalization campaign across the region. In addition to cracking down on violent terrorism, it works to prevent the emergence of terrorism at the source. One important part of this campaign is vocational education and training centers for those who are possessed by religious extremism or have committed minor offenses. The centers offer programs on law, which most of the trainees had little knowledge of; on various skills that empower them to find jobs; and on standard Chinese, which helps them better communicate with the wider society.

De-radicalization courses are also provided. The length of study depends on the learning ability and efficiency of the trainees, ranging from several months to one year. So far, the trainees have all graduated and found jobs that bring them a stable source of income.

Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism policy has produced notable gains. It has brought sustained social stability, with not a single terrorist attack taking place in the past four years. In 2019, the region hosted more than 200 million domestic and international tourists, and by early 2020, 70 delegations from nine countries and regions had visited. Equally important, social stability ensures a safe environment for religious activities. Today, there are 24,000 mosques in Xinjiang — one mosque for every 530 Muslims, a ratio much higher than that of most Muslim countries.

Xinjiang’s governance model and gains have garnered widespread international recognition. In July 2019, 51 countries, including 28 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, announced their support for Xinjiang’s approach to preventing and countering terrorism in a joint letter to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Xinjiang has much to offer the world when it comes to addressing terrorism, a challenge faced by all, they said.

In many ways, poverty is the breeding ground of terrorism and extremism. Therefore, greater economic development and higher income are seen as important elements in Xinjiang’s anti-terrorism policy. For years, 19 developed provinces and cities have paired up with the region to spur its development, providing assistance in the form of capital, cooperative projects, human resources and training programs for local technicians. As a beneficiary of these efforts, Xinjiang saw its GDP grow by a factor of 2.5 between 2010 and 2020, a rate higher than the national average.

On April 14, an article telling the anti-terrorism story in Xinjiang was published in the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper. Titled “Xinjiang: What the West doesn’t tell you about China’s war on terror,” it said:

“Unlike the U.S. war on terror, China’s counterterrorism campaign seems to have worked. There have been no reports of terror attacks since 2017. It is actually quite remarkable that China has been able to rein in terrorism, an intractable problem anywhere in the world, without inflicting as much collateral damage. This point never seems to be made in the torrent of outrage pouring from the Western press.

“Now the United States accuses China of genocide, without any evidence. Does China not have a point when it accuses America of double standards?

“On Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the U.S. presidential election, the Trump administration delisted ETIM as a terrorist group. The timing could not be more cynical — what better way to get back at China, which Trump had repeatedly blamed for his political misfortunes? At the stroke of a pen, ETIM-sponsored terrorism was no longer an issue to the U.S., and out went the international legitimacy of China’s counterterrorism campaign. That paved the way for Pompeo to declare genocide.

“China’s policies in Xinjiang … are not targeted at a religion or an ethnic group, but at extremism; major Muslim countries understand this and have publicly supported China.”

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