Chinese authorities are on high alert in western Xinjiang Province after the appearance of an Islamic State propaganda video featuring militants from China’s Uighur ethnic minority group.
In the 30-minute video, released in late February by the Al-Furat Province division of the Islamic State (IS) in western Iraq, heavily armed fighters and children give speeches, pray, and even kill “informants.”
One Uighur fighter is filmed saying, “Oh, you Chinese who do not understand what people say. We are the soldiers of the Caliphate, and we will come to you to clarify to you with the tongues of our weapons, to shed blood like rivers and avenge the oppressed.”
The video marks perhaps the most serious IS threat against Chinese territory since the militant group encouraged its fighters to launch operations in China more than two years ago.
Chinese officials are taking this threat seriously. In early March, a spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing was ready to work with the international community to combat terrorism. Normally, China has dealt with security issues on its own, or has worked with other states within the framework of regional groupings, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS).
Beijing has long worried that disaffected ethnic Uighurs — a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in Xinjiang and in neighboring Central Asian states, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan — would attract the attention of, and support from, Islamic State.
Uighur discontent has simmered in recent years, with some analysts citing stringent assimilation policies imposed on Xinjiang by Beijing as the root cause. In particular, authorities are strictly regulating the practice of Islam, while encouraging Han Chinese to settle in the region, and thereby diluting Uighurs’ cultural influence.
Uighur nationalists have engaged in what they view as armed acts of resistance. Chinese authorities consider such violence to be terrorism. Some Uighur nationalists seek to break away from China and establish an independent state in Xinjiang.
During the early years of the People’s Republic, Chairman Mao Zedong held out the prospect of “self-determination” to Uighurs, as well as the right to secede from the Communist state. While Chinese leaders backtracked on Mao’s complete self-determination offer, Xinjiang did receive “autonomous region” status in 1955.