Many Xinjiang Uighurs are indeed disaffected: their complaints range from the routine, daily discrimination, to resentment of the state’s tight control of their culture and religion. Others react against the increasing pressure of Chinese migration. State-directed colonisation into Xinjiang began in the 1950s, and migration into the province has accelerated since China opened its western borders and ramped up investment in infrastructure. Development has made Xinjiang richer, but the beneficiaries have been Han Chinese, disproportionately, rather than the Xinjiang’s Uighurs, Kazaks or Kirgiz. Some certainly want to claim independence, as their neighbours in the former Soviet Central Asia were able to do after the collapse of the USSR. But this combination of grievances does not equate to a general desire to establish an Islamic state on the model of the Taliban’s Afghanistan, nor does it support the Chinese government’s case that all Xinjiang’s woes can be blamed on the external influence of global jihad.
Since 9/11, China has been eager to align any trouble in Xinjiang with international terrorist movements. While there is evidence of sporadic contact between Xinjiang groups and militants in Central Asia and Afghanistan, Xinjiang’s militants have largely been isolated from external support by China’s close security alliances with its Central Asian neighbours, and with Pakistan.
In 2002, the US state department, designated a Uighur group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim), as a terrorist organisation, but later removed it from the list. Beijing has claimed that Osama bin Laden trained and supported Chinese Muslim radicals, but the 22 Uighurs who were captured in Afghanistan after 9/11 and detained in Guantánamo Bay have all been released and exonerated.
Given its oppressive treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang, it is perhaps more surprising that China has not figured as a prime target of jihadi propaganda, let alone action, a pass it obtains largely through its strategic alliance with Pakistan.