China – To What Extent is Uighur Islam a Threat to China?

By Michael Nicholls (2017)

The Uighur[1] people are an ethnic minority group living in the western Xinjiang province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Numbering close to 10 million, they make up 60% of the province’s population alongside a Han minority that has migrated from the East (Uyghur American Association, n.d.).  An ethnically Turkic group, they have entered the global media spotlight following the appearance of Uighur fighters in Islamist[2] videos from Syria pledging bloodshed in defence of Xinjiang’s Muslims (Financial Times, 2017). The Chinese state has responded by imposing heavy restrictions on religious institutions and attire in Xinjiang’s predominantly Sunni province, including the banning of long beards and wearing of veils (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2017). This essay will examine whether Uighur Islam truly is a threat to China. It will explore four areas where there is a perceived threat and examine the extent to which Uighur Islam, as opposed to other socio-political and ideological issues, poses a genuine challenge. It must firstly be established that there are multiple levels in which there could be a threat: militarily, economically, ideologically and territorially. The conclusion will be reached that it is too simplistic to suggest that Uighur Islam as a whole is a threat to China, but rather it poses a threat to certain nationalist and secular values of the ruling Communist Party (CCP). While the Uighur Islamists featured in the ISIS videos do pose a security threat to a region important to China’s economic ambitions, Islam as a whole is more of a rallying-cry than the motivation behind many challenges to the Chinese state.

A Threat to Security from Terrorism

Uighur involvement in groups that promote a violent Islamist agendas poses an obvious threat to the security of China. There are a suspected 1,000 Uighur fighters among the ranks of formerly al Qaeda affiliated A-Nusra Front (also known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham as of July 2016) and ISIS in Syria alone (Nodirbek, 2016, p. 3). The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), considered a terrorist organisation by both the US and China (Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China, 2017) has an estimated 300-500 fighters in Afghanistan, allied to the Islamist Haqqani Network (Nodirbek, 2016). Despite representing only a small percentage of the 10 million-strong Uighur population (Uyghur American Association, n.d.) at ~0.015%, the presence of any Uighurs in groups considered ‘terrorist’ by the Chinese state is a threat both domestically and to Chinese interests abroad. Despite being small in number, they have received effective enough equipment and training to attack apparatus of the Chinese state. There have been several examples of this. Knife and bomb attacks in Hotan in 2011 and Kunming in 2014 killing 4 and 29 respectively, including security personnel (China Daily, 2011) (Xinhaunet, 2014). Islamists also threaten foreign economic interests. “In August 2015, a propaganda video issued by TIP featured Uighur militants ambushing vehicles carrying local security personnel of Chinese state-owned copper mine Mes Aynak in Afghanistan” (Nodirbek, 2016, p. 3). Despite attacks limited to politically motivated groups rather than an attack by Uighur Islam as a whole, the use of Islam and a violent conception of ‘jihad’ by groups like the TIP are a challenge to a government that prides itself of security and absolute control (Carlson, 2008, p. 146).

While it is clear that Uighur Islamists continue to prose a security threat to China, the extent to which Uighur Islam as a whole is a threat is debatable. Karrar argues that Uighurs ‘who found themselves liaising with Islamists in Afghanistan had differing motivations: many may have been Islamists, some wanted to acquire combat skills (or tap into the region’s lucrative war economy)…they were not, like the Taliban, seeking to establish an Islamic state” (Karrar, 2010, p. 117). However he continues that regardless of whether they were Islamist or not, they were still challenging the secular and trade-restrictive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policy (ibid.). Therefore Uighur Islam is a threat to China’s security because it acts as a motivation for individuals to join groups that actively challenge the security of China domestically and their foreign interests in the Middle East. However the extent to which the security challenge is from Uighur Islam as a whole is still questionable. Islamist groups abroad have used Islam as a motivating factor to arm individuals and legitimize violence. It is only a select minority that have acted on Islamist motivations to challenge Chinese state security. It would arguably be more accurate to suggest that while Islam is a motivating factor for some violence. The fact that only a minority have committed themselves to violent Jihad suggest there are wider causations than religion alone. As Karrar pointed out, even within among Uighur fighters abroad there were varying motivations- many fixated around opposition to restrictive Chinese policies in the region. “Islamic threats to Xinjiang were heightened significantly by the Soviet’s continuing involvement in Afghanistan and the impact of Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979…[resulting in] enhanced government control and management of ethnic minority religious and cultural practices to this day” (Clarke, 2008, p. 278). The banning of long beards and veils in Xinjiang is the latest example of this (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2017). This would appear to suggest Uighur Islam is a secondary cause of political violence. An extreme interpretation of Islam is used as a motivating factor for a minority within a minority that are already disgruntled at Chinese domestic restrictions.

A Threat to Territorial Integrity

Uighur Islam arguably poses a threat to China’s territorial integrity. The first threat is that Islam could be used by Uighurs as motivation and legitimisation for independence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Independence would damage China’s economic interests in the region’s trade potential and natural resources, something discussed later in the essay. Uighur Islam as a motivation for an independent Turkic Xinjiang also challenges the nationalist paradigm, as well as the territorial makeup of China. The CCP has created a programme of national patriotism in schools, including learning pupils the provinces and key resources of each region. This has created a national identity that is distinctly territorial (Qui, 2014, p. 29). Loss of land, such as the Diaoyu Islands Crises of 1990 and 1996, are poorly received by the population. “The perceived failure of the CCP to defend China’s territorial claims vigorously led to public criticism and had a negative impact on the regime’s legitimacy” (Stvecker-Downs & Saunders, 1998, p. 126). The CCP will therefore view Uighur Islam as a threat because any independence challenge opposes not just China’s sovereignty but nationalist paradigm tied to physical territory. This appears to have been reinforced by President Xi Jinping who stated “never allow any one, any organisation, any party to split off any tract of territory from China anytime, or in any way” in a 2016 public address (South China Morning Post, 2016). Thurman goes further by suggesting that China’s territorial occupation of Tibet, Xinjiang and now areas of the South China Sea show an imperialism in Chinese policy (Thurman, 2008, p. 160). He furthers the argument by suggesting religion (in this case Uighur Islam) poses an identity that conflicts with policies of “liberation” by a pan-Chinese, economically powerful and secular Chinese state. Uighur Islam is a territorial threat among those who support an independent state which goes against the nationalist paradigm. However Islam as a whole, as part of the Uighur identity, is a wider threat because it challenges the ideas of pan-Chinese identity, especially along China’s volatile Western border.

Whether the threat is specifically from Uighur Islam is again questionable. While Uighur Islam may well be a challenge to a secular pan-Chinese ideal, Uighurs have disproportionately faced discrimination compared to other Muslim groups. Minorities are protected by the Chinese constitution, receiving “more generous social welfare, the leeway to have more than one child, lower score requirements to get into college, reserved spots in local government” (The Atlantic, 2013). However Muslim Uighurs will face regular discrimination where other Eastern Chinese Muslims will not. In hotels “if their names or ID cards don’t give [their ethnic identity] away during the booking, they’re turned away without explanation or apology when they try to check in” (ibid.). Therefore it is questionable whether it is Islam that’s the threat to China. There exists the argument in the literature that there has been an “ethnicization of discontent” in Xinjiang (Thum, 2009). Discontent over state-policies and a lack of investment in the region has been painted as religious warmongering. While Islam as a whole may not be a perceived threat, Uighur Islam threatens territorial integrity by harbouring an independence rhetoric in response to poor investment by the Chinese state. Other Muslim groups along the wealthier Eastern coast do not offer the same territorial threat and so do not face the same discrimination. In order to preserve a conception of a strong single party, the CCP alienate Uighur Islam rather than admitting economic flaws (ibid.). Further discussion in this essay will highlight how religious worker’s unions are often branded as “terrorist” organisations when there is little evidence to suggest they hold Islamist views. This will support the conclusion that Islam has largely been used to organise protests about other socioeconomic issues, but is demonised as the main threat to Chinese security.

A Threat to Economic Interests

Uighur Islam poses a threat not just to the physical security of China, but to the economic security of the state also. There is the danger that instability in Xinjiang will threaten Chinese trade ambitions. President Xi Jinping has attempted to construct a “one belt, one road” initiative that aims to recreate the Silk Road trade routes west out of China, including plans for “1 million textile jobs in Xinjiang by 2023” to support trade (Reuters, 2016). Uighur Islam would be a threat if Islamists motivated by religion attack trade infrastructure, although this is something they are yet to do. The threat from Islam is largely focused on its role in unifying workers against the Chinese state. “Capitalist-working class divisions emerging in contemporary China, where clashes between managers and workers have become frequent occurrences, and increasing worker solidarity and growing labour activism, organised around mosques and other religious institutions, have become a leading concern of the Communist Party” (Hess, 2010, p. 403). As well as posing a human security threat, unionisation of workers by religion is posing a threat to economic security. Hess argues that unions organised by imams and mosques is a challenge to the increasingly capitalist system of trade within China, by limiting production in the quest for workers’ rights. More extreme Uighur Islamists threaten economic interests abroad. “China through its state-owned enterprises has been investing or promised to invest heavily in a number of conflict-affected countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. These countries’ security remains fragile, lacking the capacity to provide sufficient security…Chinese investment projects and citizens are likely to become easy targets for Uighur militants” (Nodirbek, 2016, p. 2). As previously noted, China is trying to establish itself as a world power, and in order to do this it needs to act on an international level. A Uighur insurgency creates a threat directly to Chinese economic interests in particular, threatening economic as well as ideological interests of the Chinese state. China cannot trade effectively, and so enact global financial influence, if its economic stability is at risk both domestically and abroad.

The threats from Uighur Islam from unions and jihadists has arguably provided China with an opportunity. Han Chinese have migrated on a large scale to Xinjiang, with an estimated 250,000 arriving annually since a government financial incentives began in 1987 (Rudelson & Rudelson, 1997, p. 66). Economic growth requires workers, and China has utilised this to inject nationalism into Xinjiang. “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has attempted to present this revitalization of nationalism among younger Han Chinese as a national rather than ethnic based movement”. (Qui, 2014, pp. 29-30). Qui goes on to note that many Han were educated in the East where capitalism had begun to challenge communist ideals, and therefore nationalism had been used by the CCP to fill the ideological void. “Han Chinese responded to the 2008 and 2009 minority protests…with strong nationalistic reactions, showing increased resolve among this population to maintain Xinjiang as a part of the PRC” (Qui, 2014, p. 29). China’s economic growth has embolden its leaders, fuelling “a tidal wave of pride, stemming from China’s move up the global power-hierarchy, which has amplified latent nationalism” (Lampton, 2014, p. 76). Any threat to its economic growth, including therefore the threat from Islamic workers unions, is a threat to national pride. “Interrogations of captured Xinjiang’s Uyghurs who “confessed” to have been involved in industrial “terrorist” operations “on behalf of Islam” betray their basic ignorance in the Islamic fundamentalist ideologies” (Shichor, 2005, p. 128). This not only supports the conclusion that Uighur Islam is not always the primary motivation of Uighur fundamentalists, but shows the Chinese state is willing to label any perceived threat to its economic security as “terrorism”. The use of Han Chinese with strong nationalistic rather than religious convictions further suggests the threat Uighur Islam is perceived threat to economic interests in Xinjiang. If Uighur Islam is the rallying-call of those opposing the capitalist model being imposed in Xinjian, then the Chinese state will view Islam negatively, regardless of whether religion is the primary motivation or simply the unifying factor for workers dissatisfied with their socioeconomic condition.

An Ideological Threat

China views itself as an absolutely sovereign People’s Republic, and the international community of Islam may pose a threat as an international influence. An objection to allowing international human rights observers, restrictions on foreign media and unyielding non-extradition policies highlight China’s unwillingness to compromise on foreign interventions in the domestic political arena (Carlson, 2008, pp. 146-147). Even international investment has to be approved by the CCP (ibid.). Sovereignty and non-interference feature heavily in the national constitution.

China consistently carries out an independent policy and adheres to the five principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence – Preamble, Constitution of the People’s Republic of China 1982 (State Council of the People’s Republic of China, 2014)

Global Islamic unity will therefore be a rival influence to the CCP beyond the direct security threat from Islamist groups like the TIP. It provides a foreign influence over the private lives of individuals. China has an “assertive secular policy” because socialism will regulate the private sphere, while liberal nations such as France will not (Kuru, 2007). The threat of Uighur Islam having foreign influence challenges the CCP’s control over the private sphere. Mao ordered the CCP to act “as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons…the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind” (Tse-tung, 1961, p. 70). While the party may no longer fully subscribe to Maoism, the concept of complete state control over all spheres of life, void of foreign influence, remains. Uighurs Islam is a threat because it is an outside influence, with Islamic teachings and fatwas coming from the wider Sunni community. Therefore not just Islam but religion as a whole is a threat to China.

Uighur Islam is a threat to the stability of the Chinese state by threatening its policies of secularism. The Communist party officially tolerates religion on the grounds that it is restricted to the private sphere and does not pose a perceived challenge to the state (MacInnis, 1972, p. 14). Uighur Islam is divided in its application of this policy. There have been examples of Uighur Islam promoting the Chinese government in line with the Chinese policy of tolerating those religious institutions that do not impair public order to involve foreign influence, according to article 36 of the Chinese Constitution (State Council of the People’s Republic of China, 2014). The paradox of their secular policy is that they are willing to facilitate recognised ‘patriotic religion’ in the private sphere to accommodate the religious desires of the massive populous, but are unwilling to provide significant infrastructure due to an unwillingness to act in the private sphere.  “In all Xinjiang with its over 18 million inhabitants—nearly 60 percent of them Muslims—there is only one school for training Muslim clergymen…since its formation in 1987, and up to 2001, over two hundred “patriotic clerics” have graduated, around fourteen a year for a Muslim population of about eleven million” (Shichor, 2005, p. 128). As previously noted, Islam has been used as a rally for Uighurs in protesting socioeconomic injustices, both violently and peacefully. The blending of private and political through the politicisation of religion goes against the core constitutional principles of the Chinese state, as well as the secular Marxist ideals that help found it. Therefore regardless of if Uighur Muslims intend to use religion to threaten China, in line with my conclusion, the use of religion in challenging the CCP in any capacity is an ideological threat.


This essay has analysed four key areas where Uighur Islam may pose a threat to China in terms of security, economy, territory and ideology. An initial observation is that to assess China as a state, one is really assessing the ideological objectives and positions of the ruling CCP. Any threats in either of the four categories are threats against their political interests. That said, any challenge posed by Uighur Islam against their ideals will be perceived by the CCP to be an attack on China as a whole. It is therefore too simplistic to suggest Uighur Islam is a threat to all China, rather it is a threat to the nationalist and secular values of the Party. And they do pose a challenge, if not directly than as a medium of organisation against the state. While Islamists do pose a threat to security in the name of Islam, they are not representative of a wider Uighur Islam with a comparably smaller percentage actively engaging in violent jihad. Uighur Islam is however a threat to economic and ideological values as a rallying-cry for strikes and independence movements. These directly challenge the nationalist sentiments of China and have resulted in a fierce crackdown which other Islamic minority groups have seen little of, enhancing the conclusion that Islam as a whole is not the threat. Thum’s theory of ‘ethnicization’ of the conflict is more accurate. Uighur Islam is a threat to China when it is used to organise against CCP policy and therefore challenge the absolute sovereignty of the state. It is often a secondary factor behind other socioeconomic grievances, but is demonised by the Chinese state that will not address its own economic failures. The direct threat from Uighur Islam is largely limited to Islamist attacks, however any threat to Chinese state control will be seen as a dangerous ideological threat.


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[1] Also spelt in some translations as ‘Uyghurs’. They refer to the same ethnic group

[2] While a controversial term, the description ‘Islamist’ is used in this essay to refer to individuals or groups that interpret a violent conception of jihad and follow a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.


One thought on “China – To What Extent is Uighur Islam a Threat to China?

  1. This is an excellent essay which demonstrates very good understanding of the case study, and sharp and perceptive critical thinking. It builds on a good range of relevant sources which it deploys well. It is well structured, mostly very well written, and very well referenced.

    At the same time, although the analysis is mostly very sharp and perceptive, at times the pace is a little slower, and the discussion less tightly focused and less fully developed and explicit. Sometimes the signposting could be a tad clearer too when for instance the essay will later address something which otherwise appears to be raise and closed quite quickly. As for content, the essay rather underplays the role of religion in ISIS a little too strongly and quickly: the conclusion is convincing and would not change as a result, but perhaps a little more discussion of the role of religion in ISIS and ‘al Qaedism’ would help.

    Nonetheless, on the whole, this is an excellent analysis, reflecting originality, insight and mastery of the topic, demonstrating critical enough reading of an extensive range of texts, built on independent research, and putting forth a persuasively articulated argument.


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