Nearly every week, new reports surface of Muslim Uighurs trying to flee China. They’ve been found in refugee camps in Thailand and caught with fake passports trying to board planes. This week, Chinese police gunned down two Uighurs after they reportedly tried to cross China’s southern border into Vietnam.
The exodus has strained China’s relations with other countries, especially with Turkey, which has a historic bond with Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group.
So why are so many Uighurs – pronounced “WEE-ghurs” – trying to flee China?
According to human rights groups and other analysts, many are trying to avoid persecution and bloodshed in Xinjiang province, the area in far-western China that Uighurs have long called their homeland. Uighur emigration has tended to spike after bouts of violence in Xinjiang, and over the last three years, riots and clashes with Chinese police have become commonplace.
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Beijing has a different answer. The official Chinese line is that a large number of these would-be exiles are terrorists, bent on waging holy war abroad and bringing it back to China. And Beijing seems to be growing increasingly impatient with anyone who suggests otherwise.
“Contrary to our Western colleagues’ portrayal, they (Uighur emigrants) are not innocent, helpless members of an ethnic minority fleeing ‘suppression’ at home in pursuit of ‘freedom,’” the government-controlled China Daily wrote in an editorial Tuesday.
“They are religious extremists headed to the forefronts of Islamic jihad, and devotees of the Islamic State group.”
There’s no doubt that, for decades, Muslim Uighurs have left China to join wars and jihads abroad. Starting in the mid-1980s, Uighur militants trained with Afghan mujahedeen in their U.S.-supported battle against the Soviet Union. After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. and Pakistani forces captured Uighurs thought to be working with al Qaida and sent 22 of them to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Eventually, they were cleared of wrongdoing and released to other countries.
Until 9/11, it was fairly easy for Uighurs to escape China by slipping into Kazakhstan and the other “stans” that border Xinjiang. But over the last 13 years, China has worked with neighboring countries to make those borders less porous. It also has made it more difficult for Uighurs to obtain passports.
As a result, discontented Uighurs are finding other routes out of China, especially by crossing into Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, according to Jacob Zenn, a security analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research center. Once in Thailand, they can easily obtain fake passports to travel on to Turkey or other countries.
In March last year, Thai authorities detained two separate groups of people thought to be Uighurs who’d crossed into Thailand without proper documentation. One group of 112 was found in Sa Kaew province near the Thai-Cambodia border. Another group, of 220 people, was found in a jungle camp in southern Thailand’s Songkhla province.
While China has labeled escaping Uighurs as potential terrorists, many of those held in Thailand are women and children, as televised footage from the country shows. Police found the Songkhla group hungry and mosquito-bitten, with some carrying Chinese bus tickets and their life’s possessions.
“There is no indication whatsoever that the group being held in detention in Thailand are ‘terrorists,’” Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said in an email. He said Chinese authorities have made no apparent attempt to single out those detained for “special action,” as would occur if any of them were suspected militants.
China’s concerns about its southern borders have increased since a mob of Uighurs attacked a train station in south China on March 1. Wielding swords and knives, the mob carried out a bloody attack against passengers and police in a train station in Kunming, north of the Vietnam border. Chinese officials say the rampage stemmed from angry “Xinjiang terrorists” stopped from sneaking across the border, a claim that has yet to be independently verified.
Since then, China has set up a special task force to intercept smugglers and people trying to cross borders illegally. Some 352 smugglers and 852 “stowaways” have been arrested over the last eight months, the Ministry of Public Security said Sunday.
Last week, Chinese authorities also announced they had arrested 10 Turkish citizens in Shanghai for their role in attempting to smuggle Uighur “terrorists” out of the country. According to Global Times, a Chinese government publication, police captured the suspects in November when nine Uighurs attempted to flee the country with altered Turkish passports, with the help of two Chinese nationals, who were also arrested.
The arrests have further complicated an already tense relationship between China and Turkey. Turkey is home to thousands of Uighur exiles. Many Turks feel a kinship with Uighurs, seeing them as the descendants of nomadic Turks who settled in Xinjiang – which Uighurs call East Turkestan – centuries ago.
Yet Turkey has a $24 billion bilateral trade relationship with China. Many Turks don’t want to jeopardize it. Chinese officials already have issued harsh statements against Turkey for offering refuge to Uighur refugees found in Thailand. Beijing wants them deported to China, where rights groups fear that they could be imprisoned or tortured.
“Turkey is stuck in a dilemma,” said Metin Gurcan, a Ankara-based security specialist and former Turkish military adviser. The government, he said, is trying to keep the Uighur issue “low profile” so as not to antagonize either Uighur exiles or China.
One source of friction – Turkish smuggling networks that reportedly transport Uighurs and other Muslims through Turkey to the battlefront in Syria and Iraq. In Tuesday’s editorial, China Daily accused Turkey of “shilly-shallying” in stopping these networks and cracking down on Uighur militant groups. These groups are known by various names, including the Turkistan Islamic Party and East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Several countries and the United Nations have designated the Turkistan Islamic Party as a terrorist organization, and the group has issued repeated statements and videos in support of Uighur attacks in Xinjiang over the last three years. Even so, several security analysts are unsure if it is a functional organization and has had any real role in carrying out those attacks.
“It doesn’t seem like these repeated incidents (in China) have connections outside,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said in a telephone interview. “In general, groups outside are not claiming responsibility. You would think they would do so to claim credibility and enhance their ability to attract funding and support.”
Analysts are divided on the degree that Uighurs have joined the Islamic State. In July, China’s Middle East envoy, Ambassador Wu Sike, estimated there are at least 100 Chinese citizens fighting for the Islamic State, but the actual number may be higher. On Wednesday, Malaysia’s home minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, told the Bernama news agency that more than 300 Chinese nationals have used Malaysia as a transit point to join the Islamic State. Ahmad Zahid said he learned those figures from China’s vice minister of public security during a meeting Wednesday.
Pantucci says it isn’t surprising that the Islamic State has attracted disaffected Muslims from China, which has more than 10 million Uighurs and roughly 15 million Hui Muslims. “They are drawing in radicals from everywhere,” he said.
Even some non-Uighur Chinese have joined the fight in Syria. The most prominent is a Han Chinese named Wang Bo. He reportedly traveled from Libya to Syria to join a battalion that later became part of the Islamic State. He appeared in a 2013 video vowing to attack the “Chinese economy” in revenge for China’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. His whereabouts now are uncertain.
Another foreign fighter is Chen Weiming, a Chinese-born artist and naturalized New Zealand citizen who has also appeared in several videos from Syria.
In a telephone interview from his home in New Zealand, Chen told McClatchy he has made three visits to Syria since 2011 to fight with and help the Free Syrian Army, a group that has received limited U.S. support in its battle to oust the Syrian president.
“I went there because I believe in freedom,” said Chen, known for his “Goddess of Democracy” statue, a tribute to victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. “I believe we should help people under dictatorship, whether they are in China or Syria.”
During his time in Syria, Chen said he did not encounter any Uighur fighters, but he understands there are several there. He scoffed at Chinese claims that Uighur militants abroad are exporting terrorism back to China.
“In Xinjiang, the people labeled terrorists are using knives and then getting shot by police,” he said. “Real terrorists use much different weapons.”
While that may be so, other observers say it is just a matter of time before Uighur militants abroad become as radicalized – and well-armed – as their counterparts elsewhere.
In a post this week in Al-Monitor, Gurcan noted a shift in traditional Uighur interpretations of the Quran.
Whereas Uighurs once adhered to the “the school of Imam Maturidi” – a highly moderate school of Islamic thought – they are moving toward more radical ideas, wrote Gurcan, citing the research of another Turkish analyist, Hussein Rasit Yilmaz.
In Xinjiang, Chinese authorities almost every month announce a new regulation aimed at preventing radicalization. Men can’t grow long beards. Women are discouraged from wearing veils. For several years, young Uighurs have been unable to enter mosques.
On Friday, a story in China Daily announced that China was strengthening its military presence in Xinjiang to prevent terrorist attacks and better enforce border controls.
“The Chinese are taking this seriously, as they should,” said Pantucci. On the other hand, he noted, “If you overreact to a terrorist incident, you could play into their hands and create a bigger problem.”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.