A spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress has said that a Syrian ambassador’s claims there are 5,000 Uighurs, from China’s Western Xinjiang province, fighting in various Syrian militant groups is a ploy to gain Beijing’s support at the United Nations Security Council.

Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador in Beijing, said that some of the Chinese Uighurs were fighting under the Islamic State (ISIS), but most were “fighting under their own banner to promote their separatist cause,” Reuters reported on May 8.

“China, as well as every other country, should be extremely concerned,” Moustapha told Reuters.

However, Dilixiati Rexiti, spokesperson of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress told Radio Free Asia’s Chinese-language service that the numbers given by Syria were an exaggeration and that the Syrian government was hoping for more weapons and economic aid from China.

U.S.-based China rights activist Liu Qing (劉青) told RFA it was very unlikely that such a high number of Uighur people could have left China as Beijing imposes strict controls on the movements of the Uighur population.

“The proportion of Uighur fighters to their total population is also too high,” Liu told RFA.

Strict controls

In November 2016, Chinese authorities ordered all residents of Xinjiang to hand in their passports to the police for inspection. At the time, various international media outlets reported that new passports would no longer be issued.

Xinjiang’s roughly 10 million Uighurs make up about half of the population in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Province. The Uighurs are predominantly Muslim, and have been marginalized and discriminated against by the dominant Han in China. Beijing has prevented the Uighurs from practicing their culture and religion, a key part of Uighur identity.

Chinese state media has claimed that around 300 Uighurs are fighting with ISIS in Syria, traveling to the region via Southeast Asia and Turkey. Wu Sike (吳思科), a senior Chinese diplomat, said in July 2014 that about 100 Uighur militants were receiving training in Syria and Iraq.

Washington D.C. based think-tank New America’s report on terrorism, published in July 2016, found that of 118 ISIS fighters from China, 114 were from Xinjiang and referred to the region as “Turkestan” or “East Turkestan.” The numbers were based on leaked ISIS foreign fighter registration forms collected by ISIS on the Syria-Turkey border between mid-2013 and mid-2014.

The report said that most of the fighters from Xinjiang who registered to fight with ISIS were actually leaving China in search of a “sense of belonging.”

The Uighurs who registered to fight for ISIS were new to Jihad, which suggests that the fighters were not “seasoned veterans of foreign wars,” as is the case with members of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an al-Qaeda affiliated group have been active in Xinjiang and involved in conflicts in the Middle East.

The ETIM claimed responsibility for the 2013 Tiananmen car crash, which Beijing labeled as a terrorist suicide attack.

ISIS’s propaganda videos showing Uighur children in clean classrooms learning religion, a practice forbidden in China, has been drawing the Uighurs to Syria, the New America report found.

History of unrest

Chinese control over the Xinjiang region has been unstable since the Chinese Communist Party incorporated it as part of China in 1949.

Ethnic riots between the Uighurs and the Han communities broke out in July 2009 in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Nearly 200 people died in the riots, and since then, China has tightly controlled information in the region and restricted foreign journalists’ activities.

Uighur activists like Ilham Tohti and Dolkun Isa who have spoken out against Beijing have been arrested or exiled.

China has banned Muslim men from keeping beards and women from wearing the hijab, as well as implementing a ban on Muslim baby names such as “Jihad” or “Medina.” The Chinese authorities have prevented Uighurs from fasting during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, going so far as to force Uighur children to eat zongzi (sticky rice dumplings).

In February, following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) pledge to strengthen counter-terrorism efforts, security forces staged mass anti-terror rallies in Ürümqi, Kashgar and Hotan, parading armed men and armored vehicles through the streets.

China blames the violence and unrest in Xinjiang on Islamic extremism and Uighur ties to foreign terrorist groups. Its government denies any oppression of the Uighur people.

Experts and human rights groups, however, argue that China’s repressive policies in the region are to blame for the rise in violence in Xinjiang.

Read More:

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China's Heavy Hand in Xinjiang
China Forces Uighurs to Eat During Ramadan
Beijing’s New Scorched-Earth Policy Against the Uighurs

Editor: Edward White