July 17, 2009


The buildings have stopped shaking, fires are smoldering to their ends. Smoke dissipates across the night sky as victims of the Ürümqi riots are hauled away. For now the worst is over, but China is growing into a super power and should guard against pride and recklessness.

If no change comes to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China could regret letting the embers burn.

Xinjiang has a long history of civil unrest spawned by ethnic tensions and religious undertones; over 8 million Uyghur’s feel repressed in a region in which they form the largest minority. Most recently a series of terrorist attacks stole the spotlight from Tibet during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The latest riots are certainly part of a trend, but beyond this only Chinese authorities know the full story of Ürümqi.

In one way what actually happened is irrelevant. Al-Qaeda aftershocks would follow the quake regardless.

Uyghurs are Sunni Muslims and al-Qaeda feeds on Muslim oppression. In the waning days of the riots, Algerian-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) vowed retaliation by threatening Chinese workers and interests in Algeria. China has 50,000 workers in Algeria alone, and AQIM’s threat metaphorically extends across Africa.

According to an intelligence report compiled by Stirling Assynt, “There is an increasing amount of chatter among jihadists who claim they want to see action against China.”

Doubts persist about whether AQIM is actually real. It may not be. Similar rumors question the existence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an Uyghur separatist movement; both groups are alleged ploys by Algeria and China to curry favor with America after 9/11. But the East Turkestan Liberation Organization (ETLO) is real and China claims it too has connections to al-Qaeda, to scapegoat Uyghurs the ETLO argues.

These theories mesh with the Ürümqi riots, which some claim were instigated by outsiders. A Pakistani government spokesman blamed the riots on "foreign elements" meant to disrupt Chinese-Pakistani relations. Al-Qaeda’s presence is real, if not physically then psychologically. If any kind of militancy takes root in Africa, it could spread to China.

Think again if the thought of al-Qaeda battling China sounds nonsensical. The idea isn’t to immediately infiltrate Xinjiang, where China can be as heavy handed as it pleases. Scant regard for human rights is an advantage when pursuing suspected terrorists at home, but this advantage evaporates in the Sahara.

China’s vast African investments would make easy targets for al-Qaeda, which operates a potent network across the continent. With over 400 million Muslims spanning the world’s deadliest conflicts, al-Qaeda maintains training camps in Sudan and Somalia at the minimum, with members in every north African state. China has nothing to gain by defending against and chasing Islamic militants 4,000 miles away.

China seems militarily intelligent, avoiding wars and steadily building its army for the 21st century. The seas will change when China launches its first nuclear powered aircraft carrier and one day it will plant its flag on the moon, crowding the space arms race. So it would be foolish if China overlooked the best time to defeat an insurgency: before it happens.

Stop the small from becoming great, that would be Sun Tzu’s advice.

China cannot let al-Qaeda progress to the 9/11 stage. Still off the government’s radar in 1991, few Americans had heard of Osama bin Laden. He had no network in America, but left to fester for a decade and the consequences became gruesomely evident. Al-Qaeda is serious when it threatens to attack in the name of persecuted Muslims, the only justification it has left, and cracking down on Uyghurs will attract Islamic militants over time.

Al-Qaeda and China’s long-term horizons are becoming entangled and tensions will escalate if perception and reality remains stagnant. Uyghur language is supposedly being phased out and Islamic worship stigmatized. Uyghurs complain of political exclusion and ethnic persecution. The Ürümqi riots allegedly started with a rumor that two Uyghurs laborers had raped a Chinese woman. A fight left two Uyghurs dead, sparking a protest and eventually martial unrest.

Uyghurs may exaggerate their treatment from China, but the situation would not be what it is now if their every claim was false. China needs to give more attention and freedom to the Uyghurs’ political aspirations. Engaging them won’t ruin China, but refusing to tempts disaster. China can’t give Islamic militants any reason to declare jihad.

Al-Qaeda is hunting for a new host for the 2010’s and Xinjiang fits the requirements. Working with the Uyghurs is China's best preventive strategy.

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