China's ethnocide and the transborder implications of the Uyghur Muslim unrest

Following the attack on a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 8, 2021, ISK confirmed the recruitment and mobilization of Uyghur fighters. This was the first time that the alliance between IS-K and Uyghurs was affirmed by IS-K on media platforms.

Aparna Rawal May 09, 2023
Uyghur Muslim unrest (Photo: Xinhua)

Since its conception in 2009 by Tahir Imin, Doppa Day, the Uyghur Doppa Cultural Festival, is celebrated annually on May 5. Imin is an independent researcher, social activist, journalist, and former political prisoner. The festival was first organized in Imin`s hometown of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (East Turkistan). It was also covered by the Central China TV (CCTV) in Beijing.

The festival honours the wearing of a “Doppa” or the cap which is culturally unique to the Uyghurs and other Turkic communities originating from East Turkmenistan region. Doppa to the Uyghurs stands as a symbol of identity and nationalism which they believe has been diluted or on the brink of extermination due to the Chinese crackdowns on anything culturally non-Chinese in the Xinjiang region.

The Executive Council of the East Turkistan government-in-exile also stated: “that the doppa is a symbolic but straightforward way of expressing East Turkistani / Uyghur national identity” and they encourage the Uyghurs, their supporters, and empathisers to wear Doppa on the festival day to display solidarity with the Uyghur community. In the process of reviving and spreading cultural awareness, many independent projects have also been launched. One such project is the "Doppi Project”, launched by Nadir Nahdi. The project aims to educate and promote awareness on Uyghur and Uzbek culture by introducing different types of Doppa, or the skullcap, worn in each country.

The festival is therefore observed as a Uyghur resistance movement against the Chinese colonization campaign and is also viewed as a platform to highlight the systematic political, social and cultural persecution of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government.

Beijing's crackdown on Uyghur culture

With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949 and Mao Zedong coming to power, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soon invaded East Turkistan. The continual subjugation, ethnic cleansing and rampant human rights abuses committed by the Chinese State has consistently surfaced on several media platforms.

In July 2009, several Uyghurs protested against the State-initiated Han Chinese migration in the XUAR and the extensive economic and cultural discrimination against them. Around two hundred Uyghur dissidents were reportedly killed. Since then, Beijing viewed all Uyghurs as “potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers”. Under the facade of 'war on terrorism, Uyghurs specifically have been displaced or detained or eliminated',. China has stated that it would combat “the three evils”—separatism, religious extremism, and international terrorism on the basis of what it stipulates or identifies as the above three.

In 2014, President Xi Jinping presaged the “toxicity of religious extremism” as a means to eliminate "Islamist extremism" in a series of speeches. According to New York Times in 2019, the Chinese president openly laid out the “groundwork” for the crackdown in Xinjiang. Since then, the CCP has spared no effort to Sinicize Uyghur identity, tradition and culture and tailor them to Han-Chinese societal customs.

 Anti-Muslim actions

The arbitrary detention of several thousand Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Uzbeks to so-called re-education centres have been reported frequently. According to several researchers, the re-education centres are nothing short of being termed “internment camps, and detention camps”. Some activists have also compared them to concentration camps. The Chinese government, however, calls the facilities “vocational education and training centres” Over the years, the fear of extermination of their spoken language, culture, history and practices of the Uyghurs has had expected backlashes followed by further crackdowns. It is evident that China tends to marginalize non-Han communities like the Uyghurs by first forcefully subsuming their distinct cultural identities and then re-educating them to follow the Han majoritarian way in their mission to “nip terrorist activities in the bud”. In 2017, Xinjiang’s local government passed an anti-extremism law that banned citizens from growing long beards and wearing niqaab (veils) in public spaces. Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) have identified more than 380 Uyghur detention facilities using satellite images.
In a report by Human Rights Watch in 2022, it was estimated that over half a million people had been prosecuted since 2017. May term Beijing;'s actions in XUAR as genocide.

Cross-border implications

The Uyghur cause for self-determination and preservation of their ethnic culture and identity is now sought to being exploited by several terror outfits, who believe aligning with the Uyghur cause will earn them support from fundamentalist Muslim elements in the Central Asian and South Asian regions.

The IS-K affiliation with the Uyghur fighters has also become evident in its open support and provision of safe havens. There have been reports of several Chinese jihadists joining the ranks of IS in Syria.  IS has cleverly used this opportunity to establish an ad-hoc group – The Gansu Hui group. The founder of the Gansu Hui, Abu Abdul Ali Turkistani, had also travelled to Pakistan to form a fundamentalist group, which was tasked with recruiting Chinese Muslims.

The group since its shadowy formation has brokered many negotiations and talks with the disaffected Chinese Muslims, Al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jamaat Ansarullah (Tajikistan), Islamic Jihadi Union (IJU), Islamic Movement of Turkmenistan (IMT), East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Harkat Islami Tajikistan and Islamic Jihad Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IJRPT).

Following the attack on a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 8, 2021, ISK confirmed the recruitment and mobilization of Uyghur fighters. This was the first time that the alliance between IS-K and Uyghurs was affirmed by IS-K on media platforms. Previously, the Uyghurs were used as anonymous entities in both physical and propaganda warfare by the IS-K. This development is seen as a looming threat not only to China but also to India. Pakistan is known to spin a false narrative of Muslim genocide and atrocities in Kashmir. This narrative is backed by terrorist outfits such as IS-K, who also receive support from Pakistan ISI to disseminate misinformation through their monthly subscription magazine called “Voice of Khurasan”. In the past, IS-K published “Voice of Hind” magazine which acted as an instructional and propaganda machine for IS-K in conjunction with ISI support to wage psyops against India, if not a motivational call for a jihadist attack on India. 

Over the years, China too has blamed Turkey for the resupply of fighters to ISIS and for aiding the Chinese Uyghurs to transit into Syria and Iraq to train with the Al Qaeda, ISIS and other Jihadi affiliates. China believes Turkey has links with the East Turkestan Movement (ETIM) and East Turkestan Education and Solidarity Association for the orchestrated terror attacks on the Chinese.

Jacob Zenn, a counter-terrorism expert, has written about the Turkish links to the Uyghur terrorism group called Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), which is known to run its network in Istanbul for recruitment of Chinese Islamist fighters against China. Recently the Turkish private military company called SADAT has vowed to wage proxy wars in Kashmir through its mercenaries recruited from various disaffected parts of the region. With SADAT doing Erdogan’s bidding under the Pakistani narrative on Kashmir, it could use fighters from Islamist backgrounds who may be susceptible to the Kashmir narrative spun by Pakistan. The implications of such a development may be seen through an increase in cross-border attacks in India, especially when India is to host G20 meetings in Srinagar.

(The writer is an Indian research analyst specializing in the AF/Pak region and counter-terrorism. Views are personal. She can be reached at

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