A recent study of leaked Islamic State recruiting documents provides the first solid piece of evidence a considerable number of Chinese nationals have joined the terrorist group in the Middle East.
The study, conducted by two American think tanks, finds that almost all 114 Chinese nationals on the ISIS recruitment list come from Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the northwest where Muslims make up over half the population. In recent years, the region has also become home to militant groups resisting Chinese rule and seeking independence.
If these numbers are in fact true, it could mean that the Islamic State’s Chinese propaganda is actually working. Last year, the terrorist organization released a catchy little ditty in Mandarin calling Chinese Muslims to jihad.China is home to more than 30 million Muslims, but the fact that the song was released in Mandarin was more than a little odd.
Typically, ISIS has gone after the Turkic-speaking Uighur population of Xinjiang. Last December, they released a propaganda video starring their oldest member, an 80-year-old Uighur grandfather, describing his decision to leave China after decades of oppression and join the Islamic State. The same video also shows Uighur children dressed in military garb, interviewed about joining the Islamic State. The man and the children all speak the same Turkic language.
Watching videos like this in China has been proven to help you wind up jail. In April, a “curious” man from Jinan was arrested for downloading and watching ISIS videos.
China has faced a rising number of terrorist threats in the past few years. In 2011, a series of attacks perpetrated by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in the far-western city of Kashgar left 65 dead. Three years later, a mass knife attack carried out by Muslim extremists at the Kunming Railway Station resulted in 29 deaths and 130 injuries.
The Chinese government has been seeking closer cooperation and support from Western governments to counter terrorism in its own country. However, many human rights activists have pointed to the Chinese government’s history of abusing minority groups through repressive religious and political policies. Shortly after the Paris attacks last year, China called for “no double standards” in the war against terror and Western governments have gradually begun to cooperate more with Beijing as attacks continue to be carried out across Europe. For instance, the UK recently added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to its own terror watch list.
For its own part, China has fought terrorism in Xinjiang with flamethrowers, the power of music and beard bans. Last month, the government of the autonomous region announced that it will spend 1.6 billion yuan over the next 5 years to upgrade the railway system in the Karim Basin region. Mass infrastructure projects can allow the government to emigrate more Han Chinese into the region, as well as help stimulate the local economy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently visited Ningxia, another region with a majority Muslim population. In a speech on religion, Xi said: “Religions both foreign and domestic, have played a pivotal role in Chinese history. The imams should carry on the legacy of the past, devoting themselves to patriotism and religion.”