China’s Policies Are Fuelling Hostile Jihadi Sentiment Around the World

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Image credit: Palácio do Planalto, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

China’s domestic security measures and its foreign policy actions have incensed a global array of jihadi elements. Consequently, the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda (AQ), the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and others have explicitly declared China an enemy.

The issue of Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang has gained rhetorical traction to become the most cited China-related grievance within Islamist media discourse, however there are additional narratives emerging about the nation’s growing footprint and increasing level of influence throughout the Islamic world. Jihadi organizations perceive China as an imperial and colonial-type power that is repressing Muslims at home, while simultaneously pursuing expansionist designs abroad.

Beijing’s growing international presence is increasing its exposure to attack at a time when militant anti-China sentiment is manifesting into real world threats to Chinese nationals and foreign interests. Just over the past year or so, several jihadi organizations ascribed the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan to divine retribution against China for its treatment of Muslims, al-Qaeda accused Beijing of supporting the Myanmar government’s atrocities against the Rohingya, while the Islamic State, Pakistani Taliban, and Turkistan Islamic Party criticized China’s Xinjiang policies. During the same period, French officials reportedly disrupted an Islamic State-inspired plan to target Chinese New Year celebrations in Brest, Indonesian authorities foiled multiple plots against Chinese businesses, al-Shabaab gunmen shot at Chinese construction vehicles in Kenya, IS insurgents attacked Chinese commercial assets in Mozambique, and a Chinese diplomatic delegation was the possible target of a TTP suicide vehicle bombing in Pakistan.

Jihadi propaganda narratives long employed against designated enemy states such as the U.S., Russia, and France are now being used to leverage China’s domestic and foreign policy transgressions. Historically, Islamist rhetoric about their more powerful enemies has tended to focus on foreign occupation, interference, and military presence, malign and corrupting influence, acts of violence and oppression, support for governments viewed as illegitimate, hostile, and repressive, as well as the exploitation of resources and environmental degradation. These conceptual framing templates are being customized and wielded against Beijing.

Militant anti-China causes have traditionally been spearheaded by Uighur Islamists, although in recent years such issues have become markedly more internationalized and have found advocates occupying prominent positions within the world’s major transnational jihadi organizations. Now-deceased Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi exclaimed “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized in China” and noted the “extreme torture and degradation of Muslims in East Turkistan” with the faithful being denied “their most basic human rights.” Former Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani reviled China as a country where Muslims face killing, abuse, imprisonment, and displacement. Likewise, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri forcefully condemned the abuses inflicted upon the Muslims of Xinjiang by the “atheist occupiers” and “Chinese invaders.” On a related point, researcher Andrew Small explains, “Where Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar judiciously weighed the risks of taking China on as an enemy, the newer generation of militants, whether the TTP or ISIS, have had no such qualms.”

China’s Muslim majority Xinjiang territory has a lengthy history of political unrest and separatist violence that has taken on a more Islamic character in recent decades. Beijing’s response to the region’s insecurity has been heavy-handed and has entailed a series of “Strike Hard” campaigns and other strict security measures intended to combat the “Three Evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. The Chinese government has often attributed Xinjiang’s political violence to jihadi organizations, yet the degree of transnational involvement in past incidents remains uncertain.

What is clear, however, is that China’s aggressive security clampdown has inflamed animosities and has become a topic of increased propaganda focus for jihadi organizations around the world. Militant media narratives frame China as an occupational force in Xinjiang, a region they refer to as “East Turkistan,” and portray Beijing as an oppressor of Muslims.

China’s dramatic rise, rapid economic growth, and its vastly expanded global reach have created friction on the ground and have drawn ire from various militant entities. Jihadi media emphasizes China’s perceived encroachment and violation of Muslim sovereignty as well as the imperative need to expel Chinese influence from sacred Islamic soil.

Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a colossal economic and infrastructure program aimed at deepening Chinese connectivity with the world, has riled a number of militant elements — including jihadis, Baloch and Sindhi separatists, as well as Philippine communists. The BRI is comprised of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, which span the lands and coasts of the Muslim world. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party, and the Islamic State have denounced the initiative by name. They accuse China of having imperialist ambitions and supporting repressive governments in countries such as Pakistan, Myanmar, and Syria.

Islamists have portrayed China as a colonizer and have even compared its BRI activities to those of the British East India Company. The Xinjiang dimension of the initiative has also been highlighted — jihadis underscore its value to China as a resource-rich and geo-strategically vital region, describing it as the Belt and Road’s gateway to the world and an international crossroads for commerce.

As China grows in stature it is being mentioned alongside the United States and Russia on the shortlist of great power enemies of the global jihadi movement. China’s vast military buildup and its expanding international network of bases and dual-use infrastructure have been flagged as constituting significant cause for concern.

The Islamic State assessed, “it will not be long before [the Chinese] intervene [in the Muslim world] directly through war with soldiers, aircraft, missiles, and warships.” Similarly, Abu Zar al-Burmi, former leading mufti of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and current associate of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, warned, “Mujahidin should know that the coming enemy of the Ummah is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.”

The rise of China is a momentous force in 21st century international politics, one that is being felt across the Islamic world. China is not a top tier target for most non-Uighur jihadi organizations at the moment, but it has received an increased level of attention from a multitude of Islamist actors in recent years. Moreover, if Beijing’s external influence continues to grow and militant anti-China perceptions continue to spread, the Asian giant could very well become a higher priority enemy for a broader range of elements within the global jihadi movement over time.

Lucas Webber is a writer and researcher focused on geopolitics and militant movements. He tweets at @LucasADWebber. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.