Xinjiang: A personal perspective

Sep 20, 2023
Fernando Munoz Bernal in Xinjiang.

The fact is that between 2010 and 2016, Xinjiang was on the brink of chaos. Unlike America’s war on terror, characterised by US troops invading the wrong countries, destroying infrastructure, pillaging resources, terrorizing locals and conducting drone strikes that killed civilians and journalists, as Julian Assange valiantly exposed on WikiLeaks, China’s approach to counter terrorist forces in the region was different.

I am writing this on the heels of the paper  written by two highly respected German sinologists, Thomas Herberer, a professor of Chinese Politics at Duisburg-Essen University, and Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, a professor of Chinese studies and director of China Centrum Tubingen.

A crucial point of the article acknowledges the existence of “massive Islamic terrorism” in Xinjiang between the years 2010 and 2016 at the hands of twelve separatist-Islamist movements operating there. Even the US acknowledged the existence of terrorist groups in Xinjiang and its bordering countries at the time, even though today we see Washington DC-based NGOs insisting this was not the case. Be reminded that former Secretary of State Pompeo, under the Trump administration, as one of his last acts as Secretary, decided to remove one of these groups from the CIA’s terrorist list.

The fact is that the region was on the brink of chaos, and it was necessary for the central government to take swift action.

Unlike America’s war on terror, characterised by US troops invading the wrong countries, destroying infrastructure, pillaging resources, terrorising locals and conducting drone strikes that killed civilians and journalists, as Julian Assange valiantly exposed on WikiLeaks, China’s approach to counter terrorist forces was different.


Perhaps the most pressing measure was reestablishing safety. This entailed the deployment of a military and security presence, the implementation of tighter border security, and the gathering of intelligence, which included every member of society, local law enforcement agencies, and religious institutions, given that Islamist radicals were disseminating hate-inspired messages from their pulpits.

Over these years, Western governments, politicians, and pundits have characterised the measures by the central government as excessive, targeted at both Uyghurs and Islam. While there is a discussion to be had regarding what is considered excessive or systemic in the midst of China’s domestic “war on terror,” the rest of the statement must be rectified.

Measures by the central government were focused on dismantling terrorist networks – networks that were, without a doubt, comprised largely of Uyghur and Muslims living in Xinjiang and abroad.

It is important to recognise two facts: in Xinjiang, not all Uyghurs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Uyghur.

The latest census puts the Uyghur population in Xinjiang at 12 million while there are an estimated 15 million Muslims. Many members of the 40 other minorities in Xinjiang practice Islam, such as the Hui, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz, to name a few.

The second is that these terrorist groups targeted not only Han Chinese but also moderate Muslim citizens.

Perhaps the turning point of the fight against terror in Xinjiang was the heinous assassination of Imam Juma Tahir in Kashgar in July of 2014. His death at the hands of three extremists became a wake-up call to all people in Xinjiang. Those who, up to then, may have been reticent to implement measures, suddenly became more accepting of them.

It was clear no one was safe from these extremists, and something needed to be done in order to capture and dismantle these organisations.

Maybe this prompted the adoption of the pomegranate as a symbol of unity amongst the Xinjiang people. This abundant local fruit can be seen displayed on billboards, murals, sculptures, and more throughout Xinjiang. It serves as a reminder of the importance of sticking together as Chinese citizens, just like the seeds of the pomegranate.


Most experts agree that radicalisation and separatism flourish among a population characterised by poverty and dissatisfaction with the government.

For centuries, and despite the harsh nature of Xinjiang’s weather and terrain, the region was an important part of the Silk Road. Most of its largest cities were prosperous hubs for trade and commerce, as well as centres for the exchange of ideas, traditions, and knowledge.

However, as modernity and globalisation favoured maritime commercial routes, Xinjiang’s prosperity and development were negatively impacted. It is important to explore how this issue was tackled, and acknowledge it was not a government imposition on the region.

Over the past 20 years, while neighbouring countries were struggling with the aftermath of America’s war on terror and the resulting poverty, China allocated unimaginable resources to develop logistics, transportation infrastructure, and means of production in Xinjiang.

Although China’s Poverty Alleviation is the greatest humanitarian campaign in history, its implementation in Xinjiang faced unique challenges such as the region’s size, the roughness of its terrain, inclement weather, and a scattered population living in remote rural areas.

One of the primary objectives was to connect cities and prefectures with roads, highways, railroads, and the internet. Additionally, the aim was to attract investment and businesses to the region to increase household income levels by providing alternative sources of sustenance beyond agriculture and herding.

The task required improving people’s employability by means of better education and vocational skills training; these often involved the mobilisation of students and skilled labourers to areas where services were offered and where their talents were needed since the region is characterised by low population density and scattered rural communities.

Under these circumstances, the most cost-effective way to deliver on the objectives is through institutions that offer room and board.

Satellite imagery of many of these educational and production facilities, as well as some correctional institutions, was mislabeled as “concentration camps” by foreign think tanks. Suffice to say, anyone visiting production or education facilities anywhere in China can confirm the use of dormitories and mobilisation of talent are key to China’s economic miracle, starting with the Reform and Opening-up in 1979.

Western governments, politicians, pundits, and US-funded NGOs have inaccurately yet persistently portrayed the above China development strategy as evidence of human rights abuses, forced labor, and separation of families. It is crucial to remember that variations of this approach are followed in most countries around the world; people move to find better education and employment opportunities.

With regard to individuals who showed signs of early indoctrination or incipient separatist ideologies, patriotic education and vocational skills were offered in lieu of punishment; the government believed it necessary to provide non-punitive options and instead, incorporate them into regular Poverty Alleviation programs.

Lastly, there were also terrorists, their mentors, financiers, aiders, and abettors who were caught and imprisoned. It is revealing to see NGOs, pundits, and others, regularly call for the release of these criminals on social media.


Xinjiang’s location, size, and topography make it challenging to control its long borders with eight countries, some of which have been hotbeds for terrorism for decades. Individuals indoctrinated and trained by terrorist organisations abroad used to come into the region with relative ease and hide in rural areas. To address the issue, police stations were set up in every village, town, and city, as well as checkpoints along every road connecting them. Even today, every streetlight has a unique number to identify it.

This system allows residents to accurately inform authorities the location of any security incident. To help with police response time, cameras were installed at every corner, intersection, point of entry, and place of interest.

Even so, it is mostly a reactive system. Its effectiveness is highest when residents initiate an operation after having called the police.

Biometrics and facial recognition

Biometrics and face detection technology played a pivotal role in introducing effective passive surveillance. Once facial features of residents and visitors are registered onto the database, these systems can preemptively alert authorities of the presence of non-registered individuals and intelligently begin tracking their whereabouts.

The companies responsible for developing these breakthroughs in passive surveillance are criticised and even sanctioned by governments, entities, and individuals who are committed to prevent a peaceful, harmonious, and prosperous society in Xinjiang.

To expand on a point recounted in the article published by the two German researchers, these companies are directly responsible for the marked decrease in the number of police deployed, security checks, and road checkpoints reported. They have also sped up the security checks, which now can be done in seconds by simply swiping an ID card and matching it to the database using facial detection. Drivers and passengers do not have to get off the vehicle; rolling down windows is enough.

As my five-month, 15,000-kilometre self-driving tour of Xinjiang ends this August, and having visited more than 40 locations in every corner of the Autonomous Region, I can confirm the changes mentioned above, compared to my experience traveling in the region in 3 years ago.

It has been nearly seven years since the last terrorist attack in Xinjiang in 2017. While the central government’s implementation of these strict security measures was initially met with reticence, it is undeniable that currently, both poverty alleviation projects and intelligent surveillance have successfully dealt with terrorism in Xinjiang. More importantly, the measures have won the hearts of Xinjiang residents, who nowadays enjoy peace, harmony, and prosperity.

Image: Supplied


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