'Capture' of Chinese national fighting with ISIS gives China jitters

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Story highlights

  • Iraqi Army has captured Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighter from China, report said
  • If true, he would be first Chinese national caught fighting with ISIS militants
  • One Chinese commentator assumes the man is Uighur, a Muslim minority group
  • Beijing has stepped up efforts to appease local dissatisfaction and curb violence
"URGENT," read the Iraqi News headline of its September 3 posting. "First Chinese ISIS fighter captured in Iraq says Ministry of Defense."
The Iraqi Army has captured an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighter from China, the Baghdad-datelined report said. Two pictures accompanied the report: one showed the captured militant in fatigue pants and a bloodied shirt, lying on the ground; another showed him escorted by an Iraqi soldier, his face seemingly swollen.
If true, he would be the first Chinese national to have been caught fighting with ISIS militants.
"We are not able to verify whether or not the information is true," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang, responding to a foreign reporter's question. "I cannot confirm the information for you."
It's not clear how many Chinese nationals may be fighting with the ISIS. Wu Sike, until recently China's special envoy to the Middle East, earlier stated that there could be about 100 of them, but Qin Gang said he had no specific numbers or estimates.
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Chinese netizens' reaction was typically visceral. "Kill them!" commented "Hellen" on the Iraqi News website. "we chinese are glad to see these muslims' death!"
If such reports are true, said Chinese commentator Victor Gao, "this will be an additional evidence that terrorism in China has a strong international connection. Terrorism does not care about national borders."
It remains unclear if the captured Chinese national is actually Uighur, a Muslim minority group in Xinjiang, but Gao seems to assume so.
"In China terrorism is raising its ugly head and is spreading from Xinjiang to other parts of China. The underlying drivers for terrorism are mainly the congruence of domestic and international forces at play among some extreme elements of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang," he added.
Xinjiang, a resource-rich and strategically located region in northwest China, for years has been beset by ethnic violence, which the government blames on "fenliefenzi" ("separatists"). Uighur exiles and rights activists, however, blame the unrest on Beijing's allegedly repressive and discriminatory policies.
A spate of violent incidents have been blamed on the Uighurs.
In March, more than 10 masked people, dressed in identical black outfits and wielding machetes, stabbed passengers in Kunming Railway Station in Yunnan province, thousands of miles away from Beijing, killing 29 people and injured 143 others. Police killed four of the attackers and arrested one woman.
In May, terrorists used car bombs to attack an open-air market in Urumqi, the region's capital, leaving 39 dead and 94 injured.
The police later blamed the knife and bomb attacks on members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Islamist group founded in 1993 by Uighur militants seeking an independent state in Xinjiang called East Turkistan.
The ETIM has been accused by the China and the U.S. of having ties with al Qaeda, but security analysts disagree on whether such ties actually exist. Uighur exile groups claim that Beijing uses the ETIM as a red herring to rationalize its repressive policies against the Uighurs.
If the Iraqi News report is true, said M. Taylor Fravel, an international relations professor at MIT, it shows that "radicalization transcends boundaries and regions, threatening not only countries in the Middle East but also China and the West. That said, Uighurs have a long history of fighting overseas. I believe that Uighurs fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, for example. So the phenomenon is not a new one."
In 2006, the U.S. captured 22 Uighur militants fighting in Afghanistan with suspected links to al Qaeda. They were imprisoned in Guantanamo for five to seven years and later released after they were reclassified as no longer enemy combatants. Instead of repatriating them to China, however, they were sent to Palau and Bermuda.
"China will surely use this to underscore the challenges it faces in maintaining stability in Xinjiang, but I don't think that this will alter the policies being pursued, which seem to be increasing instability and not decreasing it," MIT's Fravel said.
Beijing has stepped up its carrot-and-stick efforts to appease local dissatisfaction and curb violence.
Speaking in a two-day conference on Xinjiang in May, President Xi Jinping promised to enhance "ethnic unity" in Xinjiang while creating more jobs, providing accessible education and improving people's livelihoods.
Xi also pledged to respect the local residents' legitimate religious rights and local customs "in accordance with laws and regulations."
But Xi also called for a massive "nets spread from the earth to the sky" to combat terrorists, stating that the stability of Xinjiang is "strategically vital to the country's reform and development as well as national security."
In response to the spate of violent attacks, China has launched a one-year campaign against terrorism.
Chinese police in various cities have held anti-terrorism drills using sophisticated equipment such as satellite vans, armored cars and modern weapons.
Bulk purchasers of gasoline are now required to provide identification, secure permits from local police stations and use only approved containers.
In some places, sales of large knives are controlled or banned.
Local courts in Xinjiang have been given instructions to deal with terror cases in a "harsh and quick" manner. In June, China executed 13 people convicted of organizing and leading terrorist groups.
China's critics fear the campaign could lead to more repressive policies toward Uighurs, widening ethnic divide.
For years tensions have been simmering between the Han Chinese and the Uighur minority nationality.
I saw tensions boil over in the streets of Urumqi in July 2009, when thousands of angry Uighur residents, some wielding knives and sticks, rioted in the streets and attacked Han Chinese, prompting the authorities to call in truckloads of Chinese soldiers. Nearly 200 people died in the ethnic clashes.
Authorities blame separatists for fomenting violence, but critics of China's policies say the root of the problem is widespread alienation among the region's Muslim Uighur population who resent strict controls on religion and local culture.
Uighurs also resent the influx into the region of Han Chinese migrants, who tend to dominate the local industry and commerce. They complain they are being left behind by rapid economic development, and are unable to partake of the benefits from the region's rich resources.
All these, critics say, have made Xinjiang a breeding ground for malcontents.