Tea Leaf Nation

China Sees Islamic State Inching Closer to Home

Chinese media lights up after a Hong Kong weekly says IS aims to expand into Xinjiang.

Sina/Fair Use
Sina/Fair Use

They’ve been grabbing headlines nearly everywhere else, but the jihadis of northern Iraq haven’t been getting much play in China. But a threat by the Islamic State (IS) of revenge against countries, including China, for seizing what IS calls "Muslim rights" appears to have changed all that. The comments were made in early July, but the news didn’t jump the language barrier from Arabic into Mandarin until August 8, when Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong-based newsmagazine widely distributed in China, made the IS revenge threats against China its cover story. Since then, the article has been widely syndicated on Chinese news websites and has gained traction on social media as well. Ordinary Chinese who may have felt distant from the carnage now feel it creeping closer to home.  

The glossy cover of the Phoenix issue features a picture of masked gun-toting jihadis advancing through a desert landscape. The piece inside sounds the alarm over a July 4 speech in Mosul, Iraq, by IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in which he urged Muslims around the world to pledge their allegiance to him. It quotes Baghdadi saying that "Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine" and more than a dozen other countries and regions. "Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades," Baghdadi told his followers. Phoenix noted that China was mentioned first on Baghdadi’s list. (The article also includes a map that some news reports have said shows the vast territory IS plans to occupy in the next five years, which appears to include a significant portion of Xinjiang. Although the authenticity of the map, which was widely shared on English-language social media sites in early July, has been questioned, the Phoenix piece reports it as fact.)

Online, Chinese are both agitated and bemused. One Chinese reader wrote on the social media site Weibo: "This is good. It offends all five of the hooligans on the UN Security Council" — that is, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — which means the IS jihadis "are going to be roadkill." Another responded to a photo of Baghdadi: "Looking at this bearded pervert makes me sick. Hurry up and incinerate this kind of trash, and send him to enjoy his 72 virgins in heaven." A third wrote that ISIS seemed to have "a death wish," but that people should be grateful because the jihadist group was giving Beijing "a reasoned and evidence-based opportunity to crack down on terrorist activities."

This may constitute a welcome opening for Chinese authorities. China has been fighting a low-level separatist insurgency of its own in Xinjiang for decades and worries that foreign Islamic groups are infiltrating the region, emboldening the simmering independence movement. Uighur exile groups say China’s government overstates its terrorism problem and falsely paints protests that turn into riots as premeditated terror attacks. In any case, Beijing is likely alarmed by IS’s criticism of its treatment of the Muslim Uighurs and the group’s alleged plan to seize Xinjiang, no matter how far-fetched the idea might be. But just how actively authorities will deal with any IS threat remains to be seen.

Beijing has consistently tried to keep itself removed from the political and military crises roiling Iraq, even as China has poured billions of dollars into Iraqi oil, enough that about 10 percent of its oil imports come from the Middle Eastern country. China’s most decisive action since ISIS’s surge has been to evacuate 10,000 Chinese working in Iraq. On July 8, Chinese special envoy Wu Sike met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and pledged anti-terror support, but added that Beijing would fully respect the country’s sovereignty. When Wu returned to Beijing he briefed reporters about the trip on July 29, telling them that China was a victim of terror with roots in Syria and Iraq. "Solving the conflicts in Iraq and Syria will benefit China and the entire world," he said.

But Beijing’s reaction to U.S. airstrikes in Iraq betrays its conflicted allegiances. China usually bristles at or condemns U.S. intervention in global hot spots and has opposed U.S. sanctions against Sudan, Syria, Russia, and Iran. But the interests of Washington and Beijing are unusually closely aligned when it comes to Iraq. On August 8, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesperson as saying that China was "keeping an open mind" about operations that would "help maintain security and stability" in Iraq. The statement came in response to a request for comment on U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States would carry out airstrikes against insurgents in northern Iraq. Wang Chong, a researcher at Charhar Institute, a public diplomacy think tank in Beijing, wrote on Weibo that he "firmly supported" the U.S. crackdown on IS. Wang added that the United States "ought to send ground troops to wipe out those brutal terrorists" and that if there was a need, "China could also send troops to help and provide training."

That’s possible — within limits. Zhu Weilie, director of the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, told the state-run Global Times on July 29 that China believes the United Nations should lead anti-terror operations in the Middle East. "China will be more actively involved in these efforts but will never be as involved in Middle East affairs as the United States," he said.

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. Twitter: @ael_o

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