BEIJING—On August 20, Chinese state media published a travel dispatch from Sulayman Mountain, a pilgrimage site popular with tourists in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region. The piece traced the path of the “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) policy, an ambitious plan launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013 to invest billions of Chinese renminbi in infrastructure and development along the path from Beijing to Istanbul. It’s a corridor that runs through restive states like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Kyrgyzstan, though, was filled with friendly locals eager to engage with China, the report (titled “China Love on Kyrgyzstan’s Holy Mountain”) boasted, from a 17-year-old street vendor who proudly showed off his shirt’s “Made in China” label, to thousands of students learning Mandarin at Kyrgyz universities.
Ten days after the piece published, Kyrgyzstan suffered its first-ever suicide bombing: an IED car attack at the Chinese embassy in Bishkek that killed the attacker and wounded five others, three of them Chinese. The attacker was Zoir Khalilov, a 33-year-old ethnic Uighur man carrying a Tajik passport, according to Kyrgyz authorities. Chinese and Kyrgyz media reported that he was a member of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that China holds responsible for violence against civilians in its Uighur-populated western province of Xinjiang. Within a week of the attack, Kyrgyz authorities had detained four ethnic Uzbeks and one Kyrgyz who were allegedly complicit, and issued warrants for three more suspects said to be in Turkey. Back in Beijing, the China Foreign Ministry promised to strike back against ETIM “firmly” for its “bloody crimes” and “many terrorist incidents targeting China inside and outside the country.”
The attack in Kyrgyzstan seemed an ominous outgrowth of China’s shifting stance toward international engagement. OBOR marked a pivot for China, from decades of “tao guang yang hui,” or lying low and concealing one’s capacities, to an outward-looking assertion of its revitalized strength. In recent years, a more confident China has established the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, sent peacekeeping troops to South Sudan, secured railway deals in Central Asia, Africa, and South America, and defied international opinions on the South China Sea. But the pivot has had costs.
As Chinese influence grows, Beijing is presenting itself as an alternative to the imperialist West and interventionist United States: a great power exporting highways instead of values, and fostering stability and peace through economic development, infrastructure, and trade. In adherence to China’s long-standing policy of non-interference, which centers on unconditional respect for state sovereignty, Beijing will also theoretically do all this without commenting on other states’ domestic conditions.
Yet August’s attack in Kyrgyzstan was just one among a spate of violent incidents, including terror attacks, that China has suffered in its pursuit of economic peace. In addition to the hundreds hurt or killed in recent years in Xinjiang, China has also struggled to protect its citizens in Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, and, now, Kyrgyzstan. Apparently, business does not guarantee peace—which means China may well have to alter its traditional approach and step into the messy realm of other countries’ domestic affairs.
China’s non-interference policy dates back to 1953, when then-premier Zhou Enlai put forth China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. These principles had grown out of China’s historical narrative as a developing country shaking off a “hundred years of humiliation” under imperialism and colonialism. Unlike Washington, with its overt mission of spreading democracy and neoliberal market reforms, Beijing has built its foreign-policy vision on equal suspicion of Western-facilitated reforms and regime changes, and a genuine lack of interest in imposing its own model on anyone else. Despite the central government’s rhetorical embrace of Marxism, Leninism, and Communist precepts, China’s economic growth resulted from a system that constantly adapts ideologies to “Chinese characteristics,” creating a flexible hybrid of capitalism and state socialism that does not conform to any rigid principles. The China Model is to “cross the river by feeling the stones,” as Deng Xiaoping famously said when spearheading reforms in the 1980s.
In the meantime, China’s non-interference policy has justified Beijing’s choice to conduct trade with sanctioned regimes like those in Iran, Syria, and Sudan, pursuing lucrative export and energy deals despite their partners’ sponsorship of violent extremism, participation in genocide, or use of chemical weapons on their own civilians. Western media and international human rights groups have condemned China for such decisions, to little avail. Chinese pundits, in response, emphasize non-interference and state sovereignty, or point out America’s “double standards” in partnering with regimes like Saudi Arabia’s, torturing terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, and engineering undemocratic coups. Meanwhile, “business first” has, to some extent, proved successful for China. Trade between China and Kyrgyzstan, for example, grew 60 percent to a total of $672 million in the first half of 2016, making China the country’s biggest trading partner and number one source of exports, according to China’s state news outlet Xinhua.
But trade does not obviate terror. The attack in Kyrgyzstan, China’s geographical gateway to Central Asia, was linked to growing unrest in Xinjiang, a region rich in natural resources like oil, coal, and natural gas. The Chinese state encourages westward migration from inland China to Xinjiang, providing financial incentives and cheap housing to those wishing to settle there.
All this investment without complementary measures to mitigate social tension has created a combustible situation. As China boosted human and capital investment in Xinjiang, it shifted the region’s population balance from 6.7 percent Han in 1949 to more than 40 percent in 2008. Since then, violence has increased. There were ethnic riots in Urumqi in 2009 that injured thousands and killed hundreds. In just the past three years, there have been Uighur-related terror attacks at a coalmine in Aksu, the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, a market in Urumqi, a train station in Kunming, and in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Police violence is also on the rise, with dozens of Uighur civilians killed in Yarkand in 2014, during riots sparked by harsh restrictions on religious practice.
Traveling through southern Xinjiang in June, I saw China’s heavy security presence in cities like Hotan, Yarkand, and Kashgar, with armored personnel carriers, cameras, and police present at most street corners, often searching Uighurs while ignoring Han passersby. “We have nothing against Han people,” a Uighur tour guide told me as we walked through a street market in Hotan. Police at the entrance searched him and checked his identity card and mobile phone, while asking nothing of me with my Han Chinese face. “But the government treats us differently. Of course this makes us feel uncomfortable, like we are doing something wrong just being here. And it makes Chinese people afraid of us.”
Fear and insecurity have a visible impact on commercial opportunity. Every summer for the last 12 years, Kashgar has hosted a trade expo to foster investment and business deals from Central Asia. Cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai have sponsored new business districts on the outskirts of the city. Yet the area surrounding the expo this summer was filled with empty malls and sprawling, dusty commercial centers, abandoned before they were ever used. One Han Chinese man who migrated to Xinjiang from the southern city of Guangzhou with his family last year was nervous about attending. “We shouldn’t drive our car. It might get bombed or robbed,” he said to his wife and child, adding that tensions between police and the Uighurs ran especially high during Ramadan, which overlapped with the expo.
Terror and religious extremism are especially challenging for a Chinese state unaccustomed to martyrdom narratives that feed off injustice, making the Communist Party easy to portray as both tyrant and infidel state. The Chinese government doesn’t try to counter extremism or mitigate ethnic tensions through dialogue, inclusion, or education. Instead, it prefers to paper over them with security crackdowns and propaganda—all of which exacerbate existing hostilities and provide additional fodder for extremist narratives. As China forbids Uighurs from fasting during Ramadan, bans beards and conservative religious clothing, prevents minors from entering mosques, and restricts access to traditional shrines, ETIM is gaining recruits in Syria where it is aligned with former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Ironically, the Chinese crackdown fits perfectly into ETIM propaganda, which includes videos, a Telegram channel, and magazine articles highlighting “Crimes of the Communist regime,” “Gushing wound of East Turkestan,” and “Crying of silk scarves of Uyghur mothers.”
Abroad, Chinese counterterrorism is limited by its elevation of state sovereignty as supreme principle. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral organization formed in 2001 between China, Russia, and several Central Asian states, is meant to foster cooperation against regional terrorism, separatism, and extremism, and to demonstrate China’s multilateral, non-interfering approach to solving global problems. Yet the functional security aspects of SCO are chronically underfunded and rarely used, while its member states have more often united in shows of support for one another’s repression of civilian movements.
When Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of unarmed protestors in Andijan in 2005, for example, the SCO justified the massacre as a form of counterterrorism and passed resolutions prohibiting asylum for Uzbek refugees from Andijan in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, China has secured extradition agreements and used SCO security organs to deport Uighurs back to China from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. At a time when non-state actors are more critical to global security than ever, China has bound itself to a detrimental principle of exclusively state-state engagement.
As China toes the line between expanding its influence and rejecting interventionism, it must strike a new balance that accounts for non-state actors. But change of this sort isn’t easy. As one Chinese Hui Muslim, a 30-year-old wool products trader, told me in Urumqi: “Uighurs are not treated equally, but they’re still citizens in the same system. What do you think Chinese citizenship guarantees in the first place?”
Reporting for this article was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.