The top Communist Party leader in China’s remote and restive region of Xinjiang said he believes religious extremists have left the country to join Islamic State militants overseas, and then returned home.
His comments highlighted Beijing’s continuing concern over religious extremism among the country’s Muslim Uighur ethnic group, but critics say the government’s repressive policies in Xinjiang are partly to blame.
Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian did not say how many extremists from the region have fled overseas to join the fighting. But, he said their participation highlights how global extremist movements are affecting Xinjiang.
Speaking with reporters at a Xinjiang delegation meeting on the sidelines of the parliamentary meetings in Beijing Tuesday, Zhang said authorities recently cracked a case involving people who have just come back from fighting. He says authorities have said nothing about the case so far because they need time to solve the case, limit casualties and maintain security.
It is unclear just how many from Xinjiang or China have joined the Islamic State. Analysts say that the numbers are small. But according to a Chinese state media report late last year, around 300 militants from the region are in Syria and Iraq, participating in fighting and receiving training.
Most are said to be members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group considered a terrorist organization by the United States. Beijing routinely blames ETIM militants for carrying out attacks in China.
China says the group wants to establish a separate state in Xinjiang, but critics have raised questions about its organizational structure and real capabilities.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say it is the Chinese government’s tough policies in Xinjiang that is the main driver of the unrest and violence there. Following violent ethnic clashes in 2009, China has tightened regulations on Muslim practices in the region, restricting veils and beards and issuing rules that prohibit fasting during Ramadan.
China is frequently accused of violating its guarantees for religious freedoms in Xinjiang. Officials at the meeting on Tuesday stressed that dealing with the threat of religious extremism is a challenge that many countries face.
A spike in violence over the past two years has claimed the lives of several hundred and authorities have largely blamed the deaths on religious extremists. There have also been attacks as far away as Beijing in the north and Kunming in China’s southern Yunnan province.
Last year, authorities in Xinjiang launched a tough, year-long anti-terrorism campaign. Hundreds have been detained on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activities according to state media and local government websites. Trials and death sentences have been quickly carried out.
The government has offered generous rewards for anyone willing to provide information to authorities to help stop attacks. Several delegates at the meeting claim the public is playing a bigger role in helping to thwart attacks.
Xinjiang’s deputy Communist Party boss Shohrat Zakir says he believes there will be fewer terrorist plots this year.
Shohrat said many cases have been stopped while they were in the planning stages, but adds that there are some determined extremists who could still attack in advance.
Even so, party secretary Zhang shared figures during the meeting that he says highlight just how dangerous the region has become.
Zhang said that in 2013 there were 230 local government cadres who died on the job, which is far above the average for the rest of the country. He also said that when compared with other interior regions in China, there were 5.4 times more deaths among policemen in Xinjiang.