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Asia-Pacific

China may use Paris attacks to justify Xinjiang crackdown, experts

media France's President Francois Hollande with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping Reuters/Jason Lee/Pool

The Islamic State (IS) armed group's claim on Thursday to have killed two more hostages - one Chinese, the other Norwegian - has dragged China into the ongoing conflict with the Islamist movement. In the wake of the Paris attacks, President François Hollande called on Chinese leader Xi Jinping to become more involved in the global fight against terrorism and new UN resolutions are likely - meaning a challenge to China’s traditional policy of non-interference.
 

Chinese President Xi Jinping condemned the killing on Thursday but it is hard to tell how China will react in coming months.

China has a general interest in supporting Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And Beijing expects that Moscow will return the favor.

On the Syria issue, China and Russia have vetoed four separate UN Security Council resolutions since 2011.

But now a Chinese national has been murdered and a Russian airplane bombed over Egypt, so things might change.

Not so fast, says Mathieu Duchatel, a China specialist with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"The Chinese policy on extremism and terrorism has been for years to avoid becoming a target, I think that's still the mainstream thinking in China, to avoid drawing too much attention on its policies and on China's relations with Xinjiang, I think that's clearly something Chinese leaders have in mind," he told RFI.

"China has faced terrorists attacks against its nationals in Afghanistan and in Pakistan for the past 10 years, at several occasions. It has always tried to remain cautious and to work in a way that is low key ... But when it comes to being part of an international coalition, fighting the Islamic State, in Syria and Irak through bombings or even in a crazier scenario, with Chinese boots on the ground, I don't really think that's on the agenda of President Xi Jinping."

The Chinese government usually negociates with kidnappers and pays them to free its nationals. But, with the first Chinese hostage killed and Russia and France prepared to work together after being attacked, it might change its stance.

China’s main concern with alleged terrorism seems to be within its own borders in the province of Xinjiang, in the far west of the country. Beijing has called on the international community to cooperate with its fight against ethnic Uighur separatists.

China’s Foreign AffaMinister Wang Yi has said there should be no “double standards” in fighting terrorism.

"Obviously there is a problem in Xinjiang, we cannot deny that, and there are contacts between radicalised members of the uihur community and terror groups or radical Islam groups for instance in Pakistan or in Afghanistan as well... and we heard there is some influence of IS among some of the Uighurs," Valerie Niquet, senior researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris told RFI. 

"But it's also true that the Chinese government is largely responsible for the evolution of the situation in Xinjiang by harsh repressions of common people and China is now using what's happening elsewhere, like the terror attacks in Paris to try to build a common agenda between their own position which is to control Xinjiang and their own problem with terrorism."

The killing of a Chinese hostage is something new for the government and the Chinese people, she says.

"China has been very discreet regarding the Chinese hostage, there were no news about it on television, very low key ... With the annoucement of his death, the internet in China, comments were very harsh, of course against the terrorists but also asking the government to do something... We cannot do much, they cannot do much either ... But there is a demand for action from the people."

Since China is using the Paris attacks to justify anti-terror moves at home, the Uighurs fear fresh crackdowns.

"In China, every time so-called terrorist actions happen, there's always a crackdown on the Uighurs. It's not new. I'm afraid now that China will misuse this hostage issue to escalate the crackdowns," Dolkun Isa, a chairperson of the World Uighur Congress told RFI.

"And the problem is that China, all the time, puts all kinds of Uighur activities in the same category. Whether it's a peaceful demonstration, or even just writ[ing] an article. All of these are put in the same categoryb ... all the things we might do are considered to be of a terrorist nature. So we are really worried."

A lot will depend on the resolutions Russia and France are to put to the UN Security Council. They will test whetherChina is ready to drop its non-interference policy or not.
 

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