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Here’s Why China Should be Worried About the Islamic State

The militant group might be moving to expand its reach in Asia by attempting to recruit downtrodden Muslim domestic workers in Hong Kong.
Photo via Reuters

Men claiming to be recruiters for the Islamic State have reportedly been handing out flyers to Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong. Alongside praise for Allah and an admonition that the predominantly female housekeepers should dress more modestly, the leaflets call for volunteers to perform unspecified "missions" in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Islamic State recruitment among Asia's Muslim population is nothing new. According to a report by the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, as many as 1,000 Asian Muslims, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, may be fighting in Iraq and Syria. What's new, however, is the targeting of China's northwestern Xinjiang region, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and several other countries with large Muslim populations.


In July 2014, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called out the Chinese oppression of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang. "Your brothers all over the world are waiting your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades," Baghdadi proclaimed in speech recorded on video.

The remark wasn't given much attention at the time — such videos usually include rhetoric attacking nearly everyone — but the recent events in Hong Kong and elsewhere could suggest that Baghdadi meant what he said.

Conflict in the region between the Uighur and the Han, China's largest ethnic group, has been ongoing since at least 1997, but there has been an upswing in violence lately. A band of eight Uighur men and women attracted international attention last March when they went on a stabbing rampage in a Kunming train station, leaving 31 victims and four of the attackers dead. Thirty-nine people died two months later in a bombing attack in the city of Urumqi, and as many as 59 more were killed when a mob attempted to storm a police station in July. Chinese authorities also gunned down six Uighur militants in January.

Related: Massacre at Chinese train station blamed on ethnic separatists

Zhang Chunxian, the Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang, announced on March 10 that Uighur radicals recently returned from Syria had been captured while plotting an attack in Xinjiang. Zhang declined to divulge the nature of the thwarted attack or even the number of people captured, but he went out of his way to say that the prisoners had received Islamic State training and combat experience in Syria.


So with China declaring that the Uighur and the Islamic State are connected — and Baghdadi claiming the same — surely the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, called East Turkistan by separatists, is on its way to becoming part of the Caliphate, right?

Not so fast.

Exiled Uighur leaders in the US and abroad have denounced the links between the Islamic State and their homeland as overstated, and insisted that their people are being misrepresented by the Chinese. The Chinese, they claim, are simply using the Islamic State as an excuse for even more brutal repression. They also say there's little evidence that proves many Uighurs are on the ground fighting in Syria and Iraq.

If that's so, Baghdadi's speeches and the purported recruitment drive in Hong Kong aren't helping the Uighur cause. Neither is speculation that last year's Kunming train station attack happened because the Uighur perpetrators failed to make it across the border and out of China while on their way to join the Islamic State.

Related: Are militants from China's Xinjiang region really being trained by the Islamic State?

The Islamic State has had more success recruiting in Southeast Asia. When Malaysian jihadist Mat Soh was killed in Syria in August, photos of his remains and a video of his burial were widely shared online in jihadist circles. Hundreds of Malaysians, Indonesians, and Filipinos are thought to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, but now it seems the Islamic State may want some of them to stay closer to home.

There are more than 300,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong alone, and more than 21 million more across Asia and Australia. Many of those workers are from Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. While some of these workers report decent working conditions, stories of confiscated passports, stolen wages, and abuse are common.

Can the Islamic State mobilize these people to their cause? No one knows, but the anger of a downtrodden population has exploded in the past to the detriment of those doing the treading. It will probably take more than a few leaflets and vague promises of an Islamic Caliphate to light the fuse, but the fact that they may be sitting on a powder keg cannot be lost on Chinese officials.

Follow Jonathan Gad on Twitter: @jng2058