International outrage over the fate of those detainees ― Muslim citizens of China, the vast majority of them members of an ethnic minority group called the Uighurs ― has reached an unprecedented level this year, with the United Nations confirming the number of detainees in August. Congress wants sanctions, and European officials are urging independent investigations into the facilities.
But Western countries, the world’s self-styled defenders of liberty, are hamstrung: China is, after all, following their playbook about the risks posed by the 1.6 billion people in the world associated with Islam.
Even as Beijing has felt pressured enough to give up on its old strategy of denying that such camps exist, it still feels confident defending its approach to the Uighurs. “It’s the necessary way to deal with Islamic or religious extremism,” Li Xiaojun, a Chinese government spokesman, told reporters this year. On Nov. 13, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi doubled down, saying, “The efforts are completely in line with the direction the international community has taken to combat terrorism, and are an important part of the global fight against terrorism.”
The Chinese government claims Uighurs are “infected” with the wrong kind of thinking, linking the sickness to their Muslim beliefs. Its “cure” is to restrict the length of men’s beards, regulate women’s clothing in public spaces and discourage the use of Muslim names.
The government’s supporters argue it only makes sense for the rest of the world to support China despite credible accusations of government torture, abductions and tracking of millions of people based on mandatory DNA and voice sample databases simply because of who they are. Countries should “close ranks,” said Victor Gao, the vice president of the Chinese government-linked think tank the Center for China and Globalization. Popular far-right skeptics of Islam in the West agree.
While experts and most international governments see little evidence of serious radicalization or links to international terrorism among the Uighurs, the argument has legs. China’s strategy cleverly exploits assumptions about what’s appropriate in the name of fighting terrorism that the world has been fed for years ― muddying the waters of global opinion, especially among Western political and business leaders whose decisions could really hurt China, and making it easier to continue the biggest human rights violations since Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
The U.S., the most powerful critic of China’s Uighur policy, has for years helped lay the groundwork for it to succeed. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington officials have focused the resources and influence of the world’s lone superpower on an amorphous mission whose goals remain unclear multiple wars later but whose fixation on a threat lurking within Islam has never been in doubt. Powerful American policymakers’ disputes about their counterterrorism strategy focus on the degree — from sweeping bans on Muslims to snooping on student groups — but the overall necessity of it isn’t in question.
As U.S. government officials have created shadowy standards permitting military strikes even against unknown individuals and as hypersurveillance and indefinite detention by democratic governments have become de rigueur, the rest of the world has cottoned on. If it’s the war on terrorism, it’s all right ― so now everything is the war on terrorism.
Syrian President Bashar Assad says he had to slaughter thousands of his own people to fight fundamentalists; Denmark’s government justifies separating “ghetto children” in Muslim areas from their families for 25 hours a week starting at age 1; American nativists link policies to maintain a white majority in the U.S. to the need to “figure out what the hell is going on” because “Islam hates us.”
Beijing saw an opportunity early. Millions of Uighurs and other non-Han Chinese groups in its northwestern region of Xinjiang had been asking for greater autonomy for decades, with scores joining violent separatist movements and militias. A small proportion had turned to religiously inspired militancy.
In the months after Sept. 11, China began presenting nearly all Uighur resistance as connected to Islam and the global networks of groups like al Qaeda, Chien-peng Chung, a professor at Singapore’s Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, noted in an article published in the summer of 2002.
“In fact, separatist violence in Xinjiang is neither new nor primarily driven by outsiders,” Chung continued. “The latest wave of Uighur separatism has been inspired not by Osama bin Laden but by the fall of the Soviet Union, as militants seek to emulate the independence gained by some Muslim communities in Central Asia.”
In the fall of 2001, Uighurs who had sought refuge in Afghanistan began escaping to neighboring Pakistan as U.S. troops invaded. Bounty hunters eager for the American payouts for anyone who might be linked to al Qaeda eventually captured at least 22 of them. U.S. forces eventually shipped the group to Guantanamo Bay and accused them of working with al Qaeda and the Taliban as part of a Uighur group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
On Sept. 3, 2002, the U.S. explicitly linked its own war on terrorism to China’s by placing the Uighur group on the Treasury Department’s list of terrorist organizations. In public, President George W. Bush’s aides spoke of spreading freedom and said they told Beijing that it could not use the listing to justify further repression against the broader Uighur community. Privately, U.S. officials invited Chinese officials to Gitmo to interrogate the Uighurs there ― subjecting them to sleep deprivation the night before by waking them up every 15 minutes, according to the Justice Department’s first official acknowledgment of the incident in 2008.
U.S. officials quietly concluded by the end of 2003 that the Uighur detainees were not security risks, and once pro bono lawyers began questioning the detainees’ imprisonment, the U.S. released five to Albania in 2006. In 2009, a federal judge ruled that those left must be let go too because “the government had not presented sufficient evidence that ETIM was associated with al Qaeda or the Taliban, or had engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” The Obama administration found new homes for the remaining Uighurs by 2014.
Today the expert consensus remains that Uighur radicalization exists but has a limited impact on China’s security ― much less global stability.
Members of the community did travel to Syria to join the insurgency against Assad, many under the banner of an organization called the Turkestan Islamic Party, which is generally regarded as an offshoot of the ETIM. There’s a good chance at least a few thousand were involved with groups connected to the local branch of al Qaeda. The United Kingdom added the ETIM to its own terrorist list in 2016, following the lead of the U.S. and the U.N.
And Uighurs have committed violent attacks in China in recent years that have claimed hundreds of lives, notably in 2014.
But it’s hard to find clear connections between those incidents and global Islamic terrorism ― and getting intelligence from Chinese authorities to prove their case is difficult for Western governments conscious of Beijing’s desire to rein in any Uighur assertiveness by treating peaceful organizations as threats.
“China purposely tries to blur the lines between these groups,” Peter Irwin of the World Uyghur Congress, a Europe-based group that is one of the organizations Beijing considers to be a terrorist group, told HuffPost in an email.
The U.S. famously has its own recent experiences of blurring lines between real terrorist targets and those just treated as fair game or collateral damage. As Washington calls out China’s excesses against the Uighurs amid a broader policy of competition with Beijing, that history will loom larger and larger.