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Obama’s Anti-Islamic State Push May Be Helping China Crack Down on Its Uighurs

Recent arrests in Shanghai raise questions about how China is using a U.N. Security Council resolution to stop foreign fighters from joining terrorist groups.


When President Barack Obama in September secured passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution requiring nations to prevent their citizens from traveling abroad to participate in acts of terrorism, it was mostly hailed as a landmark achievement to counter the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Syria. But as Foreign Policy reported at the time, human rights groups feared that countries such as China might use the measure to crack down on their minorities. Recent events in Shanghai may be proving them right.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, police there announced that they had arrested 10 Turks and two Chinese citizens accused of providing doctored passports to a group of nine ethnic Uighurs attempting to travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. According to Chinese media reports cited by the New York Times, police found what were described as audio and video materials on the Uighurs having to do with terrorism.

Uighurs hail mostly from the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, where Beijing has imported millions of Han Chinese in an attempt to solidify its rule there. Using torture, murder, and re-education camps, the government has brutally repressed Islam in the region. Although some Uighur separatists have carried out terrorist attacks in China and a small contingent has traveled to Syria and joined up with radical Islamists there, human rights groups contend that Beijing has used the threat of terrorism from these groups to justify a broad campaign of widespread repression.

Very little is known about those arrested in Shanghai. They were detained in November but were only charged recently. While it is possible that Chinese authorities indeed busted a bona fide terrorist group, the investigation is equally likely to be politically motivated as a means of justifying the ongoing Uighur crackdown.

In describing the case, the Chinese government tied events in Shanghai to Beijing’s international obligations. “Fighting illegal immigration is a common desire of the international community and is the Chinese government’s consistent position as well as what [the government] advocates,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, according to Reuters. “We are willing to cooperate closely with the international community on this issue.”

That all sounds very rosy — at least as long as the Chinese government is telling the truth about the arrests in Shanghai.

Phot credit: GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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