How the West Was Lost
It's not OK to call Beijing a counterterrorism "partner" if it simply legitimizes the government’s human rights crackdown at home.
Last week’s White House summit discussed the best way to counter violent extremism. It’s too bad key Chinese officials weren’t there — they might have learned something. China faces an extremely serious problem domestically with armed militants. There is growing violence in Xinjiang, a massive region populated by a predominantly Muslim, ethnically Turkic minority known as Uighurs. Moreover, at least 300 Chinese citizens have joined the Islamic State, according to Chinese diplomats.
Indeed, Beijing puts fighting terrorism near the top of its agenda in conversations with other governments. And for many of those governments, cooperating with China on counterterrorism seems to make sense. Beijing lacks the capacity to track extremist groups outside its borders, and other countries understandably seek greater support from and participation by China on a host of pressing international issues.
But whether Beijing genuinely espouses the summit’s stated goal of addressing the root causes of violent extremism — or simply wants to appear cooperative abroad while pursuing ominously repressive and counterproductive policies at home — is less clear. For example, that the prominent Xinjiang economist Ilham Tohti was sentenced on Sept. 2014 to a life sentence on the baseless charges of “separatism” suggests Beijing’s agenda has little to do with upholding human rights.
China’s recent track record shows a deeply politicized approach to addressing terrorism — one that fails to address fundamental grievances. After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Beijing swiftly seized upon the “war on terror” to justify an escalation in repressive policies in Xinjiang, a massive, resource-rich region in northwest China. For decades Uighurs have endured discrimination, exclusion from central government-driven economic development, and increasingly intrusive restrictions on religion, language, and culture. Yet rather than address growing grievances, Beijing used 9/11 to push foreign governments within and beyond the region to arrest and forcibly return those who had fled from Xinjiang. In 2002, it even persuaded the United States Treasury Department to list the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization — and even though the group’s very existence continues to be debated, it remains listed.
Yes, some Uighurs have recently carried out violent attacks. In March 2014, a group of assailants attacked and killed 29 people at the train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south China. In April, as President Xi Jinping finished a tour of Xinjiang, an attack on the train station of the region’s capital Urumqi, killed three people and wounded nearly 80. The following month, bomb blasts in an Urumqi market killed more than 30 people and wounded more than 90, according to Chinese state media reports. Chinese diplomats exhorted other governments to label these incidents “terrorism” — a term it fails to clearly define.
Beijing has a responsibility to provide public order, and the attacks on civilians and security forces are a serious concern. Yet the government’s response has been profoundly misguided, and has come at terrible cost to human rights. It attributes these incidents to “terrorists” but fails to produce credible evidence to substantiate it. And in China the label is consequential: China’s deeply politicized judiciary offers no opportunity to meaningfully challenge charges of terrorism — and removes basic protections such as the right to a lawyer of one’s choosing in cases the state claims are terrorism-related. According to the latest available data, half of all China’s 2008-2010 prosecutions on charges of “endangering state security” were in Xinjiang — a region home to less than 2 percent of the country’s population.
Since 2012, law enforcement forces have killed hundreds of Uighurs in what authorities claimed were counterterrorism operations, and countless numbers have been sentenced on terrorism-related charges. But whether those killed or convicted were actually responsible for the violence in question, or what motivated them, will remain unknown to the outside world. By treating a broad array of activities as terrorism, from peaceful protests against government repression to politically motivated bombings of crowded markets, Beijing cannot or will not discern where the real criminal threats lie.
Beijing’s twisted logic now risks being codified into an ominous draft counterterrorism law, one whose implementation will be overseen by an office — referred to as the “leading organ on counterterrorism work” with considerable powers. The law envisions surveillance of all digital communications, and allows for the conduct of counterterrorism operations outside China’s borders. In private conversations, Chinese diplomats have said that the draft conforms to the United Nations Security Council resolutions. However, it appears to be a wholesale rejection of international human rights protections considered essential to the prevention of terrorism. In March, China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, will likely pass this law.
Governments aware of China’s worsening human rights record have resisted greater cooperation, citing among other concerns that Beijing’s definition of terrorism is overly broad. A few governments, including the United States, have established bilateral counterterrorism dialogues with China, arguing that to talk is better than not, especially when these mechanisms help expose Chinese officials to international standards and generate discussions about problematic policies.
But although U.S. diplomats said that, in a July 2014 counterterrorism dialogue between the two nations, they emphasized the relationship between respect for human rights and minimizing violence, those ideas are absent from China’s draft law or recent practices. And President Barack Obama helped muddy the message in a November 2014 interview with Xinhua, in which he extended his sympathies to the victims of the Kunming and Urumqi bombings and then noted that, “Terrorist groups like ETIM should not be allowed to operate.” Had Obama offered comparable concern about the civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations in Xinjiang, the sympathy might have sounded less like lip service to Beijing. Moreover, the reference to ETIM will make it extremely difficult for the United States to challenge any circumstances in which Beijing insists ETIM is the perpetrator.
How should governments use Beijing’s willingness to talk about terrorism without legitimizing its abusive approach? At a minimum, further bilateral dialogues should only continue if they are a useful vehicle for engaging China on the relationship between human rights violations and terrorism; no government should agree to increase information-sharing, training, or other cooperation with China until the draft law is withdrawn and rewritten in accordance with international standards. Even if that does not happen, governments should urge Beijing to review all terrorism convictions from the past decade for due process violations, and review all terrorism-related policies including use of lethal force. They should call for the immediate release of Tohti, his students who are detained, and all others imprisoned for exercising their right to peaceful expression. And they should recommit to assisting Uighur refugees abroad fleeing Beijing’s ever-lengthening arm. Working with China without pressing for these changes will undermine rather than improve counterterrorism efforts.
In the meantime, governments should be aware how Beijing is using the guise of counterterrorism to legitimize widespread human rights violations — and press hard for change. If they don’t, China will blithely continue to persecute Uighurs, undermine the rule of law, and take actions that — ironically — are likely to fuel violent extremism.
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