Argument

U.S. Terrorism Policy Paved the Way for China’s Repression

U.S.-favored policies in Central Asia must be rolled back to help save the Uighur people.

Uighur men make their way past a subway entrance after marking the end of Ramadan at the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region early on June 5.
Uighur men make their way past a subway entrance after marking the end of Ramadan at the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region early on June 5. Greg Baker/ AFP/Getty Images

On Sept. 11, the U.S. Senate passed a bill urging the White House to counter China’s repression of Uighur Muslims in its western region of Xinjiang. The Uighur Human Rights Policy Act is a positive step, but it won’t reverse decades of inconsistent U.S. policy in Central Asia. If the United States is serious about the plight of the Uighurs, its concern shouldn’t stop at China’s western frontier.

While members of Congress have publicly denounced Beijing’s brutal campaign in recent months, U.S. President Donald Trump has remained silent. The White House’s Islamophobic rhetoric and harsh treatment of Muslims have also further undermined America’s moral standing in the region. But the policies that emboldened China to build detention camps began long before Trump.

The uncomfortable truth is that in the years after 9/11, the United States was often willing to accept China’s depiction of Xinjiang as a strategic outpost in its global war on terrorism. In 2001, the U.S. government held 22 Uighurs in Guantánamo Bay—a decision now widely seen as a mistake. Then, as now, China has worked to tie the Uighur separatist movement to international terrorism.

Last November, China’s ambassador to the United States responded to initial calls for sanctions by comparing his government’s policies with America’s own struggle against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

“Can you imagine [if] some American officials in charge of the fight against ISIS would be sanctioned?” he said.

Beijing’s Communist Party-controlled media echoed this sentiment, with the Global Times tweeting: “The West should be consistent over its own value system. How can it be fine to kill terrorists with missiles, but a humanitarian crisis when #Xinjiang attempts to turn them into normal people?”

Beijing has long tried to characterize all resistance to Chinese rule in Xinjiang as terrorism. In 2009, riots shook the capital, Urumqi, leaving at least 184 people dead in response to the killing of two Uighur factory workers by Han Chinese, and ushered in years of retaliatory violence.

A massive government crackdown, combined with sporadic attacks on Han Chinese civilians, has resulted in a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. As well as official measures, such as mosque closures, Islamophobia has grown online. Following a massacre in a New Zealand mosque this year by an Australian gunman, one Weibo user wrote: “This is a rare act of resistance from a white man. We need to find a way to [get him a Nobel Peace Prize].” Notably, China’s strict censors turn a blind eye to such content.

But beyond Xinjiang’s border, many of the secular autocrats of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia have approached Islam in a similar manner to China, gaining U.S. funding and support in the process. Washington policymakers and analysts have a long history of viewing this region as a potential hotbed of fundamentalism. But the reality is that radical Islam is a minor political force in this part of the world.

In its major report on the region, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was blunt in its policy recommendation for the United States: “Do not condition security cooperation on human rights performance.” But this approach has long been the norm for the region, and its impact on the people who live there has been devastating.

Take Uzbekistan. For decades, it has been one of the world’s most repressive countries, accused of torturing Muslims and boiling dissidents alive. It has been a key regional ally and recipient of U.S. military aid for decades—minus a brief interruption between 2005 and 2011 after Uzbek government troops massacred hundreds of pro-democracy protesters on Andijan’s Bobur Square. The government justified its actions at the time by labeling the peaceful demonstrators “Islamic fanatics and militants.” Though the country has seen some reform in recent years, it remains among the world’s most repressive.

Across the region, draconian laws may even have contributed to incidences of radicalization. In 5 Tajikistan’s U.S.-trained special forces chief, Gulmurod Khalimov, defected to join the Islamic State. Justifying his actions, Khalimov cited his government’s intensifying crackdown on Muslims. , police had forcibly shaved off the beards of some 13,000 men among other excessive government orders. Such policies mirror those across the border in Xinjiang. In recent years, Dushanbe has seen a string of harsh initiatives from closing mosques and fining women for wearing the hijab to banning parents from giving their children Arabic names.

As security in Xinjiang intensified, Beijing began turning its attention to the sizable Uighur diaspora on the other side of the border.

The United States has played a prominent role in this cycle of repression. In 2015, the government in Tajikistan outlawed its main opposition party and arrested hundreds of its activists weeks after Washington donated a million dollars’ worth of military equipment to the regime’s security forces. Millions more have been donated to Dushanbe to enhance security on the country’s porous border with Afghanistan. But the security payoffs are unclear. Such aid has had little positive impact on a corrupt regime whose border services are complicit in drug trafficking.

Central Asia’s surveillance regimes have also proved useful for China. As security in Xinjiang intensified, Beijing began turning its attention to the sizable Uighur diaspora on the other side of the border. Almost all the countries in the region have deported Uighurs to China in recent years, with their state-controlled media systems remaining silent on the matter.

These issues have been particularly sensitive for the regime in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana). Kazakhstan has a 1.5 million people diaspora across the border in Xinjiang, many of whom have been dragged off to China’s internment camps. In March, Beijing thanked the government in Kazakhstan for supporting its crackdown on Xinjiang. The statement was partly a response to Kazakh police detaining a citizen who has campaigned on behalf of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang. So far, the regime’s powerful security apparatus has proved capable of restraining the public while it continues to do China’s bidding.

This is not to argue that the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act isn’t the right step forward. But the United States needs to be more consistent in its support for human rights in the region. To be effective, Washington will have to abandon its post-9/11 mentality and hold Central Asia’s corrupt and repressive systems to account.

Bradley Jardine is a global fellow at the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Twitter: @Jardine_bradley

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