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How Sept. 11 Supercharged China’s Propaganda

Beijing has used the “war on terror” to target its own minorities like Uyghurs.

By , a pseudonym for a Uyghur writer now in exile.
A CCP official gestures at ETIM weapons.
Chinese Communist Party official Pamir Abdul Rahman gestures toward weapons claimed to be seized from East Turkestan Islamic Movement separatists in Xinjiang, China, on Sept. 15, 2003. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Thanks to extraordinary journalistic efforts from the free media, much light has been shed on the ongoing genocide the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is waging against my people: Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group indigenous to China’s far western region of Xinjiang. Uyghur journalists have seen their families back home persecuted for covering the topic, which is why even from abroad, I have to write under a pseudonym.

That is why it was particularly puzzling when the Washington Post, which has done great and detailed reporting on the plight of Uyghurs, published a report in which they echoed the CCP’s framing of Uyghur genocide as counterterrorism policies. It’s an example of how successful oppression’s framing as counterterrorism has been not just in China but globally.

The article, citing Chinese research and experts, allege “Chinese officials worry about the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a haven for Islamist militant groups, including ETIM [or the East Turkestan Islamic Movement],” following the fall of Afghanistan back into the Taliban’s hands.

Thanks to extraordinary journalistic efforts from the free media, much light has been shed on the ongoing genocide the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is waging against my people: Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group indigenous to China’s far western region of Xinjiang. Uyghur journalists have seen their families back home persecuted for covering the topic, which is why even from abroad, I have to write under a pseudonym.

That is why it was particularly puzzling when the Washington Post, which has done great and detailed reporting on the plight of Uyghurs, published a report in which they echoed the CCP’s framing of Uyghur genocide as counterterrorism policies. It’s an example of how successful oppression’s framing as counterterrorism has been not just in China but globally.

The article, citing Chinese research and experts, allege “Chinese officials worry about the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a haven for Islamist militant groups, including ETIM [or the East Turkestan Islamic Movement],” following the fall of Afghanistan back into the Taliban’s hands.

The problem is, ETIM is a “terrorist organization” whose very existence is debatable at best, according to experts. One of those experts, Sean Roberts, was briefly quoted in the Washington Post piece itself—but only to support the case that China might get politically involved in Afghanistan. This framing accepts, as much Western commentary has done, the Chinese depiction of Uyghur resistance as terror and of those fleeing Chinese oppression as inherently dangerous.

Far from being a dreaded threat to China’s security, ETIM, as Roberts and others have shown, represents the CCP’s successful exploitation of the United States’ war on terror, a hyped up boogeyman to justify long-standing repressive policies in Xinjiang, culminating in the ongoing genocide.

Political labeling is an old CCP trick to crush dissent. Since China’s founding, millions of people faced persecution, exile, or death after being designated as “rightists,” “social imperialists,” or “capitalist roaders.” But in Xinjiang, the old label of “separatist”—while a good way to stir anger among a Chinese public trained to react to the very idea of independence movements as the worst form of treachery—had little resonance in other countries.

But what the CCP came up with after 2001 was far more effective.

By rebranding the war on separatism as part of a global war on terror and portraying spontaneous, unorganized clashes between Uyghur civilians and security forces as acts of organized terrorism, the CCP successfully aligned its ethnic repression with the West’s war on terror in the name of freedom.

Terrorist became a powerfully dehumanizing term, and those who the label was slapped on, from individuals in Guantánamo to Urumqi, became inherently excluded from human rights and due process. This was hardly a new idea. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany loved to label those opposed to them as “terrorists,” but the United States’ language gave it new force. The CCP was taking notes as the rest of the world scrambled to strip those labeled as terrorists, however murkily or imprecisely, of their rights.

After 9/11, it took little time for the CCP to utilize its power as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It successfully lobbied both the United Nations and the United States to list ETIM as a terrorist organization, even though there is, at best, scanty evidence that any group ever actually used this name. It was a label applied to a small group who sought aid in Afghanistan from the Taliban in 1998, but whose operations, already insignificant, appear to have ceased entirely after the death of their founder in 2003. In late 2020, the United States dropped ETIM from the list, citing a lack of evidence to support the organization’s continued existence. China responded with performative outrage.

This is not to say Uyghur terrorists or militants do not exist, because they do. The tragic attack on a Kunming train station in 2014 is evidence enough of that—and that’s no surprise considering there are more than 12 million of us. But the evidence of organized Uyghur terrorist organizations or movements orchestrating attacks in or outside of China is flimsy at best. Encounters between angry Xinjiang youth and Chinese security forces routinely present anyone standing up to the CCP as “terrorists” in Chinese state media while rioters or protesters are depicted as members of the fictional ETIM. Yet, the CCP continues to exploit the language of the war on terror and Islamophobia to label long beards, modest dress, protests, or even routine crimes as evidence of extremism and terrorism. The blatant distortion used to justify atrocities must be unequivocally called out.

It’s also time to drop the implicit expectation that Uyghurs must be the perfect victim. Yes, there has been some utterly reprehensible violent incidents committed by Uyghurs, resulting in innocent deaths, mostly of Han civilians. They were, as they should be, unequivocally denounced by Uyghurs, including overseas Uyghur organizations that had long been smeared as terrorists. But this should also be looked at in the context of a sustained, decades-long crackdown that has sought to strip Uyghurs of their culture, their heritage, their faith, their freedom, and sometimes their lives. Generations of Uyghurs have grown up without ever knowing basic dignity. One of the shocking things is how many young Uyghurs assume this is simply the way the world is. And with any route to civil protest or dissidence closed off in China and peaceful advocates of Uyghur culture like Ilham Tohti arrested and smeared as terrorists, some sink into futile rage.

The increased crackdown on Uyghurs following the 2009 Urumqi riot and the CCP’s full embrace of anti-terrorism narratives have also been a self-fulfilling prophecy. While I, a relatively privileged Uyghur, get to type this English article on an iPad in the safety of Australia to verbalize my anger toward the CCP, I’m intensely aware there are millions of Uyghurs whose lives are hopelessly abysmal. Some of whom, unfortunately, choose less palatable, even outright evil, means to express their despair. To be clear, the cold-blooded murder of civilians is indefensible, but the actions of a few desperate Uyghur are also not excuses to acquiesce the CCP’s manipulative argument, that what they do in Xinjiang is provoked by or in any way proportional to the threat of terrorism.

The CCP has long accused those questioning its barbaric policies of engaging in a double standard. It presents such criticism as evidence of prejudice against the Chinese people. Why else is it OK for the United States to torture terrorists in the Middle East and incarcerate non-terrorists at Guantánamo Bay but when China adopts unconventional policies to fight its own war on terror, it is seen as a genocide?

They’re quite right. Condemn one, and you should condemn both. But nobody should excuse either. We must call out the CCP’s false war on terror, and that starts with not repeating a genocidal regime’s talking points.

Yehan is a pseudonym for a Uyghur writer now in exile.

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