The Convenient Terrorist: China and the Uighurs

Is there any figure more beloved by repressive regimes than the terrorist? Thanks to terrorism’s current high international profile, these days nearly any human rights violation can be justified as serving the goal of ‘fighting terrorism’.

Is it any wonder then that China, already little inclined to respect basic human rights, has used the War on Terror as a convenient cover for furthering their ongoing crack-down on dissident ethnic and religious minorities? As reported by Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China, China has quietly been using international opposition to terrorism to crack down on Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Chinese suppression of the Uighurs of Xinjiang is nothing new. Accusations of ‘separatism’- the highest crime in the Chinese prison of nations- have justified harsh and repressive actions taken against the Uighurs since the 1960s. While Uighur separatists have at times engaged in violent agitation in distant Xinjiang, there has been little evidence of any actual violence or strongly organized separatism in recent years. Even Chinese officials acknowledge that Uighur separatists have moved away from using violent tactics.

But to the Chinese, abandonment of violence is little virtue. They see instead a sinister movement towards engaging in ‘ideological terrorism’- namely writing, speaking, and teaching in ways that contradict or ignore official Party policy. Perceiving the Uighur’s Islamic identity as a source of possible organization for separatist aims, the PRC has stepped up efforts to eliminate the Uighur’s traditions and culture- banning religious practices among young people, arresting non-violent religious practitioners, asserting their right to select and screen religious leaders. Beijing has effectively equated writing Islamic poetry with separatist violence.

Prominent in the Human Rights Watch report is the consideration given to how 9/11 changed the official party stance on the Uighur minority. With typical Party understatement, Beijing had long claimed prior to 9/11 that any separatist activities were carried out only by small, isolated groups of ruffians using nationalist rhetoric to gain sympathy for their reactionary crimes. After 9/11, the PRC saw a unique opportunity to gain world sympathy and support for their harsh tactics by identifying the Uighers with international Islamic terrorism. Isolated bands of a handful of criminals suddenly became members of highly trained terrorist organizations trained and funded by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. By connecting the Uighur cause with that of Al Queda, China hopes to reduce world scrutiny of their treatment of the Uighur people, and diminish sympathy and international support for the Uighur’s plight.

China has already shown in the past that it considers no course of action out of bounds in stemming the aspirations of independence present among its many minorities. Violence, imprisonment, forced sterilization, starvation, religious repression and forced immigration are already in the arsenal that has been brought to bear on the Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. In the past year violence has even erupted between the majority Han and the Hui, a Muslim minority group previously seen as well-integrated into Han society. The PRC leadership remains committed to a unified, Han-dominated China that places the needs and wants of the Han people ahead of any desire for autonomy on the part of ethnic minorities. The war on terror has given them extra freedom to pursue this goal, and a new tool to use in achieving it.

Read the Human Rights Watch report here, or a summary here


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