Last week, President Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act, the first US legislation to focus on the role of the US in protecting the rights of Uighurs and other indigenous Muslims inside China. On the same day, former national security adviser John Bolton revealed in an excerpt from his book that Trump had allegedly told the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, perhaps as early as 2017 and again in 2019, that he agreed with his policy of placing Muslims in mass internment camps.
While contradictory messaging is not new to the Trump administration, these particular mixed messages about Uighurs have a longer history which belies the role that the US has played in stoking the flames of Islamophobia in China.
The Uighurs, like the Tibetans, have long sought some form of self-determination in their homeland. During the 1990s, the Chinese government frequently repressed both populations in the name of combating “separatism”, an excuse for attacking minorities that was not palatable to the international community at the time. The 9/11 attacks and the advent of the global “war on terror” changed that equation for the Uighurs. China shifted its discourse about suppressing Uighur dissent in late 2001, claiming that it was combating an international terrorist threat linked to al-Qaida, a justification that was endorsed by the international community.
Initially, the Bush administration refuted this explanation of Uighur dissent in China, but its policy dramatically changed during the summer of 2002 when the US placed an unknown group of Uighur would-be militants in Afghanistan, called the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), on the US Terrorist Exclusion List. Subsequently, the US also assisted China in having the United Nations place ETIM on the all-important UN “consolidated list” of terrorist groups in September 2002. Most analysts at the time saw these actions as a quid pro quo with China in exchange for China’s acquiescence to the impending US invasion of Iraq.
To the extent that would-be Uighur militants were active in Afghanistan at this time, they were few in number, inconsequential to the “war on terror”, and posed little to no threat to the US or even to China. While the US did intern 22 Uighurs at Guantánamo Bay during this time, it subsequently released them all to third countries, acknowledging that they posed no threat to the US and were not loyal to international jihadist groups.
If ETIM ever represented a cohesive organisation, it certainly did not after the 2003 killing of its leader by Pakistan’s military. In turn, the myth of the Uighur-led Islamist terrorist threat to China was transferred to a new group of Uighurs in Waziristan in 2008. This group, often conflated with ETIM, called itself the Turkistan Islamic party (TIP) and consisted of a handful of Uighurs who had fled the US war in Afghanistan to join jihadist groups in Pakistan.
While TIP would eventually become a larger group in Syria after 2013, drawing from the many Uighurs who fled repression in China around that time, there is no evidence that this group has ever orchestrated violence inside China itself. TIP did become a prolific producer of internet videos, beginning with threats against the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and these videos have continually justified China’s employment of counterterrorism measures to deal with Uighur dissent.
These negligible threats were exaggerated to justify militaristic police brutality throughout the Xinjiang region of China, especially in its majority Uighur southern villages and cities. With time, this was also met by Uighur-led retaliation against the police and security forces. In 2009, the tension in the region exploded into ethnic riots in its capital city of Urumqi, resulting in the most intense crackdown on suspected Uighur disloyalty yet.
Over the next several years, this would lead to an exodus of Uighurs fleeing repression in China and a handful of instances of Uighur violent resistance to the state in 2013 and 2014 that looked a lot like terrorist acts, appearing politically motivated, premeditated, and targeting civilians. By using counterterrorism tactics to violently deal with mostly peaceful calls for self-determination, it drove some Uighurs to mimic the enemy that China had always imagined them to be.
The present wholesale attack on Uighur identity has its origins in this tumultuous time. In 2014, China declared a “people’s war on terror” that was in reality nothing less than a war on the Uighurs. They began building an expansive electronic surveillance network to track Uighurs, started beta-testing “re-education” classes for political indoctrination, and criminalised many cultural practices important to Uighur identity as signs of “extremism”. In 2017, this war was put into full motion through the mass internment of large swaths of the Uighur population.
China’s ongoing campaign against the Uighurs has always been an effort to neutralise Uighur resistance to China’s full integration of the Uighur homeland into a unified and monocultural Chinese state. It has never been a response to a terrorist threat, real or imagined – but a narrative of Islamist terrorism founded in the US-led “war on terror” has always served as its convenient justification.
In this context, nobody should be surprised if Bolton’s revelations about Trump’s tacit approval of Beijing’s actions are true. Trump is not only motivated by the same obsession with Islamic terrorism that has preoccupied all US administrations since 11 September 2001, but he also frequently aligns himself with racist movements and autocrats. Indeed, why would anyone expect Trump, who proposed a Muslim travel ban, to not agree with Xi about the mass internment of Muslims?
The real tragedy of the Bolton revelations is its disservice to the Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act, which has always been a bipartisan initiative from Congress and not a product of the Trump administration. In many ways this legislation reaffirms the stated commitment of the US to uphold international human rights, an aspect of US foreign policy that has been in retreat since 9/11. It also serves as an imperfect mea culpa for US complicity in China’s Uighur cultural genocide.
By Sean R Roberts