|Xinjiang: what the West doesn't tell you about China's war on terror|
On March 22, the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on China over alleged human rights violations against the Uygurs, the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
It was the latest in a series of escalating moves against Beijing that began on January 19 when then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, on his last day in office, declared that China was committing “ongoing” genocide against the Uygurs.
Pompeo offered no evidence. It was reported in Foreign Policy magazine that the State Department’s own lawyers had found “insufficient evidence to prove genocide”. When the Canadian parliament subsequently passed a motion declaring genocide in Xinjiang, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abstained, calling the term “extremely loaded”.
China has retaliated in kind, launching sanctions against European lawmakers and accusing the West of hypocrisy and spreading lies.
What we do not read about in the West is that terrorism was spiralling out of control in Xinjiang and remains a serious threat today.
I used to visit Xinjiang from Hong Kong until a few years ago, for an American firm which had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in two private businesses there.
Both employed Uygurs and Han people alike. Those were coveted jobs. On my visits, I was taken to Uygur bazaars, Uygur dinners and Uygur dances, all of which my hosts presented to me with pride. Most officials I met were Uygurs.
Starting around 2007, however, it became increasingly dangerous to visit Xinjiang. The region was rocked by a spate of horrific terrorist attacks, resulting in over 1,000 deaths and countless injuries.
For example, on July 5, 2009, there was a riot in the capital city of Urumqi; 197 people were hacked, beaten or burned to death and 1,721 were injured. On May 22, 2014, two car bombings in the same city killed 43 people and wounded 94. There were dozens of other attacks.
The extreme violence was not just confined to Xinjiang. In 2013, five people died and 38 were injured in a suicide attack by three Uygurs in Beijing. In 2014, a killing spree by eight knife-wielding Uygurs left 31 people dead and 141 wounded at a Kunming railway station.
A 2016 study commissioned by the US government noted that, from 2012 to 2014, domestic attacks in China “apparently became more frequent, more geographically dispersed, and more indiscriminately targeted”. The perpetrators, in many cases, were radicalised members of the Uygur ethnic group.
The organisation that often claimed responsibility for the attacks, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was described in a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder as “a Muslim separatist group founded by militant Uygurs”.
The backgrounder further noted: “The group and its ties to Muslim fundamentalism have compounded Chinese concerns about the rising threat of terrorism within the country as its restive Western regions faced a spate of terrorist attacks in 2014 ... ETIM has been listed by the State Department as one of the more extreme separatist groups. It seeks an independent state called East Turkestan that would cover an area including parts of Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region”.
In 2002, the US and the United Nations both declared ETIM a terrorist group, with the UN Security Council noting the group’s association with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the Taliban.
Uygur fighters battled with US forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere, with many being wounded, killed or captured. For years, the US held 22 Uygurs at Guantanamo Bay. As recently as July 2020, the UN identified thousands of Uygur Islamic State fighters in Syria and Afghanistan.
Much like the post-September 11 war on terror - one in which the US, ironically, had considered China to be a partner - China has been waging its own counterterrorism offensive in Xinjiang. The extremists operate across China’s porous borders and train alongside the Taliban and Islamic State.
Returning to Xinjiang, they hide among the general population, working to convert young people to their radicalism, and plotting and carrying out terror attacks.
China’s counterterrorism measures include enhanced security and what China calls vocational training and education centres. Shohrat Zakir, governor of Xinjiang and a Uygur, said at a news conference in December 2019 that the training involved job skills, Mandarin, law and deradicalisation.
He added that all trainees had graduated by the end of 2019, but that the training centres would continue to operate as schools.
Were there innocent people rounded up by mistake? Quite possibly (although we can only speculate). Have there been human rights abuses at these centres? Casting a critical eye, and bearing in mind how busy the ETIM’s propaganda machine must be, some of the allegations seem credible and others are obviously fake. There is no proof, however, that the abuses are systematic or ordered from above.
However harsh China’s counterterrorism measures might be, they pale in comparison with those of the United States.
By various estimates, America’s war on terror has claimed half a million lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many more in Pakistan, Syria and Libya. In Iraq, the conflict caused an estimated 200,000 civilian deaths, the vast majority of whom were women and children, outnumbering the casualties among Iraqi troops five to one.
Yet, the US has since admitted–in reports by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence–it did not have a shred of evidence that Iraq had anything to do with September 11, harboured al-Qaeda or possessed weapons of mass destruction. Many innocent lives were lost in vain.
Unlike the US’ war on terror, China’s counterterrorism campaign seems to have worked. There have been no reports of terror attacks since 2017.
It is actually quite remarkable that China has been able to rein in terrorism, an intractable problem anywhere in the world, without inflicting as much collateral damage. This point never seems to be made in the torrent of outrage pouring from the Western press.
Now the United States accuses China of genocide, without any evidence. Does China not have a point when it accuses America of double standards?
On November 5, 2020, two days after the US presidential election, the Trump administration delisted ETIM as a terrorist group. The timing could not be more cynical–what better way to get back at China, which Trump had repeatedly blamed for his political misfortunes?
At the stroke of a pen, ETIM-sponsored terrorism was no longer an issue to the US, and out went the international legitimacy of China’s counterterrorism campaign.
That paved the way for Pompeo to declare genocide, on the day he was packing up to leave office–again, the timing could not have been a coincidence. If there were no terrorists to fight, China’s policies could then, by default, be labelled as ethnic repression.
By striking out the premise of counterterrorism, Western politicians could then frame China’s anti-terror measures simply as religious and ethnic persecution.
There are about 25 million Muslims in China. Beijing alone has about a quarter of a million Muslims and more than 70 mosques. China’s policies in Xinjiang, however draconian they might appear to be at one level, are not targeted at a religion or an ethnic group, but at extremism; major Muslim countries understand this and have publicly supported China.
Implicit in any claim of genocide is the idea that one group is attempting to exterminate another. But there is no evidence of any systematic effort to reduce the Uygur population, as some in the West claim.
In the space of 40 years, the Uygur population in Xinjiang grew from 5.5 million to more than 12 million. Between 2010 and 2018, the Uygur population increased by 25 per cent, compared with 2 per cent for the Han population.
It is well known that China implemented a one-child policy between 1979 and 2015. What is not well understood is that non-Han ethnic groups such as the Uygurs were exempt from the birth control policy, and couples in rural areas were allowed to have up to three children.
China’s birth control policies discriminate in favour of, not against, non-Han ethnic groups including the Uygurs.
While the population growth rate in Xinjiang did decline in 2018, this was consistent with the national trend, and still higher than the national average, according to Zuliyati Simayi, a Uygur scholar at Xinjiang University. Although China has abandoned the one-child policy, the number of newborns has declined since 2016.
Last year, births plummeted to 10.035 million, the lowest level in the history of the People’s Republic; but it would be ludicrous to conclude from this trend that the Chinese government is committing genocide against its own people.
Most Western reports on “genocide” cite one single source, Adrian Zenz, a German born-again Christian in the employ of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, in Washington. He claims to be “led by God” to do research on Chinese minorities.
To the extent I can ascertain, all his data is based on statistics published by the Chinese government, as are all such statistics disseminated in the West, which is understandable because only a government is able to collect statistics in a systematic way. However, he interprets the same data to mean something completely different from the original.
For example, China has pursued a multi-decade anti-poverty drive through policies such as helping the poor find jobs elsewhere and moving entire villages out of remote areas to more accessible places with electricity. But data related to such policies was cited by Zenz and others as evidence of “forced labour transfers” and “genocide”.
The problem with China is that it doesn’t have a free press, so there is no independent verification of the situation in Xinjiang.
A word of advice to Beijing: your attention should be targeted squarely on terrorist organisations and their propaganda machines. To win the information war, you should get the foreign press on your side – or you risk playing into ETIM’s hands.
I have seen the testimonies of some victims of the terror attacks and their suffering is heartbreaking. Take reporters to them, as well as to the training centres. Transparency is the best way to dispel rumours expose lies and win friends.
There is no telling if peace will last in Xinjiang. The US has been fighting decades-long “forever wars” on terror, with no end in sight.
It is a long fight because the causes of terrorism are deep-rooted and multifaceted: social, political, economic, religious and historical.
Terrorism can’t be wiped out by a “whack a mole” strategy–just killing the bad guys wherever they pop up. The root causes must be addressed. This may include poverty alleviation, jobs, generous economic policies and education.
China has been ostracised in the global public square. Deepening conflicts with the West have increasingly soured relationships. Yet in all of these areas, the debate is far from black and white. The big lesson of the past four years is that facts matter.
That is very much the case with China’s policies in Xinjiang. The Chinese leadership needs to do a much better job of explaining its anti-terror campaign. And the West needs to take a careful look in the mirror at its own struggles with the same problem.
Weijian Shan is the author of two bestselling books: Out of the Gobi and Money Games.