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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The ever-expanding Uighur ‘threat’

Uighur protesters denouncing the violence in China's Xinjiang province that has left at least 156 people dead in 2009. Photo: AP/Francois Mori

Last week, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a Central Asia-oriented mutual-security organization founded in China in the mid 1990s — staged a large-scale military exercise in Kashgar, a dusty old Silk Road town in the country’s Northwestern province of Xinjiang. They practiced storming a terrorist camp, ostensibly to practice their responses to the growing Uighur threat to Chinese rule. “Signs are the ‘East Turkistan’ terrorists are flowing back,” Vice-Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei said after the exercise. “The drill was designed against the backdrop that they are very likely to penetrate into China from Central Asia.”

China is certainly taking some precautionary measures. With the rise of the Arab Spring, China’s fears of popular dissent have precipitated to a stern crackdown. Last month, the U.S. pressed China on the imprisonment of outspoken artist Ai Weiwei and accusations of harassment and abuse of the Uighurs following the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

Beijing has also pushed to restrict and harass Uighurs outside of China. Uighur activists in Central Asia have been facing increasing pressure and harassment from the authorities. Just last week, the Kazakh government blocked Uighur exile leader Kahriman Ghojamberdi from traveling to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the World Uighur Congress — a move many Uighurs complained was directly inspired by Chinese pressure on the Kazakh government. As Joshua Kucera notes, there have been a spate of similar acts of harassment against Uighur activists living in Central Asia in recent months.

Ever since the 2009 spasm of violence in Xinjiang, the Uighurs in China have been fairly quiet aside from a few random, isolated acts against the state. And while there is a fear of rising Islamism in Central Asia, a subject of much hand-wringing in the press, it’s difficult to say where the actual threat is. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — not a Uighur group — talks a lot  about “coming back” to the region from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region on the web, but there is scant evidence of how serious these efforts are. Also, Central Asian governments are not above exaggerating the prospect of terrorism to gain political cover both for their repression of minority religious groups and to extract counterterrorism training money from the U.S. and Europe.

The U.S. isn’t much better than Central Asia. Despite hosting Rebiya Kadeer, the leader of the World Uighur Congress, the U.S. has a fraught history with the embattled minority. The U.S. government captured many Uighurs during the initial phase of the war in Afghanistan; they had traveled there to join a separatist group operating out of the Uighur’s traditional home in Xinjiang. Although the Uighurs were cleared of having ties to global terrorist groups, the U.S. government continued to detain them for fear of Chinese retaliation should they return. At the same time, their pleas to be settled in the U.S. have been repeatedly denied as recently as last month.

At issue is where a legitimate separatist cause ends and where an illegitimate terrorist movement takes over. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a designated terror group that has committed acts of terror; groups like the World Uighur Congress, on the other hand, are not terrorist organizations, they are just separatists. Even so, the Chinese government labeled them a terrorist group in 2003.

This wouldn’t be too worrying, except that U.S. insight into the Uighur movement is so limited that it must rely on Chinese sources to understand both the separatists and the terrorists. According to a 2009 Congressional hearing on the topic, “Chinese agents were welcomed to Guantanamo Bay for a period of between seven and 10 days for the purpose of interrogating the group of 22 Uighurs” in 2002 . Dru Gladney, an expert on Uighur politics at the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, contends that most information available on the group can be traced back to China.

Disentangling Chinese rhetoric about national unity and direct concerns over terrorism can be difficult, especially when the Chinese government seems to deliberately confuse them. China has every right to defend its territory and to prevent separatism. China does not have every right to ignore Uighur complaints of cultural, linguistic, religious and political colonization, and its attempts to erase Uighur cultural history are truly worrying. In Kashgar, the city that hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization counterterrorism drill, the Chinese have spent years demolishing the ancient architecture of the Old City, replacing the old alleys and mud-brick buildings with the generic block apartments you find all across China.

No one excuses Uighur terrorism or begrudges Chinese efforts to curtail it. Rather, what is so worrying about China’s decision to host an anti-Uighur exercise is its constant attempts to blur the lines between opposition to Chinese mistreatment and actual terrorism. That creates a situation in which the Chinese can take preemptive military action against non-terrorist Uighur separatists, and use its regional security organization as a cover to make the move appear legitimate.

Sadly, China isn’t the only country that deliberately exaggerates the threat of terrorism to justify militarism. In many ways, that has been the U.S. approach to global terrorism – an approach that has also been mimicked by Europe, Russia and various Central Asian countries. However, the “everyone else is doing it” response is not sufficient enough justification. The Chinese government has been quietly aspiring to global leadership on a number of issues like low-carbon energy. Maybe treating their minorities with respect, and accepting differences, can be one more way they choose to take a leading stance.