Over the past two decades, the crisis in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has drastically worsened. This has much to do with the major expansion after 2001 of repressive measures directed at suppressing dissent among Uighurs, dressed in the rhetoric of anti-terrorism.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States launched the global “war on terror”, which supported efforts in other countries to dismantle terror organisations. It is following these events that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defined Uighur resistance as part of the worldwide “terrorism” emergency and not as a local issue of “separatism” as it used to in the past.
This definition was directly validated by the US government when it classified the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an obscure armed group operating in Afghanistan, as a “terrorist organisation” and imprisoned Uighurs in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Thus America’s “war on terror” helped China launch a massive crackdown on the Uighur population, which has gone as far as the imprisonment of 1 million ethnic Uighurs in a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”, according to the United Nations.
For centuries, Uighurs have been living in the region alternately known as Altishahr, East Turkestan, or Xinjiang. In 1759, they came under the rule of the Qing Empire, which called their homeland the “New Territory” (Xinjiang). Despite several rebellions in the early 20th century, the province remained part of China and, in 1955, it was granted autonomy by CCP leader Mao Zedong.
In the following decades, economic and material investment in the region raised the standard of living and provided some advantages for its non-Han inhabitants, but these services came at a cost. Increasing Han migration displaced Uyghurs from their indigenous lands and started causing tensions.
It is these changing social dynamics that set the scene for unrest in Xinjiang, not a religious drive to wage “jihad” as has been claimed. Thus, in the late 20th century, ethnic tensions in the province were rooted in Uighur concerns over self-governance, cultural preservation, educational opportunities, or labour and health issues.
The disparities between Han immigrants and Indigenous people played a significant role in fuelling separatist sentiments and movements in the region. Uighurs had legitimate concerns about their sovereignty and freedoms but had little power to enact change. Often local demonstrations against government policies were suppressed, with state violence intensifying after the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Throughout the 1990s both local and transnational movements calling for Uighur independence were established, most notably the East Turkestan Information Center and the World Uyghur Youth Congress.
By the late-1990s, a series of bombings in public transportation and at a police station in the Xinjiang capital Ürümqi and were attributed to “East Turkestan separatists”. In 1997, the CCP launched the “Strike Hard” campaign to combat separatism. It gave security agencies the green light to enact massive arrests and swift executions of suspected separatists.
Uighur activists argued that the government was using accusations of separatism to suppress any form of Uighur dissent and criticism of state policies. Some even claimed that violent incidents were falsely attributed to Uighur separatists in order to justify ramping up repressive measures.
The 9/11 attacks gave this anti-separatism campaign a whole new direction. In their aftermath, US President George W Bush warned world leaders that they had to make a choice: be with America or on the side of the terrorists. China made its choice clear: It voted in favour of UN Security Council resolutions urging international action against terrorism and expressed its commitment to the “war on terror”.
The US reciprocated this sign of cooperation by identifying the little-known ETIM as a worldwide terrorist organisation and adding it to the US Terrorism Exclusion List in the summer of 2002. The UN followed suit on the one-year anniversary of 9/11.
The basis for the designation was flimsy at best. Beijing accused ETIM of violent terrorism causing numerous deaths in the 1990s but there was little evidence to support these claims. US intelligence maintained they gathered relevant information about the group’s alleged terrorist activity during interrogations of 22 Uighurs at Guantanamo Bay, who were detained in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their testimonies revealed that in 2002, ETIM was a small group of fighters based in Afghanistan with no real ties to global “jihadist” networks that posed no serious terror threat.
This did not matter, however. With official international support of “war on terror” proponents, the legal and political apparatus had already been set in motion to frame and justify the CCP’s crackdown on any Uighur dissent as an anti-terrorism effort. The ETIM’s designation as a terrorist organisation thus became the linchpin of US complicity in the CCP’s oppression of Uighurs.
The frequency of Uighur protests within Xinjiang decreased throughout the 2000s, in part due to the increasingly repressive measures enacted after 9/11. However, in July 2009, the social tensions between Han and Uighur residents of Ürümqi boiled over. A complex set of labour issues, public rumour, racial biases, and communal frustration resulted in inter-ethnic violence that killed almost 200 people and injured more than 1,000, according to the Chinese government.
CCP officials and Chinese state media claimed the unrest was catalyzed by Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, which they also asserted was a “terrorist” group working with ETIM.
The Uighur terrorism narrative has also justified harsher practices of social control in Xinjiang. Securitisation efforts drastically intensified with the promotion of Chen Quanguo to the CCP Committee Secretary of Xinjiang in 2016. After years of developing surveillance techniques, grid management policing, and re-education programmes in Tibet, Chen brought his blueprint to Xinjiang.
Uighurs have faced extreme counterterrorism measures, including eye scans, unrestricted searches of smartphones, blocking of external media sources, and mass internment in detention centres.
Social, cultural and religious norms deemed incompatible with Han majority life have been criminalised, including women wearing face veils and men having long beards. Any display of religiosity among Uighurs has been considered suspicious and a sign of potential “terrorist” intent.
The CCP’s conflation of Uighur dissent and demands for rights and freedoms with “Islamic fundamentalism” and “terrorism” reflects the logic of the US “war on terror”, which automatically equates Muslim political activity with terrorism.
In the past few years, the plight of the Uighurs finally attracted international sympathy, especially after revelations about the abhorrent conditions Uighur detainees face in internment camps. In 2020, the US finally removed the ETIM’s designation as a “terrorist organisation” and went as far as declaring suppression of Uighurs a genocide.
This, however, cannot erase the key role the US government played in leading international acceptance of Beijing’s repressive measures against the community. The US “war on terror” has been truly devastating for millions of Muslims, who have had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, including Uighurs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.