Two people wearing masks showing colors of the Uighur heartland’s flag with a hand painted with the Chinese Communist Party’s colors over it. Photo Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
As the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, and other countries condemn China’s violence, internment, sterilization, and so-called re-education against its Uyghur population for the crime that it is—genocide—China’s actions continue unabated.[i] While the international community watches in horror and China deflects responsibility, many ask why this genocide is happening and how it is still going on. Though domestic realities within China are certainly relevant in answering this question, this genocide is also made possible because of the global shared sense of vulnerability to terrorism that occurred after September 11th.
The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority living in the Xinjiang region of China.[ii] Xinjiang is China’s largest region, located in the northwest of the country.[iii] The region is autonomous, like Tibet, and in theory retains certain powers of autonomy and self-governance.[iv] The region produces one fifth of the world’s cotton, is rich in oil, and serves as a crossroads, bordering Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, among other countries.[v]
The Uyghurs view themselves as culturally and ethnically similar to Central Asian nations.[vi] Historically a nomadic Turkish people who speak a language similar to Turkish, their Muslim faith makes them an easy target for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to “otherize” and ostracize from mainstream Chinese society.[vii]
In the summer of 2009, riots between the Uyghurs and the Han majority erupted across the capital of Xinjiang.[viii] A Uyghur man was killed by a mob of angry Han after an unsubstantiated rumor circulated that Uyghurs had raped a Han woman in the toy factory where they worked.[ix] This incident led to protests in the capital and in universities, which Chinese security forces violently suppressed.[x] When the riots ended, 197 people were killed and over one thousand were injured.[xi] This incident gave China the excuse it needed to brutally crack down on the Uyghur population, as the CCP cited the Uyghurs as the instigators of the riots and thus responsible for the bloodshed. This would not have been possible without the groundwork laid eight years earlier by the single most influential act of international terrorism the world has ever seen.
September 11th will forever be etched into America’s identity. But it is easy for the United States to forget that 9/11 affected more than just the US and Afghanistan. Such unimaginable, spectacular violence opened the door for China to begin their own war against the Uyghurs, simply by invoking the now universal feeling of vulnerability brought on by the word ‘terrorism.’ Since the Uyghurs are a Muslim minority, it was an easy jump for China to claim that the Uyghurs posed an extremist, ideological threat to China. Launching a war against what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) called the three evils—terrorism, extremism, and separatism—the Uyghurs soon found themselves on the receiving end of China’s war of terror.[xii]
While the US and other nations have publicly condemned China’s action as a genocide, President Biden is contemplating a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and the US even banned the imports of goods made in Xinjiang, these actions are still not enough. Given US-China relations, it is hard to envision a situation in which the US could force China’s hand to stop the genocide against the Uyghurs. However, it is important that the US learn this lesson from its 20-year war on terror: the ramifications of our own need for justice can, and will, have impacts far beyond what we can immediately see. Blinded by a need for revenge after September 11th, America could not know that 20 years later, this narrative of counter terrorism above all else would facilitate China’s genocide of the Uyghur population. But we must understand this lesson for the future. Though it may be impossible to put this genie back in the bottle, a hard look at how America’s own actions have impacted global norms around terrorism and extremism could produce valuable lessons, which should be used to shape future counterterrorism policy—lest our own actions to counter terrorism at home actually increase instances of terrorism abroad.
[i] “Who are the Uyghurs and why is China being accused of genocide?” BBC News. 12 June 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-22278037
[xi] Dou, Eva. “Who are the Uyghurs, and what’s happening to them in China?” The Washington Post. November 19, 2021 Who are the Uyghurs? China’s Xinjiang crackdown explained. – The Washington Post
[xii] “Who The Uyghurs Are And Why China Is Targeting Them” NPR. May 31, 2021. Who The Uyghurs Are And Why China Is Targeting Them : NPR