Terrorwashing a Genocide

How the war on terror facilitated Communist China's repression of Uyghurs


In 2002, the United States sent 22 Uyghur men to Guantanamo Bay, where they joined more than 700 other detainees living beyond the comforts of the Geneva Convention. The men were Chinese citizens who U.S. intelligence believed had received weapons training in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military had advertised $5,000 a head for their capture on leaflets circulated among bounty hunters in Pakistan. After their camp in Afghanistan was bombed in the early days of the American invasion, 18 of the men spent months hiding in the caves of Tora Bora, hoping to return to China. When they finally made it across the border to Pakistan, their mountain guides lured them to a mosque, where they were turned over to U.S. forces and flown to Gitmo.

Years passed. After a series of tribunals in the mid-2000s, the military concluded that none of the detained men was an enemy combatant. None could be charged with a crime under U.S. law. Until their detention, none had even heard of Al Qaeda, the great enemy of America with whom their obscure militant group was meant to be closely allied. The prisoners "only have one enemy, and that's the Chinese," one of the detainees told a tribunal in 2004. "They have been torturing us and killing us all: old, young, men, women, little children, and unborn children."

Something had clearly gone amiss. Yet the prospect of bringing the detainees into the U.S. was unthinkable to military and political leaders, even after a federal district court judge ordered some of the men released. Nor could they be shipped to China, to be forcibly disappeared inside an opaque prison system where political dissidents are routinely executed. (Although the exact figure is a state secret, China kills thousands of prisoners every year, several times the number of executions performed by the rest of the world combined.)

Small countries eventually stepped in to resolve what had become a very American paradox of habeas corpus. In 2006, Albania accepted five of the men. In 2009, four more—the youngest of whom, at 30, had been in prison since he was 23—found asylum in Bermuda. That same year, many of the remaining Uyghurs were temporarily resettled in the small Pacific island nation of Palau, although one man was rejected because he had developed a debilitating mental disorder at Guantanamo that Palauan hospitals were not equipped to treat. Finally, after more than a decade in detention, the last three detainees were accepted in 2013 by Slovakia.

At the time, critics saw the odyssey of Guantanamo's Uyghur detainees as an indictment of the U.S. war on terror. In the light of more recent events, that same odyssey now reads like a fable of Uyghur life under a global war on terror—an early chapter in the story of an ethnic minority willfully misconstrued by powerful nation-states, their threat to imperial expansion obscenely exaggerated.

Both stories involve post-9/11 forms of cross-border policing as well as new ways of constructing fugitive populations on which to test them. The difference is that what was once an American obsession is now an international one. "Terrorism" has become the opportunistic cover for governments around the world looking to subdue any kind of non-state agitator: ethnic nationalists in Russia, pirates in Indonesia, environmentalists in the Philippines, Kurdish revolutionaries in Turkey. There is hardly a government anywhere that has not adopted some feature of the war on terror, from its ideological abstractions of good and evil to the special permissions it grants states to monitor and control citizens.

The evolution is nowhere so stark as in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a frontier territory whose minority Uyghur population is almost certainly the most monitored and controlled on the planet. How did it happen that, at the dawn of the war on terror, the United States came to target 22 men from China who had never heard of Al Qaeda or committed any crime against the U.S. and who were not terrorists under any country's definition of the term? How did it then come to pass that the ethnic identity these men shared became criminalized in a sparsely populated region of China, where 12 million Uyghur residents are now subject to mass incarceration, totalitarian surveillance, and forced sterilizations?

In The War on the Uyghurs, Sean Roberts begins the arduous task of probing these and other mysteries of the first two decades of the global war on terror. In doing so, he shows how the United States' efforts to build an international consensus for its counterterrorism projects had far-reaching consequences on the other side of the world, changing the relationship between the Chinese state and its long-oppressed Uyghur minority. He also shows how, during that same period—apart from any Western influence—the Chinese government became increasingly brazen in its oppression of Muslim and Turkic minorities, steadily curtailing freedoms of movement, assembly, and speech in Xinjiang long before the moment in 2016 when it began secretly interning hundreds of thousands of people in extrajudicial "Transformation Through Education" centers.

The director of the International Development Studies program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Roberts is also an anthropologist who began visiting the Uyghur homeland—many residents prefer the name East Turkestan over Xinjiang, a Qing-era colonial term that means "New Frontier"—in 1990. Drawing on decades of research, fieldwork, and media analysis, his book is an excellent introduction to the modern political history of the region. The War on the Uyghurs is comprehensive yet lucid, and the writing never feels stiff or academic. Although there are references to Agamben's homo sacer and Foucault's biopolitics, Roberts' analysis is not explicitly theory-driven. At the same time, the history he presents is clearly informed by ideas about power and administration that emerged from efforts to understand the authoritarian governments of the previous century and the high-tech surveillance states of this one.

It is tempting to think of Xinjiang as a vast and arid Guantanamo Bay, one roughly as large as Alaska and as populous as Texas. Like Donald Rumsfeld's own "world-class operation," on a much grander (albeit largely domestic) scale, it is a hypertrophied state-within-a-state where minority residents are guilty before judgment and where the rule of law is reengineered in the name of fighting a pervasive, unbounded, and infinitely flexible terrorist threat. According to Darren Byler, another scholar of the region, China's counterterrorism campaign in Xinjiang "rests on the assumption that most Uyghurs and significant numbers of Kazakhs are terrorists, separatists, and extremists-in-waiting." But while Guantanamo Bay's purpose is containment, Xin-jiang's state of exception is intended to cure a diseased population. This philosophy is made explicit in government statements dating to the 2014 start of China's "People's War on Terror." In the words of one 2015 report from Hotan City, anyone whose thinking has been "deeply affected" by "religious extremism" must be transformed through "military-style management."

Roberts argues that this state of exception is facilitating cultural genocide. In addition to the system of extrajudicial detention that has incarcerated hundreds of thousands of people—possibly more than a million—in camps, more than 300,000 residents have also received formal prison sentences in the last three years, an order of magnitude more than in previous periods. An entire generation of Uyghur academics, artists, and businesspeople has disappeared, probably into prisons; they include internationally respected anthropologists, poets, comedians, novelists, and economists. There have been many credible reports of torture, sexual violence, and forced sterilization among Xinjiang's minority population. Children are routinely taken from detained parents and placed in state orphanages where minority language and culture are demonized. And more than a million Communist Party cadres have been sent to live temporarily with Uyghur and Kazakh families, where they perform searches of homes, lecture their hosts on the dangers of Islam, and even sleep in the same beds as their "brothers" and "sisters." Meanwhile, birth rates have plummeted in minority areas. The end result, scholars and activists fear, will be the eradication of Uyghurs as a distinct people.

Except for a comprehensive final chapter on events since 2017, The War on the Uyghurs is less about the contemporary threat of cultural genocide than it is about the years of buildup that preceded it. The book forms a kind of historical prologue to the stories from Xinjiang that we journalists tend to focus our attentions on. Such a prologue is especially valuable to general readers seeking an understanding of the region that goes beyond news stories, where, for reasons of space or lack of expertise, regional history is often thin. (Sometimes it is contained entirely within a single adjective, "restive.")

Roberts spent six years as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, and the question of what counts as "terrorism"—who gets to define it and how—animates the book more than any other. For Roberts, terrorism requires the deliberate targeting of civilians. While Xinjiang has seen no shortage of violence described by Chinese authorities as "terrorism" in recent decades, only a handful of incidents would qualify under his definition. On the contrary, he argues that the threat of terrorism presented by Uyghur jihadists was non-existent before 2013 and has remained minimal ever since.

It's true that small numbers of Uyghurs have sometimes pushed for political independence in their homeland, even founding two short-lived Republics of East Turkestan in the years before China's Communist revolution. But in case after case, Roberts shows, the Chinese government has used deceptive framing, official secrecy, and the framework of the war on terror to artificially inflate the danger of Uyghur separatism in order to justify increasingly ruthless policies in Xinjiang. "Often," he writes, "what was framed as a 'terrorist attack' by authorities at this time was really armed self-defense against police and security forces, which were seeking to aggressively apprehend Uyghurs they viewed as 'disloyal' to the state, often merely determined by their religiosity."

In one much-publicized case, an alleged series of attacks on security forces in 2011 was treated as organized terrorism sponsored from abroad; the Chinese government even went so far as to criticize Pakistan, a close ally, for harboring Uyghur terrorists. But the details grow strange under scrutiny. The attacks appear to have been inspired by a ban on veiling and the wearing of black clothing among Uyghur women. Of the 18 confirmed dead, 14 were the alleged attackers themselves, and—unusually for an attack of this scale—no group ever claimed responsibility. One Uyghur witness told The Wall Street Journal that "they say the people came from Pakistan; they say they were international terrorists, but that's not true; they were local people angry with the government and with the Han Chinese."

Roberts describes dozens of similar cases. He cites another 2011 "terrorist attack" that amounted to a shootout between police and a group of Uyghur men attempting to leave the country, and a 2012 raid of an "illegal religious gathering" that in reality may have been a normal prayer group the police interrupted before shooting four people dead. Far from any organized insurgency, the growing violence in the Uyghur homeland seems to have resulted from constant incursions by security forces into private and public Uyghur spaces; in one case officers conducting a household search lifted a woman's veil against her will, prompting a violent response from the men in the household that left 16 Uyghurs dead, including six women.

The labeling of such incidents as acts of terror was no accident. With the start of the war on terror, a new field of foreign "terrorism experts" in the United States and Europe began to rely on Chinese state materials on Xinjiang as part of a global assessment of terrorist groups. These "experts" often took Chinese authorities at their word about the urgent risk posed by Uyghur separatism while ignoring regional experts who for the most part viewed any separatist risk as remote. Roberts singles out one notorious target of government anxieties—the East Turkestan Independence Movement, or ETIM—for special scrutiny. This happens to be the group to which the 22 Uyghur men detained at Guantanamo allegedly belonged.

In Roberts' view, ETIM was a "phantom terrorist group." Although a group commonly identified as ETIM did release propaganda videos in the early 2000s showing a dozen men training with rifles and guns, their members never called themselves by that name, and Roberts finds little evidence that the group existed in more than the barest sense of the word. ETIM and its members performed no confirmed acts of militancy inside China or anywhere else. The group never claimed responsibility for an act of violence. And it remains virtually unknown among Uyghurs in China, with "very little if any impact inside the Uyghur homeland."

Yet in 2002, the U.S. and U.N. both declared ETIM a terrorist organization. Within two years its leader was dead and its members decimated. Since then, Chinese state media has denounced the phantom threat as the "black hand" behind almost all acts of violence in Xinjiang "for decades."

With unprecedented detail, Roberts shows how ETIM's image in the eyes of the international intelligence community went from a ragtag nonentity to a well-funded terrorist conspiracy. He provides suggestive evidence that the U.S., which initially dismissed China's claims about ETIM as politically motivated, reversed its conclusions in order to secure China's support on the U.N. Security Council in the weeks before the U.S. pleaded its case for the invasion of Iraq.

As late as December 2001, the U.S. State Department refused to accept China's branding of Uyghur dissent as a "terrorist threat"; a U.S. representative suggested at the time that "the legitimate economic and social issues that confront people in Northwestern China" should be solved "politically rather than using counterterrorism methods." By mid-2002, the story had changed. The U.S. was by then anxious to forestall any objections from China concerning its pre-emptive strikes in the Middle East. Western "experts" needed no further prompting to produce all the evidence required to treat ETIM as a significant threat to Chinese stability.

Some of these experts claimed that ETIM was underwritten by Al Qaeda, and this may have been the link that doomed them. Roberts finds no convincing evidence the connection was real. Indeed, the organization seems to have denounced 9/11 and rejected any connection to the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Even calling ETIM an "organization" appears to oversell its status, Roberts writes: "I would argue that the available information about [leader Häsän] Mäkhsum's group suggests that it was not an organization at all, but a failed attempt to create a militant movement."

The Uyghurs who ended up in Guantanamo Bay had indeed "trained" in an ETIM camp—in addition to morning jogs, there was one Kalashnikov, which they took turns shooting—but they did not appear to understand themselves as belonging to a particular militant group. Most had ended up in Afghanistan looking for a safe place to live after leaving Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan over fears they would be extradited. To be labeled a "terrorist" in the global war on terror, however, is to become a figure with no legitimate political grievances.

As the war on terror escalated outside of China, state-conjured threats of separatism led to harsher policies in Xin-jiang. Roberts argues that this environment created a "self-fulfilling prophecy" where state tactics made spontaneous acts of rage and violence—eventually including genuine acts of terrorism, such as a coordinated knife attack in Kunming in 2014—all but inevitable, retroactively justifying the policies that caused the violence in the first place. As with the insurgent subjects of European colonialism, the Uyghur "problem" may be best understood as an unwieldy state force in search of a subject upon which to exert itself.

With its rare abundance of Uyghur-language sources, The War on the Uyghurs pairs well with Eurasian Crossroads, James Millward's brilliant longue durée history of Xinjiang. Elsewhere, Millward has said he is increasingly convinced that colonialism is a useful lens through which to understand Xinjiang since the late Qing era. Roberts, with his focus on more recent history, does not hesitate to describe Xin-jiang in settler-colonial terms, placing him in agreement with several other mainstream scholars of Central Asia, including Byler, Justin Jacobs, Dibyesh Anand, and Eric Schluessel. While often acknowledging the differences between Xinjiang and classical cases of European colonialism, these scholars have highlighted resource extraction, the Chinese state's domination of local politics, and the conscious destruction, displacement, or assimilation of indigenous populations.

Some Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces have defended policies in Xinjiang by arguing that the United States—a powerful and belligerent critic of China's domestic policies—has behaved with as much cruelty and force toward its own native populations. Roberts recalls a defensive message he received claiming that China's policies were justified because "the US had done the same thing to Native Americans." Yet it is precisely the similarities between the Uyghurs and other indigenous and native peoples that render their situation so acutely indefensible. Global norms have shifted in recent decades toward the recognition of indigenous rights, including the right to self-determination. China may not recognize the existence of indigenous people within its borders, but in 2007 the state voted in favor of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The U.S., which initially voted against the declaration, later reversed its decision.

Such instruments are part of a rising awareness that the destruction of a people or their way of life is never justifiable, whether in the name of modernization and development or, in the case of Xinjiang, in the name of securitization. Roberts' central argument is that the eradication of Uyghur life is facilitated less by any Chinese notion of manifest destiny than by the ideology of the war on terror and the infinite pliancy of a counterterrorism effort that justifies any policy and terrorwashes any law—including those once used to "civilize" the natives.

The War on the Uyghurs: China's Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority, by Sean R. Roberts, Princeton University Press, 328 pages, $29.95