In September 2021, I attended a London tribunal that heard evidence from several Uyghurs who had experienced persecution at the hands of China. Despite having given my own evidence to the International Criminal Court and Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal against US abuses in Afghanistan, it was not easy listening.
As we mark two decades since it began, few would naturally associate China with the US-led ‘war on terror’ and rampant Islamophobia common in Western nations. After all, China borders several central Asian Muslim-majority – like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and has good relations with them all.
Not only is China viewed as an adversary of Western nations but we’re led to believe it played no role in the barbaric US-led wars in the Muslim world and its torture programmes. Furthermore, as a nation ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which itself was born out of the fight against imperialism, how could China possibly be anything like its opponents in the West?
In truth, China’s version of Islamophobia against the Uyghurs and other Turkic people within its borders is far worse because it is committing a cultural genocide against them.
I first came across Uyghurs while I was living in Afghanistan in 2001. I didn’t really know much about them or their history other than that they came from a region called Xinjiang in neighbouring China. But that was only partly true.
Uyghurs are an ancient Turkic people. Their homeland, East Turkestan, is named as such because they are the original Turks. Their descendants migrated across Central Asia and settled as far as Turkey. The overwhelming majority of Uyghurs are Muslims. Their language is written in an Arabic script and is heavily influenced from both Arabic and Farsi (Persian). But the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is trying to change all of that.
China doesn’t often get described as a settler-colonial nation. However, some scholars argue that it is. In his book, The War on the Uyghurs, Professor Sean Roberts argues that ‘modern China’s relationship with the Uyghurs and their homeland has always been, and continues to be, one best characterised as colonial.’ He further explains that the Chinese government’s attempts to ‘civilise’ Uyghurs by resettling millions of Han Chinese in Xinjiang, betray its belief in the superiority of its own culture. This is a shocking conclusion, but not unprecedented.
In 1759, East Turkestan was subjugated by the imperial Chinese Qing Empire which renamed the Uyghur homeland ‘Xinjiang’ (New Territory). Uyghurs repeatedly fought back and briefly established the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan before being annexed by China in 1949. Xinjiang was granted ‘autonomous’ status, but there was a slow and steady attempt to absorb the region and its Turkic Muslim peoples into the communist, atheist vision of the PRC.
Today, that vision is meted out with a vengeance. At the London tribunal, I heard from survivors and activists about how those who refuse to eat pork or drink alcohol, those who fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and those who offer salam (the Arabic greeting of peace) are arrested, imprisoned and dressed in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits.
Over a million Uyghurs have been placed in ‘re-education’ camps. Meanwhile, their children are sent to orphanages called ‘welfare centres’ where they learn Mandarin and Chinese values in place of their own. The government says this is necessary in order to prevent terrorism, separatism and to nurture better-integrated citizens. There are numerous allegations of systematic rape, torture and extrajudicial killing at these centres, which China denies.
I first started to learn about the plight of the Uyghurs during my time as a captive of the US military in Bagram and Guantanamo. Twenty-two of them were held with me – without charge or trial.
In the early days of Guantanamo, intelligence services of countries with atrocious human rights records were given access to the prisoners. I myself was threatened with being sent to Egypt or Syria to be tortured. In the post 9/11 frenzy, the US used such threats to frighten prisoners with the possibility of being sent back to their country of origin, bearing the Guantanamo label. As some Uyghur prisoners told me, China was one of those countries.
At the UN Security Council, China backed resolutions in support of George Bush’s ‘war on terror’. In return, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – a separatist group that sought to free the Uyghur homeland from Chinese government control – was designated a terrorist organisation by the US. At the same time, as former Uyghur prisoners told me, Chinese intelligence agents were given access to Guantanamo to interrogate them.
Nonetheless, US courts concluded that evidence used against Guantanamo’s Uyghurs had come from China and that they never posed a threat to the US. They were all freed and resettled to countries where they were less at risk of being deported to China. Bermuda, Palau, El Salvador, Slovakia and Switzerland were among the destinations. The ETIM was also removed from the US terror list.
After the Covid-19 outbreak and suspicions that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei could be used to spy on the US and UK, it may be hard to see how China embraced George Bush’s language and recalibrated its strained relationship with the US by reframing its repression of the Uyghurs as a ‘people’s war on terror’. One enduring legacy of the ‘war on terror’ has been that, as long as the opponents are Muslims, their grievances can be easily delegitimised with the terrorism label. China was on the side of the US when it began and it had the ability to deal with ‘terrorist’ Muslims, like everything else, on an industrial scale – even if the US now condemns China for its treatment of the Uyghurs.
Some will argue that attacking China plays into the hands of the far right. After all, it was Donald Trump’s government that placed sanctions on members of the Chinese Communist Party precisely because of the treatment of Uyghurs. However, China has been a rival of the US for decades. Whether it’s Donald Trump who imposed the ‘Muslim ban’ or Joe Biden who warned of ‘stiff competition’ from ‘an increasingly assertive China’, both were putting US interests first. No one can fault the Uyghurs for taking help wherever they can get it. If racist, Muslim-hating politicians have taken up their cause that is all the more reason for those with a moral conscience to stand up for them.
The cause of the Uyghurs is not about attacking China for its own sake, it’s about protecting the Uyghurs where it matters most.
Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, author of Enemy Combatant and outreach director for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE.
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