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The United States’ Role in China’s Persecution of the Uighurs

It's not just that the U.S. isn't doing anything about China's mass detention campaign. The U.S.-led War on Terror helped accelerate it.

Protesters on February 5 (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Kamaltürk Yalqun’s father was sentenced to 15 years in a Chinese prison early last year. As a prominent Uighur scholar and writer, he was among the first to be swept up in October 2016 as China embarked on its largest detention campaign since the Cultural Revolution. “Whether you become an activist or not, it doesn’t matter. If you are a Uighur, you will be a target,” Yalqun said.

On Tuesday, Yalqun was among nearly 200 protesters rallying outside the United Nation headquarters in Manhattan to plead for greater international attention to China’s accelerating detention of Uighur and other Muslim minorities in its northwestern region of Xinjiang. One told me Chinese agents called him three weeks ago to warn against drawing attention to the detention of his parents and brother, a popular singer—neither had a past history of activism, he said. Another recounted the detention of her aunt and sister—also without a history of political involvement, she said. All of these protesters had decided to risk harassment from a rising superpower determined to thwart any criticism of its sweeping campaign.

These detained relatives are now part of a sobering figure: The U.S. State Department estimates that between 800,000 and two million people are being held indefinitely in a sprawling network of more than 1,000 Chinese internment camps. Up until October last year, the Chinese government denied their existence. Now, they say they are “vocational training centers” meant to curb extremism. But human rights organizations say the camps are being used to sever Uighurs’ ties to Islam. 

The protest aimed to generate support for the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, a bipartisan bill reintroduced in Congress last month that would sanction Chinese officials and companies involved with the internment camps. It comes amidst tougher attitudes toward Beijing, particularly from the Trump White House, on issues like trade, national security and technology.

The international community’s response to mass detention in China has been “anemic” so far, Sophie Richardson, the China Director of Human Rights Watch told me. Western diplomats and U.N. human rights officials have denounced China’s actions in Xinjiang, and Vice President Mike Pence is the most senior Trump administration figure to condemn it. But as of yet, the administration’s intense focus on tariffs to punish Chinese trade malfeasance has not included threats of targeted sanctions to punish human rights violations. “What does it say when a permanent member of the UN Security Council can do this in view of the whole world?” Richardson said, referring to China’s mass detention program. “We can’t say we didn’t know.” 

But not only has the U.S. known about China’s Uighur detentions—at crucial points, it has in fact bolstered Beijing’s case for the persecution.

The modern Chinese state has long treated the Turkic-speaking Uighurs with anxiety and unease over their distinct culture and Islamic identity forged over centuries. Xinjiang—almost the size of Alaska—is China’s largest region, a land of vast deserts once so inhospitable that it is believed to have been among the last places on earth to be settled, requiring irrigation techniques for habitability. After Mao Zedong seized power in 1949, the Chinese government encouraged the migration of ethnic Han to the territory to fend off independence efforts in the region. Tensions simmered for decades as the government sought to mold Uighurs into loyal supporters of the Communist Party. The government pushed policies to spread the Mandarin language and Chinese culture, and imposed restrictions on how Uighurs could express their faith. Today, 11 million mostly Muslim Uighurs—nearly half of Xinjiang’s population—call it their homeland.

The crisis in Xinjiang is worsening under Xi Jinping, the nation’s most powerful ruler since Mao, and who continues expanding the Communist Party’s influence in Chinese society after six years in power. “The party sees Islam as a threat to their continued rule over China,” said Dr. Rian Thum, a researcher focusing on Uighur society at the University of Nottingham.

But the Chinese government’s policies, Thum adds, have also been intensified by Western Islamophobia—meaning that inaction in the present isn’t the only way the United States has contributed to Uighur persecution. Thum says the U.S. designation of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terror organization after the 9/11 attacks represented an “inflection point” that realigned the Chinese government’s approach towards Xinjiang. Beijing subsequently portrayed any protest as a sign of disloyalty and desire for independence, and more frequently alleged separatist coordination with Islamist groups beyond its borders, leading to heavy-handed security crackdowns when unrest broke out. In 2009, mass protests that left almost 200 people dead in the capital of Urumqi prompted the government to cut off internet, phone, and text messaging services for a year in the region. Though few Uighurs turned to religious militancy, the government connected its security policies to the U.S.-led “war on terror,” thanks partly to the precedent set by the United States’ extended Guantanamo Bay detention of 22 Uighurs captured in Afghanistan in 2001—now widely seen as a mistake. In 2004, Amnesty International claimed to have evidence the U.S. had even hosted a Chinese interrogation of the detainees in 2002.

The appointment of Chen Quanguo as Xinjiang’s party secretary in 2016 heralded further repression. Chen had previously implemented a system of grid policing to quell riots in Tibet. In Xinjiang, Chen created an Orwellian surveillance network that undergirds the current detention campaign, tracking residents wherever they go. Facial-recognition cameras maintain tabs on individuals, DNA samples are mandatory and fingerprints are collected for government databases. But the extreme surveillance pales against what detainees experience in the camps: Former camp inmates have testified that they have been subjected to torture, starvation and other cruelties.

The broader Islamic world has been conspicuously quiet about this persecution of a Muslim minority. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation said nothing during a November review of China’s human rights record at the UN. Few leaders have spoken up. Many risk looking like hypocrites over their own records of human rights abuses if they confront China—or risk imperiling lucrative partnerships. China has invested heavily in development projects in recent years, most prominently through its Belt and Road Initiative, a massive construction project designed to connect Africa, Europe, and Asia through transportation networks. Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, writing in The New York Times in January, argued that deepening economic relationships, coziness with authoritarianism and the allure of a “Confucian-Islamic” alliance against the West outweigh the political willingness of Muslim governments to act.

As the Chinese government continues detaining Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the lack of meaningful action could put other religious minorities at risk as well. CNN reported last month that the Chinese government shut down dozens of Protestant Christian churches in 2018. Arrests seem to be increasing as well. Concern is growing that the Chinese government will feel emboldened for further religious crackdowns, or to use methods perfected in Xinjiang to quell unrest in restive regions like Tibet. Thum says “it’s very likely” that the harsh tactics in Xinjiang can be used elsewhere, noting they’ve been applied against Tibetans and Falun Gong members. “Whether that happens depends on the reaction of the outside world,” he said. A day before the protest, human rights organizations called for a new UN investigation of China’s detention of Muslims, to maintain what little international pressure currently exists. 

President Trump has drawn attention for praising strongmen and dictators, relatively unconcerned by their human rights abuses.  Supported at home by white evangelicals, however, the administration has shown interest in the foreign troubles of Christians, specifically—both attempting to exempt Middle East Christians from a crackdown on predominantly Muslim countries, and working to secure the release of pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkish detention last fall. If the Chinese government does turn its eye from Xinjiang to the country’s Christians, U.S. attention to the situation would likely increase. The advanced surveillance and detention system Beijing would turn to the task, however, would be the one perfected on a minority the United States has repeatedly declined to protect.