A new book by anthropologist Sean Roberts sheds light upon how the West naively accepted for decades the idea that atrocities in Xinjiang were justified by a “terrorist threat.”
by Ruth Ingram
The raggle-taggle, baseball and medieval implement-brandishing band of conscripts converge with one accord on a pile of unsuspecting bargain T-shirts piled up in front of a roadside stall.
As the whistle blows ferociously, they raise their weapons and bring them down repeatedly on the lifeless mound shouting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” Giggling uncontrollably, they are called to order by a policeman wielding a video camera and brought into line, their mission accomplished. None of those clothes will live to tell the tale, but the motley crew will survive to fight another day. Perhaps next time they could curb their frivolity for the cameras.
Myriad events such as these were witnessed throughout Xinjiang by Bitter Winter correspondents between 2016–18, as ordinary Uyghurs were enlisted as never before to be Xi Jinping’s ground force in his “War on Terror,” once Chen Quanguo, fresh from Tibet, was sideways moved to Xinjiang to do his worst with Beijing’s other “incalcitrant band.”
From children, whose school uniform was transformed into army fatigues, to elderly men and women stationed in bullet-proof vests and tin helmets on their walnut and fabric stalls, and stiletto-heeled young mums who ran tottering, babes in arms, to every roll call, the entire population was required to be on high alert. But the unspoken mystery hovering on every lip was, what exactly was this war, and who and where was the enemy?
In his latest book, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, Sean Roberts, an anthropologist at George Washington University, and for the past thirty years a China watcher, sets out to unveil this enemy, but in the process debunk the Uyghur terrorist myth that has sustained the brutal crackdowns in recent years.
Through countless hours of interviews with Uyghurs in every nation they have taken refuge, including Afghanistan, Albania, Kazakhstan and Turkey, rather than discovering a secret jihadist army bent on wreaking destruction in their homeland, as Xi would have the world believe, Roberts discovers a more benign narrative. Trying to make sense of the spiraling of CCP policy in Xinjiang into what appears to be at the very least cultural genocide, The War on the Uyghurs explodes some of the lies surrounding Xi’s “War on Terror.” and uncovers a more sinister rationale for his cruelty.
The startling conclusion reached by the author is that the mass detentions and totalitarian clampdowns in Xinjiang, appear in fact to be a pretext to eliminate Uyghurs as a distinct people, their culture, their language, and religion. Under cover of the global war on terror, Beijing is forging a destructive path through this ethnic group, determined to see it consigned to the margins of a singing, dancing, ethnically clad tourist sideshow, and flood the ancient land with Han Chinese “patriots.”
Ambiguous bedfellows, The Turkestan Islamic Party, TIP, and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, ETIM, both exiled Uyghur groups whose bark, according to Roberts, was far worse than their bite were investigated during his research. It seems that they had been caught up in the waves of panic and fear in the early days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and were subsequently branded as “international terrorist organizations” by China, and even the United States in 2001. Roberts found that the groups, at best, enthusiastic and aspirational, were poorly funded ineffectual bodies, not directly responsible for any of the violent incidents in the Uyghur heartland, and doomed to failure.
According to Roberts, Beijing latched onto their designation as terrorists, and hiding behind its own war on terror, has since done its best to blacken the reputation of all other Uyghur groups in the west. Roberts claims that the rest of the world has accepted unquestioningly China’s version, and the US had initially backed the narrative.
Speaking at a recent webinar to explain the findings of his book, Roberts said that his initial intention of examining the global war on terror, its impact on Uyghurs and China’s accusations against them, has evolved into a deeper probe into the CCP’s end game. He has concluded that the world blindly jumped onto the terrorist naming and shaming bandwagon after 9/11, and unwittingly trawled in innocent bystanders without a proper “trial.”
Roberts was shocked to find no international consensus on the definition of terrorism. “This is a serious problem in the global war on terror,” he says, “because it has allowed states to target domestic political opponents and people who have grievances and call them terrorists, particularly if they are Muslim,” he concluded, citing 9/11 as a pivotal point when terrorism began to be equated with a particular brand of Islam.
Roberts’ own working definition of terrorism for his research includes exclusively violent acts committed against civilians. So-called terrorists should not be pilloried for their ideology, identity, or even their political agendas.
On the basis of his own definition, he determined that very few of the violent incidents in China attributed to disaffected Uyghurs, could in fact be described as actual “terrorist” attacks. He pointed out that the three major incidents in Kunming, Urumqi and Beijing which incurred loss of civilian life, were themselves perpetrated ten years after the first designation of the ETIM as a terrorist organization. This made a mockery of Beijing’s branding Uyghurs as terrorists a decade before.
Roberts said that thorough research had lead him to the conclusion that none of the groups cited by Beijing posed a terrorist threat to China, and he could only conclude that public security officials would have reached that same conclusion long ago. “I don’t believe that the higher echelons of Chinese power really believe that,” he said. “What the Chinese government is really trying to do is settle the Uyghur region,” he maintains.
CCP soft peddling from the 1990’s trying to incentivize the Uyghurs to integrate and assimilate came to an abrupt halt in 2014 with the escalation of Xi’s own people’s war on terror at home. “His whole tone changed,” says Roberts, who suggests that Beijing made up its mind that Uyghurs were “superfluous.” “They decided they were going to settle the area,” concluded Roberts, and Uyghurs should be “taken out of” the situation.
This, according to Roberts would require “depopulating them, destroying their identity, their group solidarity, marginalizing them, and trying to force assimilation for those who are willing to remain and be docile.”
He summarized the current clampdowns as having nothing to do with security fears. “There is just an urgency to make this region an integral part of China,” he concluded, citing the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s draconian actions in Tibet, and latterly his move to assimilate Mongolians as evidence of a CCP campaign to stamp out ethnic and cultural diversity throughout the country.
Roberts fears for the future of the Uyghur people amidst the current push to assimilate and the relentless cultural battering inflicted on them. Mass sterilization, depopulation, and dismantling of every cultural signpost could result in those who are left having to agree to integrate if they wanted a life. He equated their future with that of American native “Indians,” who have been relegated to reservations on the margins of society.
The small vestige of hope remained, he felt, in the diaspora, which might fan the flickering flame. He is encouraged that Uyghurs, many of whom had been asleep to the incremental fate of their people, had become activated by the “emotionally tormenting” process of watching their culture die. “There has been a seismic shift among the Uyghur diaspora,” he said. “Suddenly everyone is willing to come forward and speak out,” he said. “Uyghurs never wanted to be activists, but now they have no choice,” he observed. “Even academics previously fearing for their careers and future Chinese visas, were jostling to bear witness to the atrocities.”
He urged witnesses in the free world to lend their voices, and open their wallets, to support the cause.