Was The U.S. Complicit in China’s Uighur Detention Camp Policies?

In the arid foothills found in the far west of China’s reach, the city of Kashar rises out of the dust like a fabled oasis. A Silk Road outpost so ancient it predates the reign of Cleopatra, it’s played many roles over the course of millennia–a merchant city, a military camp, and, until recently, a cultural center of China’s ethnic Uighur minority. It is home to the largest open air bazaar in Eurasia, a multicolor Old Town with charming architecture, and a series of important mosques and tombs dating back to the 1400s. Beijing calls the area surrounding Kashgar the XUAR, or Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a name whose usage is a Mandarin projection onto an area many Uighurs would prefer to call East Turkistan. Under either label, the region is no longer primarily defined in the media by its colorful mosques and historic street markets but instead by the massive state security apparatus that constantly invigilates the local population and the system of detention facilities that the U.N. reports incarcerate over one million Uighur people.

A Turkic minority related in linguistic and cultural tradition to the people of Central Asia, the Uighur people are predominantly muslims. Beijing is quick to use this identity to blur the line between political separatism and Islamic extremism and build on the rhetoric of NATO’s “War on Terror” in order to justify its policies in the XUAR. In fact, a Chinese diplomat once remarked to a U.N. body that Beijing’s strategy in the region is to reign in the “three forces” of instability–terrorism, extremism, and separatism–presenting the uniquely Chinese issue of Uighur political self-determination as equal and intrinsically related to the paramount Western concerns of violent terrorism and Islamic extremism. The interplay between China’s actions in the XUAR and Western thinking in regards to Islamic extremism is a crucial aspect of the development of the security system in Xinjiang and a question that resists easy explanations.

Beijing’s history with the XUAR goes back several decades. Briefly home to an independent state known as East Turkestan in the mid 1940s, the Xinjiang region was subject to centrally-coordinated influxes of the ethnic majority Han population as early as 1949. However, resettlement and demographic-shifting efforts dramatically escalated in the 1980s as Beijing sought to draw out the fossil fuel and metal deposits in the region. Separatist tensions rose again after this period, a phenomenon often attributed to Han newcomers enjoying a disproportionate amount of the economic growth. Attempts to curb separatism have escalated again in recent years, moving beyond demographic manipulation to transforming the religious and cultural pillars of Uighur life in the XUAR. This shift encompasses everything from crackdowns on public prayer and religious attire to punishing those who simply study Arabic or travel to Turkic regions outside of China. 

The past decade in particular has seen a marked and dramatic change in Beijing’s approach to Uighur-related policy. Citing attacks and acts of violence by Uighur people on the Han population of the XUAR, Beijing has instituted a spate of policies that pressure Uighur conformity to Han ideals, especially in terms of abandoning the Islamic faith, the Uighur language, and the dress and cuisine of the Uighur culture. Traditional mosques have been suppressed in favor of rubber-stamped imams who preach government-approved sermons, and public prayers are much less common than they were only a handful of years ago. Men who wear traditional beards are now harassed by the police, and teaching one’s children about Islam or the Quran became frowned upon by the authorities. 

However, these policies pale in comparison to later developments pushed by Beijing, made possible by digital advances and a larger supportive Han population. A massive system of electronic monitoring has also been implemented across the XUAR, with the New York Times reporting that Kashgar has become home to thousands of centralized security cameras and police checkpoints, often manned by officers of Uighur origin. These checkpoints, set only about 100 yards from each other, can mean having an I.D. card scanned and face photographed many, many times over the course of a single day. The countless cameras are reportedly accompanied by varied collections of blood, urine, DNA, and head and iris scans at other times. Officers are also entitled to check people’s phones, as Uighurs are subject to having compulsory monitoring software on their phone, and are disallowed from downloading Whatsapp. Vice Media has even reported a case of a Uighur woman sent to a detention center for having the Facebook-owned messaging service on her phone. Moreover, when parents are taken into the detention system, their children are often separated from family members and sent to state-run orphanages, dubbed “kindergartens,” where they learn to conform to Beijing’s ideals of national unity and ethnic dissolution. 

The very existence of the detention facilities was denied by Chinese officials until relatively recently, and even today they are referred to as “re-education centers” designed to provide Uighur people with vocational skills and cleanse them of extremist proclivities. Reports from the BBC detail press tours that resemble little more than propaganda showcases of dancing and painting Uighurs regurgitating memorized soundbites in facilities stripped of barbed wire and watchtowers just before the arrival of news cameras. The people sent to the facilities are charged with no crime, and awarded no legal trial or due process other than police suspicion and the regular midnight round-ups of Uighur people, which have become a tragic fact of daily life in many regional cities. Former detainees allege the use of physical torture and coerced confessions, in addition to political indoctrination. The true number of detention facilities and state-run orphanages is unknown to the Western media, but reliable reports have placed the number of Uighurs in detention at over one million individuals. 

What is known to the Western media is the platform of international precedent utilized by Beijing in this massive undertaking, specifically the rhetoric and policy that undergirded the structural practices of detention and mass surveillance that characterize the U.S.’s “War on Terror.” Beijing was quick to capitalize on the U.S.’s fervor to combat Islamic extremism after the 9/11 attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda, expending considerable effort in changing the State Department’s tune on Uighur issues dramatically in a matter of months.

On March 4, 2002, Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Carner spoke at a press conference that involved taking questions about Chinese politics. With regard to Beijing’s policies against separatists in the XUAR, he explained:

“They have chosen to label all of those who advocate greater freedom in that area, near as I can tell, as terrorists. And we don’t think that’s correct, and we have told them that we don’t think that’s correct, and just as we say in other countries, where people are advocating greater freedoms and greater civil liberties, that does not make them terrorists, and that we don’t subscribe to their notion in that area.”

Just a few months later, in late November of the same year, the State Department had this to say about the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, the same separatists Beijing was so concerned about:

“The East Turkistan Uighur movement has also produced a terrorist group, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). From 1990 to 2001, members of ETIM reportedly committed over 200 acts of terrorism in China…Its objective is the creation of a fundamentalist Muslim state called ‘East Turkistan.’”

It’s important to note that the duration of attacks (1990-2001) reflected in the ETIM terrorism designation occurred before Assistant Secretary Carner’s 2002 analysis of the region. New attacks were not cited in this designation, nor were new affiliations exposed. It appears plainly that Chinese pressure was successful in legitimizing the use of counterterrorism policy towards Uighur separatists, a process that included convincing the U.S. to take 22 alleged Uighur separatists to Guantanamo Bay from Afghanistan in late 2001. Beijing proceeded to discourage other countries from accepting these inmates after they were processed for release by the U.S., effectively lengthening their detainment. The last of those 22 Uighur men were released from Guantanamo Bay twelve years later. As alleged by Amnesty International, Chinese officials were even allowed in 2002 to interrogate the detainees using techniques that included forced stress positions, sleep deprivation and intimidation. While those reports are disputed, it is much more clearly substantiated that most of the 22 men were internally deemed non-threatening to the U.S. and unaffiliated with al-Qaeda within a year of their original detention, eleven years before the last detainee was released. As reported in The Atlantic, the U.S. Court of Appeals has even noted a striking similarity between Chinese intelligence reports and evidence submitted in support of the 22 Uighurs’ detention, with documents even being labelled “Chinese propaganda.”  With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that the U.S. spent every day that legally innocent Uighurs were detained in Guantanamo Bay cosigning China’s own domestic “War on Terror” in Xinjiang, a process that closely resembled a campaign of ethnic subjugation and sociopolitical conformity.

Beijing’s efforts in the XUAR reflect a development of techniques that the U.S. pioneered in the years following the 2001 Patriot Act. Experts say that many aspects of the U.S.’s far-reaching surveillance and indiscriminate detention practices arose from this piece of legislation, which passed easily through Congress mere weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Originally, the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were framed in moral terms of intervention for the good of the local population. Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s even remarked that the U.S. military would be “greeted as liberators,” only to be faced with insurgencies that have stretched the conflict into its 18th year. Similarly, Beijing frames its actions in the XUAR as those taken for the greater moral good of all Chinese people, regardless of the price paid by the Uighur people. The American NSA’s PRISM data-collection initiative pioneered the draconian mass surveillance system that defines the backbone of law enforcement in modern Xinjiang, now enhanced by facial recognition and artificial intelligence. The NYPD even placed undercover informants in New York City mosques to spy on muslims, years before China appointed mosque and neighborhood monitors in Xinjiang. The CIA implemented Iraqi “black sites,” where suspected militants were tortured and incarcerated without due process, over a decade before construction began on Uighur detention facilities in the XUAR. While the U.S. may not be the first government to use these tactics, it was a pioneering proponent of applying them to the context of counter-terrorism and anti-extremism efforts. Time and time again, U.S. actions in the Patriot Act era set precedent for Beijing’s own transgressions in the spheres of mass surveillance and detention.

The question of whether or not China could have accomplished the implementation of the Xinjiang security policy without the framework provided by the U.S.’s global counterterrorism efforts is unanswerable. What is markedly obvious is that China did use the framework and theory provided by U.S. actions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to transform Xinjiang into a prison that encompasses the entire province. The XUAR is becoming a machine of oppression where over one million Uighur people are detained without due process while their children are sent to live at indoctrination schools. Their friends, neighbors, and family members are subjected to an incredibly invasive surveillance apparatus. As they watch from checkpoint-riddled mosques or Whatsapp screens thousands of miles away, the dusty streets of their ancient desert city have morphed into a gargantuan prison designed to strip them of their cultural identity.