Xinjiang: what the West doesn't tell you about China's war on terror

On March 22, the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on China over alleged human rights violations against the Uygurs, the majority ethnic group in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. It was the latest in a series of escalating moves against Beijing that began on January 19 when then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, on his last day in office, declared that China was committing "ongoing" genocide against the Uygurs.

Pompeo offered no evidence. It was reported in Foreign Policy magazine that the State Department's own lawyers had found "insufficient evidence to prove genocide". When the Canadian parliament subsequently passed a motion declaring genocide in Xinjiang, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abstained, calling the term "extremely loaded".

China has retaliated in kind, launching sanctions against European lawmakers and accusing the West of hypocrisy and spreading lies.

What we do not read about in the West is that terrorism was spiralling out of control in Xinjiang and remains a serious threat today.

 I used to visit Xinjiang from Hong Kong until a few years ago, for an American firm which had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in two private businesses there. Both employed Uygurs and Han people alike. Those were coveted jobs. On my visits, I was taken to Uygur bazaars, Uygur dinners and Uygur dances, all of which my hosts presented to me with pride. Most officials I met were Uygurs.

Starting around 2007, however, it became increasingly dangerous to visit Xinjiang. The region was rocked by a spate of horrific terrorist attacks, resulting in over 1,000 deaths and countless injuries. For example, on July 5, 2009, there was a riot in the capital city of Urumqi; 197 people were hacked, beaten or burned to death and 1,721 were injured. On May 22, 2014, two car bombings in the same city killed 43 people and wounded 94.

A 2016 study commissioned by the US government noted that, from 2012 to 2014, domestic attacks in China "apparently became more frequent, more geographi- cally dispersed, and more indiscriminately targeted". The organisation that often claimed responsibility for the attacks, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was described in a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder as "a Muslim sepa- ratist group founded by militant Uygurs".

    What we do not read about in the West is that terrorism was spiralling out of control in Xinjiang

Much like the post-September 11 "war on terror" – one in which the US, ironically, had considered Beijing to be a partner – China has been waging its own counterter- rorism offensive in Xinjiang. The extremists operate across China's porous borders and train alongside the Taliban and Islamic State. Returning to Xinjiang, they hide among the general population, working to convert young people to their radicalism, and plotting and carrying out terror attacks.

China's counterterrorism measures include enhanced security and what Beijing calls vocational training and education centres. Shohrat Zakir, governor of Xinjiang and a Uygur, said at a news conference in December 2019 that the training involved job skills, Mandarin, law and deradicalisa-tion. He added that all trainees had graduated by the end of 2019, but that the training centres would continue to operate as schools.

Were there innocent people rounded up by mistake? Quite possibly (although we can only speculate). Have there been human rights abuses at these centres? Casting a critical eye, and bearing in mind how busy the ETIM's propaganda machine must be, some of the allegations seem credible and others are obviously fake. There is no proof, however, that the abuses are systematic or ordered from above.

However harsh China's counterterror- ism measures might be, they pale in comparison with those of the United States. By various estimates, America's war on terror has claimed half a million lives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Iraq, the conflict caused an estimated 200,000 civilian deaths, the vast majority of whom were women and children, outnum- bering the casualties among Iraqi troops five to one. Yet, the US has since admitted

– in reports by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – it did not have a shred of evidence that Iraq had anything to do with September 11, harboured al-Qaeda or possessed weapons of mass destruction. Many innocent lives were lost in vain.

Unlike the US' war on terror, China's counterterrorism campaign seems to have worked. There have been no reports of terror attacks since 2017. It is actually quite remarkable that China has been able to rein in terrorism, an intractable problem any- where in the world, without inflicting as much collateral damage. This point never seems to be made in the torrent of outrage pouring from the Western press.

Implicit in any claim of genocide is the idea that one group is attempting to exter- minate another. But there is no evidence of any systematic effort to reduce the Uygur population, as some in the West claim.

In the space of 40 years, the Uygur population in Xinjiang grew from 5.5 per cent for the Han population.

It is well known that China imple- mented a one-child policy between 1979 and 2015. What is not well understood is that non-Han ethnic groups such as the Uygurs were exempt from the policy, and couples in rural areas were allowed to have up to three children. China's birth control policies discriminate in favour of, not against, the Uygurs.

The problem with China is it doesn't have a free press, so there is no independ- ent verification of the situation in Xinjiang. A word of advice to Beijing: your attention should be targeted squarely on terrorist organisations and their propaganda machines. To win the information war, you should get the foreign press on your side – or risk playing into ETIM's hands.

I have seen the testimonies of some victims of the terror attacks and their suffering is heartbreaking. Take reporters to them, as well as to the training centres. Transparency is the best way to dispel rumours.

 There is no telling if peace will last in Xinjiang. The US has been fighting decades-long "forever wars" on terror, with no end in sight. It is a long fight because the causes of terrorism are deep-rooted and multifaceted: social, political, economic, religious and historical. Terrorism can't be wiped out by a "whack a mole" strategy – just killing the bad guys wherever they pop up. The root causes must be addressed. This may include poverty alleviation, jobs, generous economic policies and education.

The Chinese leadership needs to do a much better job of explaining its anti-terror campaign. And the West needs to take a careful look in the mirror at its own struggles with the same problem.

 Weijian Shan is the author of two bestselling books: Out of the Gobi and Money Games.

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