ZTE Replaces Board, but Power Structure Remains
June 29, 2018
Three big lies you probably believe
July 30, 2018

How China Utilized Misinformation to Legitimize Repression in Xinjiang

(Chinese armed police patrol the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi. Source: AFP)

By: Drew Jones |


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long viewed the lands of Xinjiang as vital to its strategic interests. The region provides natural resources, and space for China to test nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles far from the prying eyes of the West. Xinjiang has historically been a buffer zone between Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and it symbolizes Chinese authority in Central Asia.[i] For decades the CCP, wary of separatist movements, has repressed the Uyghur minority group in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Recently, that repression has gotten much worse.

CCP authorities have built massive political “re-education” camps, hired thousands of additional police forces, and launched excessive surveillance programs against the Uyghur people.  According to Beijing’s narrative, the aim of these discriminatory programs is to combat so-called “terrorism” and religious extremism. China has firmly controlled the flow of information and covered up reports of human rights violations, while at the same time utilizing post 9/11 counterterrorism rhetoric to legitimize its intensified police presence in XUAR. The United States should reject the CCP’s use of terrorism as an excuse to target Uyghurs, demand the end to repressive and racist policies, and encourage the international community to hold the authorities in Beijing accountable for their actions in XUAR.

The China’s Definition of Terrorism

Since the 9/11 attacks, the CCP has sought to redefine the ongoing ethnic conflict in the XUAR and paint the Uyghur people as a terrorist threat. In 2001, the CCP published a White Paper that retroactively labeled violence in the XUAR as terrorism and highlighted the many organizations that committed attacks in the region. The White Paper focused specifically on the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uyghur terrorist organization seeking to establish an independent Turkistan nation, and the group’s connection with Al-Qaeda.

Due to intensified focus on counterterrorism post-9/11, the United States and the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council legitimized the CCP’s ethnic violence in Xinjiang, linking it to terrorism and recognizing ETIM as a terrorist organization. The United States needed important allies in the new “Global War on Terror,” and ETIM offered the CCP an opportunity to exploit this new campaign.[ii] Utilizing its newfound legitimacy and lee-way, the CCP amplified ethnic and religious repression in the region under the guise of “counterterrorism,” which led to increased ethnic protests against the Han-dominated government.[iii] This created a downward spiral of repression and retaliation, which permitted the CCP to further harden its policies against the Uyghur people and engage in egregious human rights abuses.

What Has China Done to End Unrest?

The CCP’s response to incidents of ethnic unrest and protests targeting its oppressive policies has been to deepen repression. Since China’s absorption of the region in 1955, separatist movements have repeatedly attempted to free Xinjiang from PRC rule. There have been alleged terrorist attacks in Urumqi, Kashgar, Kunming, and Beijing that are linked to Uyghur militant groups. However, most attacks appear uncoordinated, and intent is difficult to define. Some attacks could simply be reactions to Beijing’s repressive policies, while others appear more politically charged. Rather than working with the Uyghur community to faithfully support their religion, culture, and the respectful integration of Han-communities, the authorities in Beijing opted to follow its Tibet model of further alienating minorities and imposing greater restrictions on them.

In 2016, Chen Quanguo (陈全国), the CCP’s ethnic minority strongman after his five-year campaign in Tibet, became the Party Secretary of the XUAR. Since taking on his new role, Chen has imposed a strategy involving “convenience police stations” (便民警务站) which has greatly increased the number of police stations and the overall police presence in the region. From 2016-2017, approximately 90,000 “assistant police” (协警) were hired to run these “convenience police stations” to quell any unrest through pervasive monitoring. In comparison, around 2,500 ‘formal police‘ (人民警察) were hired in the same time period.[iv] The mass number of assistant police allows the CCP to dominate the Uyghur population and implement many repressive policies including: excessive surveillance, control over religious beliefs, confiscation of passports, and forced detention of Uyghurs into political “re-education” camps.

In March 2017, the CCP enacted the “de-extremification regulation” (去极端化条例) that prohibits a large range of behaviors that are labeled “extremist.” This racist regulation targets Islamic traditions by forcing Uyghurs into renouncing core elements of their religion. It bans long beards, forces Uyghurs to sign pledges to not fast during Ramadan, and regulates the naming of Uyghur children, forcing parents to give them non-Islamic names.

As a result, daily life in Xinjiang has come to a stand-still. Businesses in predominantly Uyghur cities barely function due to an increase in “terrorist drills,” unwarranted searches, and the fear of being sent to “re-education” camps. Until recently, the outside world knew little about these secretive “re-education camps.” However, new eye-witness and anecdotal reports reveal that the camps house Turkic-speaking minorities, who are not allowed any communication with the outside world. Inmates are held indefinitely and exposed to political and ideological education, with no release date in sight.

In violation of the PRC constitution, as many as 120,000 Uyghurs have been sent to these camps without being charged of a crime and without any due process. Regardless of their devotion to the state or position within the Communist Party, Uyghur officials are in jeopardy of being labeled “two-faced” (两面人) enemies of the state. In accordance with his anti-corruption campaign, General Secretary Xi Jinping specifically targets “two-faced” individuals. Although the “two-faced” strategy appears designed to tackle a much larger corruption problem, in Xinjiang it is tailored to target Uyghurs as part of Beijing’s “counterterrorism” policies.

In addition, any Uyghur who has been outside of the country, or who has refused to be tracked by the government, is at risk of being arrested or detained. According to a female police officer in Western Xinjiang who spoke with Radio Free Asia, “five kinds of suspicious people have been detained and sent to education camps: 1) people who throw away their mobile phone’s SIM card or did not use their mobile phone after registering it; 2) former prisoners already released from prison; 3) blacklisted people; 4) ‘suspicious people’ who have some fundamental religious sentiment; and 5) the people who have relatives abroad.”

The broad scope of such policies allows the police to detain anyone in Xinjiang for practically any reason. With these policies in place, the CCP can maintain its iron grip on Xinjiang, controlling its natural resources and strategic areas, while reducing the likelihood of dissent elsewhere in the PRC.

Is Ethnic the Violence in Xinjiang Actually Terrorism?

The PRC has routinely cited terrorism as the primary cause of violence in Xinjiang. However, there is no agreed upon definition of terrorism. Terrorism is a subjective term that is dependent on the point of view of the individual defining it. This article uses Audrey Cronin’s definition of terrorism, which focuses on terrorism as a tactic instead of a particular cause. According to Cronin, terrorism is the use of symbolic violence by a non-state group against innocents in order to achieve a political goal.[v] Defining terrorism this way creates an objective classification for defining terrorist groups. Using this distinction, the ETIM can be labeled as a terrorist organization. The CCP can justifiably use this definition to legitimize its counterterrorism policies. However, the threat posed by ETIM is small, and does not legitimize the use of repression against an entire ethnic group.

ETIM is violent. It targets innocents and has a political objective. It is a non-state organization and has an audience they are trying to persuade. According to a deputy leader of ETIM, Abudula Kariaji, there was a connection between the group and al-Qaeda. However, the alleged relationship between the two was limited, with Bin Laden reportedly providing only limited financial assets and training. In 2002, the validity of previous reporting came under question when the leader of ETIM, Hasan Mahsum, rejected its connection with al-Qaeda and denied that any funding had been provided. This counters the CCP narrative that ETIM had a strong link with al-Qaeda.[vi]

Chinese authorities claim that the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement carried out the majority of the attacks occurring in Xinjiang, as well as related incidents in Beijing in 2013 and Kunming in 2014. This claim is probably false. Though a few attacks have been claimed by the ETIM, including the attack in Beijing, the threat from this group appears to have been exaggerated. Many analysts believe that the ETIM only claimed the attacks after the fact and are likely not capable of carrying out coordinated attacks at all.[vii]

According to the START Global Terrorism Database, only five of approximately one hundred supposed “Uyghur Separatist’” attacks have been explicitly claimed by the ETIM.[viii] The majority of the attacks were either vaguely labeled “Uighur Separatist” attacks or claimed for the ETIM by the CCP. Although the database states that ETIM was responsible for 10 attacks, only five attacks were claimed by the organization. ETIM might still perpetrate the attacks and not claim them, but it seems reasonable to assume from the database that ETIM perpetrates relatively few attacks and is therefore extremely weak in comparison to other terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, or the Taliban.


Both the U.S. government and the U.N. have been complicit in accepting the CCP’s loose definition of the word “terrorism.” Policymakers are aware that Beijing liberally applies this label to the Uyghur people as an excuse to brutally suppress them. Yet leaders in Washington and New York have remained largely silent as the atrocities continue to occur.

China greatly exaggerates the threat posed by ETIM, or “religious extremism.” If there were a proliferation of terrorist actions and terrorist groups in Xinjiang, it would be easy for the CCP to publicize statements, videos, and other media to credibly present the threat to an international audience. The CCP have yet to provide or substantiate evidence. The CCP is attempting to conceal its own mistreatment of the Uyghur people, who have no option but to accept oppression or risk being jailed, or worse. It is vital that atrocities in Xinjiang come to light, and international pressure should be put on the CCP to halt human rights violations.

In order to accomplish these goals, the following policy prescriptions are offered for consideration:

  • The U.S. government should publicly decry the CCP’s human rights violations both unilaterally and in the U.N. The U.S. State Department has already begun to do so through high-level dialogues. Under the “Indo-Pacific” banner, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing should lead a coordinated effort with other allies and partners to push for the release of unlawfully detained Uyghurs in “re-education” camps.
  • Although civil society groups have worked to promote Uyghur cultural and religious freedom through Uyghur-led conferences, Uyghur advocacy groups, including the World Uyghur Congress, should be given a larger platform to counter the CCP’s rhetoric and narrative dominance. In order to do this, the U.N. should continue to allow the President of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa, to participate in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
  • The U.N. should send special representatives to Xinjiang to evaluate the CCP’s claims of terrorism, and to determine the extent of human rights abuses. U.N. Representatives should produce a full report on the activities and conditions of the CCP’s “re-education” camps and assess violations to the U.N. Human Rights Charter.
  • S. Ambassador Branstad should investigate the situation and recommend targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against CCP officials. Xinjiang authorities such as Chen Quanguo (陈全国), and Deputy CCP Secretary and Chairman of XUAR Xuekelaiti Zharkeer (雪克来提扎克尔), who are responsible for implementing “convenience police stations,” “re-education” camps, and for continuing the use of “wrongful executions,” should be targeted by sanctions.

Drew Jones is an intern at the Project 2049 Institute. He received his B.A. in International Relations from Pennsylvania State University. Drew is currently a graduate student in the Global Governance, Politics, and Security Program at American University, concentrating on terrorism and intelligence analysis.  

[i] Dana Carver Boehm, “China’s Failed War on Terror: Fanning the Flames of Uighur Separatist Violence,” Berkeley Journal of Middle Eastern & Islamic Law Vol. 2(3): pg. 71-72, 2009, at https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=jmeil.

[ii] Sean Roberts, “Imaginary Terrorism? The Global War on Terror and the Narrative of the Uyghur Terrorist Threat,” Ponars Euraisa, Working Paper: pg. 5-11, March 2012, at http://www.ponarseurasia.org/sites/default/files/Roberts_WorkingPaper_March2012.pdf.

[iii] Dana Carver Boehm, “China’s Failed War on Terror: Fanning the Flames of Uighur Separatist Violence,” pg. 64-65.

[iv] Adrian Zenz and James Leibold, “Chen Quanguo: The Strongman Behind Beijing’s Securitization Strategy in Tibet and Xinjiang,” China Brief Vol. 17(12), September 21st, 2017, at https://jamestown.org/program/chen-quanguo-the-strongman-behind-beijings-securitization-strategy-in-tibet-and-xinjiang/.

[v] Audrey Kurth Cronin, “Behind the curve: Globalization and international terrorism,” International Security Vol. 27(3) pg: 30-58, Winter 2002-2003, at https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/88504_cronin.pdf.

[vi] Shirley Kan, U.S.-China Counterterrorism Cooperation: Issues for U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, July 15th, 2010, at https://fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/RL33001.pdf.

[vii] Sean Roberts, “Imaginary Terrorism? The Global War on Terror and the Narrative of the Uyghur Terrorist Threat,” pg. 11-26.

[viii] “ETIM and Uyghur Militant Attacks,” National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism: Global Terrorism Database, at https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/search/Results.aspx?search=ETIM&sa.x=0&sa.y=0&sa=Search, and https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/search/Results.aspx?search=Uighur+separatist&sa.x=0&sa.y=0&sa=Search.