Two decades after the 9/11 attacks spawned the U.S. government’s self-declared “Global War on Terrorism,” the nation that responded to it with the most aggressive regulatory, policing and social policies is thousands of miles from Ground Zero.
China's ruling Chinese Communist Party exploited the international revulsion toward terrorism sparked by the 9/11 attacks to reframe state repression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. And it did so with America's blessing.
The U.S.-China relationship had been beset by tensions In the early months of the George W. Bush administration. The collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in April 2001 had caused a fraught, 10-day hostage-style standoff that soured bilateral relations. But 9/ll provided the two governments an opportunity to recalibrate their ties hinged to a new anti-terrorism focus.
Within hours of the attacks, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin sent a telegram to Bush conveying the Chinese government’s “deep sympathy and condolences.” After Bush’s first face-to-face meeting with Jiang a month later, Bush praised the two countries’ new joint anti-terrorism focus and said he had “no doubt that [China] would stand with the United States and our people during this terrible time."
While the U.S. poured its attention and troops into Central Asia and the Middle East as part of its anti-terrorism campaign, China pursued the objective of stamping central government authority — with a distinctive identity of the majority Han population — across a restive region dominated by ethnic and religious minorities. “U.S. paranoia about Islamic terrorism was only matched by Chinese paranoia about any challenge to the Communist Party,” said Richard Boucher, a former assistant secretary of State for Central Asia and State Department spokesperson from 2000 to 2005.
Within months, China’s Xinjiang narrative lurched from that of a stable region with scattered elements of “separatists'' to that of a battleground beset by al-Qaeda-funded terror groups. The U.S. government endorsed that rebranding by designating a then little-known entity, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), as an international terror group.
That helped boost Xinjiang’s two-decade transformation into a militarized open-air prison for its ethnic Muslim populations, where security forces routinely conflate legitimate expressions of religious and cultural identity with terrorism.
“The ‘Global War on Terror’ provided the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with a vocabulary and a framework for its leaders to criminalize Uyghur ethnicity in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’ and ‘de-extremification,’” said Tim Grose, associate professor of China studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. “The CCP now had a convenient frame to trace all violence to an ‘international terrorist organization’ and connect Uyghur religious, cultural and linguistic revivals to ‘separatism.’”
Prior to 9/11, Chinese authorities had depicted Xinjiang as prey to only sporadic separatist violence. The Sept. 2, 2001 edition of Hong Kong’s Chinese language Ta Kung Pao newspaper quoted CCP officials in Xinjiang who stated “by no means is Xinjiang a place where violence and terrorist accidents take place very often,” and that the situation there was “better than ever in history.”
An official Chinese government White Paper published in January 2002 upended that narrative by alleging that Xinjiang was beset by al-Qaeda-linked terror groups. Their intent, they argued, was the violent transformation of Xinjiang into an independent “East Turkistan.” The document blamed more than a half-dozen organizations, including the ETIM, for more than 200 deadly terror attacks that killed 162 people and injured more than 400 others from 1990 to 2001.
The White Paper portrayed Osama bin Laden as an ETIM patron dedicated “to help the ‘East Turkistan’ terrorist forces in Xinjiang launch a ‘holy war,’ with the aim of setting up a theocratic ‘Islam state’ in Xinjiang.” The document’s evidence was patchy at best. A 2016 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report noted that many of the incidents listed in the White Paper had not been publicly reported and that the Chinese government had not categorized several others as “acts of terrorism” when they first occurred.
Such ambiguity characterized the Chinese government’s efforts at engagement with the U.S. about ETIM long before 9/11. “Over the years, the Chinese had come to us a number of times and said ‘You’ve got to designate these guys [as terrorists],’ and we would kind of say, ‘Well, who are they?’” Boucher said. “We really didn't have a very clear idea what this group was, we didn't have traces of it, we didn't have manifestos, members [lists], all that sort of stuff, but the Chinese said ‘It’s real.’”
Despite those inconsistencies, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in September 2002 officially designated ETIM a terrorist entity. The U.S. Treasury Department bolstered that allegation by attributing solely to ETIM the same terror incident data, (“over 200 acts of terrorism, resulting in at least 162 deaths and over 440 injuries”) that the Chinese government’s January 2002 White Paper had attributed to various terrorist groups.
That blanket acceptance of the Chinese government’s Xinjiang terrorism narrative was nothing less than a diplomatic quid pro quo, Boucher said. “It was done to help gain China’s support for invading Iraq,” Boucher told the South China Morning Post.
But Boucher told POLITICO that it's “a wild exaggeration” to suggest that the U.S. terrorism designation of ETIM gave China a green light to repress its Xinjiang Uyghur population. “They were going to do that anyway if they wanted to do it,” Boucher said. “The Chinese Communist Party is going to crack down on any divergent thinking and groups that don’t acquiesce to the authority of the state sufficiently.”
That “verbatim” repetition of Chinese government data meant that the U.S. government effectively “created this very idea of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement,” said James Millward, professor of inter-societal history at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. “The U.S. had put its imprimatur on something that not even the White Paper had said, which was that there was a specific organized group with international ties that was responsible for these specific [terrorism] acts over a 10-year period.”
There was another problem: the ETIM described by the U.S. and Chinese governments may never have existed. What the Chinese called ETIM was instead a “marginal” Afghanistan-based Uyghur insurgency group that effectively dissolved after the death of its leader in 2003, said Roberts, author of “The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims."
“This group never called itself ETIM, but people who were identified as part of that group … were essentially immobilized in Afghanistan by the Taliban at Beijing’s behest and there was never any evidence that they were al-Qaeda aligned,” Roberts said.
Former U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Clark Randt, in January 2002 cautioned Chinese security forces against using anti-terrorism “as an excuse to persecute its ethnic minorities.” That diplomatic effort was unsuccessful, according to Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, who described the State Department designation as a “turning point” in increased repression in Xinjiang. “China started to link everybody to ETIM and punish them, whether they were businesspeople, intellectuals, even if they hadn’t even heard of ETIM,” Kanat said.
The U.S. reaped benefits from endorsing China’s Xinjiang terrorism narrative. In September 2002, China implemented missile technology export restrictions “in return for Washington’s implicit blessing of Beijing’s suppression of separatist activities in Xinjiang," wrote Chien-peng Chung, professor of politics at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.
U.S. complicity with China’s repression of the Uyghurs didn’t stop at its borders. Lawyers for Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo Bay alleged that U.S. personnel engaged in “abusive tactics” against their clients to prepare them for interrogation by Chinese intelligence officials.
Repression in Xinjiang worsened considerably after deadly clashes between Uyghur and Han Chinese residents in July 2009. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao responded to that violence by declaring “stability” in Xinjiang as a “most urgent task.”
What followed was a cascade of “anti-terrorist” initiatives that severely restricted Uyghur religious and cultural life. They ranged from a ban on “extreme Islamic baby names” to requiring a DNA sample for Uyghur passport applicants. The architects for this intensified repression were Politburo member and the government’s most senior security official, Zhou Yongkang, and then-Public Security Minister, Meng Jianzhu. Both Zhou and Meng had cut their teeth suppressing ethnic minorities hostile to central government rule in Tibet and Sichuan in the early 2000s.
“The endgame is to erase all the indigenous [Uyghur] meanings that have animated the region since before 1949 — to turn Xinjiang into a Chinese land characterized by a population that is majority Han Chinese, where the lingua franca is [Mandarin] and religion becomes a cultural component celebrated by the elderly or on the two major [Islamic] feast days,” Grose said.
By 2017, Xinjiang’s anti-terror measures had evolved into a system of mass re-education camps that ensnared more than a million Uyghurs and other members of Xinjiang’s Muslim ethnic minority communities. That intensifying repression reflects how successfully the Chinese government has instilled the perception of Xinjiang Uyghurs as societal threats.
“Among some Chinese officials, the terrorism narrative has taken on a life of its own in that they actually believe that they are saving Uyghurs from themselves,” Roberts said. “The Chinese government has essentially decided that Uyghurs and their identity is the problem.”
The U.S. has taken belated initiatives to curtail the expansive anti-terrorism campaign launched after 9/11 that provided cover for China’s Xinjiang policies. President Barack Obama declared an official end to the “boundless ‘Global War on Terror” in May 2013. And the U.S. in November 2020 sought to distance itself from its initial post-9/11 blanket acceptance of China’s Xinjiang terrorism narrative.