Regarding the Guantanamo Uyghurs

By James Millward

I never thought I’d see “Free the Uighurs” on the editorial pages of major U.S. newspapers, but there it was last Thursday in the Washington Post (Editorial, February 19, 2009, p. A14) and Monday in the Los Angeles Times (Editorial, Feb. 23, 2009). Of course, the editorial was not discussing Uyghurs in China, but the seventeen Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo, whom a federal appeals court ruled could be brought to the U.S. only by an act of the executive branch, not the courts. The Post urged the Obama administration to do the right thing by these men, whom the Bush administration acknowledged years ago were not “enemy combatants” but whom it could neither send back to China nor find a third country willing to take.

It was not that long ago that references to Uyghurs hardly ever appeared in the international press. From the late 1980s through the late 1990s there were occasional stories, when reporters given rare opportunities to travel to Xinjiang sought out silk road exotica and separatism—story lines they seem to have settled on before their trip. It was not hard to flesh out the template with colorful minority clothing, mutton kabobs and some young guy in the bazaar complaining about the Chinese. The rare actual violent incidents were exciting—they fit the imagined narrative that Xinjiang was a “simmering cauldron” or “powder-keg waiting to blow.” But they were harder to write about, as information was scant and mainly filtered through PRC state media, which was then intent on minimizing any local unrest or dissent. Internally, in the late 1990s Xinjiang Party officials still worried about the Xinjiang issue becoming “internationalized”—in other words, emerging, like Tibet, as a global cause célèbre.

After September 11th, 2001, China abruptly reversed course, deliberately publicizing the issue of Uyghur dissent as “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism,” and explicitly linking potential unrest in Xinjiang (the region was in fact quiet from 1997 through 2008) to Al Qaeda and the U.S. “global war on terror.” This linkage was accomplished through a document issued in English by the State Council in January 2002, official press reports, and print and broadcast interviews with Chinese leaders. The message was much reiterated in subsequent years; state media and PRC leaders proclaimed Uyghurs to be the main potential security risk to the 2008 Olympics (in the spring before and during the Olympics, there were in fact three incidents of what seems to have been politically-inspired violence involving Uyghurs in Xinjiang.)

The U.S. government, international media and anti-terrorism think-tanks contributed to the re-branding of Uyghur dissent as a “movement” motivated by Islamist thinking and linked to “international terror organizations.” Stereotyped notions about Islam and a paucity of solid firsthand information about Xinjiang made plausible the idea that Al Qaeda-type Uyghur jihadis were “waging” a “militant” “resistance” against Chinese authorities, even in absence of anything like a terrorist attack for over a decade. Because every “movement” needs an acronym, concerns crystallized around ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement), one of several groups mentioned in the Chinese State Council document. The U.S. listed ETIM as an international terrorist organization in 2002 and mistakenly attributed to it all the violent acts reported by the PRC as having occurred in Xinjiang for the ten years prior to 1997, though Chinese sources themselves up to that point had not attributed any specific acts to ETIM (they did so subsequently). The U.S. thus made ETIM the name to conjure with.[1]

Now the “Uyghur issue” is well and truly internationalized, thanks to U.S. and Chinese policies and rhetoric over the past several years. Indeed, at the moment it stands at the crux of U.S.-Chinese relations. In order to close down Guantanamo prison, as President Obama has pledged, detainees who cannot be repatriated must be resettled elsewhere. In order to convince third countries to accept Guantanamo detainees, the U.S. must first show willingness to resettle some itself. Politically, the Uyghurs are the easiest choice among the detainees for U.S. asylum: they were determined by the Bush administration to harbor “no animus” towards the United States; there is a measure of Congressional support for their resettlement thanks in part to effective lobbying efforts by the Uyghur America Association (itself funded by the U.S. government through the National Endowment for Democracy); and the Uyghur community here is eager to help in the detainees’ transition.

Of course, the PRC government strongly opposes resettling Uyghurs from Guantanamo in the U.S. or anywhere else, and wants them sent back to China. As Li Wei, from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, put it in an interview with NPR’s Anthony Kuhn (Morning Edition, Feb. 20, 2009), “what would the American government think if China sheltered people who threatened America's national security?” Li makes a reasonable point: if China publicly resettled Al Qaeda trainees from Afghan camps, the U.S. would take this as a major affront.

So now, with the Obama-era U.S.-China relationship still unformed, an act critical to realizing the president’s promise to shut down Guantanamo will also, like it or not, be seen as his major first act related to China: granting asylum to a group of men China has repeatedly and publicly denounced as violent terrorist members of ETIM. The Chinese public and most Chinese academics, party-members and officials sincerely believe Uyghur terrorists pose a grave security threat to China. ETIM is their Al Qaeda.

Moreover, despite the fact that no country and no serious scholar disputes the legality of China’s sovereignty in Xinjiang, some Chinese believe the U.S. supports and foments Uyghur terrorism in order to destabilize China. American academics who write about Xinjiang have been (falsely) accused in Chinese publications of working with the U.S. government to provide “a theoretical basis for one day taking action to dismember China and separate Xinjiang” (Pan Zhiping, in his introduction to the internal Chinese translation of Frederick Starr, ed. Xinjiang: China's Muslim Frontier). We should not underestimate the perception gap between the U.S. and China over Xinjiang and the Uyghurs. In China, the issue is as radioactive as the sands of Lop Nor.

Thus, while the U.S. press has discussed the Guantanamo Uyghurs mainly as a domestic U.S. political and legal issue, their fate could have a great impact on U.S.-China relations at this critical time. The legacy of the Bush administration’s China policy is often treated as broadly positive, thanks to the role played by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and resultant stress on economic affairs. However, the Guantanamo Uyghurs are another huge mess Bush got us into. Thanks to Bush-era mistakes and the fuzzy but dangerous notion of “global war on terror,” the Obama administration faces yet another potential crisis—one in U.S.-China relations—right off the bat.

The U.S. should recognize that while resettling the seventeen Uyghurs here may be the only way to break the Guantanamo log-jam, to do so will mean asking China to swallow something extremely unpalatable. If a blow-up in U.S.-China relations can be averted, it will be because American diplomats handle the issue with the extreme sensitivity it merits, and because China chooses to overlook U.S. hypocrisy and place the greater interests of good Sino-U.S. ties over their entrenched rhetorical position on Xinjiang. In so doing they will help us put yet another Bush-era disaster behind us and move on.

James Millward teaches Chinese history at Georgetown University and is the author of, most recently, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (2006).

[1] On the mistakes in the public US statement accompanying the U.S. listing of ETIM, see my "Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: a Critical Assessment," East West Center policy studies #6, Washington D.C.: East West Center, 2004.


EnglishRangeRoad said...

Over the long term China and US should sign an extradition treaty and deal with these matters under ordinary international law and not current military war on terror or on Islamic fundamentalism. We should encourage rule of law in both places, and it is absurd for US "human rights" advocates to argue that US and China are any different on policy of torture or capital punishment or ill treatment of minorities or separatists. Consider if Puerto Rican independence movement terrorists bombed the Capitol and took refuge in Havana or Xinjiang. Congress should abolish the National Endowment for Democracy, it is in violation of the Neutrality Act. Negotiations for an extradition treaty should include the thousands of Chinese illegal immigrants the PRC currently doesn't want to accept. We need a rethink of US national policy now, including Cuba, and Australia and Canada need to do the same. We need to cooperate with China, not make agreement impossible with non-negotiable demands. The governments should make it clear they would never recognize a "free Greater Tibet" nor an independent caliphate in central Asia, and China should give the necessary assurances it will treat all extradited prisoners as agreed to or suffer the consequences.

Anonymous said...

"...whom it could neither send back to China nor find a third country willing to take.
The author didn't say why it could not "send them back to China". It is strange.
On the contrary I think the most rational way is to send them back to China.
It is very strange for the author to exclude the most rational and feasible option at the first place and then talk so much about their "dilemma" of other irrational options.

J said...

@EnglishRangeRoad: The problem with your comparison is that these men, so far as I've heard, have not attempted to harm China, especially in a way as high-profile as attacking central government buildings in Beijing.
@anon: The govt doesn't want to send them back because they are afraid they will be tortured.

Anonymous said...

Re:[“what would the American government think if China sheltered people who threatened America's national security?” Li makes a reasonable point: if China publicly resettled Al Qaeda trainees from Afghan camps, the U.S. would take this as a major affront.]

I greatly admire Dr. Millward’s work. However, I strongly disagree his comparison of the Uyghurs to the Al Qaeda terrorists in the quoted passage above. As he pointed out, there were no terrorist acts in Xinjiang in the past 11 years. Unlike the Al Qaeda, none of the Uyghurs at Guantanamo or any organization that they are connected with have ever committed any violence against anybody. However, it is true that some of the admitted to weapons training. Does it make them same as Al Qaeda? Is all the violence against governments considered terrorism regardless its form and cause? I do not think so. This country was created through violence against England’s rule. Many modern countries including China were created through violence in the recent past that we still remember. I have been told, correct me if I am wrong, that the US constitution allows citizens to bear arms to make sure that they would be able to defend themselves in case the government becomes corrupt and no longer represent the people. Would that be terrorism if this unlikely scenario envisioned by the founding fathers ever to happen?

Now the question is do those Uyghurs have enough reason to believe that China does not represent them? Is it illegal to up rise against an oppressive government?

Dr. Millward admitted that the Chinese government blamed all the violence happened in the past 15 years in Xinjiang on the East Turkistan Islamic Movement even though they are not responsible for any of it, which proves China blatantly lies and do not have any concept of fairness or justice. At the same time, curiously conceded the Chinese scholar had a point when he compared China with US. The difference is even an Al Qaeda could get justice in US. Just because the things happened at Guantanamo and Abu Graib in the past couple of years, it does not make US is same as China in terms of justice system.

As a Uyghur, I find it offensive to compare Uyghurs’ struggle against oppression to Al Qaeda’s madness.

Anonymous said...


I agree that we should promote rule of law in both countries. US does not want to send them back to China exactly for this reason. As we have witnessed time and again, China as a state does not respect its own law and readily fabricates evidence against people whom it does not like. Dr. Millward mentioned one of such examples in regard to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. Unless China becomes a society of rule of law, the comparison between US and China will not be a valid one. China is getting away with a lot of horrible things just because it has money and is a big country. Imagine if a smaller and poorer country did one tenth of what China does? UN and US would be at its throat long time ago.

Unlike in Xinjiang or Tibet, people in Puerto Rico were allowed a couple years back to have a national referendum to determine whether to stay in US or become independent. The result of that referendum decided their status today. Since they are allowed to use vote as weapon, they do not need to resort to bombs, do not you agree?

I disagree that the Chinese scholar had a point when he compared the Uighurs to the Al Qaeda. US government does not want to send the Uyghurs back because it is worried that they would be tortured, not because it hates China. In other words, US does not want to send them back because it would be a violation of its own law, not because as a vendetta against China. I guess the Chinese scholar could argue that China could use the same argument of torture when it refuses to hand over Al Qaeda suspects to US (due to the legacy of the Guantanamo), but the problem is that it is not illegal to torture in China. That means China would be doing it if it does just as a vendetta, not because of concern for its law.

Anonymous said...

This is clearly a difficult situation to untangle. The Guantanamo Uyghurs have been ruled to no longer be considered enemy combatants, but where should they go? The PRC has asked for their return, but American law dictates that we can not return them to their parent country if there is a good chance that they will face torture or persecution, which is almost definite at the hands of the PRC. Most of the Uyghurs were picked up in Afghanistan where some admitted to having received training with the hope of returning to China to defend their fellow Uyghurs against the Chinese occupiers. Clearly, if they have admitted intent to foment armed unrest, they will not be treated well back in China. Clearly then they should not be forcefully returned to China, regardless of that impact on Chinese/American relations.
However, as long as they are considered "no longer enemy combatants", these Uyghurs should have the option to go free to a country that will accept them. Currently the only one is China. Almost all have expressed their desire to not return to China, but they are also unhappy (understandably) with their current situation in Guantanamo. The US government should give them the option to remain at Guantanamo while they work towards an eventual solution (but with no guaranteed timeline of how long they remain in limbo) or accept immediate repatriation to China. If it's their choice, they should be able to return to China. It would be interesting to see which is considered worse: continued detention at the infamous "American black eye to the world" evil prison camp of Guantanamo, or repatriation to their country of origin for the standard treatment.
My guess is that most would choose to stay in limbo and retain the hope of future freedom rather than submit to PRC "justice".