by Collin Spears – Visiting Fellow, Center for New Politics and Policy
Officially, the People’s Republic of China has 55 distinct ethnic minority groups, which total to about 100 million in number or 8.5 percent of the country’s population. Most of these minorities live on the margins of China-proper, and do not have greater issues with the national government than the Han majority who live in similar situations. Some groups, such as the ethnic Koreans (Chaoxian) and Manchu (Mǎnzú), are highly integrated into the Chinese mainstream. However, the best known Chinese minority internationally, especially in the West, are the Tibetans (XīZàng). They are widely understood to be an oppressed culturally distinct minority who wants independent or, at the very least, greater autonomy from Beijing.
This level of international awareness is astonishing; considering, the Tibet Autonomous Region (Xīzàng Zìzhìqū) is roughly 12% of China’s total land area, but Tibetans make up less than half of one percent of China’s population. This makes them only the ninth largest minority group. The Tibetan Issue is well known, primarily due to a superior global marketing campaign, which includes the venerable Dalai Lama and a host of celebrity Western activists, such as Richard Gere and Sting. However, the Uighurs (also Uyghurs, Wéiwú’ěr) are a more numerous minority who have struggled just as long against the Han Chinese, whose homeland also makes up a larger territory, have never enjoyed the same international regard. Perhaps, Turkic Muslims are not as appealing to the hearts and minds of the West as monks in flowing robes, despite the latter’s harsh feudalistic history. Besides cultural bias, the Uighurs have likely failed at marketing, because unlike the Tibetans, they have no central leadership that is universally recognized by all the disparate factions.
Out of the nine to ten million Uighurs worldwide, it is arguable that 22 of them have brought more media attention to the plight of their 8 million brothers in China than any advocacy campaign has in at least a decade. These 22 men were not activists seeking a platform; they were just unfortunate enough to get swept up in the American War on Terror. The Guantanamo Uighurs were captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and initially labeled “enemy combatants” by the Bush Administration, but were latter downgraded to the more ambiguous, “non-enemy combatant”. By the fall of 2008, all the remaining Uighur detainees were cleared of wrong doing by the U.S. Justice Department, but after nearly seven years, many still remained imprisoned in Guantanamo.
The Justice Department found that these men had no intentions to commit hostile acts against the United States and its allies. In fact, it was determined that most of them were political and economic refugees who left China for a better life, and were captured by bounty-hunters for profit. Many detainees found their way to Guantanamo by this route. Nonetheless, some of the Uighurs were intending to engage in “terrorist” activities, but against the Chinese government, not the United States. While imprisoned some confessed to training at an ETIM (Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement) affiliated group in Tora Bora. The ETIM is regarded by the United States and United Nations as a terrorist organization that seeks to turn the Uighur homeland, Xinjiang Provence (known to Uighurs as East Turkestan) into an Islamic republic.
The Bush Administration had some obvious qualms about freeing admitted terrorist trainees, even if they were not anti-American. The other issue is, if they were to be freed, where would they go? The Justice Department decided that they should not be allowed to enter the U.S. because they “sought to wage terror” on China, which put the Uighurs right back into legal limbo.
In 2006, the Bush Administration released five Uighurs to Albania, after other nations refused to take them. Being suspected terrorists was not the only problem the Uighurs had in finding a new home. As a courtesy to China, the U.S. government did allow Chinese interrogators to question the Uighurs at Guantanamo, and China also asked for their repatriation. The Bush Administration refused. Based on past examples of Uighur terror suspects being returned to China from various Central Asian nations, the Guantanamo Uighurs would undoubtedly be imprisoned and tortured, possibly even executed. Incensed, China applied political and economic pressure to dissuade nations from accepting the detainees. In the case of Albania, it appears China was somewhat successful, at least in discouraging them from taking in more Guantanamo Uighurs.
The Obama administration inherited this “Uighur Issue”, but unlike the previous administration, President Obama, signed an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facilities by 2010. The Uighurs were just a small portion of the 245 prisoners that needed to be relocated. Letting them stew in indefinite confinement was not an option.
Although there was talk of resettling the Uighurs in the Washington D.C. area, due to the existing Uighur community there, these ideas were rebuffed on Capital Hill. Despite being unlawfully incarcerated, and having been judged not to be a threat to the U.S., bipartisan Congressional Islamophobia and appeasement to a largely uniformed apprehensive political base led them to resist and politicize any suggestion that Guantanamo detainees should be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. mainland. Meanwhile, innocent men continued to sit in jail.
It does seem that the Bush Administration did feel some genuine sympathy for the Uighur cause. In 2007 and again in 2008, President Bush met with the closest person the Uighurs have to a Dalai Lama, Nobel Nominee Rebiya Kadeer, a former Uighur businesswoman turned activist. She served six years in a Chinese prison for “leaking state secrets”; her children are currently in prison on similar charges. It is unknown if any of this affected White House policy toward the Uighurs still held captive.
It does appears that both the Bush and Obama administrations made prodigious efforts when it came to Uighur resettlement, offering monetary and diplomatic “concessions” to all the nations that eventually took the remaining Uighurs, on top of paying all the basic transportation and housing costs. This was no small feet, because over 100 countries still refused to take them. In the end, 4 went to Bermuda and 13 are scheduled to go to Palau. In the case of Bermuda, the Uighurs will eventually be eligible to apply for citizenship. Palau is aberrant, being one of the few countries that still recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the legitimate government of China. Since they have no formal relations with China they have no favor to gain or lose.
So far, there have been no reports that any of the men have taken up terrorist activities or been involved in any form of criminal behavior. There have been problems though. The resettlement in Bermuda did not come without controversy. Bermuda is still a British overseas territory, making the United Kingdom responsible for its security. London protested the settlement agreement, due to the diplomatic faux pas of not consulting them beforehand. Also, there are conflicting reports that the remaining 13 Uighurs in Guantanamo are reportedly unhappy to go to Palau due to its remote location and the lack of a Muslim or Uighur community on the islands. For China’s part, their Foreign Ministry declared the Uighurs terror suspects and demanded they be returned to China immediately, then accused the U.S. of being hypocritical for allowing such men to go free.
So why is China so concerned about a handful of Turkic Muslims that it would be willing to use such political capital? Granted, the Uighur detainees apparently made the U.S. Congress tremble in fear, with the only evidence of their awe inspiring ferocity given by the Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, who stated that one of them had kicked over a television in Guantanamo. Reportedly, the prisoner did not appreciate the scantly clad women being shown to them by interrogators (Lee 2009). One would think such a strong display of “family values” would be welcomed in the Republican Party, guess not.
As the late former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once said in reference to the Nicaraguan Contras, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist”. After 9-11, China was one of the first nations to join America in denouncing “terrorism”, especially radical Islamic terror; however, China’s primary concern was successionist movements emanating from Xinjiang (and Tibet), as well as Uighur splinter cells in Central and South Asia.
There are an estimated 8.3 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang, and another one million are estimated to live throughout Central Asia. China views the Uighurs in Central Asia as a potential fifth column that could destabilize Xinjiang, create a cascade effect, not just in other ethnic minority areas, such as Tibet, but also in the poorer interior Han majority provinces. This fear strikes at the heart of Chinese internal security concerns, which focus on the “Three Evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism.
The next installment of this series will explore the history of Xinjiang and how the Uighurs and the Chinese government came to be at odds. Further, Beijing’s response will be assessed. There will also be attention paid to how this conflict is affecting China’s Central Asia neighbors and role the United States should play, if any.
Lee, Peter. 2009. “Uyghurs sold out in the US” Asia Times Online.