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China’s Rights Abuses in Xinjiang Could Provoke a Global Terrorist Backlash

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In mid-November 2019, The New York Times published more than 400 pages of leaked internal documents from the authorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a province in northwestern China. At least one million people, but perhaps twice that number—mostly ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities—have been incarcerated in the province’s so-called reeducation camps, where detainees are held against their will and forced to perform manual labor, forbidden from contacting relatives, and in some cases psychologically and physically tortured.

The leaked documents included painstaking instructions for the silencing of those whose parents had been locked away, as well as internal speeches in which Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the Chinese people to show “no mercy” and use all the “weapons of people’s dictatorship” to combat a perceived extremist threat. The leak confirmed what human rights organizations, practitioners, and China watchers have long feared: that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is engaged in the systematic persecution of the country’s domestic religious and ethnic minorities.

So far, Chinese authorities have carried out this campaign with impunity. The United States and several European countries have voiced concern about human rights in Xinjiang, but Chinese officials retort by invoking their country’s sovereignty. Moreover, they claim, harsh actions in Xinjiang were necessary to protect China from what it calls “the three evils”—terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. Less often spoken about is the Chinese government’s vested interest in asserting control over a region that has historically opposed Chinese rule—and one which now serves as Beijing’s gateway to the Eurasian continent for infrastructure investment, trade, and energy diversification.

Given the intensity of China’s commitment to bringing Xinjiang to heel, condemning human rights abuses there has availed Washington very little and served to raise hackles in Beijing. There is a better way for U.S. policymakers to engage the Chinese government regarding the persecution of Uighurs and other minorities, and the approach is a counterintuitive one: Washington should offer to share its counterterrorism expertise.

At the moment, China views Russia and the Central Asian states as security partners. These states address their own terrorism problems by cracking down on minorities and strangling human rights. Such an approach in Russia temporarily curbed domestic terrorism but stoked terrorism abroad. Former Soviet Republics accounted for........

© Foreign Affairs