Saying ‘Not This’ to the Colonization of the Uyghurs

Darren Byler reviews The War on the Uyghurs by Sean Roberts

In his recent book The War on the Uyghurs, Sean Roberts, a scholar of Chinese and Central Asian politics at George Washington University, describes how Uyghur responses to state violence have often been officially misrecognized as “terrorism” – and the way this has provided cover for a pernicious contemporary colonial project. The history of the “terrifying” of the Uyghurs is relatively recent: just nineteen short years. It was exactly four weeks after September 11 2001 that the word “terrorism” was first used by Chinese authorities to describe Uyghurs whom they deemed a threat to Chinese national security.

Prior to the US declaration of the Global War on Terror, Uyghurs were described occasionally as “counterrevolutionaries” or as “separatists”, but never as terrorists. Working in concert with Chinese state security in a Beijing-based investigation, in the early 2000s US intelligence officials took up this rhetoric at least in part as a way of building stronger bilateral ties between the two nations. For example, Roberts notes that in internal briefings “the FBI characterized Uyghurs as a potential ‘terrorist threat’ to the US”. They also began to describe a shadowy, Pakistan-based Uyghur diaspora group that called itself the East Turkestan Islamic Movement “a clear part of the Al-Qaeda network”. While Roberts shows there is scant evidence that the group had much capacity beyond video production, this threat credibility bolstered by the US designation nevertheless provided the Chinese state with cover to begin increased “hard-strike” campaigns in the Uyghur homeland, which began in the 1990s but took on a new intensity in the 2000s, particularly after the protests and violence in Urumqi on July 5, 2009.



Checkpoint Nation

Navigating security checks in the Uyghur homeland – Darren Byler

On a visit in April 2018 to the Uyghur homeland in Northwest China, I was amazed by the number of checkpoints that turn every city and town into a maze of ethno-racial profiling and ID scans. In some areas, the checkpoints are every several hundred meters. The checkpoints are only for those who pass as Uyghur. Han folks and obvious foreigners are usually directed to walk through the exits of the checkpoints with the wave of a hand. The checkpoints are not for them.

Since 2009 there have been a number of large-scale violent incidents involving Uyghurs, state security and Han Chinese civilians. Since 2014 the state has conducted a so-called People’s War on Terror that has subjected Uyghurs between the ages of 15-45 to intense scrutiny. As a result of this campaign, the state has detained hundreds of thousands of young Uyghurs in a re-education camp system while radically increasing the police presence.


The Disappearance of Rahile Dawut

A vanished professor, remembered by students and colleagues – Darren Byler

On December 4, 2017, the disappearance of Professor Rahile Dawut, an eminent scholar of the Uyghur ethnic minority which she herself belongs to, sent quiet shockwaves among her students and colleagues around the world. On that day she had packed her bags for a flight to Beijing from Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the majority of Uyghurs live, and has not been seen since. Presumably she is being held in detention. The cryptic text messages a colleague sent regarding what happened did not provide many details. They ended with the message, “I am going to delete my VPN [virtual private network, for communicating behind the Chinese firewall] and never use it again. So please if you care about people here, stop asking questions.”

Dawut’s Uyghur students care too deeply to stop asking questions, but for many months they have kept their questions quiet.