By Alim A. Seytoff
On July 9, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jieqi chastised the U.S. for refusing to acknowledge Chinese-labeled acts of terrorism during a U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Beijing has engaged in ongoing ethnic conflict with the Uyghur Muslims, labeling the oppressed minority’s political discontent “acts of terrorism,” which the U.S. refuses to agree with. The Chinese government accused Washington of holding its definition of terrorism to a double standard — a preposterous interpretation used by the Chinese to enable its repression of East Turkestan, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.
The Chinese government’s accusation of the U.S. is inaccurate, as the democratic U.S. supports a freedom of expression that starkly contrasts China’s authoritarian standard, in which discontent and unrest are forbidden. The very nature of the two countries’ political systems —one democratic and one authoritarian — differs, as they do not assess political violence through the same lens.
While there is no unanimous international definition of terrorism, it is clear that democratic states and authoritarian states view it from two different perspectives. Constitutionally, the U.S. government’s political architecture designates the distribution of power via a system of checks and balances. Though certainly not a perfect system, it permits an aggrieved ethnic, religious, or racial group’s right to seek redress for their political grievances.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), on the other hand, targets and persecutes its religious, ethnic, and racial groups, including Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Chinese Christians. The CCP has little respect for human rights and religious freedom, lacking a system of checks and balances à la the U.S. Rather, the CCP holds absolute dictatorial power. Within the CCP-controlled judicial system, no outlet for expression exists for an aggrieved ethnic, religious, or racial group. The CCP ignores these legitimate grievances and, instead, responds with brute force, crushing any peaceful mass protest or civil unrest considered to challenge Chinese legitimacy or authoritarian rule.
Washington’s responses to major national attacks tend to be transparent, allowing for timely, independent reporting and verification. They typically provide detailed, substantive evidence and details on the terrorism behind such attacks, for example, after the September 11 terror attacks and last year’s Boston marathon bombing.
In China, conversely, when a terrorist-labeled attack occurs, Beijing immediately cleans up the crime scene, initiates an information blockade, and shuts down the Internet and telephone communications. The government deletes eyewitness testimonies, photos, and video footage of the attack, prevents timely and independent reporting and verification by both domestic and international media with a gag order, and provides scant and questionable evidence on the terrorist motives. Instead of transparency, Beijing resorts to mass-media campaigns to characterize the attack as “organized and premeditated,” and to demonize entire ethnic and religious groups— usually the Uyghurs—through its official CCP mouthpiece, Xinhua. At the same time, Beijing virulently attacks any Western government, media or scholar that questions the Chinese government’s claims, such as the July 5 Urumqi Massacre and the Tiananmen Car Crash of last October.
Since 9/11, the U.S. has been hunting and punishing individuals and groups that commit acts of terrorism. China, on the other hand, has fabricated its crusade against terrorism by persecuting an entire ethnic group. Though China accuses the U.S. of condoning this libelously-deemed terrorism, Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims makes China the real terrorist. Since 9/11, China has been confusing terrorism with peaceful dissent and systematically violating the human rights of the Uyghur people. Furthermore, China has been engaging in what Uyghurs see as policies of cultural genocide, for the government passed laws specifically aimed at eliminating the Uyghur language, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions.
To make matters worse, Beijing has uniquely placed the terrorist label on the long-suffering Uyghur people of East Turkestan. This branding is politically expedient for the CCP, who, because the Uyghur people are Muslim, equate their legitimate political demands are with those of terrorists. This goes largely unquestioned by other countries in our post-9/11 Islamophobic world.
While a 17-year-old Uyghur teenager in Aksu could be killed and labeled as a terrorist for running a red light with a motorbike, the ethnic majority and government-friendly Han Chinese have committed heinous acts of extreme violence directed at both the CCP and innocent people. The difference being that the Han have never been labeled as terrorists—even after the Beijing Capital International Airport bombing last July.
China’s hypocrisy — namely, accusing the U.S. of what it actually does itself — persists to silence any foreign criticism of China’s persecution of ethnic groups. By incessantly attacking the U.S. for holding terrorism to a “double standard,” Beijing is trying to standardize its own authoritarian approach to terrorism in the world.
The U.S. and other western democracies must uphold their criticism of China’s persecution of these ethnic and religious groups—neither through tacit acquiescence or formal agreement with the Chinese government’s policies. Keeling to China’s authoritarian definition of terrorism would allow Beijing’s heavy-handed repression of these groups to continue or, potentially, worsen. While no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism exists, Beijing should not be allowed to define it within the parameters of oppressing ethnic and religious groups.
Alim A. Seytoff is the spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congres and the president of Uyghur American Association based in Washington, D.C.