What China is Doing to the Uyghurs is not Counter Extremism 

18th September 2020

The unrest created by the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a global uptick in terrorism carried out by both state and non-state actors. But not in China. The Communist Party propagandists regularly claim that their security policies have resulted in zero terrorist attacks since 2017. Because of the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) characteristic lack of transparency, these numbers are impossible to confirm. But given what we know about China’s “counter terrorism” policies, they may be credible. 

Counter-Terrorism in China

For recent observers of extremism in China, some historical context will be useful. The 2014 terrorist attack at Kunming railway station, where Uyghur militants armed with knives killed 31 mostly Han Chinese commuters, marked a significant turning point in the evolution of terrorism by Uyghur actors. One feature that differentiate this attack from previous ones was the identity of the victims. Until Kuming, even by the CCP’s own questionable records, almost all of the terrorist attacks committed by Uyghurs directly targeted the CCP – most often People’s Liberation Army (PLA) installations, Xinjiang police, or the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). In Kunming, the attackers appear to have chosen the train station because they knew it would be packed with Han Chinese civilians – a nontrivial change in tactics and intent. 

The response of the CCP to Kunming was also noteworthy. Following another tactically-identical attack on the train station in Urumqi several months later, President Xi Jingping “called for an all-out ‘struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism’ using the ‘organs of dictatorship,’ and showing ‘absolutely no mercy.’” In the following years, the CCP has imprisoned at least one million people in what they call “re-education camps,” where Uyghurs are sent to be fed a diet of CCP propaganda and cleansed of their own cultural and religious beliefs. They have also created outside of the camps a panoptic surveillance state that has convincingly been referred to as an “open air prison.” Additionally, the CCP’s own official documents reveal a massive campaign of forced sterilization of Uyghur women. 

China justifies these policies by claiming that they are the only way successfully to counter the threat of Islamist extremism in the region. Leaked government documents liken Islamic extremism to a “virus,” and warn that if those who are subjected to it “don’t undergo study and training [referring to the ‘re-education camps’], whey will never thoroughly and fully understand the dangers of religious extremism.” One CCP official described these policies as a way to prevent Xinjiang from becoming “China’s Libya or China’s Syria.” 

Moreover, the CCP has been actively trying to export their counter extremism policies elsewhere in the world. In September of 2019, a Chinese GONGO (government organized non-governmental organization) held the “International Seminar on CounterTerrorism, De-Radicalization, and Human Rights Protections” in Urumqi, where experts from all over the world were educated on the benefits of the “China model” for counter terrorism. They’ve even pointed directly to America’s post 9/11 “war on terror” as a less-successful parallel to their policies in Xinjiang, ostensibly with the goal of convincing other countries to adopt the China model instead. Additionally, the CCP is also selling the panoptic surveillance technology that they’ve used to immiserate the Turkic minorities in Xinjiang to autocratic governments throughout the world, which suggests that we might begin to see similar gulag-states popping up elsewhere in the near future. 

China’s Policies in Xinjiang are not equivalent to Western CVE

Perhaps what’s most disappointing, though, are the reputable American experts who  draw similar morally-bankrupt false equivalences between Western-style Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs and China’s campaign of Uyghur genocide. According to them, the CCP’s abhorrent policies in Xinjiang are the natural equivalent of the CVE programs that have become ubiquitous in the post-9/11 international security environment. 

At Quilliam, the world’s first counter extremism organization, we are very familiar with the various approaches and angles that are necessary for a principled CVE. We do not deny that the West has overstepped at times in the broader effort to counter violent extremism. The Iraq War, for instance, is viewed by many people today as having been a quixotic attempt to insert ourselves into the Middle East as a stabilizing force and a deterrent to Salafi-Jihadism. The Patriot Act, once implemented, ended up monitoring many American citizens unnecessarily, and sometimes unconstitutionally. 

But, unlike the CCP, we understand that CVE cannot be distilled to just the blunt tool of hard power. We recognize the equal importance of creating separate safe spaces within communities, where members can share perspectives and engage in dialogue to address the ideological factors that can be part of the bigger picture of radicalization. Furthermore, we acknowledge the role that non-ideological factors, such as economic grievances and perceived or real lack of political efficacy, can play in motivating violent extremism, and the obligation that governments have to make clear to the populations who hold those grievances that they are working in earnest to address them. 

What the CCP is doing in Xinjiang fulfills none of these requirements. The CCP have made honest discussion within Uyghur communities impossible, by surveilling their every action, and forcibly “re-educating” any who express the “wrong” ideas. They have also drastically inflamed the economic inequalities that already existed before the crackdown. Instead of creating more economic opportunities for the Uyghurs, the CCP has created a system where “graduates” of the re-education camps are sent to work in prison-like conditions in Han-Chinese factories to produce products for global brands. And real political participation for the Uyghurs in today’s Xinjiang is unthinkable.

By contrast, principled CVE utilizes social media to counter extremist ideas online; principled CVE uses theology to challenge takfiri and jihadist readings of Islam; principled CVE develops strategies to help reintegrate former extremists into society, and to find them realistic and fulfilling job opportunities. 

Perhaps most importantly, principled CVE work not only protects the whole of society – but it protects vulnerable minority populations, who are disproportionately targeted by extremist violence, most of all. In Xinjiang, the CCP’s “CVE” policies are a pretext for eradicating the region’s Turkic minorities. Scholars who draw an equivalence between the CCP’s horrific policies in Xinjiang and Western CVE practices should take the time to learn about and acknowledge the real and important differences between the two. The CCP should learn from the example of the international community and our post 9/11 CVE strategies, rather than taking the dishonest posture that their networks of concentration camps and forced sterilizations constitute a superior alternative.

The question of what the United States should do about the problem in Xinjiang is complex, and there is much room for debate as to what combination of strategies will be most useful in addressing it. But as far as the CVE and security community is concerned, we should be united in forcefully rejecting the CCP’s specious justifications for their genocidal actions in Xinjiang if we are to effectively highlight these abuses, prevent them from spreading elsewhere in the world, and preserve the integrity of the principled CVE practices that help to keep free societies safe. 


Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Quilliam International and an Assistant Professor at The Citadel and Grayson Slover is a Research analyst at Quilliam International