Thousands take part in a 'silent scream' demonstration against China's alleged persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang, at Fatih Mosque on December 20, 2019, in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: AFP / Onur Dogman / NurPhoto

As China continues rising as an economic giant, this poses a challenge to US world supremacy. Many observers think that a “new cold war” between the two superpowers has already started. But some critics discredit that argument and brand it as a “myth,” while others believe that “Everyone misunderstands the reasons for the US-China Cold War.” 

Currently, the Chinese and American administrations are exchanging tough warnings over regional disputes. In his first week as the US president, Joe Biden indicated that America would maintain its military presence in East Asia, warning China against expansionism in the region. In one response, China warned Taiwan, which the US supports, that if it declared independence, that would mean war.

Relations between China and India are also increasingly strained, with disputes over their Himalayan border flaring up.

Various American media, politicians, academics, military generals, and journalists are pushing an anti-China agenda using propaganda tactics, suggesting that China is America’s biggest military threat and a threat to American ideas of freedom.

Several strategists and analysts have cautioned that the world is sleepwalking toward a war between the US and China.

Whatever happens, there will be a huge price for this confrontation. And yet again, it’s the Uighur Muslims who will be the scapegoats.  

The Uighurs and international disputes

Sean Roberts captured the sufferings of the Uighurs in his must-read book The War on Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign Against a Muslim Minority

Roberts argued, “Soon after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, in order to seek China’s support in launching a global war on terrorism, the US and its allies – the UK, European Union etc – designated the ETIM as a foreign terrorist organization for its alleged association with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and imposed sanctions on it.”

Also read: Why Xinjiang is central to US cold war on China

But in reality, there is good evidence that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement was used as a scapegoat like other jihadist groups to demonize Islam and cushion the imperialist agenda. 

Roberts interviewed a member of ETIM in Istanbul during the summer of 2015 and found that, “ETIM was renamed as Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) shortly after the war on terror began in Afghanistan in 2002, for the purpose of mobilizing support and to recruit new blood from Central Asia’s Turkic ethnic communities.”

Xinjiang has long been a disputed territory, having been declared an independent state in the 1930s and again in the late 1940s. The population was majority Muslim Uighurs until recent waves of immigration facilitated by the Chinese government brought the Han population in the area to almost level with the Uighurs.

In December last year, the US government announced it was removing ETIM from Washington’s terror list. This infuriated China, which maintains the group represents a terror threat.

Xinjiang connects China to Central Asia and Europe via the Belt and Road Initiative of the Chinese government.

A few leading academics, authors and media experts including James Millward, IIham Tohti and Michael Caster claim that China is treating Islam as a “mental illness,” and systematically attempting to push Uighurs to disregard their “beliefs and culture” through “re-education” camps. Some are calling these “concentration camps,” though there are no indications they are sites of the mass murder often associated with the name.

A few leading critics think that China is following in the footprints of other imperialist powers as it is systematically replacing a Uighur majority with Han Chinese.

This suggests China is emulating Israel, India, Iran and other countries that are replacing majority ethnic groups into minorities, for instance, Arabs, Kashmiris and Sunnis in Palestine, India and Syria respectively.

Khyl Hardy and April Holcombe, in an article on redflag.org.au, suggest that replacing Uighur Muslims with Han Chinese will further the Chinese government’s plans to gain “political control over the whole region” and create a “sympathetic population to Beijing.”

Correspondingly, some analysts also think that China’s anti-Islam policy is no different from Europe’s and America’s. The advantage of constructing a new discourse about a radical Uighur terror threat, targeting Islam, will benefit both China and the other Islamophobic states.

China uses a “war on terror” discourse to justify its Uighur “re-education” camps.  Take the case of Professor Tashpolat Tiyip, a Uighur Muslim who was “convicted of separatism and sentenced to death.”

Doesn’t the persecution of Uighurs fall into the category of an act of state terror? Joanne Smith Finley best explains how “counterterrorism evolved into state terror.” The same is true in the case of India, Israel, and several other countries that have oppressed minorities in the name of national security and combating radicalization, separatism, and so forth.

But why is the West paying so much attention to this particular instance of cultural genocide and not others?

Human interests versus business interests

While human rights are often mentioned by national leaders and media, it is economic interests that drive various nations’ relationships with China.

Recently, the United Kingdom and Canada strongly condemned Chinese human-rights violations in Xinjiang. Experts view as extraordinary Canadian lawmakers’ move to pass a “non-binding motion” that accused China of “committing genocide against its Muslim minorities in the western region of Xinjiang.” 

What does all this mean for Uighur Muslims and the wider international community? Will these condemnations help push China to abide by its own laws for protecting its Uighur Muslims population?

Although recently the Canadian government showed concern over child labor and “human rights violations” in China, as the Canadian agricultural publication The Western Producer says in a recent article, “There might be some yelling, but there can still be business.”

Cleo Paskal, on the Indian news site Sunday Guardian Live, investigated “How China embedded itself in Canada.”

She wrote: “Since the 1970s, there have been important political and economic pro-China vectors emanating out of Montreal and Ottawa. Since then, that has broadened to influential pro-Beijing groups across China.”

On one hand, Canadian officials appear vocal in their condemnation of China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims, but at the same time Ottawa is supporting investment of Canadian companies in China.

In August last year, France denounced China over its maltreatment of Uighurs but in December, as Reuters reported, “French President Emmanuel Macron said that relations between the European Union and China had strengthened in recent years, following an investment deal that will give European companies greater access to Chinese markets.”

Germany has been mostly silent on China’s human-rights issues, very likely because of its business interests. A recent EU-China agreement on investment explains how business interests surpass human interests.

Sadly, for imperialists business remains a top priority, and to gain new customers arms manufacturers need new conflicts. Going back to the US-China battle for global hegemony, Uighur Muslims have become scapegoats, with one side presenting them as victims, and the other portraying them as radicals. 

At the moment, there is a need for international solidarity with people facing (cultural) genocide everywhere including Palestine, Kashmir, Xinjiang, and Myanmar. So “we must stand up” together to halt human-rights abuses globally.

Irfan Raja

Irfan Raja has studied international journalism at the University of Leeds. Also, he has received a PhD from the University of Huddersfield. He is a campaigner, volunteer, activist and freelance journalist. He was an envoy of the University of Leeds during several events hosted by the National Union of Journalists from 2006-2009.