Will Uyghers Become a Source of Terror or a Subject of Persecution Following the Afghan Debacle?

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Simone Gao: Welcome to Zooming In China Tea Time. I am Simone Gao.

In the unfolding stories about Afghanistan, one story has often been missed or misrepresented: the story of the impact of these events on the Uyghur populations living in Afghanistan and China.

To resist, to rise, requires that first you are free, and for the roughly 1.8 million Uyghur and Turkic people forcibly taken to China’s concentration camps in Xinjiang since 2017, there is no freedom. There is no freedom for the 13 million Turkic Muslims now are under constant surveillance by the Chinese government through the IJOP policing program. That program collects mounds of data from every avenue of their lives and flags citizens believed to be threatening, even when the activities in question are legal and reasonable.

The persecution of the Uyghurs is an ongoing objective for the CCP, and the narrative surrounding who and what they are is the centerpiece of their strategy. In a recent analysis published on Brookings, Ryan Hass, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, says that while “Chinese leaders are not enthusiastic about the Taliban taking over Afghanistan,” they will recognize Taliban leadership and “will encourage the Taliban to deny safe haven to Uyghur fighters and other groups that could destabilize Central Asia or harm Chinese interests in the region or at home.”

In doing so, Hess buys into the CCP story that the Uyghurs are a terrorist threat to China and the region. The Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project suggests that that kind of analysis or reporting “takes at face value China’s claim that it is conducting counterterrorism.” They also caution that China has a pattern of using global events as a “pretext for the repression of Uyghurs,” and the more we believe the notion of a terroristic threat, the more justified the CCP feels in their genocidal policies.

We have only to look at China’s mining activity in Afghanistan to see that practice in place. As the Taliban took control of Kabul, commentators shared concerns that China may be after Afghanistan’s estimated $3 trillion worth of rare earth metals including veins of aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium.

These metals are used in many items including electronics, electric vehicles, satellites and aircraft, and China has made major advances in each of those sectors. That they will attempt economic inroads with the new Taliban government is likely, and mining is sure to be one part of that effort to build not only economic ties but goodwill as well.

That process began long ago with the Afghan government, with the inking of a $2.83 billion lease on Afghanistan’s Mes Aynak copper mine in 2007. It seems both sides had high hopes for the mine, with Afghan leaders believing that this could be a big step forward in lowering their dependency on international aid. Currently, 40% of their domestic product comes from that aid, but they are expected to reduce that by half by the year 2030, so there is an urgent push for economic development. In this case, that leaves Afghanistan at the mercy of their economic ties with China. But halfway through that 30-year contract, China has done little to develop the mine.

Just months before the Taliban takeover, the Afghan government was pressuring China to take action on that contract. Afghan media reported in 2020 that inactivity at the time had resulted in $2 billion dollars of lost revenue for Afghanistan at a time when Taliban insurgents were making hundreds of millions of dollars on illegal mining activity each year.

Haroon Chakhansuri, the Minister of Mines and Petroleum, told Foreign Policy that the Afghan government had issued an ultimatum to either renegotiate the contract in “mutually agreed terms” or it would be given to another country.

Afghanistan’s government had the leverage it needed to take such a demand of their much larger and more powerful neighbor after officials arrested an alleged Chinese spy ring operating in Kabul in December 2020. That ring had been operating for six or seven years and was there to track down Uyghur Muslims with the help of the Haqqani network, a terrorist network linked to the Taliban.

Though the Afghan government had, at times, cooperated with China on detaining and deporting Uyghurs suspected of terrorist activities, they were “shocked at China’s duplicity.” Until then, they had believed China was operating out of goodwill, but after this arrest, one Afghan leader asked, “Is this the behavior of a friend?”

That notion of goodwill between countries looking out for one another’s interests was built with Pakistan in 1950 when they became one of the first nations to formally recognize the People’s Republic of China government on the mainland. Since then, they have remained close allies as China has continued to provide economic, military and technical help.

They are also deeply coupled economically, with China investing heavily in Pakistani infrastructure and with a bilateral trade volume crossing the $20 billion mark for the first time in 2017.

For a country that is deeply coupled with China, favors will be expected, and in this case, the favor is Pakistan’s active participation in the arrest, detainment and extradition of Uyghurs, something they have been doing since 1997.

That was made clear recently, as Pakistani citizens who are married to Uyghurs now imprisoned in concentration camps begged their government to take action. In response, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said, “As far as the Uyghurs, look—China has helped us. China came to help our government when we were at rock bottom.”

Help from China is not without cost, and their ties with the Taliban are remarkably deep. As one senior Afghan official reminded Chinese officials during negotiations about the Mes Aynak mine, China has “surprisingly strong back-channel contacts with the Taliban” and they could have smoothed out a way to develop the mine but chose not to.

Those deep ties now leave Afghanistan’s sizeable Uyghur community at risk, especially as the Taliban looks for opportunities to negotiate Belt and Road Initiative projects with China.

In late July, after the U.S. had begun the process of removing troops from Afghanistan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with representatives from the Afghan Taliban in Tianjin. This was an important meeting, because it placed the Taliban as a major force on the international stage, something democratic countries were unwilling to do because of the Taliban’s known history of human atrocities.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian justified the meeting by saying that “the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghanistan Taliban are not the same…. The Afghan Taliban claims to be a political and military organization and publicly prohibits any organization or individual from using Afghan territory to threaten other countries.”

In almost identical wording, at the first press conference after the takeover, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said, “We would like to assure our neighbors, regional countries, we are not going to allow our territory to be used against anybody, any country in the world. So, the whole global community should be assured that we are committed to these pledges that you will not be harmed in any way from our soil.”

But their territory will be used against the Uyghur population. For several months leading up to the withdrawal of American troops, Uyghurs in Afghanistan and across the globe began sharing their fear that China and the Taliban were growing too cozy with one another. Now, with the Taliban at least temporarily in a governing role in Afghanistan, Uyghurs face an even greater risk of persecution or extradition to concentration camps.

As outlined in a report by Human Rights Watch, Uyghurs face “massive arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious erasure, separation of families, forced returns to China, forced labor, and sexual violence and violations of reproductive rights.”

With the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan, the Uyghur people are left with nowhere to go. They have not been safe in China or Pakistan. They will not be safe in Afghanistan. And little has been done on the international stage to combat the concentration camps, the reach of the Chinese government in extracting Uyghurs from other countries, or the attempts by Chinese Government to couch this in language that makes innocent Uyghurs responsible for the devastation of their human rights.

As we watch the events unfold in Afghanistan and as we think about ways to help bring peace and stability to the region, we must not forget the millions of Uyghur and Turkic people at risk not only in the borders of Afghanistan but in the entire region and at the mercy of the CCP.

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