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.