What the Chinese government calls “terrorism,” the U.S. government has often called Beijing’s pretext for a sweeping crackdown on an embattled minority group’s religious and cultural freedoms.
Whatever China’s problem with its predominantly Muslim ethnic Uighur minority is, Chinese leaders are likely to discuss it Wednesday, at the launch of an annual dialogue with U.S. counterparts in Beijing.
A series of armed attacks, which China alleges were perpetrated by ethnic Uighurs, have killed scores of China’s majority Han population in recent months.
In one of the most high-profile incidents in October 2013, a driver later identified by police as a Uighur member of a “terrorist” organization rammed a truck into a bridge in front of the Tiananmen Gate — the symbolic core of China’s ruling Communist Party.
Uighur rights advocates say that information about the attacks is almost entirely from China's state-run media, and that state security forces have cleaned up the sites of all attacks within 24 hours. Some academics have even asserted that the alleged armed groups behind the attacks are a fabrication of the Chinese state.
Still, Beijing’s crackdown has taken many forms: renewed bans on fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, banning outdoor kebabs, which Uighur rights advocates say are a means of ridding Beijing of Uighur migrant laborers, and the detention of a prominent scholar who called for Uighur-Han understanding. The Han are the largest ethnic group in China.
Special operations conducted since May have detained 400 people believed to be complicit in separatist violence, reportedly crushing 40 “terrorist groups,” Chinese state media Legal Daily revealed in a report on Tuesday.
This is likely to form one significant backdrop to Wednesday’s China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, where Chinese and U.S. leaders will kick off an attempt to collaborate on a “comprehensive security strategy,” according to a release from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. declined to comment to Al Jazeera on the agenda for the dialogue beyond the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement.
Uighurs are not the only perceived threat to China's national security. China sees assaults on its national sovereignty in the territorial disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu-Senakaku Islands and the decades-long war of words and ships with neighboring Southeast Asian nations for the oil and gas rich South China Sea.
The United States has consistently supported China’s adversaries in those disputes. And the U.S. stance on the Uighurs has generally been that China has used so-called counterterrorism measures as a pretext to violently pacify separatists in an economically important region.
The U.S. State Department has on numerous occasions suggested that counterterrorism measures have in fact been motivated by attempts to quell unrest in the region.
“Xinjiang authorities continued to use counter terrorism as a pretext for religious repression of Uighur Muslims, according to human rights nongovernmental organizations,” the State Department said in a 2006 release. “Because the Xinjiang Government regularly fails to distinguish carefully among those involved in peaceful activities in support of independence, 'illegal' religious activities, and violent terrorism, it is often difficult to determine whether particular raids, detentions, arrests, or judicial punishments targeted those seeking to worship, those peacefully seeking political goals, or those engaged in violence.”
But Washington's tone may be changing.
“There is a growing awareness of the lethality and willingness to see where Chinese are going with this,” said Adam Segal, an expert on national security issues in China and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Following a March knife attack allegedly perpetrated by Uighurs at a railway station in China’s southwest Yunnan Province — which left 29 people dead and hundreds wounded — Washington offered what some took as a sympathetic tone with Beijing, at the helm of what has since become the world’s second-largest economy, with interests inextricably linked to those of the United States.
“We are calling this an act of terrorism,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, explaining that the incident had targeted “random members of the public.”
Some China-watchers said, at the time, that the U.S. had buckled before criticisms from Beijing, and that after launching wars in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Washington had failed to recognize armed attacks destabilizing the Chinese state.
The State Department did not respond to an interview request.
But Uighur rights advocates are confident that despite Psaki’s statement, the U.S. will still stand in solidarity with Uighurs.
“I don’t know why they made that decision” to call the incident a “terrorist” act, said Alim Seytoff, the spokesman of advocacy organization the World Uyghur Congress — the self-purported Uighur government-in-exile. “I don't believe the U.S. is convinced by the lack of evidence provided by the Chinese government or will be convinced.”
“Our hope is the U.S. during the dialogue will put forward the concern that China cannot use violence to justify the heavy handed repression and security operations against the Uighur people.”