After former President George W. Bush declared the “war on terror” in 2001 its repercussions extended further than the Middle East into China’s northwest region of Xinjiang where the Uyghurs, a Muslim Chinese ethnic minority have lived for thousands of years. Uyghurs’ have long declared themselves ethnically separate from the Chinese people and therefore should remain politically and nationally independent from the Chinese nation. Conversely, the CCP’s contesting narrative shows the Uyghurs as always being a part of China, and therefore any independence movements are a threat to Chinese unity and national security.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took advantage of “war on terror” rhetoric employed by the U.S. government to label Uyghurs as terrorists and Uyghur nationalism as terrorism. Efforts to quell separatist ideologies have led to widespread persecution and religious and ethnic discrimination; however, the CCP’s narrative shows their actions merely as counter-terrorism tactics. In an era when the fear of terrorism permeates society, is one man’s terrorist another man’s freedom fighter, or is the threat of terrorism too severe?
By delving deeper into Xinjiang’s contested past, particularly the colonial legacy of the Qing Empire, this study will argue that the ‘Xinjiang Problem’ (新疆问题) as it is often called in China, finds its roots further back than 2001, originating in the 18th century when Qing forces marched west towards Xinjiang and established their power in the region. The era of “new imperialism”, a concept describing the pursuit of territorial expansion by Western powers starting in the eighteenth century, brings a fresh understanding to colonialism as it was understood during that time. The relationship between Xinjiang and the ever-present Chinese entity was gradually shaped by the civilizing mission of Qing colonialism and further influenced by eastern forms of Orientalism that have lasted until today. This has caused Uyghur nationalism to further develop throughout the twentieth century and quickly intensify since 2001, allowing the CCP to label any unrest or discontent as “Islamic” unrest or discontent and therefore must be quelled as a part of the war on terror.
Hale, Rachel, "Terrorist vs. Freedom Fighter: Uyghurs and the Colonial Legacy in Contemporary Xinjiang" (2018). History Honors Papers. 45.
The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.