China's ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) exploited the international revulsion towards terrorism sparked by the 9/11 attacks to reframe state repression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Politico reported.
Following the attacks in the US in 2001, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin sent a telegram to then-US President George W Bush conveying the Chinese government's "deep sympathy and condolences."
In October, the two leaders met and Bush had praised the two countries new joint anti-terrorism focus and said he had "no doubt that [China] would stand with the United States and our people during this terrible time."
"Framing [Xinjiang] as a terrorist threat suddenly gave a lot of latitude to China in terms of what it could do in the eyes of the international community because, of course, the U.S. in many ways set a precedent for suspending human rights for anybody considered a 'terrorist'," said Sean R. Roberts, associate professor at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.
While the US poured its attention and troops into Central Asia and the Middle East as part of its anti-terrorism campaign, China pursued the objective of stamping central government authority -- with a distinctive identity of the majority Han population -- across a restive region dominated by ethnic and religious minorities.
"U.S. paranoia about Islamic terrorism was only matched by Chinese paranoia about any challenge to the Communist Party," said Richard Boucher, a former assistant secretary of State for Central Asia and State Department spokesperson from 2000 to 2005.
Within months, China's Xinjiang narrative lurched from that of a stable region with scattered elements of "separatists'' to that of a battleground beset by al-Qaeda-funded terror groups.
The US government endorsed that rebranding by designating a then little-known entity, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), as an international terror group.
"The 'Global War on Terror' provided the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with a vocabulary and a framework for its leaders to criminalize Uyghur ethnicity in the name of 'counter-terrorism' and 'de-extremification'," said Tim Grose, associate professor of China studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
The CCP now had a convenient frame to trace all violence to an 'international terrorist organization' and connect Uyghur religious, cultural and linguistic revivals to 'separatism.'"
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