September 26, 2014

Ilham Tohti and Islamic State: How China Defines Terrorism

Featuring Ely Ratner

Source: The Diplomat

Journalist Shannon Tiezzi

Over at ChinaFile, Richard Bernstein and Ely Ratner discuss the possibility of the U.S. and China cooperating to fight terrorism. Bernstein argues that while such cooperation is desirable, in reality the prospects are hindered by Beijing’s tendency to label peaceful dissenters as “terrorists.” Bernstein welcomes China’s efforts to aid in the fight against Islamic State (IS), but also worries that China will take advantage of the situation to justify “repression of peaceful and lawful dissent in Xinjiang.” Bernstein concludes that, should China step up its role in global counterterrorism, the world “will not be so much gaining Chinese help in the real anti-terrorism fight as it will be collaborating in China’s ongoing violations of the rights of its Uighur citizens.”

In a similar vein, Ratner points out that Washington is reluctant to increase anti-terror cooperation with Beijing precisely out of fear that doing so “would help China develop additional capabilities to oppress its own people.” Ratner is correct; U.S. government officials often discuss counterrorism and human rights simultaneously, an indication of their concern over China’s approach. This attitude was fully on display at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue this year, where the discussion on counterterrorism included Secretary of State John Kerry emphasizing “the differentiation between terrorism and political activism – or political dissent.”

The fate of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti is an example of China’s conflation of dissent and terrorism. Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on charges of separatism earlier this week. A Xinhua commentary blasted Tohti as “a separatist who incited ethnic hatred.” The piece also denounced Western countries for protesting Tohti’s sentencing. “For them, anyone, even those like Ilham Tohti who turn to extremism, could be named a freedom fighter as long as he is against the Chinese government,” Xinhua complained. The piece then explicitly drew a parallel between U.S.-led airstrikes against IS and the sentencing of Tohti: “China’s painstaking efforts to eradicate the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism in Xinjiang should have been viewed as part of the world’s anti-terrorism endeavors. Ilham Tohti should have been denounced as a criminal threatening the peace and stability of a country.”

Read the full article at The Diplomat

  • Ely Ratner