Taking China’s counterterrorism narrative — but also the scale of arbitrary detentions — seriously

Sheena Greitens, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, is a coauthor on a new paper analyzing China’s counterterrorism narratives as they relate to the crackdown in Xinjiang. Its title is Counterterrorism and Preventive Repression: China’s Changing Strategy in Xinjiang, and it is unpaywalled at the MIT Press Journals.

Greitens explains in a Twitter thread the logic behind taking Beijing’s stated reasoning for its crackdown seriously:

Common explanations focus on domestic factors: ethnic unrest, changing minority policy, & regional leadership…

We believe CCP strategy changes in Xinjiang were also catalyzed by how they saw nascent Uyghur contact with transnational Islamic militant groups in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, which increased in 2014-16 (though was still small!).

This external development occurred alongside a revised assessment that China’s Muslim populations, especially Uighur minorities, were more vulnerable to infiltration by jihadist networks than the CCP had previously believed (numbers quoted are 20-30 percent)…

Now, important clarifications:

1) We are not saying CCP perception is correct;
2) We aren’t saying it’s going to “work.”
3) We are not saying it’s morally ok. Counterterrorism doesn’t give anyone a blank check for human rights abuses.  Explanation≠justification…

Beijing may have misperceived the threat. It may invoke the threat instrumentally to deflect critics. Its new strategy may well be counterproductive. It is morally problematic. Here’s why we still think this is really important to acknowledge in policy conversations:

Trying to change the CCP/PRC’s policies in Xinjiang is going to work best if we actually understand why they’re happening. It also helps us have productive conversations w/countries that currently cooperate w/China on law enforcement and counterterrorism.

At the same time, it is important to recognize and reiterate the verifiable scale of arbitrary detentions in Xinjiang: at the very least, many hundreds of thousands, but almost certainly more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. In China Law & Policy, legal analyst Elizabeth Lynch writes a rebuttal of “faulty analysis of what is happening in Xinjiang” from a website called the Grayzone:

When I started seeing the Grayzone, a website that describes itself as “dedicated to original investigative journalism,” touted in various Chinese media reports (see here and here) for a study that allegedly debunked the estimate of one million Uighurs detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, I felt like I had to read it.

But to call the Grayzone piece an analysis — or even objective journalism — would be a serious overstatement. Instead, Ajit Singh and Max Blumenthal, the authors of “China detaining millions of Uyghurs? Serious problems with claims by U.S.-backed NGO and far-right researcher ‘led by God’ against Beijing,” largely dedicate their piece to the character assassination of the two organizations / people who first estimated the one million figure: the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and Adrian Zenz, a social scientist at the European School of Culture & Theology and now a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation… 

The one million estimate as the number of Uighurs detained is Xinjiang is not coming out of thin air.  Four different sources — CHRD, Zenz, satellite images, government documents — all come to the same conclusion. Media outlets like ChinaFile and Quartz have also re-reviewed the data and found the one million estimate credible.

—Lucas Niewenhuis