Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China

What does China’s Afghanistan policy mean for the Uyghurs?

Right after the withdrawal of the last US soldier, the victorious Taliban announced that Afghanistan is now a “sovereign nation” again. Their takeover of the country has not only led to questions about how the grouping will use its power domestically. Despite various signals to the outside world, it remains an open question how its direct and indirect neighbours will react to the current victory or how the rulers in Kabul will proceed.

Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China

For the first time since 2001, the capital is under their control. Now, the various levels of command – in Doha, Pakistan as well as commanders in the country – are in the process of forming a government. Beyond announcements in press conferences and talks.

So far, the global focus is primarily – and understandably – on the perspective of Afghans regarding the new masters in Kabul. After all, they are the first and most directly affected by their policies and concrete behaviour. Unnoticed by the German public, exiled Afghans view an implied rapprochement between Kabul and Beijing with concern.

In a specialist reader by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on 26 August on reactions and options of neighbouring countries, China expert Amanda Hsiao deals with a future relationship between Beijing and the victorious Taliban.

According to various observers and media, its interests lie in three areas: Afghan raw materials, its integration into the Road and Belt Initiative (New Silk Road Project), and concerns about China’s regional and internal security. In her text, Hsiao emphasises above all Chinese fears of insecurity spilling over – both into its own territory and threats against its own citizens and projects in Pakistan. China is committed to promoting stability in Afghanistan “primarily through diplomatic and economic exchanges.”

Moreover, the Western withdrawal from the Hindu Kush leaves a vacuum. This would give China more freedom in Central Asia. For Beijing, this could prove to be a double-edged sword. The absence of the USA in Afghanistan makes room regionally. However, Washington now has new resources in the Indo-Pacific region to exert pressure on China.

More relevant for Uyghurs, especially exiles in Central Asia, is that Beijing will also exert pressure on the persecuted minority in Afghanistan under the guise of a “war on terror.” According to Hsiao’s views, the Taliban had sent appeasing signals here regarding the small extremist movement ETIM (estimated at a few hundred Uighurs) in Afghanistan.

“Beijing will want to recognise the Taliban government, probably after or at the same time as Pakistan, but before any Western country does so, although the timing of this move may depend in part on whether it manages to get additional assurances from the Taliban on the two issues that matter most to it,” is the think tank expert’s assessment.

On 24 August, the US broadcaster Radio Free Asia reported how exiles in Afghanistan are reacting to the Taliban’s success. They are “filled with terror.” This takeover could mean that they would be extradited to China, where they would face “severe punishment.” Human rights groups feared “the worst” for the estimated 2,000 Uyghurs currently living.

According to one man whose parents had already been born in Afghanistan, the 80 or so Uighur families in the capital were confused and feared for their lives. He himself had been beaten by individual Taliban while going to the bakery. Exiled Uyghurs in Turkey, meanwhile, had reported contacts in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, according to which Taliban were entering private homes and abducting girls. “Kazakhstan is flying Kazakhs out of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is taking Uzbeks, Turkey and all other countries are taking their citizens, but nobody (…) is helping us,” said a Kabul Uyghur.

Already on 11 August, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) published a new report that Pakistan and the now ousted Afghan government were “accomplices” of Beijing in the cross-border oppression of Uyghurs. The Chinese crackdown on exiled communities in the two countries would violate human rights and global standards, the authors said.

Since 1990, there have been 60 expulsions of Uyghurs by Pakistani security forces in the slipstream of the international anti-terror war. China keeps up the pressure on exiled Uyghurs fleeing to the West via Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries. In the last 10-15 years, the strength of the community there is said to have reduced from around 3,000 people to a mere 100.

“Pakistan and Afghanistan are becoming Chinese client states,” UHRP director Ömer Kanat said. “At the behest of the Chinese authorities, vulnerable Uyghurs are being harassed, detained and deported in Islamabad and Kabul. Some of the targeted Uyghurs have been tortured and executed in China, while others have seen their families broken up and their communities rigorously monitored. China’s economic largesse can buy any kind of complicity in violence against Uighurs.”

For the publication Bitterwinter, analyst Ruth Ingram looked at the impact of the takeover for Uighurs in the region. Even before their victory, the Taliban had promised Beijing that they would not allow anti-Chinese terror on their territory. They would cooperate in the deportation of “problematic” Uyghurs. In doing so, they would have given the Communist Party another weapon for its arsenal in the so-called war on terror. The latter relies on cooperation with its closest neighbours and “the silence of the Muslim states.”

Exiled Uyghur organisations as well as Western researchers have documented for years that referring to the terrorist organisation ETIM, if it exists at all, is not a fair representation of Uyghurs as a whole and Uyghurs should not be vilified by actions committed by the ETIM in their name.

The Uyghurs have become sacrificial lambs on the altar of Beijing’s unstoppable economic and political march westwards. The CCP has bought loyalty, silence, and complicity with promises of aid, prosperity, and protection. “Pakistan’s steadfast Chinese ally Imran Khan denies any knowledge of the plight of the Uighurs on his doorstep, and the new Taliban emirate is willing to swallow its pride in favour of mountains of money for construction and mining rights,” Ingram said.

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