Did a U.S.–China Deal Put Chinese Muslims in Guantanamo?

Lawyers for a group of Chinese Muslims detained for nearly five years in the U.S. camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said in court filings the detainees had been imprisoned due to Chinese demands when the Bush administration was looking for support for “regime change” in Iraq.

According to the Washington Post, the lawyers allege that the United States and China struck a deal in 2002 wherein the U.S. government would declare the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)to be a terrorist group, apparently in exchange for muted Chinese criticism of U.S. Iraq policy.

Calling their clients “long-discarded pawns in a diplomatic match between superpowers,” the attorneys said the detainees had fallen through the cracks. The Post reports, on the other hand, that an unnamed former State Department official said some Uighurs were found to be cooperating with al-Qaida in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. A good summary of the issue on the Council on Foreign Relations website outlines the two arguments:

Why did the United States decide to target the ETIM?

Experts disagree. State Department officials say they took a tougher line because of persuasive new evidence that the ETIM has financial links to al-Qaeda and has targeted American interests abroad. But some experts call the sharp shift in U.S. policy on Xinjiang an obvious bid for warmer relations with China . The United States had repeatedly rebuked China for human rights violations in Xinjiang and resisted linking the post-September 11 war on terrorism with Chinese attempts to quash Uighur separatism. Skeptics note the timing: The Bush administration’s clampdown on the ETIM came as the United States sought to prevent a possible Chinese veto in any U.N. Security Council debate over Iraq, shortly after Chinese officials said they would tighten regulations on the export of missile-related technology (which China has reportedly handed over to countries such as Pakistan and Iran), and before Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s scheduled October 2002 visit to President Bush’s Texas ranch.

But wait a minute, who are these people, and what is East Turkestan anyway? Three times before 1949, between periods of Chinese rule in the area now known as Xinjiang (“New Frontier”) Province, the Uighur ethnic group formed an independent state, and many want it back. The Uighurs speak a language commonly referred to in U.S. academic literature as “Turkic,” and are culturally closer to Central Asian countries than to Beijing. Xinjiang is now the target of a concerted “Hanization” process, where the Chinese government encourages Han Chinese to move out there, out-sizing the Uighur population, which was a majority until a few decades ago, and ETIM has employed violent resistance at times. Just as the U.S. State Department justifies naming ETIM as a terrorist organization, it reports extensive human rights problems in Xinjiang.

The case of these detainees may illuminate some of the politics involved in the Bush administration’s “with us or with the terrorists” stance in the world. The lawyers, working for their clients, paint these Uighurs’ plight as the United States doing China’s bidding, and the U.S. government claims these particular Uighurs are enemy combatants. This may be a case where the appearance of impropriety is as damaging as an actual misdeed.

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