According to activists and analysts, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has made Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region fearful that China will use the turmoil in Kabul to double down on the repressive policies that have drawn international condemnation and genocide accusations.
Following the withdrawal of US forces, Taliban militants swept across Afghanistan, seizing control of the government as President Ashraf Ghani and thousands of civilians fled for safety, fearful of a return to the harsh brand of Islamic rule imposed by the group when it ruled the country in the 1990s.
China has expressed concern about the return of Taliban rule and its impact on the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where authorities have imposed wave after wave of repressive measures ostensibly aimed at combating religious extremism and terrorism in the region over the last decade.
In one indication of Beijing’s concern, China began anti-terror military drills with Tajikistan, which shares long borders with the XUAR and Afghanistan, on Wednesday. Afghanistan shares a 57-mile (90-kilometer) border with the XUAR.
While Beijing has yet to formally recognize the Taliban regime as the Afghan government, in late July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted the group’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Tianjin for talks.
Advocacy groups fear the worst for Uyghurs, who have been the target of a systematic assimilation campaign involving forced birth control and sterilization, forced labor at factories and farms, and mass incarceration that has sent up to 1.8 million Uyghurs through a network of internment camps since 2017.
“The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan may be an ominous sign for the Uyghurs,” Ilshat Hassan, director of China affairs at the World Uyghur Congress in Germany, said.
He cited a December incident in which the US-backed Afghan government quietly detained ten Chinese nationals whom Kabul said were linked to Chinese security agencies and appeared to be attempting to set up a bogus East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) cell in Afghanistan in order to entrap Uyghurs.
China frequently refers to Uyghur activists in exile as members of the ETIM in an attempt to discredit their claims of human rights violations in the XUAR.
However, in October, the United States State Department weakened the anti-terror pretext for the crackdown on Uyghurs by removing the ETIM from its designated terrorist list. According to a US official, the group was delisted because “there has been no credible evidence that the ETIM has continued to exist for more than a decade.”
According to Hassan, it is “not a stretch to say” that China could take advantage of the new situation and use ties with the Taliban to try the ruse again.
“The current Taliban government, which despises America, is eager to warm up to China,” he explained. “Under such conditions, the possibility of the sudden appearance of a fake ETIM cell operating in Afghanistan purportedly against China, just as the CCP desired, isn’t too remote.”
Though the ETIM almost certainly no longer exists, Beijing will launch a campaign to persuade the rest of the world, or at least the Chinese, that it does, according to respected commentator and China observer Gordon Chang.
“China’s leadership, always concerned with legitimacy, likes to show that it has justification for its heinous actions,” he explained in an email to RFA.
“China’s regime has so far gotten away with genocide and other crimes against humanity committed against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic minorities that Beijing does not need an excuse for additional measures,” Chang added.
According to political analyst Bradley Jardine, the Chinese government has hedged its bets in order to work with any future Taliban government, putting Uyghurs in danger.
The Uyghurs are concerned that with the seizure of government buildings, the Taliban will obtain records, giving China access to identification cards that they will use to deport Uyghurs living in Afghanistan back to China, he said.
“Historically, the Taliban have attempted to relocate Uyghur populations in Afghanistan in order to monitor them,” said Jardine, a scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
“There have also been reports of the Taliban deporting Uyghurs from areas under their control in Afghanistan.”
According to the Joshua Project website on ethnic and religious minorities run by the U.S.-based missionary group Frontier Adventures, there are approximately 3,500 Uyghurs in Afghanistan.
According to Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), Afghanistan and Pakistan are becoming Chinese client states whose assistance to Beijing endangers Uyghurs.
“At the request of Chinese authorities, Islamabad and Kabul are harassing, detaining, and deporting vulnerable Uyghurs,” he said in a statement released last week for a report on how the Chinese government monitors and threatens Uyghur communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Some of the targeted Uyghurs have been tortured and executed in China, while others have had their families broken up and their communities heavily monitored.” China’s economic generosity can buy all kinds of complicity in violence against Uyghurs, “he explained.
The UHRP is also concerned that China will once again use a global event to justify repressive policies against Uyghurs.
“This was made abundantly clear in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, when China claimed it faced a comprehensive Uyghur terror threat,” Kanat said. “Twenty years later, the extension of this claim has become the justification for genocidal policies.”