The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cracked down hard this week on two local officials in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for supposedly giving material support to terrorism.
In truth, there is little evidence the ethnic Uyghur officials named and “shamed” by Chinese state media Tuesday were involved in terrorist activities; they were pushing back against Beijing’s genocidal campaign against their people. Both could face the death penalty.
The two Uyghur officials spotlighted by Chinese state media, Shirzat Bawudun and Sattar Sawut, were arrested years ago during a purge of high-ranking Uyghurs. The targets of this purge were generally charged with “separatism” or being “two-faced.” Human-rights watchdog Bitter Winter noted the “two-faced” charge is frequently leveled against “Communist Party members who are accused of having religious beliefs or ethnic tendencies.”
“Some commentators have observed that, by eliminating high-ranking officials and intellectuals of Uyghur ethnicity, the Chinese Communist Party is preventing the rise of a possible spiritual leader,” Bitter Winter observed.
Sawut and Bawudun, who were arrested in 2017 and 2018 respectively, enjoyed renewed attention from Chinese state media this week because they featured prominently in a CCP “documentary” that supposedly proves the Uyghur genocide is both a phony invention of China’s dishonest enemies and a totally justified response by Beijing against the constant threat of Uyghur terrorism.
A major theme of the propaganda film, titled The War in the Shadows, is that sinister Uyghur agents have been working their way into the Chinese government with the goal of subverting Beijing’s authority and making it possible for Xinjiang to secede from China. This is why the film and subsequent state media coverage put so much emphasis on the danger of “two-faced” government officials.
The CCP’s Global Times summarized the charges against Sawut and Bawudun on Tuesday, claiming the propaganda film about the cases against them is drawing “widespread attention from home and abroad” because it refutes “fallacious Western lies about Xinjiang, such as ‘excessive anti-terrorism’ and ‘genocide’”:
The two officials were exposed in the fourth documentary on the anti-terrorism fight in Xinjiang, which was released on Friday. The documentary contains a number of video clips concerning the region’s terrorist activities, cases of “two-faced people” and problematic Uygur textbooks, and for the first time revealed how the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) introduced terrorist recordings and videos into China.
One case is related to Shirzat Bawudun, a former high-ranking official in the region, who was later found to be secretly supporting extremist activities linked to ETIM. Shirzat earned the title of “counter-terrorism hero” after being injured in a violent terrorist kidnapping, but later became involved in colluding with key members of ETIM, using his position to benefit his brother’s company and providing large sums of money to ETIM.
The other case concerns Sattar Sawut, then head of the regional Education Department, who organized a criminal group to spread extremist ideas and incite ethnic hatred through composing Uygur textbooks, thus facilitating the spread of terrorism and extremism in Xinjiang.
The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is the CCP’s favorite bugbear for justifying the brutal oppression of the Uyghurs. The ETIM was a small militant Uyghur separatist group with ties to Afghanistan that was formed in the 1990s, recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States in 2002, and then delisted by the U.S. government in 2020 on the grounds that it has effectively ceased to exist.
The Chinese government, which once proudly boasted of wiping out the ETIM in coordination with Pakistani security forces, now insists the group is highly active and constitutes a threat on par with al-Qaeda or ISIS. Chinese propaganda routinely labels Uyghur critics as secret members of the ETIM, even though Western intelligence agencies believe the group only had about 200 members at its peak in the 1990s.
The Global Times noted both Uyghur prisoners have been sentenced to death for such alleged offenses as taking bribes, distributing “problematic textbooks,” inciting “ethnic hatred,” and “splitting the country.”
Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in 2018 that Sawut and two other prominent Uyghur academics vanished without explanation in 2017 and were held for over a year before the allegations against them were made public. They were originally accused of breaching Communist Party discipline and were supposedly undergoing political re-education before the CCP decided to refashion them as dangerous terrorists. Friends and family said Sawut and the others were persecuted for holding strong religious beliefs and attempting to preserve Uyghur culture.
As RFA noted, Sawut has been featured in CCP propaganda films before, along with other prominent Uyghurs held up as negative examples of “two-faced” individuals who betrayed the trust of the Communist Party.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) saw The War in the Shadows as a significant shift in Chinese propaganda about Xinjiang province. Previously, Beijing has labored to portray the massive concentration camps that hold much of the Uyghur population as “vocational training centers” voluntarily attended by happy students who graduate to find good jobs in Chinese industry. As that pretense becomes impossible to sustain, the CCP seems to be admitting the camps are prisons while claiming they are justified and necessary to contain the massive threat of Uyghur terrorism.
The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) condemned The War in the Shadows upon its release for its use of forced confessions from Uyghur prisoners, including Sawut.
“I am not surprised that the Chinese government continues to coerce people and manipulate them in order to deliver their own message. They did it to me many times over the years, going as far as filming my family members and forcing them to discredit my human rights advocacy and defame me. It is through a coerced statement by my sister that I learned the death of my father, last year,” said WUC president Dolkun Isa.
The WUC restated its “firm opposition to coerced videos and statements of Uyghurs in East Turkistan,” arguing the “highly repressive environment” in China prevents Uyghurs from “freely expressing their views.”