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Image: Princeton University Press, 2020.

The U.S. war on terror and its vague, overexpansive definition of terrorism have allowed authoritarian leaders around the world, and especially in China, to attack domestic groups under the guise of fighting terrorism, argues a George Washington University scholar in a new book.

Why it matters: Beijing has claimed its campaign of cultural genocide against China's Muslim minorities is a form of counterterrorism.

In "The War on the Uyghurs," Sean Roberts, a cultural anthropologist at George Washington University, writes that in the early days of the U.S.'s war on terror, China successfully lobbied the U.S. and other nations to add a small group of Uighur militants in Afghanistan to the terror designation list.

  • This set a precedent for viewing the Chinese Muslim ethnic minority through the lens of global terror and eventually justifying China's brutal crackdown on their culture and religion.

The big picture: The U.S. designation at China's request of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a small group of Uighurs in Afghanistan, as a terrorist organization has contributed to a narrative that Uighurs are significantly intertwined with a global jihadi movement, Roberts argues.

  • But "this group did not have the resources or the capacity to do anything inside China," Roberts told Axios in an interview.
  • Though Uighur militant groups would later arise that did carry out a limited number of violent attacks in China, it was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, said Roberts, in part the result of years of government repression after ETIM's designation.

Driving the news: On Nov. 5, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the removal of ETIM from the U.S. terror list, a move welcomed by Uighur activists.

  • What they're saying: “ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist,” a State Department spokesperson said.

The bottom line: “The repressive measures presently being carried out against the Uighurs are undoubtedly the initiative of the Chinese government, which should be held accountable for them," writes Roberts.

  • "But it has been the international obsession with combatting a vaguely defined ‘terrorist’ enemy that has allowed the PRC to implement these measures with impunity and that, at least in part, has inspired their excessively brutal and genocidal nature.”

Go deeper

China sanctions top Trump alumni one day after Uyghur genocide determination

Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

China's Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday it would sanction 28 "anti-China" U.S. politicians, including a slew of top officials from the outgoing Trump administration such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton and former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Between the lines, via Axios China expert Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: Chinese government officials have traditionally decried the use of unilateral sanctions by Western countries, even though China regularly blocks foreign companies and individuals from its markets for perceived political slights.

Jan 19, 2021 - World

Special report: Trump's U.S.-China transformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump began his term by launching the trade war with China he had promised on the campaign trail. By mid-2020, however, Trump was no longer the public face of China policy-making as he became increasingly consumed with domestic troubles, giving his top aides carte blanche to pursue a cascade of tough-on-China policies.

Why it matters: Trump alone did not reshape the China relationship. But his trade war shattered global norms, paving the way for administration officials to pursue policies that just a few years earlier would have been unthinkable.

Jan 19, 2021 - World

What Biden's top administration picks signal about his China strategy

Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Early indicators suggest the Biden administration may continue to pursue a robust China strategy that reaches across multiple government departments and agencies.

Why it matters: Though the Trump administration's approach to China was often controversial, there is broad bipartisan agreement that China poses a major challenge to U.S. interests and values.