Xinjiang and American Foreign Policy

An abbreviated and significantly revised version of this essay appeared last week on the website of the Washington Post under the title “Will the U.S. continue to put national interest over China’s human rights violations?” The WaPo version is direct and to the point, but here I offer a deeper look at Xinjiang in U.S. foreign policy, going as far back as 1950. 

In early February 1970, a letter written on behalf of “the people of Eastern Turkestan” arrived at the Nixon Whitehouse. “I beg to be forgiven for my direct approach to Your Excellency,” the letter opened, “on a matter which is both embarrassing and urgent.”

“Eastern Turkestan” is one of many alternatives names for what the Chinese today call Xinjiang, a region in the northwest of China and the site of a major, ongoing human rights tragedy. Upwards of 1 million individuals from the Uyghur and Kazakh minority groups are being forcibly held in Chinese Communist Party organized “re-education” camps. The stated goals of the camps are to provide vocational training and to reduce the threat of extremism, but the harsh reality is that the culture and identity of China’s Muslim minorities are being systematically targeted.

The author of the 1970 letter to Nixon was Isa Yusuf Alptekin, a prominent Uyghur exile from Xinjiang who had left in 1949. At the time of writing, he led the National Center for the Liberation of East Turkestan, an advocacy organization based in Turkey that claimed responsibility for the well-being of Uyghur peoples worldwide.

Alptekin had reached out to Nixon at least once before to explain the plight of his people, but to no avail. Before writing his February 1970 letter, Alptekin found an ally and friend in Washington, D.C., who could help to amplify his message.

That person was John M. Murphy, a Democratic congressman from New York. The lawmaker felt so moved by “the plight of the exiled people of Eastern Turkestan” that he introduced Isa Yusuf Alptekin into the Congressional record, praising him as an “eloquent defender of freedom” and a strong spokesman for “the subjugated Turkic people.” He shepherded Alptekin’s letter that requested American assistance to President Nixon’s office, along with a broader appeal by Alptekin addressed to the “nations of the free world.”

In the letter to Nixon, Alptekin offered a harsh depiction of Chinese rule in Xinjiang. The Chinese Communist Party, he said, was intent on the “annihilation and assimilation of non-Chinese peoples.” Desiring political, cultural, and intellectual freedom, he explained that the Uyghur people “expect support for their righteous cause from the free nations of the world in general and the United States of America in particular.” He asked for “material support,” diplomatic backing at the United Nations and with Muslim-majority countries, and educational scholarships for Uyghur youth.

Unfortunately, Alptekin’s letter and appeal probably never reached Nixon’s desk in the Oval Office.

Jeanne W. Davis, the director of the secretariat staff of the National Security Council, assigned the letter to Theodore L. Eliot, Jr., a senior official in the State Department, perhaps at the behest of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

Eliot in turn bluntly rebuffed Alptekin’s pleas for assistance. Although he arranged for Alptekin to meet staff of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Office of Refugee and Migration Affairs, this was a courtesy meeting at best. Eliot advised Kissinger to report to Congressman Murphy that while “the plight of Turkestani and other minority peoples in Mainland China is certainly understandable,” the “United States Government cannot offer [Alptekin] any support for his cause.” Eliot even rejected the modest request for college scholarships for students in the Xinjiang refugee community.

Why was Eliot so hostile to Isa Yusuf Alptekin?

On the one hand, it may have been because of the over-the-top tone of Alptekin’s letter. Even Congressman Murphy warned that it was an “unedited appeal.” Alptekin declared that the People’s Republic of China was a “menace…now in the process of evolution to engulf the earth.” Xinjiang, a strategic ace in the China’s deck of cards, was central to such “expansionist design.” Any educated American official would undoubtedly have sneered at the suggestion that China was entirely “dependent on the territory of its New Dominion, Sinkiang.”

There was also the sensitive political demand at the heart of Alptekin’s letter and appeal: independence for Eastern Turkestan. Both the Republic of China, isolated on Taiwan but still claiming itself as the sole legitimate government of Mainland China, and the People’s Republic of China were hostile to any discussion of independence for Xinjiang. Eliot may have simply wanted to avoid stepping into that messy political debate, one that ironically united the rival regimes on the two sides of the Taiwan Straits.

But Eliot’s reaction to Alptekin, above all, reflected a long-running American tendency to overlook the plight of Xinjiang’s peoples and to think about Xinjiang only in terms of its strategic value and relationship to U.S. interests.

Even the most noble American efforts to bring attention to Xinjiang were guilty of this sin. Many years earlier, in 1950, Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State under President Truman, offered probably the most high-profile commentary about Xinjiang from an American statesman until 2019. At a major Press Club speech, Acheson denounced the Soviet Union for allegedly “detaching” Xinjiang and the other northern provinces from China and turning them into semi-colonies. “I am sure that in inner Mongolia and in Sinkiang there are very happy reports coming from Soviet agents to Moscow. This is what is going on. It is the detachment of these whole areas.”

Alptekin himself was “glad to read” Secretary Acheson’s speech, confiding to the esteemed Sinologist Owen Lattimore that “we know the truth of this statement.” But Acheson’s remarks were not a symbol of American commitment to the people of Xinjiang; rather, they simply intended to provoke discord between two new socialist allies, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. (That didn’t quite work in 1950.)

Several years later, a group of mid-level State Department officials quietly continued Acheson’s efforts when they formed the Asian Regional Committee, or ARC, a clearing house for U.S. Central Asia policy. When debating what do with Xinjiang, the group achieved consensus on a “psychological program” that would “[exploit] the traditional Russo/Chinese friction” in the area and stir up the “anti-communist tendencies among natives.” The Committee, wanting to create trouble for China, remained aloof to the material, religious, and social conditions of Xinjiang’s peoples.

The Nixon Administration continued this tradition of viewing Xinjiang as a means to some political end, albeit in a much different Cold War context. Whereas in the past speaking about Xinjiang served American efforts, now avoiding it altogether was believed to be best for American foreign policy. As Theodore Eliot explained to Kissinger, “the Department feels strongly that the United States should avoid becoming involved in an issue which could seriously damage our efforts to improve relations with Peking.”

Such was the realpolitik logic of Nixon and Kissinger: avoiding irritants that the Chinese Communist Party was sensitive to, like Taiwan or Xinjiang, for the sake of achieving larger diplomatic and strategic changes.

President Nixon never responded to Alptekin, and his administration never publicly raised any concerns about developments in Xinjiang or involving the Uyghur people.

Today, as analysts and officials are again broadly reevaluating the Sino-American relationship, the high strategic rationales of Nixon, Kissinger, Eliot and those before them need not prevail. With millions of people being victimized by the Chinese Communist Party’s extrajudicial detentions, the crisis in Xinjiang deserves a prominent place in the United States’ China policy — not because of any strategic value that will be gained, but because it is a remarkable human rights tragedy.

There are some encouraging signs that this is already starting to take place. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling for greater scrutiny of the Communist Party’s treatment of Uyghurs. Senator Marco Rubio and others have introduced the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act. And Secretary of State Pompeo has drawn special attention to the efforts to “erase their [Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslims] religious and ethnic identities,” stating that China “is in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.” Pompeo has also met privately with some of the victims of China’s camps in Xinjiang.

Yet, there are still ways and means for the U.S. to say and do more, and there is still an opportunity for Donald Trump to do something that Richard Nixon never did.

It is time that the President of the United States finally says something on behalf of the people of Xinjiang.

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