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Beijing is having trouble selling its citizens on a partnership with the Taliban

·7 min read
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban, in Tianjin, China July 28, 2021. Picture taken July 28, 2021. Li Ran/Xinhua via REUTERS
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban, in Tianjin, China July 28, 2021. Picture taken July 28, 2021. Li Ran/Xinhua via REUTERS

As Beijing gets ready to embrace the Taliban, China’s propaganda machinery has been working in overdrive to convince Chinese people that partnering with the militant group isn’t as problematic as it seems.

In official speeches and state media, authorities have tried to sell the Taliban as a reformed, “more sober and rational” group capable of working with Beijing to secure Chinese interests. The state’s narrative has portrayed the Taliban’s swift takeover as the “will and choice of the Afghan people” and a development that is economically advantageous for China.

When possible, Beijing has also pivoted the discussion towards the failure of the United States to honor its commitments to allies, using the chaotic exit of American troops as proof of a flawed and unreliable US policy and an inevitable western decline.

The response to such rhetoric has been mixed. For many, Beijing’s friendly stance towards the Taliban is both unexpected and confusing, considering how China has played up threats of alleged Islamic extremism at home in recent years to justify a crackdown on ethnic minority Uyghur Muslims in the border region of Xinjiang.

“There’s a view among the Chinese public that (Afghanistan) is a neighbourhood of militancy, terrorism and Islamism,” said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “It’s not clear why China should have anything to do with it, let alone why China should be having friendly relations with a government that behaved and continues to behave in the manner that the Taliban does.”

Pushing back on state-run media’s Afghanistan narrative

As Chinese social media became flooded with news of desperate Afghans attempting to flee and women expressing fears over the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, discussions over whether Beijing should support the Taliban flourished.

When the Taliban seized Kabul two weeks back, a video post about the group’s history published by the state-run outlet People’s Daily drew immediate backlash for failing to mention the Taliban’s connections to terrorism. The post, titled “What Kind of Organization is the Taliban” (塔利班是什么组织) became the fifth trending post on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) and was sharply criticized for glossing over the Taliban’s violent past, and desecration of its Buddhist heritage, before it was taken down.

Many netizens expressed sympathy for civilians, comparing the situation Afghans are facing to that of dystopian films, and commenting on the Taliban’s terrorist links as well as human rights abuses. Some made fun of the Taliban’s clumsy efforts to position itself as peaceful and forgiving, making comparisons to the Chinese Communist Party’s own past propaganda drives.

On a video post appearing to show a Taliban fighter asking questions of a civilian that was shared under the hashtag “Taliban playing the part of a reporter,” one user made a comment linking the Talilban’s rhetoric to that of the CCP’s when it took power in 1949 after a long civil war and promised to forgive critics, including those who supported the rival Nationalists.

“There’s no way this is the end of it. Just take a look at what happened after our state was established, how opponents were exposed and punished in waves,” the user said.

But such critical voices were quickly censored, said an overseas Chinese blogger who goes by the nickname Jingwen. Censors took down her recent Weibo post about the impact of the Taliban’s takeover on women, in which she translated an Instagram post with quotes from female activists in Afghanistan.

“Now, many comments that are left are from a nationalistic point of view, about how we need to respect the government’s stance and hate the west,” Jingwen said, adding that anti-western sentiment in China has grown dramatically in recent years following the rapid deterioration of US-China relations. “The censorship is worse now.”

Paving the way for future ties

Although the swiftness of the Taliban’s takeover took China by surprise, the country has been preparing itself for normalizing relations with the group. In July, the Chinese foreign minister held a highly-publicized meeting with the Taliban’s political chief, and the two sides have reportedly conducted dozens of secret meetings over the years.

Despite having supported sanctions and other moves that essentially treated the Taliban as terrorist actors, Beijing has always approached them with nuance as a political group, according to Small.

“They’ve had to tread quite carefully,” Small said. “There has been the odd slip in some portrayals…but when it has been intentional, the approach has been to accord them a political status.”

On top of influencing domestic opinion, Beijing has used these narratives to signal to the Taliban that a partnership is both possible and worth building—that China will offer economic and diplomatic incentives in exchange for peace and security, analysts say.

So far, the Taliban has suggested it is receptive to such a partnership. In an interview last month with state broadcaster CGTN television, Taliban spokesman Suhaill Shaheen said “China is a big country with a huge economy and capacity” that could “play a big role” in reconstructing Afghanistan.

In this way, the state narrative to some extent has mirrored that of some Western commentary, which has warned that China will gain in financial and political influence by investing in Afghanistan, even though such an outcome is by no means clear.

“All of that is part of the propaganda battle designed to gloss over concerns that the US is leaving China with an arc of instability,” Small said. “The immediate pivot that this will be incredibly advantageous is part of the narrative of Western failure, and the success China can have—that China will do better.”

Following two bomb attacks at Kabul airport last week that killed dozens of Afghans and 13 US service members, state media ran stories portraying Afghanistan as a region that will become a land of opportunities for Chinese investors once the country stabilizes. Such narratives about the potential of future development have already sparked an investment hype among some Chinese entrepreneurs, who are reportedly exploring ways of making money in the war-torn country.

Yet Small says Beijing is overstating the potential for investment. “I don’t think anyone serious on the Chinese side really believes it, who are actually involved in investment plans,” he said.

A conflict for the Taliban?

Niva Yau, a researcher at Kyrgyzstan’s OSCE Academy, an education center and forum for security research, says China will also be looking to see how the Taliban will be recognized globally, and whether it can genuinely meet China’s demands, such as preventing the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (a group that once advocated for independence in Xinjiang), or its remnants, from gaining a foothold in the region.

In recent years, China has carried out a massive security crackdown on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, whom authorities blame for harboring separatist sentiments that have previously flared into violence. In 2009, clashes in Xinjiang in the wake of the killing of a Uyghur factory worker in southern China caused about 200 deaths, and were used to justify an escalating clampdown on Uyghur extremism that transformed the region into a surveillance state. Since 2017, researchers and Uyghurs who have left China have documented a wide campaign of forced detentions and other rights abuses.

Some say there is no concrete evidence that the separatist group is responsible for violence in China or even exists in a meaningful way, and that the threat of Uyghur militancy has been exaggerated so that Beijing could tighten its grip on the traditionally restive region. Last year, the US removed the “terrorist” label from the ETIM after deeming the group defunct, drawing sharp condemnation from Beijing.

According to a United Nations Security Council report last May, about 500 ETIM fighters operate in Afghanistan, and the group is among those who have previously been reported to have merged with the Taliban.

In China, state media has framed questions over the Taliban’s potentially conflicted stance on Beijing’s Xinjiang policy as western attempts to “sow discord” between the two parties.

“Will the Taliban really abandon their brothers that they’ve been fighting alongside?” Yau said. “One way or another, they need someone to fund them in order to hold onto power. This is for sure.”

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