China is struggling at home to sell the Taliban as a suitable partner for a country waging a war on alleged Islamic extremism, as it prepares to embrace an Afghanistan led by the militant group.
State media and diplomatic attempts to paper over the group’s past and present it as the “people’s choice” have met sharp criticism at home from those familiar with militant organization’s history of violence and repression of women. Beijing has long linked the Taliban with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which it has blamed for terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.
Now, in the wake of the chaotic exit of U.S. troops, China is embracing the group’s return to rule, a strategic U-turn that has left many at home feeling whiplashed. Further instability in Afghanistan could impact neighboring Pakistan, where China has $50 billion in Belt and Road investments, and send extremism over its border.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying appeared to moderate the official messaging at a news briefing Thursday, pointing to foreign commentary characterizing the Taliban as “more clear-headed and rational” than during its first period in power 20 years ago.
“Some people stress their distrust for the Afghan Taliban. We want to say that nothing is unchanged forever,” Hua said. “We need to see the past and present. We need to listen to words and watch actions.”
Later Friday, she attempted to refocus the conversation on the failure of America to impose democracy on Afghans. “As facts have shown, democracy has no set model, just like cold milk doesn’t agree with the Chinese people’s stomach, and Americans are not used to using chopsticks,” she said.
The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, posted a brief video history of the Taliban on Monday without mentioning its links to terrorism. The 60-second clip said the group was formed during Afghanistan’s civil war by “students in refugee camps” and expanded with the “support from the poor,” adding that it “has been in a war with the U.S. for 20 years since the Sept. 11 event.”
The post, which was later deleted, became the fifth-ranked trending top on Weibo, after prompting a huge backlash from users questioning why party newspaper tried to whitewash the group. Some cited its violent past, including beheading people in the streets, destroying the famed Bamiyan Buddhas and banning women from work and study.
Foreign Ministry comments professing China’s respect for “the will and choice of the Afghan people,” suggesting the Taliban had popular support in the country, similarly raised questions. A post on the WeChat blog “Philosophia” asking “Is Taliban the choice of the Afghanistan people?” was read more than 100,000 times, and widely shared on social media platforms, before it was censored Thursday.
The possibility of Afghanistan women losing hard-won opportunities to study and work hit at a sensitive time in China. Sexual assault allegations against celebrity Kris Wu and an Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. executive have fanned a new wave of criticism against the entrenched patriarchy.
After a female Afghan filmmaker’s plea for the world to pay attention to her country was scrubbed from Chinese social media sites, some users lashed out. “The voice of Afghan people have all been censored by you!” one woman wrote.
Even the state broadcaster has found it hard to carve a single narrative — but appeared to have adopted a dual track for domestic and international audiences.
“People in Afghanistan are scared and some women are choosing to stay home,” the state-backed China Global Television Network said in an English report targeting Western audiences on Wednesday. “The Taliban has not given specifics on what respecting women’s rights within the framework of Islam will entail.”
On the same day, a Chinese-language report in CCTV4, the state broadcaster’s channel for international news, spun a more optimistic picture. While acknowledging some women expressed worries for future, the report said the situation in Kabul was “gradually returning to normal” and the Taliban had made multiple promises, including protecting women’s rights, including allowing them to work and study. –Bloomberg
Also read: The people of Afghanistan are not fleeing from the Taliban. They are fleeing from Sharia law