Chinese President Xi Jinping has been busy this year, consolidating power within the Communist Party apparatus and simultaneously centralizing the modern security state under the direct control of his administration. But the transfer on Tuesday of three Uighur prisoners — the last members of the restive Chinese Muslim minority held by the United States in its Guantanamo Bay, Cuba prison complex — to Slovakia represents a shot across the bow of Xi’s new order in Beijing. After all, his government has worked diligently to dissuade other countries from accepting the prisoners, intent on bringing them back under Chinese control, where most human rights experts suspect they would be harassed, and possibly even tortured. That’s especially likely given the spate of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang province, capped on Tuesday with an assault on a police station that left eight dead.
That the Obama administration in Washington found the prisoners a new home may irk China’s military elite, which has been asserting itself of late a dispute with hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the Senkaku Islands. It’s left to Xi to save face without blowing up his relationship with the West, where leaders are looking to him as a realist counterweight to the increasingly erratic regime to the south under Kim Jong Un. As for President Obama, the transfer moves him incrementally closer to his long-stated goal of closing the prison, a potent global symbol of national-security-state excess under George W. Bush. The three men in question were never conclusively linked to Islamic terrorism, but after being detained in Pakistan as suspected allies of the Taliban shortly after the 9/11 attacks, they were kept in limbo, even after a U.S. judge ruled that they were being held illegally.
So while this represents a victory of sorts for the president and his Democratic Party base, which has been disappointed by Obama’s continuation of Bush-era terrorism policies, it may be more important for its ramifications on the United States’ relationship with Beijing than anything it says about a sea change in treatment of its detainees. There are still some 150 men held in Guantanamo, and while this White House has been chipping away at that figure for some time now, it’s difficult to envision the population bottoming out before the president gives way at the close of 2016.