South China Morning Post, Sep 5, 2006

Analysts dispute Uygur ties with terrorists


A little more than a week before September 11, officials from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region were telling foreign investors about the merits of China's far northwest.

'By no means is Xinjiang a place where violence and terrorist accidents take place very often,' the party chairman of Xinjiang boasted on September 2, adding the situation there was 'better than ever in history'.

A lot can happen in the space of a week. Nine days later, in the wake of the terrorist attacks that shook the United States, China was suddenly urging international support for its fight against rampant terrorism in Xinjiang, home to some 9 million Uygur Muslims.

China argued that forces in Xinjiang were connected to international terrorism, and were the recipient of direct financing from Osama bin Laden and the Taleban. Chinese officials also stated that the 'Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)' was a 'major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama Bin Laden'.

'Before 9/11, Xinjiang officials said there were no terrorists there,' says Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute and an expert on Xinjiang. 'Suddenly 9/11 arrived and there was a major terrorist problem.'

According to a report last year by Human Rights in China (HRIC), Beijing was quick to position its repression of Uygurs as part of the global war on terror, playing up the fact that some Uygurs were captured in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taleban.

Nicholas Becquelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, says China has used the threat of terrorism to increase its pressure on the Uygurs, labelling any perceived challenge as terrorism.

'The degree of pressure is unbelievable,' Becquelin says. 'Under the Chinese definition of terrorism, anyone who criticises the Chinese state is a separatist or a terrorist. It's very clear that they equate criticism with terrorism.'

China's campaign got a major boost when it won Washington's support to put the ETIM on the UN list of banned terrorist organisations in 2003.

Although American officials said they had 'independent evidence' of the link, HRIC says the State Department news release quoted verbatim from a document issued by the Chinese government that also outlawed the ETIM.

Analysts, who saw political motives behind Washington's announcement, attacked the US move.

'In hindsight, many people would agree the evidence was very flimsy,' says Professor Gladney, adding that the US may have been too keen to win Chinese support for its 'war on terror'. Since then, Washington has backed away, refusing to support other Chinese claims, and pressing Beijing not to use the 'war on terror' to justify internal repression of political opponents.

Undaunted, China has sought to step up its pressure on the region via the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), which was set up in 1996, composed of China, Russia and former Soviet states. Fighting terrorism in the region has become a main focus of the organisation. China and Russia in 2004 made a joint plea for international support against Chechen rebels and Uygur separatists. In August, China and Kazakhstan carried out a joint anti-terrorist military drill under the auspices of the SCO. The first phase was held in the Almaty region of Kazakhstan. The second took place in Yining , in Xinjiang. Also in August, China signed a treaty with Pakistan to wipe out the 'three evil forces', which they say are terrorism, separatism and extremism.

Experts concede that there are Uygurs who advocate the violent overthrow of Chinese rule, but say that they are a very small minority, and that recent evidence actually indicates a decline in militant activities. They say there have been no reports of such activity since the late 1990s.

Professor Gladney says that people who watch Xinjiang seriously doubt Chinese reports about the problem of terrorism, calling the claims 'questionable'. 'We don't have solid evidence of terrorism,' he says.

He says further that there is no evidence to support connections between Uygurs and international terrorist movements.

'The Chinese have never established any link, not to my knowledge or satisfaction,' says Professor Gladney.

He adds that while there are some 50 Uygur groups around the world, none has ever claimed responsibility for violent acts and none support terrorism.

'There's nothing co-ordinated as you see in Chechnya, no defined leadership or organisational base in Xinjiang,' he says. 'It's never been well organised.'