We Have Terrorists Too

By Dillon, Michael | The World Today, January 2002 | Go to article overview

We Have Terrorists Too


Dillon, Michael, The World Today


There was surprise at the speed with which China moved to support the coalition against terrorism led by the United States. Relations with Washington had been strained for some time: many in China still believed that that the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was not an accident; Chinese-American scientists had been accused of passing nuclear secrets to Beijing; a US reconnaissance plane had made a forced landing on the island of Hainan after a mid-air crash with a Chinese fighter; and the thorny issue of American support for Taiwan's anti-missile defences remained. But observers had failed to reckon with the biggest threat to the country's stability.

ONE REASON FOR CHINA'S enthusiasm for the campaign against terrorism became clear when its Foreign Minister, Tang Jiaxuan, claimed in a telephone conversation with his Russian opposite number, Igor Ivanov, on October 10

that China was also a victim of terrorism by Uyghur separatists in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on its north western frontier.

At a press briefing in Shanghai during the October Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Zhu Bangguo, speaking for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, identified Eastern Turkestan forces as part of the global terrorist movement that the US-led coalition was fighting against. Later that month Foreign Minister Tang alleged that Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang had close links with Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda movement and that some militants had been trained in his camps in Afghanistan. Both Tang and his deputy Li Zhaoxing called on the international community to help crack down on the separatist terrorists' in Xinjiang.

The political stability of Xinjiang and the conflict there between Uyghurs - many of whom yearn for an independent state -- and Beijing's political and military forces have preoccupied the government for many years. In a classified paper, Document Number 7, published by the Communist Party Politburo in 1996, Xinjiang was identified as the most serious threat to the country's stability and territorial integrity. It was more of a problem than either Tibet or Taiwan.

Rumours that Uyghur separatist militants have trained in Afghanistan have been circulating for some time. There is evidence that Beijing itself sent Uyghurs to liaise with the mujahedin during the ten year Soviet occupation which ended in 1989 - China and the Soviet Union having had a long running and bitter political dispute since 1960.

In October 2000, Russian sources claimed that Uyghurs were being trained in camps in Afghanistan alongside Uzbeks, Tajiks and Chechens but the Taliban denied this. Figures from three hundred to three thousand have been given for the number of Uyghurs in Afghanistan but these are impossible to verify.

On November 24, the Xinjiang branch of the Chinese Democratic Party, an illegal opposition party, reported that it had been told that three hundred mujahedin from China who had been fighting for Osama Bin Laden had surrendered at the siege of Kunduz and were desperate not to be sent home. They were appealing for help to get to Turkey via Iran, Pakistan or Central Asia.

The current scale of repression in Xinjiang is difficult to assess as access is more difficult than usual. Even before October there were reports of illegal, unregistered mosques being demolished. China News Service on October 10 reported that police in Urumqi had stepped up anti-separatist activities. Du Jianxi, chief of the city's Public Security (police) Bureau said that a `campaign to clear up cases' aimed at `smashing the bloated pride of violent terrorists' was underway. Religious leaders at an annual training session were ordered to oppose separatism as part of a new political reeducation campaign.

Emigre sources suggest that over three thousand Uyghurs have been detained in Xinjiang since September 11. There have also been reports that local authorities banned Ramadan fasting and outlawed the wearing of headscarves by women. …

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