Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     Jun 14, 2005
Uighurs feel China's squeeze
By Alim A Seytoff

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

WASHINGTON - There is no doubt that the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, have changed America's perception of its new enemies after the end of the Cold War in 1991. Justified by such an unprovoked and unprecedented attack on the continental United States, the George W Bush administration declared the global "war on terrorism", aimed at rooting out terrorists, terrorist-training camps, and the states that sponsor terrorism around the world. Many nations sincerely supported this global war following Bush's call to fight this new, shadowy enemy. But some supported the war for their own reasons, with the specific purpose of eliminating their opponents as "terrorists" by fabricating all kinds of allegations linking them to international terrorist groups.

China is one of the most prominent authoritarian states to have successfully asserted such opportunistic claims in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Washington, DC, and New York City that killed more than 3,000 Americans. The main reason is that prior to September 11, Beijing had failed to silence the legitimate resistance of the Uighur people in East Turkestan (known as Xinjiang or New Territory in Chinese) in northwestern China.

The area, twice the size of California, was occupied by the People's Republic in 1949, a year before its annexation of Tibet. The Uighur people have been demanding self-determination, if not outright independence, from China since Mao Zedong's Red Army occupied this resource-rich land. Since the Uighurs are Muslims, September 11 gave Beijing the perfect excuse to eliminate the Uighur freedom struggle against Chinese rule under the guise of the global "war on terrorism".

With such an ulterior objective in mind, the Chinese government expressed its immediate support of the Bush administration's global "war on terrorism" and claimed that those Uighurs who opposed Chinese rule were "terrorists". Speaking at the 56th General Assembly of the United Nations exactly two months after September 11, former Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan condemned terrorism and pointed out that, "terrorism not only threatens the US" but China as well. [1] To back this claim Tang said, "The 'East Turkistan' terrorist forces have long received training, financial aid and support from international terrorist groups ... 'East Turkistan' is downright terrorism and a part of international terrorism and should be resolutely fought against." Id.

This was the first time China took the East Turkestan issue before the United Nations, asking for its help to eliminate the freedom struggle of the Uighur people. Before September 11, China never admitted the existence of the East Turkestan issue. To bolster its claims that the Uighur freedom movement is "downright terrorism", and that Xinjiang has been part of China "since ancient times", China issued its first White Paper on the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region on May 26, 2003. [2] The paper, "History and Development of Xinjiang", attempted to convince the international community that the Uighur people who have been demanding freedom from China do not have a legitimate cause since "Xinjiang is an inseparable part of China since the ancient times". Although, the name Xinjiang literally means "new territory" in the Chinese language and was adopted only at the end of the 19th century. The paper also didn't address why this area was called East Turkestan before, and why that name was still used by the indigenous people. Many Uighur organizations believe this paper was written to isolate the Uighurs and justify the Chinese crackdown in the name of fighting the global war on terrorism. The paper, besides making fictitious claims, didn't generate any international interest or support for China's positions on the East Turkestan issue.

Obviously, Beijing didn't stop there. In December 2003, the Chinese government released "The First Batch of East Turkistan Terrorists and Terrorist Groups" [3]. On this list, four Uighur organizations and eleven individuals were included, one of which, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was indeed designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the Bush administration in August 2002 upon Beijing's demand. Many think-tanks and political analysts believe it was a quid pro quo on the part of the Bush administration to gain Beijing's support of the US invasion in Iraq, because there was no evidence that members of the ETIM actually committed acts of terrorism in Xinjiang. In designating ETIM as a terrorist organization, the US State Department cited verbatim the Chinese report on the ETIM without providing any additional information. In fact, the Chinese claims on ETIM were completely untrue because they attributed all acts of protest, unrest, and bus-bombings that occurred in the 1990s to ETIM alone.

ETIM was founded by Hasan Mahsum, a religious Uighur man from Kashgar, but this organization didn't come into being until the later half of the 1990s. According to Uighur organizations in Central Asia, ETIM members were mostly young Uighurs who feared for their lives upon return to China from Central Asian states because the Chinese government summarily executed more than 200 Uighurs after a peaceful demonstration turned into a riot in Ghulja City, East Turkestan, in February 1997. [4] As a result, Uighurs who went to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan to study or do business, and who subsequently became critical of China's treatment of Uighur people in Xinjiang, were afraid to return for fear of torture and execution. Very few Uighurs managed to go to Europe, while most were left in these Central Asian states having nowhere to go. These three Central Asian nations, as active members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, stymied peaceful Uighur political activities and rounded up Uighur dissidents upon Chinese demands. After China secretly executed Uighur political activists Kasim Mahpir, Ilyas Zordun, and Zulfikar Memet, who were extradited back to China by Kazakhstan in 1999, [5] Uighurs fearing the same fate had no choice but to flee to Afghanistan for their personal safety.

These Uighurs had neither love for the Taliban nor any interest in the al-Qaeda terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden. They went to Afghanistan solely because it was the only country that didn't require a visa for their entry. And they could stay there as long as they wanted without being extradited to China. They never anticipated that al-Qaeda terrorists would attack America, and as a result, that Afghanistan would become the frontline of the global war on terrorism. They never imagined becoming the "enemy" of the United States or "terrorists", as China labeled them after September 11. They were at the wrong place at the wrong time for the reason of saving their lives. This has been proven by the US decision not to return them to China since they never posed any threat to US interests. [6] Yet, their unfortunate presence in Afghanistan was aggressively exploited by the Chinese government to justify its own "war on terrorism". Citing the presence of these Uighurs, and especially those arrested by the US forces in Afghanistan, Beijing claimed that these Uighurs were members of the ETIM, closely linked to the al-Qaeda network.

In a report released by China's State Council on January 21, 2002, the Chinese government claimed "The 'East Turkistan' terrorist organization based in South Asia has the unstinting support of Osama bin Laden, and is an important part of his terrorist forces." [7] This report, "East Turkistan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity", made a swift conclusion that, "Since the formation of the 'East Turkistan Islamic Movement,' bin Laden has schemed with the heads of the Central and West Asian terrorist organizations many times to help the 'East Turkistan' terrorist forces in Xinjiang launch a 'holy war,' with the aim of setting up a theocratic 'Islam state' in Xinjiang." Contrary to China's claims, in none of his public speeches or declarations, did Osama bin Laden ever raise the issue of East Turkistan or the suffering of the Uighur Muslims at the hands of Beijing.

As a matter of fact, the Chinese government had a long-standing military relationship with the Taliban regime, which was supported by bin Laden himself. According to Seeds of Fire, [8] a book written by Irish investigative journalist Gordon Thomas, on September 11, the day terrorists attacked America, a Chinese delegation had gone to Afghanistan to sign a deal with the Taliban - reportedly brokered by bin Laden - to provide the radical regime with missile-tracking technology, state-of-the-art communications and air-defense systems. In return, writes Thomas, the Taliban would order Uighur separatists in northwest China to stop their activities in Afghanistan. The Washington Times reported on December 21, 2001, that the Chinese government supplied Kabul with a shipment of China-made SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles a week after September 11. [9] The paper said coalition forces also found huge amounts of Chinese ammunition in the caves of Tora Bora, where bin Laden was believed to be hiding with his lieutenants after the fall of Kabul.

The Bush administration has been aware of Beijing's motive in supporting the global war on terrorism since the very beginning. Hence, it reminded the Chinese government again and again that it had no right to persecute the Uighur Muslims as "terrorists". President Bush, while attending the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) Summit in Shanghai in October 2001 said, "No government should use our war against terrorism as an excuse to persecute minorities within their borders. Ethnic minorities must know that their rights will be safeguarded ... We must respect legitimate political aspirations, and, at the same time, oppose all who spread terror in the name of politics or religion." [10] In a joint press conference in Beijing in December 2001, US Ambassador on counter-terrorism Francis X Taylor said, "[T]he US has not designated or considers the East Turkestan organization as a terrorist organization." [11] Taylor also pointed out that, "[T]he legitimate economic and social issues that confront people in northwestern China are not necessarily counter-terrorist issues and should be resolved politically rather than using counter-terrorism methods." Id.

Yet, despite such warnings by the Bush administration, and despite the fact that Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan told a group of Hong Kong investors a week before September 11 that "Xinjiang is not a place of terror", [12] the Chinese government immediately hijacked the war on terrorism after September 11 and used it as a cover to crack down on legitimate Uighur dissent to its authoritarian rule as "terrorism". Today the Chinese government continues its own "war on terrorism", even after it has been unmistakably established by US government reports and international human-rights watchdogs that it is fictitious.

According to the "2004 Annual Human Rights Report", released by the State Department on February 28 this year, the Chinese "government used the international war on terror as a pretext for cracking down harshly on suspected Uighur separatists expressing peaceful political dissent and on independent Muslim religious leaders". [13] In its report released on May 11, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said, the Chinese "government has used concerns about international terrorism as a pretext for the ongoing crackdown on Muslim religious leaders and activities since September 11, 2001."

According to "People's Republic of China: Uighurs Fleeing Persecution as China Wages Its 'War on Terror'", a report released by Amnesty International last July, following the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001:
The Chinese authorities have actively sought to justify their crackdown in the XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] as part of the international "war on terror" in an attempt to garner international support for their actions. Since then, the Chinese authorities have widely publicized the occurrence of a number of explosions and other violent activities attributed to armed Uighur nationalist groups during the 1980s and 1990s and used this as a pretext to justify the government's crackdown in the region in terms of "counter-terrorism". [14]
The report also says, "The Chinese government's use of the term 'separatism' refers to a broad range of activities, many of which amount to no more than peaceful opposition or dissent, or the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of religion." Id.

Human Rights Watch, in its most recent report called "Devastating Blows - Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang", said "since September 11, 2001, China has attempted to position its repression of Uighurs as part of the global 'war on terror.' [15] The report declares that "By exploiting the climate that followed the attacks on the United States and the fact that some Uighurs were found fighting in Afghanistan, China has consistently and largely successfully portrayed Uighurs as the source of a serious Islamic terrorist threat in Xinjiang." Id. It states that, "China has opportunistically used the post-September 11 environment to make the outrageous claim that individuals disseminating peaceful religious and cultural messages in Xinjiang are terrorists who have simply changed tactics."

All of these official reports demonstrate that the Uighur people who the Chinese government has been accusing as "terrorists" since September 11, 2001, are not really terrorists but the real victims of the global war on terrorism. As a matter of fact, they have not committed acts of terrorism or been linked to international terrorism as Beijing purports. They have been demonized, and subsequently victimized by the Chinese government only because Uighurs believe in Islam. The crime of the Uighurs is not that they are terrorists but that they are Muslims. There is no doubt that China will continue to hijack the global war on terrorism to further persecute the Uighur people, despite their outcry. However, the international community should be extremely careful with the claim of authoritarian regimes such as the Chinese government to fight its own "war on terrorism", because not all the governments supporting the global war on terrorism are fighting terrorists, and not all the Muslims fighting for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy are terrorists. And Uighurs are certainly not terrorists.

[1] Statement by Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan at UN Security Council Ministerial Meeting on Counter Terrorism, November 12, 2001.

[2] History and Development of Xinjiang. May 26, 2003.

[3] China Seeks Cooperation Worldwide to Fight 'East Turkistan' Terrorists. December 15, 2003.

[4] AI: Gross Violations of Human Rights in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. October 1, 1999.

[5] AI: China: Further information on Torture / Health Concern /Unfair Trial /Fear of Execution. June 16, 2000.

[6] Chinese Muslim Terror Suspects Cleared; Fearful of Going Home. October 29, 2004.

[7] East Turkistan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away With Impunity. January 21, 2002.

[8] Gordon Thomas, Seeds of Fire, Dandelion Books Publication. November 15, 2001.

[9] "China-Al-Qaeda Nexus", The Washington Times. December 21, 2001.

[10] President says terrorists tried to disrupt world economy, Shanghai, China. October 20, 2001.

[11] Press conference of Ambassador Francis X Taylor, Beijing, China. December 6, 2001.

[12] Wang Lequan says Xinjiang is not a place of terror, Ta Kung Pao (Hong Kong newspaper). September 2, 2002.

[13] US 2004 Annual Human Rights Report. February 28, 2005.

[14] AI: People's Republic of China-Uighurs Fleeing Persecution as China Wages Its 'War on Terror. July 4, 2004.

[15] HRW: Devastating Blows - Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. April 12, 2005.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Alim A Seytoff, gereral secretary, Uyghur American Association.
(Copyright 2005 Alim A Seytoff)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

China's Uighurs trapped at Guantanamo 
(Nov 4, '04)

China-Uzbek pact bad news for Uighurs 
(Juy 30, '04)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110