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China: Beijing Cracking Down On Uighur Muslims

  • Bruce Pannier

China may be linking a crackdown on Uighurs to the international campaign against terrorism. Last week, the Chinese government announced the start of a new antiterrorism campaign and said the international community should not impose "double standards" while Beijing carries out its internal policies. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that the policy raises concern that independence-seeking Uighurs will be treated unfairly.

Prague, 18 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Concern is growing that authorities in Beijing may be using the international campaign against terrorism to justify a violent crackdown on suspected Uighur separatists in the west of the country.

A Chinese paper 17 October reported that two Uighurs were executed two days earlier. The newspaper, "Yili Evening News," said the executions took place in western Xinjiang Province, the Uighur Autonomous Region.

The executions are part of a campaign Beijing announced earlier this month against what authorities are calling "split-ists," or separatists. The Chinese government says radicals among its Uighur population are linked to other international terrorist groups like those Russia is fighting in Chechnya or the Al-Qaeda group of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Isabel Kelly works at the London office of Amnesty International. She focuses on Uighur problems in China and gave a brief portrait of the Uighurs and Xinjiang province for RFE/RL.

"The Uighur community is an old, traditional community in the area of northwest China called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. They have actually in the past been a separate [country] called East Turkestan and some people in the country would like to be separate from China and have been calling for independence and for the [re-establishment] of a state of East Turkestan."

The Russian, U.S., and Chinese presidents will all meet in Shanghai this week at a summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group. The fight against terrorism will be the main topic of discussion. There is already the expectation that China will promote its Xinjiang policy as being part of the worldwide battle against terrorism. When Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi announced the new crackdown on "terrorism," he said there should be "no double standards" over what measures China took to combat rebels in Xinjiang.

It's not known with certainty how much support -- if any -- Uighur radicals receive from international terrorism networks or to what extent Uighur fighters are present in other areas -- such as Kashmir or Afghanistan. But the evidence to date has been scanty.

Indian newspaper "The Hindustani Times" reported in February that Indian troops shot dead four Uighur militants from Xinjiang in Kashmir the month before.

Some commanders in Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, the force fighting the ruling Taliban militia, say they occasionally find graves of suspected militants which appear to belong to Uighurs.

Last week, Habibullah Botyrev, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, visited the Panjshir Valley, a Northern Alliance stronghold some 50 kilometers north of Kabul. He gave this description of prisoners there: "According to the deputy chief of the jail here, Abdul Qayum, there is one Arab, three Bermen, and two Uighurs kept in the prison. The rest are all Afghani Pashtuns."

The Chinese government has blamed Uighur separatists for several acts of violence in recent years, such as the uprising in Khuldja in 1997 and the Beijing bombings surrounding the funeral of Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping. The unrest continues in spite of the "Strike Hard" anticrime campaign begun in the late 1990s.

Peter Sinnott is a professor of Central Asian studies at New York's Columbia University. He tells RFE/RL that in his opinion, any campaign aimed solely at Uighurs is misguided: "Beijing, I think, has unfairly labeled just about anything to do with Uighurs as separatism."

Sinnott says Beijing may have itself to blame for promoting a policy of resettlement that threatens to make the Uighurs minorities on their own land. He says Uighurs are already something of second-class citizens.

"China is trying to send and is sending massive amounts of Han Chinese to settle in the province, Xinjiang, where the Uighurs and Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have been much longer before. The Uighurs are an ancient people. What we are seeing is that social mobility is extremely difficult for a Uighur in China."

The Eastern Turkestan Information Center, a pro-Uighur group operating out of Sweden, reported the destruction of three mosques in southern Xinjiang last week.

Incidents like these indicate the level of tension between the two peoples and it is at the point now where passions are sometimes easily inflamed.

In Brussels this week, a conference was held on the "Situation in East Turkestan after a Half Century of Communist Chinese Occupation." Yesterday, Erkin Alptegin, the general secretary of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, said the roots of the Uighur radical movement are found in China's treatment of its own people.

"Where there is no justice there is always, invariably, violence. Thus, the responsibility for the present violence lies at the feet of the Chinese communist leaders who deny justice and who themselves are resorting to violence to subdue and repress Uighurs."

Historians could point out that China has been trying to tame Xinjiang, its Wild West, for more than 1,000 years.

Sinnott said China's antiterrorist campaign is simply China's way of "jumping on the terrorism bandwagon," which would give China a new reason for solidifying its hold on Xinjiang.

Kelly of Amnesty International agrees, and says she considers the antiterrorism campaign "a piece of opportunism by the Chinese." But the need to keep the international coalition against terrorism together may temper governments from criticizing China too much over the Uighur question.

(Bioliddin Hasanov of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)