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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Distant thunder: Separatism stirs on China's forgotten frontier

August 19, 2008

By Geoff Dyer and Jamil Anderlini
The Financial Times (UK)
August 17, 2008

First Tibet, now Xinjiang. China's Olympics year has showcased its
economic achievements and the resilience of its one-party state, but
it has also exposed festering resentments in the country's far west.

Over the past fortnight, more than 30 people have died in three
separate attacks on police or government buildings in Xinjiang that
represent the biggest outbreak of political violence in the region
for more than a decade. Government officials have been careful not to
draw strong conclusions and there is only limited information
available. However, the succession of attacks suggests possible
co-ordination between the different groups.

In the incident at Kuqa eight days ago, more than a dozen bombs
exploded before dawn. Moreover, analysts have been surprised by
reports that three young women were involved. "This could indicate
that there is a new generation of militants in Xinjiang," says
Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong based researcher with Human Rights
Watch, the monitoring group.

"Coming as it does around the Olympics, it appears that some of the
locals are sending a message that they do not support the central
government's policies in the region," says Dru Gladney, a professor
at Pomona College in California and an expert on Xinjiang.

Xinjiang -- or "New Frontier" -- is a vast province that covers a
sixth of China and shares borders with eight countries, including
Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Uighurs, the biggest ethnic minority in
the region, are predominantly Muslim, speak a Turkic language and
have close cultural ties with other groups in central Asia.

Like Tibet, Xinjiang has a disputed history. China claims to have
exercised effective control over the region since the Han dynasty in
the second century BC. Many other accounts describe centuries of
waxing and waning Chinese influence and two brief attempts at
independent statehood under the name East Turkestan in the 1930s and 1940s.

The depth of resentment in Xinjiang against Beijing comes as a
surprise to many Chinese, especially given the region's economic
record. For most of the past three decades, Xinjiang's economy has
grown even faster than that of the country as a whole, expanding by
12 per cent in 2007. Its gross domestic product per capita is well
below the prosperous east coast but higher than a number of other
inland provinces.

There are plenty of Uighurs who feel they have benefited greatly from
the boom. "If Uighurs do not get the good jobs, it is because they do
not have the brains or education," says one Uighur man who works in
the construction industry in Korla. "If we were independent, we would
be a poor small country that everyone would push around." China's
population policies allow Uighurs to have more children than most Han
Chinese, which encourages a view among many Chinese that they are a
privileged minority.

Yet just as in Tibet, rapid-fire economic modernisation has not won
the hearts or minds of many in the local population. Mass migration
is one reason. In a 1950s census, shortly after the People's Republic
of China reasserted control over Xinjiang, the proportion of the
population from China's dominant Han group was 6 per cent. In the
latest estimates, Han Chinese accounted for more than 40 per cent,
similar to the number of Uighurs. Hundreds of thousands of migrants
have moved to the region to work in the oil industry or in the large
state-owned farms that have made Xinjiang China's main producer of
cotton and tomatoes.

Some of these projects have sparked conflicts over land and water
rights. Around Kuqa, a dusty town of 400,000 on the edge of a desert,
the cotton farms put heavy strains on water resources. A local
environmental official says new policies have been introduced to
limit the size of the farms and their water consumption.

But a few hours south of Kuqa, in rural Tarim County, long rows of
brick houses are being built for Uighurs who officials say are being
moved off their land to protect the region's fragile ecology. Human
rights groups attribute the resettlements to the diversion of water
to cotton farms. "My new house is nicer than the [traditional mud
house] I lived in but I have no way to make a living now," says one
recently resettled resident.

While there are hiring quotas, especially in state-owned companies,
many Uighurs feel they are excluded from the best employment. This is
particularly true for government jobs; according to the US
Congressional-Executive Commission on China, in a 2006 recruiting
campaign 800 of the 840 civil servant job openings in 2006 were
reserved for Hans. "For Uighurs to get ahead you have to act Chinese
and forget your ethnic distinctiveness," says Mr Bequelin at Human
Rights Watch. "People would like to have both."

Moreover, just as in Tibet, economic modernisation has been
accompanied by a hardline political strategy aimed at controlling the
religious and cultural life of the province, and this has alienated
many Uighurs. Indeed, Zhang Qingli, the Communist party secretary
since 2006 in Tibet – who famously called the Dalai Lama a "wolf in a
monk's robe" -- was previously deputy head of the party in Xinjiang.

Human rights groups and academics say that, particularly in the
aftermath of the attacks in the US of September 11 2001, the Chinese
authorities stepped up their interference in religious life.
"Political re-education" campaigns directed at imams include regular
lectures from party officials and heavy pressure to inform on
suspicious activities. The imam at a small mosque on the outskirts of
Korla said he would only give an interview if local Communist party
officials were present. Anyone under 18 is banned from entering mosques.

Even in the tiny villages in Tarim County, Uighur spies working for
the Chinese security apparatus watch for any sign of dissent or
criticism of state policies and quickly report to the local police
station. Foreign reporters visiting the region are questioned by
these spies and followed by security officers. "There is a sort of
aggregator effect from all these years of crackdown on the Uighur
population," says Yitzhak Shichor, professor of Asian studies at the
University of Haifa in Israel. "Sooner or later it was bound to erupt."

Although the Tibetan issue is much more high-profile, given the
global fame of the Dalai Lama, in some ways Xinjiang is an even more
sensitive issue for the Chinese authorities. Xinjiang is now the
country's leading producer of oil and gas and is the conduit for
energy pipelines from central Asia. Moreover, a protracted period of
unrest could quickly become a regional incident given the strong ties
between Uighurs and the populations of neighbouring central Asian
countries. The risk of neighbours meddling in Xinjiang was one of the
reasons the Chinese pushed for the creation of the Shanghai
Co-operation Organisation, a grouping that brings together China,
Russia and several central Asian countries and whose charter calls
for joint action against separatist groups.

After 9/11, the US and several other countries listed the East
Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim) -- the group many Chinese officials
name as the main threat in the region – as a terrorist group.
However, diplomatic help on other fronts has been less forthcoming.
"It makes it hard for the EU to give support to China when most of
their diplomatic activities are lobbying us to prevent the activities
of groups that have no terrorist links but which China sees as a
threat to the Communist party," says John Fox, a fellow at the
European Council on Foreign Relations.

So what sort of threat does China face? In the wake of the recent
wave of violence, there is very little agreement between experts
either within China or abroad about whether the country really faces
a new militant insurgency and if there is any foreign involvement.

Although Chinese officials made a number of high-profile warnings
about terrorism before the Olympics – claiming in July to have
arrested 82 on suspicion of planning to sabotage the games – the
recent attacks have received little publicity in local media and no
groups have claimed responsibility. In one of the few specific
comments, Qin Gang, a foreign ministry spokesman, said last week that
"there is some evidence showing that behind these attacks there might
be East Turkestan forces.'' Other official statements have provided
little further detail. Wang Lequan, Communist party secretary for
Xinjiang, warned last week that China faced a "life or death
struggle" against the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism
and religious radicalism.

One of the most interesting questions is whether the attackers had
outside help. Since 9/11, Beijing has portrayed any conflict in
Xinjiang as part of the global war against jihad. More recently, some
Chinese officials have said China is being infiltrated by Hizb
ut-Tahrir, a group that seeks to create a pan-national Muslim state.

A group calling itself the Turkestan Islamic party has released two
videos claiming responsibility for other unexplained explosions in
China and – even though there is much scepticism about the existence
of this group, let alone its claims – the presence of such videos
with heavily jihadist overtones worries some analysts.

Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based terrorism expert, believes that
Etim still has a presence in northern Pakistan and links to al-Qaeda,
which could leave China vulnerable to militants slipping across the
border – although he adds that Chinese policies towards the Uighurs
are pushing some of them towards Islamic radicalism.

Li Wei, director of the counter-terrorism research centre at the
China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, says there
is no evidence so far that the recent attacks had foreign links. "The
attacks are more likely to be by separatist groups," he says.
"Religion might be a cover but separatism is their main purpose."

Prof Gladneya, of Pomona College in California, says evidence of
sympathy for terrorist groups in Pakistan or elsewhere remains thin.
"There has definitely been a rise in Islamic conservatism in
Xinjiang," he says. "But I have not seen signs of real support for
global jihad or for Islamic radicalism."

Even the level of co-ordination between the attacks is unclear. Some
analysts say the amateur nature of the weapons used – knives and
home-made explosives – suggest unsophisticated local groups with
little training. While some Uighurs may support independence, they
say, many only want more autonomy.

"These do not appear to be acts of some terrorist organisation which
is being planned from the other side of the border," says Prof
Shichor at Haifa University. "We do not have a lot of information but
it looks more like personal grievances of people who are using the
Olympics to do something." The Olympics have brought attention but
little clarity to the fractures running through Xinjiang.
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