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China's Anti-Terror Raid in Xinjiang

Dr Jagannath P. Panda was Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 11, 2007

    On April 19, 2007, the provincial Chinese court in Xinjiang sentenced Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur, to life imprisonment for taking part in "terrorist activities" and "plotting to split the country". The verdict of the People's Court of Urumchi states that Huseyin Celil will be deprived of his "political rights for life". This verdict has once again incensed human rights activists, who have begun a debate on Chinese intentions towards Uyghurs and Beijing's currently imprecise reportage on terrorism in Xinjiang. More importantly, the issue has led many strategic experts to take a fresh view of recent Chinese policy on Xinjiang and examine if there is any consistent Chinese constitutional approach to convict "suspected Uyghurs" as terrorists? This has become important given that China makes little distinction between separatists, terrorists, and civil rights activities.

    The Huseyin Celil verdict is the second in 2007, after the Urumchi court sentenced Ablikim Abdureyim for nine years of imprisonment. Abdureyim is the son of the prominent human rights defender and leader of the Uyghur movement Rebiya Kadeer. 2007 has already seen a lot of action from the Chinese government in cracking down on Uyghurs in connection with terrorism in Xinjiang. On January 5, the Chinese Public Security Bureau raided a "terrorist training camp" in the Pamir Plateau of Xinjiang and arrested 17 suspected ETIM (East Turkistan Independence Movement) members. Going by the official Xinhua News Agency report, 18 suspected terrorists and a policeman were reported killed in a shootout between the ETIM and Chinese public security forces. Further clarifying on this incident, Xinhua speculated that almost 1,000 ETIM members have been trained by al-Qaeda and that these ETIM members are directly or indirectly in contact with many local Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

    These recent incidents clearly highlight the nature and intention of the Chinese government - to conduct a comprehensive campaign aimed at both domestic and international audiences, to label all Uyghur opposition as linked to Al-Qaeda. In fact, for a long time, China has equated the activities of independent religious groups and practitioners with "separatism," which is a statutory crime against State Security under Chinese criminal law. But it must be noted that never before has the Chinese government explicitly linked these religious groups and voices in Xinjiang with terrorism. This new approach is in contrast to the position taken by China earlier. In fact, prior to 9/11, Chinese authorities tended to play down the seriousness of ethnic strife in Xinjiang by arguing that it is a "domestic problem of China" and that China is very positive about the future of the minorities in Xinjiang.

    If one looks at the 2006 Annual Report of the China Aid Association (CAA), throughout the year the Chinese authorities have taken intensive action even against non-Uyghur communities that belong to religious minority groups in the region. Chinese actions were directed basically against house churches and religious freedom groups, which saw the detention of almost 600 Christians. Some Chinese authorities went to the extent of interrogating church members during various raids rather than taking official action by arresting them. In addition, the strict control exercised by Chinese authorities over the state-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) has led to a massive protest in China. This was clearly seen in June 2006 when the Shanxi administration evicted Hu Qinghua, a Pastor of TSPM church in Pinglu. More importantly, this has become an international issue after the recent restriction imposed by the Chinese government on the relationships between unregistered Chinese Protestants and fellow believers abroad, which is in clear contravention of international human rights standards.

    The 2007 episodes in Xinjiang can be seen in this connection as a deliberate exercise on the part of the Chinese government to term and link the Uyghurs and other religious minorities with the ETIM "terrorists" and seize the opportunity to reduce the activities of these groups ahead of the 2008 Olympics scheduled to be held in Beijing. In fact, Beijing has taken a number of fresh initiatives to control Uyghur "unrests" in Xinjiang and adjacent areas by establishing networks with foreign intelligence agencies to prevent terrorist incidents, all in the name of tightening security before Olympics 2008. Through a multilateral body like Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO), Beijing has established "new intelligence-sharing" and "co-operative counter-terrorism measures" with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. On the military front, a number of initiatives are being taken in the Xinjiang Military Region to develop "mobile operations and joint exercises" with Central Asian countries in order to check any possible insurgency in Xinjiang.

    To address the Xinjiang problem more effectively, China has also tightened legal and constitutional measures. Vigilance police posts in Xinjiang, higher readiness levels of military and vigilant police units in the region have been established as part of various security initiatives. The National Anti-Terrorism Co-ordination Group (NATCG) and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) has jointly formulated action plans like establishing early warning and prevention system to monitor the activities of terrorist groups, a quick response mechanism, as well as a crisis control and management system. A mass education and mobilization system too has been introduced to develop awareness among Chinese citizens about terrorism and counter-terrorism operations. At the constitutional level, efforts have been made to update anti-terrorism laws and legislation. The main changes brought about by the amendments recently are Articles 114, 120 and 191 of the criminal law. These amendments have detailed explanations of the criminal responsibility of a variety of terrorist activities. It further stipulates that people who organize and direct terrorist activities should be severely punished. Importantly, China is in the process of formulating a counter-terrorism law, which will be in place by the end of this year.

    Overall one can say that China does not wish to waste any opportunity in controlling the Uyghurs and Xinjiang particularly ahead of the 2008 Olympics when Xinjiang will be closely monitored by the international media. In the post-9/11 period, China has gone to the extent of arguing that the Uyghur separatists movement has been extensively financed by Osama bin Laden and has direct connections to the al-Qaeda network. A number of official reports and documents have been released recently by the Chinese government to draw the attention of the international media that there is a close proximity between Uyghurs and al-Qaeda members. For example, in the January 2002 official document titled East Turkistan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity, the Chinese government stated that "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 to launch a 'holy war'." Interestingly, the Chinese government has never provided any substantial evidence about the Uyghur-Al-Qaeda link. In fact, in a recent statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao has gone to the extent of saying that "we think that cracking down on international terrorist organizations, including East Turkistan terrorism, benefits China and the world…no country in the world wishes to see another al-Qaeda in China".

    All this suggests that Beijing's approach to Xinjiang is very similar to its recent actions against Tibetans. In Tibet, Beijing has carried out a crackdown on many religious supporters of the Dalai Lama after 9/11, terming them "terrorists" because they are involved in "illegal" activities. Beijing's policy towards Xinjiang is also similar, and is aimed at maintaining firm control over the Uyghurs.