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In China's West, Ethnic Strife Becomes ‘Terrorism’

By Philip P. Pan, Washington Post, Monday 15 July 2002; Page A12

KUQA, China -- As the first rays of dawn moved across the Taklimakan Desert, the police chief in this ancient oasis city in China's far western stretches led a squad of officers toward a peasant home believed to be a hideout for Muslim separatists.

Suddenly, a shot rang out and a bullet fired from the house struck the chief in the stomach. His officers returned fire, setting off a furious gun battle that lasted several minutes. By the time the shooting stopped last August, local officials said, three men in the house had been killed and the chief, Chen Ping, lay dead, too.

Police found explosives and guns in a tunnel underneath the house, identified the men inside as ethnic Uighurs and concluded that others had escaped. Determined to respond forcefully, the government deployed military police to Kuqa in the following weeks and, according to residents and officials, ordered sweeps of Uighur neighborhoods to round up suspects.

A lot of people were involved. We caught most of them, executed some of them, said a local police official, who asked not to be identified. The situation in Kuqa is complex. The three evil forces -- violent terrorists, religious extremists and 'splittists' -- are fairly strong here.

The Chinese government has portrayed the clash as part of its own war on terrorism, a campaign to crush what it describes as a violent, organized separatist movement in Xinjiang province. It says the separatists are backed by Osama bin Laden and other militants abroad, and it has sought help from the United States and other nations to fight them.

But a more complicated picture of the situation in Xinjiang emerged during a government-guided trip through the province, from the capital, Urumqi, to five oasis cities on the ancient Silk Road. Although residents reported scattered incidents of violence, the region seemed beset less by a coordinated terrorist campaign than by simmering ethnic tensions, made more acute by government policies.

In dozens of interviews with residents, it was apparent that heavy-handed security tactics and uneven economic development are aggravating relations between Xinjiang's 7 million Han, the dominant Chinese ethnic group, and its 8 million Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims, many of whom yearn for independence or at least greater autonomy from Chinese rule.

At stake is the stability of the country's largest and westernmost province, a vast expanse of deserts, mountains and valleys bordering Central Asia that is home to key military posts and rich deposits of oil, minerals and natural gas.

The tensions are obvious here in Kuqa, where most Han live in new apartment buildings and most Uighurs live in dilapidated, shack-like homes in the city's old quarter. Walk through town asking about the death of Chen, the police chief, and the opinions break largely along ethnic lines.

To many Han, the chief was a martyr and the men who shot him were religious fanatics intent on killing innocent people. He was a hero who died defending the country, said Liu Jianjiang, a local journalist. It was such a tragedy. We all mourned with his wife and his son.

But in nervous conversations held out of earshot of the government agents who were trailing foreign reporters, Uighur residents expressed little sympathy for Chen or his family. Some argued that Chinese security forces had arrested and executed so many Uighurs to maintain control of Xinjiang that the death of a Han police official was cause for celebration.

Many people here have been rounded up and shot. Some are terrorists. Some aren't, whispered one Uighur shopkeeper, after ushering a reporter into a dressing room and drawing the curtain. I know an innocent boy who was accused of terrorism who was killed by the Chinese. He was innocent. . . . The situation is terrible.

When the police chief was killed, everybody was talking about it, and many people were happy, said another Kuqa resident, who asked to be identified only as a Muslim.

Uighur resistance to Han rule has a long history in Xinjiang, portions of which have also been controlled by Arabs, Mongols, Russians, Kazakhs and Tibetans over the centuries. China's emperors exercised power in the region as early as 200 B.C., but their grip on the territory waxed and waned with the rise and fall of dynasties.

Uighurs established a kingdom here in the late 8th century and controlled various areas until Genghis Khan's conquest nearly 500 years later. During the turbulent years before the Communist revolution, Uighurs founded two short-lived republics using the name East Turkestan, first in 1933 in Kashgar, and then in 1944 in the Yili Valley with the help of Soviet agents.

When the Communists took power in 1949, they promised autonomy for Xinjiang and were welcomed by many Uighurs, who made up 75 percent of the province's population. Several of the Yili regime's leaders joined the new government. But the promise of autonomy was never fulfilled, and there have been serious ethnic uprisings in Xinjiang every decade since.

It was only after Sept. 11 that China began releasing large amounts of information about separatist violence in Xinjiang, part of an effort to present itself as a partner in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and justify the tactics it uses to crush Uighur dissent.

Government officials said bin Laden trained 1,000 Uighurs in Afghanistan and funneled money and arms to Uighurs in China. The government also produced a long list of violent incidents it blames on terrorists, including bombings and assassinations. Most of the incidents occurred several years ago. Beijing has presented little evidence to support its claim that they were carried out by terrorist cells taking orders from Muslim radicals abroad.

Pressed to provide examples of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang in the past two years, provincial leaders interviewed during the trip cited three incidents: the murders of a local official and his wife in Kashgar in February 2001; the Aug. 7 shootout in Kuqa; and the fatal stabbing in May of a school principal in Hotan by a man who advocated creation of an Islamic state.

Local police officials acknowledged they had no evidence tying suspects in these cases to terrorist groups. Western diplomats and exiled Uighur activists who monitor Xinjiang said many of the attacks that China has blamed on terrorist cells are better described as violent crimes committed by young, frustrated Uighur men.

For example, one diplomat who investigated the Hotan stabbing said the assailant was a disgruntled Uighur teacher who had been fired during a patriotic education campaign aimed at ensuring loyalty among the school's faculty.

As for the men in Kuqa, an exiled Uighur activist who once served in the Chinese military said his sources indicated the men planned to storm a government building and raise a Uighur flag. But he said there was no evidence they had links to any terrorist groups.

Basically, it was a few guys who came up with a plan. They didn't have ties to me, to other Uighur exiles or to Osama bin Laden, said the activist, Dilxat Raxit, of the pro-independence East Turkestan Information Center.

Human rights groups accuse Beijing of exaggerating the terrorist threat and using the global war on terrorism to justify its harsh suppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang -- the only place in China where people are executed for political crimes, according to Amnesty International.

Several Uighur residents interviewed said they were more afraid of police than terrorists. Since September 11, the situation has gotten worse, said one cab driver in Aksu, a city west of Kuqa where Uighur militants and police clashed two years ago. The police are everywhere, and they pay Uighurs to spy in every neighborhood and every mosque. . . . Sometimes, people just disappear.

But many Han residents said they supported tougher police measures against their Uighur neighbors. You have to watch them very carefully. A lot of them hate us, you know, said one worker, a native of Sichuan province who moved to Kuqa nearly a decade ago. We have to suppress them. There's no other choice.

Local officials said the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan has weakened terrorist groups in Xinjiang. Still, they acknowledged putting a greater emphasis since Sept. 11 on fighting terrorism and reported stopping six groups of Uighurs from committing terrorist acts in the past year.

Officials declined to provide details, but Uighur exile organizations estimate more than 3,000 people have been detained since Sept. 11. In Bayinguolen prefecture, Xinjiang's largest, police arrested 211 separatists in the past year, said Zhang Zhiheng, the Communist Party secretary there.

Asked why Uighurs would resort to terrorism, Wang Lequan, the Communist Party chief in Xinjiang, said they were motivated by political goals: independence for Xinjiang and the establishment of an Islamic state. He also said there was no legal way for Uighurs to pursue those goals peacefully in China.

Those who are asking for the independence of Xinjiang are not popular and don't represent all the ethnic groups. Therefore, they are not allowed to do so, he said.

Liu Yaohua, Xinjiang's deputy director of public security, said any Uighur who advocated independence for Xinjiang was probably a terrorist. They are closely connected. . . . Ethnic separatism is their goal, religious extremism is their garb, and terrorist acts are their means, he said.

Other local officials said Uighurs were drawn to terrorism because of poverty in Xinjiang, pointing out that ethnic violence was most common in the less developed southern portion of the province. They said a campaign launched by Beijing last year to develop Xinjiang and the rest of the Chinese west would reduce support for independence among Uighurs.

So far, though, the results have been mixed. Some Uighur residents applauded the campaign, saying infrastructure projects have boosted the economy. But others complained that development has resulted in a huge influx of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, and that they were getting most of the new jobs.