The Usual Suspects?

Sometimes in China you read about the funeral before you much know about the violence that led up to it.  Last week’s media reports of the emotional memorial ceremony for 21-year-old Chinese policeman Huang Qiang was, for some of us, the first clue that something unusual had erupted in Xinjiang, China’s “Wild West,” where 8.5 million Muslims—most of them Turkic-speaking Uighurs—comprise three-fifths of the population.  Newspaper photos showed dozens of Chinese police—some bowing deeply, some apparently weeping—gathered before Huang’s bier, which was draped with the Chinese national flag.

Huang was killed, and another policeman injured, when authorities raided what they called a terrorist training camp in western Xinjiang on Jan. 5. Chinese media reported that public security personnel killed 18 and arrested 17 "terrorists" of the "Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement" (ETIM), seizing 22 homemade antitank grenades and the makings of more than 1,500 more. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao cited “a large amount of evidence [showing that] ETIM is associated with international terrorist forces, and that they planned, organized and carried out a series of violent terrorist activities in China.”

This is the first time Chinese authorities acknowledged the presence of what they said was a foreign-linked terrorist base on mainland soil.  The reported violence has raised eyebrows internationally because, as Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics draws near, security is becoming a front-burner topic. Not long ago, Chinese officials identified ETIM, a militant group of Uighurs seeking a separatist Islamic "Eastern Turkestan" as the country’s most serious “terrorist threat.”

The Jan. 5 raid took place in Akto County, deep in the Central Asian hinterland not far from China’s mountainous border with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan—and it was serious enough to trigger beefed-up Chinese border patrols. This has been a strategic crossroads—and a dicey area—for centuries. The writings of Marco Polo mentioned exotic cities such as Kashgar and Tashkurgan, not far from the 4,800-meter-high Khunjerab Pass leading to Pakistan. (The name means “valley of blood” after the area’s tradition of local banditry and plunder.)

I’ve been to Xinjiang half a dozen times, and traveled not far from the raid’s site in 1985 during a journey from Pakistan to Lhasa. This part of Xinjiang feels like the very edge of China’s empire. The Kashgar Sunday market is the biggest open-air bazaar in Central Asia, redolent with fragrant spices and teeming with burly guys carrying sharp knives. Mosques bankrolled by Saudi and other Middle Eastern donors have sprung up in fabled Silk Road towns such as Hetian. Residents from various ethnic groups—green-eyed Tajiks, Kazaks in thick boots and black coats, and Uighurs whose local tongue sounds remarkably Turkic—rub shoulders with Pakistani truck drivers and merchants from the post-Soviet ’stans negotiating deals in Russian.

During one trip near the China-Afghan border in 2002, my bus was stopped at no less than three checkpoints. At one of them, public security officials eyeballed passengers in order to compare them to photos of known fugitives on a nearby “wanted” poster.  On that same trip, local residents talked about a harrowing incident in Hetian. To hear ethnic Han Chinese tell it, a Muslim extremist had planted a bomb in a public park where Han routinely gathered to play chess.  When it exploded, the bomb killed one person and injured several others.  The perpetrator ran, but he couldn’t hide.  A police dragnet cornered him in back of Hetian’s biggest tourist hotel.  An ethnic Uighur, he allegedly waved a pistol and threatened violence if the police made a move. The law enforcers opened fire anyway, killing him in a hail of bullets.

Funny thing about this story, though. Few Uighurs agreed with the Han account. “Nobody believes the Chinese version of the story,” scoffed one, requesting anonymity because he could have been detained if caught discussing the extremely sensitive topic with a foreigner. Most of all, in the twitchy wake of 9/11, he worried that “Americans might misunderstand us [Uighurs] and assume that we’re all terrorists.  We’re not.”   The other factoid worth noting about the Hetian blast is that it took place in 1999—two years before 9/11 made Washington and Beijing counterterrorist comrades-in-arms.

In fact, Beijing has been waging its own “war against terror” for years.  Uighur separatists in Xinjiang have been active since the 1940s, first battling the Nationalist Chinese government and then the communist regime that succeeded it.  In terms of clamping down on separatist groups, Beijing was only too happy to sign up when Washington sought Chinese cooperation after Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.

In 2002 Beijing persuaded Washington that ETIM belonged on the United Nations’ list of international terrorist groups. But ever since, China’s critics have blasted the Bush administration for being snookered into making that designation.  “There’s been a lot of criticism of the U.S. position, and some officials in Washington may now feel they’ve been misled,” says Dru Gladney, an expert on China’s minority groups and head of the Pacific Basin Initiative at Pomona College. “China’s lost some credibility on this issue.”

There is little question that some Uighurs hooked up with Taliban-linked groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan before 9/11. But Gladney and other experts see scant evident of ETIM being in thrall to Al Qaeda. So the big question is whether China’s government has exploited the post-9/11 specter of Al Qaeda as a convenient rationale to continue its decades-long crackdown on suspected Xinjiang separatists.

There are signs that Washington hopes to help restrain China’s efforts in this regard. Since 2002, Beijing has lobbied Washington—thus far unsuccessfully—to put additional groups on the terror roster.  Washington disagreed with Beijing, moreover, over the status of Uighurs who’d been captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan and detained at Guantanamo Bay. After five Uighur detainees were determined not to be enemy combatants against the U.S., American officials rejected Beijing’s demands to have the detainees repatriated to China — due largely to U.S. fears that they might be tortured back home.  Washington then tried to cajole a number of other countries to take them in.  Finally, the five were sent to Albania last year. Eighteen other Uighurs remain in detention at Guantanamo.

As for the recent Akto incident, some basic questions remain unanswered. Why would terrorists set up a camp inside China—where the security net is so stringent—instead of over the border in Afghanistan or even Pakistan? Could the Uighurs have been armed criminals, but not terrorists? Chinese authorities said the camp had been engaged in “illegal mining activities,” and one Akto mining company confirmed to NEWSWEEK that a number of lead and zinc mines dotted the area. Illicit prospecting could explain the presence of weapons (used for security in this wild and woolly outback) and possibly even of explosives (used in the mining process).  Uighur exiles, moreover, question why alleged "terrorists" would be living in what Xinjiang media described as "well-decorated caves" replete with ceiling lights, ventilation, telephones and even a treadmill.

But local authorities have thus far yielded few answers and scant evidence to back up China’s claims of international terror links. “We’ll give many answers in our next press conference,” said one public security spokesperson in Xinjiang, declining to respond to a number of questions about the Akto raid, “but I’m not clear on when that will be.”  The raid’s remote location no doubt exacerbates efforts to clarify exactly what happened to whom, and why.  Still, the international community—with an eye toward Olympic security in 2008—will want to know much more about the incident than Huang Qiang’s funeral details.

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