Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 19

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Beijing is exploiting to the utmost Washington’s and the UN’s recent decisions to classify the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization. CCP leadership wants to take advantage of what the official media calls “a favorable global climate against terrorism” to deal a body blow not only to the ETIM but to the entire underground Uighur separatist movement in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) as well.

Beijing had planned extensive military operations against pro-independence groups–whose strongholds are in western and southern Xinjiang–in early summer of 2001. Unprecedentedly large-scale People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maneuvers were held in July and August of that year. Arrests of suspected separatists and anti-Beijing elements increased dramatically after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, even as Beijing told the world community that China, too, was wrestling with an internal terrorist threat. This was behind Chinese diplomats’ assertion that the United States and the West must not hold “double standards” when discussing the issue of countering global terrorism.

The Xinjiang divisions of the PLA and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) were beefed up after September 11. To reflect the importance of the Xinjiang Military District, commander Qiu Yanhan was promoted to lieutenant general a few months ago. According to estimates by diplomatic analysts, a few thousand suspects had been rounded up for investigation by early this year. The crackdown was by no means restricted to what were generally known as terrorist or violent organizations. Throughout Xinjiang, police and state security personnel also began a close watch on mosques and universities. Western diplomats who have been to Xinjiang recently have reported that a number of college teachers suspected of separatist leanings were detained for questioning.

Meanwhile, Beijing has been lobbying Washington to classify the ETIM–which, according to the Xinjiang Public Security Department, was responsible for 200 “major terrorist attacks” in the past eleven years–as a terrorist organization. Washington’s initial reaction was cool. And, during his visit to Shanghai last November, President George W. Bush specifically warned Beijing that fighting terrorism must not become a pretext for targeting a nation’s ethnic minorities.

America’s impending showdown with Iraq, however, has changed the picture. Washington realizes that if it were to sponsor a UN resolution that involves the invasion of Iraq, it will need, at the very least, an abstention rather than a veto from China, one of the Security Council’s five permanent members. It is partly to secure Chinese acquiescence in a probable U.S. venture into Iraq that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage pronounced the ETIM a terrorist organization during his fence-mending visit to Beijing last month. And in the wake of lobbying by China, the United States, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, the UN Security Council put the ETIM on its list of terrorist units in early September. This meant, among other things, that funds belonging to the unit will be frozen worldwide.

While applauding these two actions, Beijing announced stepped-up actions against the ETIM and other Uighur separatist units. The Chinese Foreign Ministry disclosed in mid-September that the PLA and police had smashed forty-four hideouts and ETIM bases recently. It is likely that the intensive antiterrorist, antiseparatist crusade will go on until next year.

The army’s anti-ETIM movement is also being conducted in conjunction with the police’s annual Strike Hard campaign against hardcore crime and social instability nationwide. In areas with ethnic minorities such as Xinjiang and Tibet, the goals of the Strike Hard–first launched in the mid-1980s–have traditionally been to wipe out separatist groups and cells.

The prowess of the PLA and PAP will be demonstrated on October 1, when, according to Hong Kong’s China-run daily, Wen Wei Po, several tens of thousands of soldiers are expected to take part in joint Sino-Kyrgyz antiterrorist exercises. This will be the first time that the PLA has engaged in a joint military exercise with a foreign army.

While most of the maneuvers will be held along the 1,100-kilometer Sino-Kyrgyz frontier, Wen Wei Po reported that joint exercises will also take place in pockets as deep as 100 kilometers into either side of that border. According to the Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoyev, the focus of the drills will include pooling of resources, exchange of intelligence and practicing effective ways to exterminate terrorists. According to the Beijing-based Global Times, the ETIM constituted a sizeable part of terrorists active in southern Kyrgyzstan, which shares a border with Afghanistan.

Diplomatic analysts say Beijing’s upper hand over terrorist groups in the XAR has yielded a further windfall: an opportunity to revive military cooperation among members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Largely a Chinese initiative, the SCO had in the several months after September 11, been upstaged if not rendered superfluous by the U.S.-led global antiterrorist coalition. Beijing was also incensed that SCO members such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan had allowed U.S. troops to be stationed there on a semi-permanent basis.

The forthcoming joint exercise with Kyrgyzstan could boost the SCO’s internal cohesion and overall effectiveness. The Kyrgyz Defense Ministry announced that observers from SCO members would be on hand during forthcoming maneuvers with China. Moreover, the PLA is planning joint antiterrorist exercises with other SCO countries including Russia. Beijing has also expressed hope that the joint SCO antiterrorist center established last year in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, might finally become a functional rather than a symbolic office.

A number of Western Xinjiang scholars and human rights experts have found this latest episode in Beijing’s decades-long struggle to control Xinjiang highly disturbing. They have lamented the fact that the decision by the U.S. and UN to label ETIM a terrorist outfit could afford Beijing much-needed legitimacy in its campaign to snuff out the entire pro-independence and dissident movement in the XAR–and to Sinicize the region by promoting Chinese culture and encouraging Han Chinese to migrate to Xinjiang.

For many analysts, what is usually known as the underground Uighur pro-independence movement consists of a plethora of organizations, the majority of which do not espouse violence. Nor are they connected with radical Islam. The analysts estimate that the ETIM and other Islamic separatist units that do in fact condone violence constitute no more than 5 percent of the combined strength of the separatists. And central authorities in Beijing are playing up the threat from the ETIM–whose active members number only several hundred–as a cover for its overall policy of quashing dissent in the restive region.

University of Hawaii expert on Chinese Muslims, Dru Gladney, has expressed doubts about Beijing’s linkage of the ETIM with the overall Xinjiang movement to seek a higher degree of autonomy from Beijing. “While Islamic fundamentalism may be on the rise among some sectors of Xinjiang society, most groups that can be considered separatist are secular in nature, and are not known to advocate terrorist tactics,” Professor Gladney said. “After September 11 last year, the vast majority of Uighur groups have renounced violence.”

Nicolas Becquelin, a Xinjiang expert with the Human Rights in China watchdog, said Beijing’s military and propaganda campaign against the ETIM was but a “camouflage for relentless Sinicization of the XAR.”

According to Becquelin, the majority of Uighurs do not particularly seek independence; they want only to preserve their culture and way of life against massive Chinese colonization and institutionalized discrimination. He estimated that some 1 million Han Chinese had migrated to Xinjiang in the past ten years. Moreover, the establishment of the Xinjiang Bingtuan–a paramilitary force of Han Chinese farmer-soldiers that occupies 31 percent of the region’s arable land–has increased significantly in recent years.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.