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

By Philip P. Pan

Washington Post Foreign Service

Monday, July 15, 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


"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


"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


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


"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


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


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


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.

 2002 The Washington Post Company


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