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Anger Against Beijing in Xinjiang- An Update

The anger against the Chinese in the Xinjiang province has two dimensions -ethnic and religious.

2.The ethnic dimension is due to the Han colonisation of the province, which was independent before 1949 under the name Eastern Turkestan. Since it was occupied by the Chinese and incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, the Han colonisation has reduced the percentage of Uighurs in the province from 80 to 45. The percentage of Han Chinese has gone up from 10 to 40 . In Urumqi, the capital, the Hans constitute about 75 per cent of the population and the Uighurs only about 15 per cent.

3.The religious dimension is due to the restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities on the observance of the Muslim religion and the alleged eradication of the Islamic character of the towns. These restrictions relate to the construction of new mosques. The religious anger is also due to the alleged demolition of some old mosques to make way for the construction of public buildings and shopping malls and forcing meat shops and restaurants to remain open and serve customers during the fasting period. The Muslims allege that new buildings are forced to be constructed according to modern architectural style and not according to traditional Islamic style. They further allege that as a result the historic Islamic landscape of the area has been changing. Another cause for the religious anger is the restrictions on travel to Saudi Arabia for Haj and Umra pilgrimages.

4. While the ethnic anger is confined to the Uighurs, who now constitute the largest single ethnic group, but no longer in a majority, the religious anger has affected all Muslims—Uighurs as well as non-Uighurs from Central China and migrants from the Central Asian Republics. The percentage of Muslims in the province has come down from 90 in 1949 to 60 now, but they are still in a majority.

5. These two dimensions have given rise to two different organisations opposing the Chinese rule. The ethnic dimension has given rise to the World Uighur Congress (WUC), which was established on April 16, 2004 in Munich, Germany, by merging the East Turkestan National Congress and the World Uighur Youth Congress, which had been active for many years before 2004. It describes its main objective as to promote the right of the Uighur people to use peaceful, nonviolent, and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkestan.

6. The Urumqi uprising of July 5 and 6,2009, followed less than two months after the WUC had held its Third General Assembly in Washington, DC from May 21-25, 2009 . Delegates and observers from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Norway, Sweden, Turkey and the the US attended the Assembly. Ms. Rebiya Kadeer was re-elected as the President of the WUC.

7. Mrs. Rebiya Kadeer, an Uighur human rights activist, was released from detention by the Chinese authorities under US pressure and allowed to migrate to the US in 2005. Her nomination by human rights groups in the West for consideration for the possible award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 was denounced by the Chinese as an insult to the Uighur people.

8.The 58-year-old Rebiya was arrested by the Chinese in 1999 on charges of endangering national security by indulging in anti-State activities. She was also accused of income tax evasion and indulging in narcotics smuggling and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment.

9.In November 2006, the Chinese prosecuted two of her sons on charges of tax invasion. One of them— Alimu Ahbudurimu— was jailed for seven years and fined. The other —Kahaer Ahbudurimu— was only fined. Mrs Kadeer had alleged in May 2006 that her two sons and a daughter had been taken into custody by the Chinese to prevent them from meeting a US Congressional team visiting Xinjiang.

10.Before her arrest in 1999, Mrs Kadeer had owned a prosperous department store and started a charity helping other Muslim women find work. She had even been appointed to a seat on one of the Chinese government’s highest consultative bodies. Things changed for her in 1996 after her husband Sidik Rouzi managed to flee to the US. Her persecution, detention, trial and conviction followed thereafter.

11. Among other political prisoners in detention in Xinjiang were: Tohti Tunyaz, who was studying in Japan. He was arrested in 1998 while on a trip to Xinjiang to gather material for his post-graduate thesis on Uighur history. While there, he had allegedly obtained a number of old documents, which Chinese prosecutors described as state secrets; Abdulghani Memetemin, a teacher and journalist who was sentenced on 24 June 2003 to nine years in jail for “providing state secrets for an organisation outside the country”; and Muhammed Tohti Metrozi, who had fled to Pakistan from Xinjiang in 2003 and sought the protection of the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had him kidnapped and handed over to the Chinese.

12. The WUC is funded openly and helped in other ways such as the training of its cadres by the Congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) of the US and the Holland-based Unrepresented Nations’ and Peoples’ Organisation (UNPO). Its membership used to largely consist of Uighurs from the diaspora outside China—mainly from the Western countries. Only during the recent Urumqi uprising it became evident that it has built up a following at least in the Uighur student community in Urumqi. The WUC is a secular and liberal organisation, which opposes Islamic fundamentalism.

13. When the Chinese occupied Xinjiang in 1949,a large number of the political elite of the province fled to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Some came to Jammu & Kashmir in India where they were allowed to stay by the then Indian Government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. After some years, they shifted to Saudi Arabia and from there to Turkey and the then West Germany. These secular and liberal Uighurs in the diaspora, who are now associated with the WUC, are admirers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and interact closely with the Tibetan diaspora in the West.

14. The religious dimension of the anger gave rise to the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan (IMET), formed by some Uighurs, Uzbecks and other Muslims who had fled to Pakistan from Xinjiang and participated in the jihad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Whereas the WUC fights against the Han Chinese because they are in occupation of the traditional Uighur homeland, the IMET fights against the Hans because it says they are infidels, who are in occupation of territory, which historically belonged to the Umma. It had joined the International Islamic Front (IIF) for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People formed by Osama bin Laden in 1998 under the leadership of Al Qaeda. It advocates a regional Caliphate consisting of the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan and Eastern Turkestan.

15.While the WUC till recently drew most of its members from the Uighur diaspora in the West and Australia, the IMET has been drawing its members from the Uighur diaspora in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. While the WUC gets most of its funds from North America, West Europe and Australia , the IMET has been getting its funds from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. According to reliable Uighur sources in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan contributes money regularly to the IMET and helps many Uighur students in Pakistan.

16.The Chinese claim that more than 1,000 IMET members had been trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before 9/11.Its former head Hasan Mahsum was reportedly shot dead by the Pakistani troops on October 2, 2003, in an anti-terrorism operation along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The CBS News of the US had reported on April 15, 2009, that the media wing of the IMET called Sawt al Islam had disseminated a 43-minute video entitled “Persistence and preparation for Jihad”. To quote the CBS:” It includes a statement by the group’s current leader Sheikh Abul Haq, as well as its late leader Hassan Makhdum, whose alias is Abu Mohammed al Turkistani. Abul Haq said “jihad” was a duty that falls on all Muslims just like any other religious duty. He also pledged more attacks against Chinese forces.

17. In a report from Urumqi, the Government-controlled Xinhua news agency of China quoted a spokesperson of the local Government as stating on January 8, 2007, that the local Police destroyed a terrorist camp in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and killed 18 terrorists. One policeman was killed and another injured in an exchange of fire, which took place on January 5, 2007, in the mountains of Pamir’s plateau in south Xinjiang. The police claimed to have captured 17 terrorists and to be pursuing others. They also claimed to have seized 22 hand grenades and more than 1,500 others which the terrorists had not yet finished making. According to the police, the training camp was being run by the IMET, which was designated by the UN Security Council in 2002 as a terrorist organisation for purposes of action under the UN Security Council Resolution No.1373 relating to action against terrorist funding.

18.The report of the incident of January 5, 2007, came in the wake of the dissemination of a message of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 to Osama bin Laden, on December 20, 2006, in which he had cited East Turkestan (Xinjiang) as an example of the historic Muslim lands presently under the occupation of non-Muslim countries and stressed the need to liberate them . However, there was no evidence to connect the dissemination of his message with the incident of January 5, 2007.

19. In 2008, in the months before the Beijing Olympics of August 2008, there were a number of acts of terrorism in the interior areas of Xinjiang as well as in Shanghai and in Kunming in Yunnan. The Chinese investigators blamed the IMET for these acts and arrested many of its suspected supporters. There was anger over the execution of two Uighurs allegedly belonging to the IMET in April last in Kashgar city for what China called a “terrorist” attack last August there aimed at sabotaging the Beijing Olympics. According to the Chinese authorities, 17 policemen were killed in that incident. Fears have been expressed by the local Uighurs that the 10 Uighurs handed over by Pakistan to China in June last on the ground that they belonged to the IMET might meet with a similar fate.

20.Before the Urumqi uprising, there was considerable anger in Xinjiang over preventive arrests being made by the authorities of the local office of the Ministry of Public Security since April to prevent any violent incidents coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China which falls in October.

21.The Urumqi uprising also came at a time when there has been a recrudescence of jihadi violence in Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan and Xinjiang since the beginning of this year. While local grievances of the Uighurs are responsible for the fresh wave of unrest in Xinjiang, the revival of pro-Taliban activities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan has come in the wake of attempts by the US to find alternate routes for the movement of logistic supplies to their troops in Afghanistan through Russia and the Central Asian Republics. Following frequent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban on convoys carrying logistic supplies passing through the Pashtun areas, the US has embarked on an exercise to find alternate routes. Reliable sources say that Al Qaeda has been encouraging the Uzbeks, the Uighurs and the Chechens to unite to foil this US exercise and to target the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s joint operations against terrorism.

22. Till the Urumqi uprising, the Chinese concern was mainly over the activities of the Waziristan-based IMET, which was suspected of the murder of some Chinese engineers working in the Gwadar port construction project in Balochistan, some Chinese meat wholesalers based in Peshawar and of attacks on some Chinese engineers working in a hydel project and a mobile telephone project in the Pashtun tribal areas. The role of the Pakistani Taliban was also suspected in the attacks on the Chinese engineers in the Pashtun areas.

23. Since 2002, Beijing had been repeatedly pressing the Pakistan Government to effectively dismantle the terrorist infrastructure of the IMET in Pakistani territory. While the Pakistani authorities did kill some Uighurs of the IMET and captured and handed over some others to the Chinese authorities, they were not able to stop the activities of the IMET from their territory. The Chinese had taken up this matter on many occasions with Pervez Musharraf when he was the President and took it up again with President Asif Ali Zardari when he visited Shanghai in February last and with Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, when he had visited Beijing in June last.

24. Till now, the Chinese concerns were mainly over the activities of the IMET. They did not show much evidence of any concern over the activities of the WUC, which they looked upon mainly as a diaspora organization in the West with no following inside Xinjiang, They were taken by surprise on July 5,2009, when nearly 3000 Uighur students and others, whom the Chinese suspected to be sympathisers of the WUC, held a demonstration in the centre of Urumqi to protest against the alleged murder of two Uighurs working in a toy factory of Guangdong by their Han Chinese co-workers following allegations of a rape of a Han Chinese woman by some Uighur workers. The allegations turned out to be false. The murder of the two Uighur workers took place on June 26, but according to the Uighur protesters, the Chinese Police in Guangdong had not arrested the Han Chinese accused till July 6. They were arrested only after the uprising.

25. According to WUC sources, the protesters carried the Chinese national flag in order to highlight that their protest demonstration was on a human rights issue and had nothing to do with their political demand for autonomy or independence. They allege that despite this the Chinese police opened fire killing a large number of Uighur protesters, many of them young students. The WUC has alleged that about 800 Uighurs were killed by the police firing, but this is not corroborated by independent sources.

26. What happened subsequently after the police opened fire on the protesters—many of them young—is not clear. There are contradictory reports from different sources, but many sources are agreed that the Chinese contention that there was a brutal massacre of over 100 Han Chinese—many of them women— by groups of Uighurs who killed the Han Chinese with butchers’ knives, slitting the throats of some of them, is correct. It was a brutality of a kind that has not been seen outside the Af-Pak region.

27. The identity of the Uighurs, who ran amok and brutally killed the Han Chinese, is not clear. The Chinese initially blamed the protesters of the WUC for this massacre. This is not corroborated. The strong suspicion is that Waziristan-trained members of the IMET, who had infiltrated into Urumqi, took advantage of the confusion after the police firing and went on a killing spree directed against the Han Chinese.

28. The Chinese authorities have been taken by surprise and shocked by what happened. Apart from inducting Army units from Sichuan into Xinjiang in order to reassure the Han Chinese that their lives and property will be protected, the Chinese have taken certain other measures such as the following:

  1. They have launched a “tell the truth to the world” campaign. Under this campaign, foreign journalists are being encouraged to visit Urumqi and make their own enquiries. They have appealed to the overseas Chinese to explain the situation to the population of the countries where they are living.

  2. The Chinese Foreign Office has directed Chinese diplomats posted in Islamic countries to give the facts of the situation to their host Governments. The Chinese have been taken aback by the strong reaction of the Turkish Government and by the large demonstrations in Turkey against the Urumqi incidents, which have been described in Turkey as amounting to a genocide.

  3. They have appealed to all countries to stop the flow of funds to Uighur organisations. Though they have not mentioned any country by name, many feel that their appeal is directed at the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

29. The Chinese have taken seriously a report disseminated by a Western risk consultancy agency that the branch of Al Qaeda in Algeria has threatened to attack Chinese workers working in Algeria and other countries in retaliation for the death of the Muslims in Urumqi. Even though the authenticity of the report has not yet been established, the Chinese have requested the Governments of Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan and Nigeria, where the maximum number of Chinese are working, to strengthen security for their nationals.

30. The Chinese have two serious concerns — immediate in the context of the alleged threat by the Al Qaeda unit in Algeria and subsequent in the context of what could happen in October when the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China is observed. From comments received by me on my articles from many who claim to be Chinese readers, it seems they are surprised that India, which has been a victim of jihadi violence and terrorism, has remained silent on what happened at Urumqi. There is no reason for us to react at present, whatever be the correct facts.

31. Like the US, China has for many years been a following a policy of double standards with regard to jihadi terrorism– condemning that which is directed at China and maintaining a silence over Pakistan-sponsored jihadi terrorism which is directed at India. There is no reason why we should fight shy of paying them back in their own coin.

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: )

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