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POLITICS-CHINA: Tough Policy in Xinjiang Backfires

Analysis by Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Aug 13 2008 (IPS) - China’s success in eliminating clusters of Muslim insurgencies in the western province of Xinjiang may have pushed an alleged separatist movement across the border into Pakistan and Afghanistan, exposing it to greater influences by jihadist groups in those countries.

Uighurs claim the development of the railways was aimed at increasing the exploitation of Xinjiang province by China. Credit: World Uighur Network News

Uighurs claim the development of the railways was aimed at increasing the exploitation of Xinjiang province by China. Credit: World Uighur Network News

With the Olympics well underway in Beijing, the Muslim majority province of Xinjiang has seen a spat of deadly attacks on government establishments and security personnel. Three violent incidents over the last 10 days have been interspersed with the release of two videos threatening the Beijing Olympics. In the latest assault, which took place on Tuesday near the border city of Kashgar, three security staff manning a road checkpoint were stabbed to death.

"Since the beginning of this year we have seen the deployment of some new tactics by insurgents," says Prof. Chu Shulong, head of the Institute for International Strategic Studies at Qinghua University. "They are no longer targeting civilians by planting bombs on buses as they did in the 1990s but attacking government personnel, army and the police. This is aimed at winning the general population on their side."

While difficult to be independently verified, the incidents showed a high-level of coordination, creating a thread of unrest in southern Xinjiang through a series of bombings and armed assaults. In one incident two attackers rammed a truck into a group of police in the city of Kashgar and then attacked them with knives and homemade grenades, killing 16. Another attack followed several days later, with bombers hitting 17 targets, including a police station and a government building in the city of Kuqa.

No group has claimed responsibility. Li Wei, China authority on terrorism issues, has blamed the attacks on the East Turkestan movement, a group that China alleges is engaged in separatist activities seeking to establish an independent state. But the online appearance of two videotaped threats against the Beijing Olympics has been linked to the Turkestan Islamic Party – a group experts say is an offshoot of the secessionist movement with ties to al-Qaeda.

Resentment against Chinese rule in Xinjiang has flared for years. Many among China’s eight million Uighurs – Turkic people that make up the biggest Muslim group in the region – dream of recreating a fabled "Kashgaria". The short-lived kingdom sprang up after a prolonged Muslim rebellion against the Qing Dynsaty in the mid-19th century. China’s Manchu rulers eventually reconquered the region and in 1884 created Xinjiang (new frontier) province.

Except during the brief existence of the two East Turkestan republics – in mid-1930s and after the end of world war two – the Uighurs have continuously struggled in their quest for national identity, for most part away from the world’s gaze.

But after Sep. 11, China claimed that the al-Qaeda had trained more than 1,000 members of the East Turkestan Independence Movement. Beijing succeeded in placing the group on the terrorist lists of the United States and United Nations and resorted to a hard-line policy aimed at stifling unrest.

Through propaganda and extended security crackdowns the authorities have managed to put a lid on simmering ethnic resentment but recent attacks have sparked fears that tough measures and omnipresent control may have driven more disaffected into joining the ranks of the global Jihad movement.

"China’s success in fighting those terrorists at home has made it impossible for them to survive underground and many are now training abroad," says Chu.

"In 2001 it may have been premature to say that the East Turkestan Independence Movement was part of the global jihad but by now many of its elements have spent so much time in the tribal border areas of Pakistan that we can’t really say for sure what cause they stand for," says John Harrison of the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

However, the coordinated targeting of symbols of the Chinese government in recent attacks shows a shift to tactics used by more traditional insurgent group. "I would say there is less radicalisation than before, " Harrison suggests. "They are trying to show that their actions are aimed at whom they view as their main opponent – the Chinese government".

The continuous violence underscores China’s undying problem with its restive ethnic minorities in far-flung regions like Xinijang and Tibet.

Chinese leaders like to take credit for developing the border regions but Beijing’s increasingly tight control on all aspects of life of minorities, including religious belief and cultural identity, have bred resentment.

China’s most recent drive to assert control over the resource-rich Xinjiang region, through the "Go West" campaign, has spurred new investment and a wave of Han Chinese immigration, which has alienated the Uighurs. In 1949 when the communist party came to power, the Uighurs were 90 percent of the population of Xinjiang. Today they account for less than half.

This week, the government defended its record in the province. Mu Tielifuhasimu, commissioner of the region’s administration, said the majority of Uighurs are happy in Xinjiang and enjoy the freedom to practice their religion. "The overall situation is extremely good," he told a press conference.

Meanwhile in Beijing, state councilor Meng Jianzhu was meeting with Rehman Malik, adviser to the Pakistani prime minister on interior affairs and asking for more support from Islamabad in fighting terrorism. President Musharraf had admitted earlier that there were a number of Uighur rebels from Xinjiang undergoing terrorist training in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

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