China says its crackdown against Muslim separatists in Xinjiang is part of the international campaign against terrorism. Some observers are concerned that China may be using the current war on terrorism as an excuse to expand its own suppression of human rights.
In recent weeks, China has been seeking international sympathy for its crackdown on ethnic Uighurs who want independence for the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, which the Uighurs call East Turkistan.
Chinese officials have briefed foreign reporters about what Beijing says is a direct connection between Uighurs in Xinjiang and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. China says several hundred separatists from Xinjiang have received training in Afghanistan. It says their movement has gotten funding from international terrorist organizations and is responsible for bombings, kidnappings and attacks on Chinese officials.
The Washington director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, Mike Jendrzejczyk, takes issue with China's contention that Uighurs in Xinjiang are getting help from al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan.
"According to intelligence sources, there is some indication that a relatively small number - certainly no more than in the hundreds - of Uighur activists over the years have been trained outside the country, including some of them in training camps in Afghanistan. But this represents a very tiny fraction of the broader movement in Xinjiang, most of which is peaceful, for greater autonomy and greater independence," he said.
Dru Gladney, a specialist on Xinjiang at the University of Hawaii, says there are several overseas Uighur groups - in Europe, Australia and the United States - but it has not been established that they are terrorist groups.
Professor Gladney says no one should have been surprised by China's eager support for the U.S.-led campaign against the al-Qaida network, because earlier this year China had formalized a central Asian regional organization to combat terrorism. He says China is most worried about the Islamic Party of Turkistan, which has been active in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
"This is a very radical group. It had links clearly to Taleban and funding. Osama bin Laden mentioned the struggle for freedom in central Asia," he said.
But Professor Gladney says Uighurs in Xinjiang are not organized into a single separatist movement. He also says China has never produced evidence that Uighur separatists are behind the various violent incidents that have occured in China.
"Even by China's own reckoning and admission, the incidents have been rather small - the occasional bus bombing, a police station was attacked at one point, but mostly sort of impromptu ethnic riots, nothing well coordinated. And interestingly enough, never have there been any infrastructures attacked - no bridges, no rail lines, no oil refineries - all of which would be easy targets for a well-coordinated separatist group," he said.
Central Asia specialist Peter Sinnott, a professor at Columbia University, says the unrest in Xinjiang generally has been in spontaneous reaction to Chinese policies in the region.
"I don't think there is a unified separatist movement. I think there is a unified idea of a need for great social change and for redress.... I think there is this sense of generations of repression, generations of being told that their culture is inferior and being told that the only way for social mobility was to learn Chinese and to become as Chinese as possible," he said.
A recent Human Rights Watch report says China has arbitrarily arrested many Uighurs not involved in separatist activities and taken other actions, such as closing mosques, schools and Uighur-owned enterprises as part of the so-called Strike Hard campaign launched in 1996. Mike Jendrzejczyk says the crackdown goes beyond just those involved in violence.
"Clearly the Chinese government has legitimate security concerns, and it also has criminal laws that it can use to prosecute people that may be involved in any way supporting or actively engaged in violent activity. But what China has done instead is launch a very broad crackdown on activity virtually of all kinds in Xinjiang that it believes in any way connect to pro-autonomy or pro-separatist sentiments and movements. And that's precisely the problem," he said.
An East Turkistan information center in Germany says China has detained more than 3,000 Uighurs since the September 11 attacks in the United States. Dru Gladney says such numbers are hard to verify. But Peter Sinnott says China now seems to feel it can do whatever it deems necessary in the name of combating terrorism.
"They feel they have a green light to continue to do more so as they want. Very few in the West have noted how severe some of these arrest campaigns have been nor of the torture, nor of the disappearance of thousands of Uighurs in Xinjiang provinces. So, I think now they're not only maintaining their high level arrests, especially on the religious level, but I think at the same time, the other part of their campaign is to go to the West and say: 'In doing this, we're fighting the same terrorists that you are.' In other words, 'We are fighting the al-Qaida organization, exactly by arresting our own Uighurs,'" Mr. Gladney explains.
During a recent visit to Beijing the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, expressed concern about the rising number of complaints of torture and ill treatment especially among Uighurs in Xinjiang. She urged China not to use the war on terrorism as an excuse to infringe on human rights.