China, Russia, and four Central Asian nations have ended a two-day summit in Moscow, pledging to strengthen their cooperation in combating terrorism, separatism, and extremism. The group, called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, decided to set up a regional anti-terrorist center in the Kyrgyz capital. Some observers say that for China, the Central Asian group is a way to coordinate efforts to stop separatist activity in its western region of Xinjiang.
Just before this week's meeting of Central Asian leaders in Moscow, the Chinese government issued a report about Xinjiang, a predominantly Muslim area in western China populated by diverse ethnic groups. It provides a long description of the region's history and economic development.
The document says Xinjiang has been part of China since ancient times. It says for the past decade, ethnic Uighurs who advocate the territory's independence under the name East Turkistan have used terrorist violence to try to achieve their goal. The Chinese report says the separatists are influenced by religious extremism and international terrorism, use the banner of human rights and religious freedom, and fabricate claims that China is oppressing ethnic minorities.
Stanley Toops, a professor of geography at Miami University of Ohio, is a specialist on the Xinjiang region. He says China wanted to establish its position on Xinjiang in advance of President Hu Jintao's trip to Russia. Professor Toops says China changed its characterization of the unrest in Xinjiang after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
"Since 9-11, I think the People's Republic of China has utilized the anti-terrorism rhetoric of other countries, Russia and the United States as well, to in some ways legitimate the activities of the state within East Turkistan, within Xinjiang," he said. "In China's case, to look at where terrorism exists, they will point out places like Tibet or Xinjiang. But I think it's difficult to call people there terrorists." The president of the Uighur American Association, Alim Seytoff, says he was surprised that China would issue a report specifically on Xinjiang. He says China apparently wants to gain international support for its claim to Xinjiang.
"We assume that China is trying to justify its illegitimate occupation of this country by citing distorted historical accounts and by saying this territory belonged to China since ancient times, without any clarification of the word 'ancient times,'" he said. "And trying to justify its occupation and trying to inform the world that the Uighur cause is illegitimate, it is not a just cause, and the Uighur demand is not in the context of international law."
Mr. Seytoff says Xinjiang, or East Turkistan, was occupied over the centuries by the same groups that at various times occupied China, such as the Mongols and the Manchus. And he says it does not make sense for today's People's Republic of China to claim the area as part of communist China.
"It is more like the Mongolian government, today's Mongolian goverment, claiming all the territories occupied by the Mongol empire of Genghis Kahn as historic Mongol territory since ancient times," he said. "It is like today's Greek government claiming all territories occupied by Alexander the Great is part of Greece since ancient times. Or more like the Turks claiming all the territories occupied by the Ottomans as historically part of Turkey's territories. It is the same thing that China is claiming."
A few days before the Moscow meeting, the Munich-based East Turkistan National Congress, an umbrella organization of Uighur groups in exile, sent a letter to the presidents of Russia and the four Central Asia countries. It urged them to raise the issue of human rights abuses in Uighur areas of China.
Mr. Seytoff says he never expected that to happen, because, in his words, the Shanghai group supports China in suppressing the Uighurs. "Under Chinese pressure, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan and Uzbekistan have been suppressing the Uighur dissidents in their respective countries and sending them back," he said. "They see the Uighur movement both in East Turkistan and central Asia more as a destabilizing factor than any kind of human rights issue."
Professor Toops agrees that other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization do not see it in their interest to call for an investigation of Chinese human rights practices. "I think this Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a way for those countries to maintain the ties with China, perhaps gain some economic benefit," he said. "That is really what they are hoping for, and at the same time forestall any kind of overt Chinese influence within the region."
Moreover, Professor Toops says, if there were an investigation into human rights in Xinjiang, one might then want to examine Russia's actions in Chechnya or Uzbekistan's handling of Islamic insurgents.
Professor Toops says China's crackdown on Uighur separatists has strengthened the resolve of Uighur groups in exile. But he says the East Turkistan activists do not have a figure such as the Dalai Lama, a Nobel peace prize recipient who has been able to attract worldwide interest in the Tibetan cause.
Alim Seytoff says China has lost the global public relations battle over Tibet and is determined not to lose international public opinion on Xinjiang.
"What China is trying to do is try to convince the international community that Uighurs do not have a legitimate case here unlike the Tibetans, because the Tibetans have already proven they have a legitimate case, and the international community already accepts the claims made by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile," she said. "Whereas in the Uighur case, we do not have that yet."
Two representatives of the Dalai Lama are currently visiting China, the second such trip since last September when Beijing and the Tibetan government in exile re-established contact after a nine-year gap.