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China Seeks Outside Help Against Uighur Separatists

Ethnic Uighurs look on as Chinese security forces stand by the entrance to the Uighurs neighborhood in Urumqi in China's Xinjiang autonomous region, July 8, 2009 (file photo)

China is calling for the international community to help fight what it calls a homegrown terrorist problem in mostly Muslim Xinjiang. The Chinese government accuses the region’s Uighur minority population of seeking independence through violence, while the Uighurs blame Beijing for suppressing their culture and religion. China is already carrying-out counterterrorism-style drills with forces from neighboring countries in Xinjiang.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu says China is among terrorism’s many victims. “Terrorism is the public enemy of the international community. China has always opposed any form of terrorism and actively participates in the international fight against terrorism.”

Although international terror groups like al Qaida have not specifically targeted China, Jiang pointed to Uighur Muslim separatists, who have committed small-scale acts of violence in far northwestern Xinjiang. Earlier this month, Chinese forces joined troops from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in counterterrorism drills in Xinjiang. The drills included searching for separatist fighters.

For many people in the Chinese public, it is not hard to see links between international terrorists and separatists - especially activists in restive Chinese minority regions, like Tibet and Xinjiang, which many Chinese refer to as East Turkestan.

Beijing resident Wu Songgang is one of them.

“Al Qaida is related to East Turkestan and terrorist groups in Xinjiang and Tibet, which pose a great threat to our border security and sovereignty,” said Wu.

This is exactly what Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti sees as a problem - the Chinese government using the fight against terrorism as a reason to crack down even harder on a minority group that already is feeling oppressed. He said there are no links between Uighur activists in Xinjiang and international terrorists groups like al Qaida.

“Those people who think they can connect Osama bin Laden to the Uighurs should just shut their mouths if they are smart enough,” he said.

Tohti blames Chinese media for helping to use the death of bin Laden to “kidnap” the Uighur issue and stoke more popular anti-Uighur sentiment. He acknowledges that some Uighurs have extreme views and even have extreme methods - but he said many of his fellow Uighurs feel they are being unfairly held accountable for a few bad actors.