BBC BLOGS - James Reynolds' China
« Previous | Main | Next »

Xinjiang in mind

Post categories:

James Reynolds | 14:49 UK time, Monday, 16 June 2008

An Uighur Muslim woman at a market in UrumqiThe Olympic torch is coming to China's Xinjiang province - a region in the west of the country that borders Russia, Afghanistan and six other countries. Xinjiang is home to a large ethnic minority - around eight million Uighur people, who are Muslim.

The Chinese government has Xinjiang on its mind. Here's why...

First of all, a quote: "Although the general security situation for the Beijing Olympics remains stable, we still face the challenges of terrorism, separatism and extremism... terrorism, in particular, poses the biggest threat." - Zhou Yongkang, Minister of Public Security, 10 September 2007.

Now, a few events:

27 January 2008: Two militants are killed and 15 arrested in a raid in Urumqi, the capital of China's western Xinjiang province.

"Obviously, the gang had planned an attack targeting the Olympics,'' says Wang Lequan, Xinjiang's Communist Party chief.

7 March 2008: China Southern flight CZ6901 from Urumqi to Beijing makes an emergency landing in Lanzhou. China says air stewards stopped an attempted hijacking.

"The Olympic Games slated for this August is a big event, but there are always people who conspire to commit sabotage. Those terrorists, saboteurs, and secessionists are to be battered resolutely, no matter what ethnic group they are from," says Wang Lequan.

10 April 2008: The government says that security forces have detained 35 suspects and seized explosives and firearms in raids carried out in Urumqi. It says that security forces broke up plots to carry out suicide bombings and kidnap athletes during the Olympics.

"We face a real terrorist threat," says government spokesman Wu Heping.

Security forces amid heightened security on People's SquareSo that's the government's view: China is facing a serious terrorist threat - and this threat comes from where I'm writing these words - the Xinjiang province.

China says that a militant group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is trying to break Xinjiang away from China (in order to form an independent state which would be called East Turkestan). China says this group is allied to al-Qaeda. It blames this movement, and other Uighur separatists, for attacks which killed more than 160 people between 1990 and 2001.

Because of this, China is keeping a close eye on progress of the torch relay through this province. We've just spoken to one shopkeeper here in the capital city of Urumqi - the relay will go right past her stall. She's been given a notice by the local government. This is what it says (our translation from the Chinese):

"All residents in this area, please shut all your windows from 7am till 2pm on 17 June. [the time of the torch relay] It is strictly forbidden to lean out of the window or to walk around near the window. Please stay in your home and watch the TV coverage - don't go out in the street. If you don't co-operate you will be punished in accordance with the law."

No unvetted onlookers, then. And the police are already keeping an eye on the streets. When my colleagues and I went out onto the street to test some of our broadcasting equipment, we were quickly approached by a plain clothes police officer who wanted to know what we were doing (we showed him our press passes and he let us carry on).

A couple pass police in People's SquareBut it's worth saying that Urumqi itself feels very calm - shops are open, cars are on the road, volunteers on the street are selling Olympic flags (one yuan for a small flag, two yuan for a big flag), right now I can look out of the window and watch people wandering into a fast-food restaurant.

So, here's a question which is easy to ask and much harder to answer: how real is the threat that China faces? We know almost nothing about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. We don't know who its leader is, now how many members it has. It doesn't appear to post messages on the internet. Some believe the threat posed by this group has been exaggerated.

This is what Amnesty International says: "Concerns remain that the authorities may be overstating the 'terrorist' threat in an attempt to justify their tough security stance in Beijing, or even divert international attention away from the ongoing crackdown on peaceful activists."

A number of groups have documented discrimination against the Uighur people. In a report, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China says that religious restrictions on Uighurs remain severe. The Commission reports increased control over Muslim pilgrimages and vetting of the content of sermons.

The World Uighur Congress, which campaigns from outside China, says this: "In the run up to the Olympic Games, the Chinese government has stepped up its heavy-handed policies to suppress the resistance of Uighurs against Chinese rule, no matter how peaceful it is. Uighurs are still living in a culture of fear, facing persecution, marginalization and assimilation that erode the very core of cultural identity, religious belief and economic rights of Uighurs."

This is a hard story to cover.

But we'll report on what we see in Xinjiang during the torch relay.


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.