Beijing's domestic war against terrorism has gone global. In September, the U.S. joined China in asking the United Nations Security Council to add to the U.N.'s terrorist list an obscure Uighur group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a target of Beijing's war against "ethnic splittists, religious extremists and violent terrorists." And Chinese President Jiang Zemin's recent summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin was capped by pledges of mutual support to crush Muslim separatists in Xinjiang and Chechnya.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, China has tried to use the terrorism issue to bolster its domestic political agenda. Its greatest accomplishment was moving the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush from a position of unqualified criticism of China's crackdown on ethnic minorities to taking actions that indirectly lend legitimacy to Beijing's policies. But the Bush administration is now increasingly concerned about China's diplomatic offensive, as Beijing uses the U.S. decision on ETIM to justify a broad crackdown on peaceful Uighur dissent and Muslim religious activities -- a crackdown that long predates Sept. 11.
In August, the U.S. put ETIM on its own terrorist list, ordering the freezing of its assets. Most significantly, Washington gave credence to China's claims that organizations such as ETIM have links with al Qaeda. A U.S. State Department counterterrorism official said that ETIM has "more recently become al Qaeda-linked and now operates outside of China." Washington also claimed it had intelligence data indicating the group was planning attacks on American interests in Central Asia.
This week's extraordinary visit to Xinjiang by the top U.S. human-rights official from Washington is clearly an effort at damage control. Lorne Craner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights, is due to travel to Xinjiang on Wednesday to give a speech at a university in Urumqi, the region's capital, and to meet with local Chinese officials. But sending an American diplomat to Xinjiang to give a speech is not enough. The U.S. must do much more to maintain any credibility in its China policy.
Mr. Craner is in Beijing today and tomorrow for the latest round in the U.S.-China bilateral human-rights dialogue, a largely pro-forma exercise underway for more than a decade. The U.S. dialogue -- and similar human-rights talks with the European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia and other governments -- has produced some information on political prisoners and a few prisoner releases, but no major changes in Chinese government policy. Both sides can claim progress is being made, and China prefers to discuss human rights behind closed doors. But the severe human-rights conditions in Xinjiang require a tougher approach.
The far northwestern province has a population of 18 million and numerous Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups; the Uighurs, numbering eight million, are the largest. Much like Tibetans, they've struggled to maintain their cultural and ethnic identity as Xinjiang has undergone a transformation with the influx of ethnic Han Chinese; the Han population is now about 7.5 million.
There has long been a strong movement, with roots inside Xinjiang and among exiled Uighurs, opposing Chinese rule. Most groups support using peaceful means to achieve "real autonomy" or independence. There have been some violent incidents. The most dramatic took place in February 1997, when large-scale riots broke out in the town of Yining when Chinese security forces brutally suppressed a peaceful protest. Following the riots, authorities closed mosques and religious schools, rounded up suspected activists and staged sentencing rallies across the region. A month later, two bombs exploded on public buses in Urumqi, killing civilians.
Since then, there have been scattered attacks on Chinese troops, security officials, political leaders and police. Although some individual Uighurs went to Afghanistan to fightwith the Taliban, there is no clear evidence that key Uighur separatist groups receive support from external Islamic networks. Human Rights Watch has no independent information on ETIM and its alleged links to al Qaeda.
Those who commit violence should be prosecuted under appropriate laws, with full due process and legal safeguards. But in Xinjiang Chinese authorities are ruthless in suppressing virtually all forms of dissent, not distinguishing between peaceful and violent activities. President Jiang Zemin visited Xinjiang in August 1998 and called for a "people's war" against separatists. The nationwide "Strike Hard" anticrime campaign, launched in April 2001, has been waged in Xinjiang with a vengeance. Officials have carried out widespread arbitrary arrests, shut down places of worship, restricted traditional religious activities and sentenced thousands of people to harsh prison terms or death after unfair and often summary trials.
Muslim religious activities are controlled. Students at state schools and universities are not allowed to pray, fast during Ramadan or carry out other open religious activity. Earlier this year, officials ordered increased surveillance of Muslim weddings, funerals and circumcisions. Some have been arrested for translating the Koran into local languages. These actions are clearly counterproductive, increasing resentment of Chinese control.
President Bush spoke out against China's crackdown on minorities when he met with President Jiang in Crawford, Texas, in October. Mr. Bush publicly warned that "no nation's efforts to counter terrorism should be used to justify suppressing minorities or silencing peaceful dissent." But now the administration must back up those words with action.
Mr. Craner should tell China that the U.S. will work with other governments at the highest levels to push a resolution on China's dismal human-rights record at next year's annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. He should call on China to open up Xinjiang to international trial observers and to allow unrestricted access to U.N. and private human-rights experts.
Both Mr. Craner and President Bush should press for the immediate release of Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent Uighur businesswoman sentenced to eight years in prison in March 2000 for sending newspaper articles to her husband in the U.S. She was detained on her way to meet with a congressional staff delegation visiting Urumqi. The U.S. Congress has repeatedly called for her release.
The State Department should also make public a long list of political prisoners -- including Uighurs, Tibetans, pro-democracy activists and others -- it has presented to Chinese officials. The administration must not allow China to use the war against terrorism to boost its policies of repression. Xinjiang is an important test of U.S. willingness to show it's serious about defending human-rights principles.
Mike Jendrzejczyk is Washington D.C. Director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.