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II. Background

Located in the farthest northwest corner of China, Xinjiang was first formally incorporated into the Chinese empire in 1884. Bordered by eight central Asian countries, in many ways it remains a remote outpost of the People’s Republic of China, lagging in many socio-economic indicators and sharing few cultural or historical ties with Beijing. 

Xinjiang is the only Chinese province or “autonomous” region with a Muslim majority. Indeed, along with Tibet it is the only administrative region in China in which ethnic Chinese still constitute a minority. 

The non-Chinese population of Xinjiang of approximately nine million is almost entirely Muslim. The overwhelming majority of this group, approximately eight million, are Uighurs.

Chinese domination of Xinjiang has never been fully accepted. This is particularly true among Uighurs. A major source of tension has been the large migration of ethnic Chinese to Xinjiang, which many non-Chinese believe has had disastrous effects on local culture, language, and traditions. Many non-Chinese say that as a result they fear being overrun culturally, economically, and politically by ethnic Chinese. Many assert that this is the aim of Chinese state policy. 

To understand the way that China has attempted to equate independent Uighur culture and religion with separatism, and by extension with “terrorism,” it is useful to understand the history of the region. The following summary includes a study of China’s efforts to economically integrate the area, the role of Islam in Uighur identity, and instances of violent resistance to Chinese rule and government crackdowns.

The political identity of Xinjiang

The ancestors of the Uighur people were most likely nomadic tribes originating from Mongolia who settled in the oases of the Tarim basin (the southern half of Xinjiang) around the seventh century. They were gradually converted to Islam from the tenth to the seventeenth century. The region was formally annexed to the Manchu Qing Empire in 1759, but effective control was loose due to the numerous uprisings that regularly shook the region. From 1866 to 1876, Xinjiang was under the rule of the Kashgar-based warlord Yakub Beg, before being reconquered in 1877 by the Qing troops and integrated formally into the empire as their “New Dominion,” Xinjiang [新疆], in 1884. The fall of the Qing Empire in 1911 opened an era of rule by competing local warlords.

In 1944, a Soviet-backed independent East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was set up in the three western districts of Yili, Tacheng, and Ashan, with Yining as the capital. In 1947, it joined in a formal government with the nationalist forces controlling the rest of Xinjiang.

As the outcome of the Chinese civil war turned to the advantage of the Chinese Communists, Stalin, who had little interest in supporting a Muslim nationalist regime in the backyard of his own Central Asian Soviet republics, pressed for negotiations between the East Turkestan Republic and the Chinese Communist Party for a peaceful takeover of Xinjiang. The plane carrying the East Turkestan representatives on their way to Beijing in August 1949 for the negotiations crashed, killing all the occupants in circumstances that have led to widespread suspicion. This removed the local nationalist leaders from the scene and made way for the incorporation of Xinjiang into the newly born People’s Republic of China.

Beijing immediately started a policy of large-scale migration into the region, and the proportion of ethnic Chinese increased from 6 percent in 1949 to 41.5 percent by the time of Mao’s death in 1976. The relative liberalization of the 1980s initiated by Deng Xiaoping’s “Opening and Reform” allowed for greater autonomy for Xinjiang. This included respect for certain cultural and religious practices. Ancient mosques were restored and new ones built, cultural traditions that had gone underground resurfaced, and individual economic activities were tolerated again. The number of Chinese cadre and personnel stationed in Xinjiang began to decrease, and by the end of the 1980s, the share of the Chinese population had dropped to 37.5 percent. In the 1990s, however, through a combination of economic and land ownership incentives, Beijing engineered a rapid acceleration of the ethnic Chinese influx to Xinjiang. About 1.2 million people settled in Xinjiang during the decade, pushing the proportion of the ethnic Chinese population to 40 percent of the total of some 18.5 million people at present.4

Ethnic Chinese migrants have tended to benefit from the economic development of Xinjiang to a far greater degree than Uighurs, a source of much tension. Profound socio-economic disparities between Uighurs and Chinese are reflected in the fact that the former have on average about ten years less life expectancy than the Chinese settlers in the region.5

Uighur Islam

The Uighurs have long practiced a moderate, traditional form of Sunni Islam, strongly infused with the folklore and traditions of a rural, oasis-dwelling population. Today most Uighurs still live in rural communities, although large cities have emerged in the region. Their history as commercial and cultural brokers between the different people connected by the Silk Road (through which Buddhism was introduced to China from India two millennia ago) gave rise to a markedly tolerant and open version of Muslim faith and a rich intellectual tradition of literature, science, and music. Nineteenth-century travelers to Kashgar noted that women enjoyed many freedoms, such as the right to initiate divorce and run businesses on their own

Sufism, a deeply mystical tradition of Islam revolving around the cult of particular saints and transmitted from master to disciples, has also had a long historical presence in Xinjiang. In daily life, Islam represents a source of personal and social values, and provides a vocabulary for talking about aspirations and grievances. The imam is traditionally a mediator and a moderator of village life, and performs many social functions as well as religious ones. 

As the borders of Xinjiang became more porous in the 1980s, a number of young Uighurs went clandestinely to Pakistan to receive the religious education they could not obtain under China’s policies. Upon their return, they enjoyed great prestige due to their ventures abroad and their knowledge of Koranic theology, far beyond that typical among local imams. Small-scale, localized underground religious organizations started to emerge. A long history of tension and opposition to Chinese domination already existed (see below). In this period it began to take on an Islamic color. 

There is no evidence that Salafism, the radical Islamic ideology connected to many jihadist movements around the world, has taken root to any significant extent in Xinjiang. Proponents of rebellion against Chinese rule have used the vocabulary of Islam and religious grievances against Beijing to justify their actions. These are not, however, mainstream views.

Recent reports suggest that Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), a movement which advocates the establishment of a pan-Central Asian caliphate and whose headquarters is located in London, has recently made inroads in Southern Xinjiang, but it has so far never advocated violence. Hizb ut-Tahrir is the object of rigorous repression in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. It remains illegal in China.

A history of restiveness

There has long been strong Uighur objection to Chinese rule in Xinjiang. In the middle of the twentieth century, as noted above, the western part of the region enjoyed independence as the Soviet-aligned East Turkestan Republic and effective control by China was not achieved until shortly after the establishment of the communist state in 1949. As a result, memories of a distinct political and administrative identity are strong in certain areas and among certain sections of the community.

A pan-Turkic ideology inspired the brief life of the modern independent state and, today, the political views of various Uighur groups based in Central Asia or farther afield in Turkey, Germany, and even the United States, remain mainly of pan-Turkic inspiration. These organizations in most cases have secular and democratic aspirations. They come from conventional political traditions and have not supported the use of violence for their objectives, whether for the achievement of “real autonomy” or “independence” for the country they still call East Turkestan. In Xinjiang itself, no unified movement has surfaced. In fact, for reasons of language, geography, and religion (Xinjiang's different Muslim ethnic groups of Kazakhs, Mongols, Tajiks, Chinese-speaking Hui, and Uighurs have distinct places of worship––Hui Mosques, Uighur Mosques, etc.), this is complicated and unlikely. Even if the groups themselves had the will to join forces, Chinese restrictions on freedom of assembly, the formation of independent organizations, and the publication or circulation of political and cultural materials would make it all but impossible for these groups to acquire a broad base of support or to take on any collective form. No opposition groups are allowed to exist in any public form.

However, a number of small opposition groups are known to exist secretly.6 They tend to gravitate around two geographic poles: Yining and the Yili valley, in the western part of Xinjiang close to the border with Kazakhstan, and Kashgar and Hetian, in southern Xinjiang. The opposition groups that are present in the southern part of Xinjiang, notably in the Kashgar and Hetian areas, are thought to be more oriented towards the incorporation of religious ideals within their political programs. Some small groups have advocated the establishment of an Islamic state in Xinjiang and reject Chinese sovereignty.

The pro-independence groups in Xinjiang are overwhelmingly ethno-nationalist movements––that is, they are articulated along ethnic lines, not religious ones. This appears to be the case among both religious and secular groups.

The turning point––unrest in 1990, stricter controls from Beijing

In 1990 a major, Islamic-inspired insurrection in Baren county, northwest of Kashgar, led China to launch a long-term strategy to assert tighter control over Uighur society. Until then, Xinjiang had remained a distant indigenous periphery. But for Beijing this challenge to the state was the turning point in its policies towards the Uighurs and Xinjiang.

China’s reaction was linked to major changes in regional and world politics: the loss of control by Moscow of its eastern European satellites and the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and emergence of the new central Asian republics. China feared that Uighur ethno-nationalist aspirations in Xinjiang could be stirred up by the example of––and possible support from––the newly independent central Asian people across its borders.

Beijing then launched an ambitious plan to accelerate the integration of Xinjiang with China by stepping up ethnic Chinese migration to Xinjiang. At the same time, it committed major resources to economic growth in Xinjiang, chiefly through the exploitation of Xinjiang's natural resources, above all oil and gas. These policies coincided with impressive economic growth in China, which made it possible to commit the capital and labor to carry them out. This led to tremendous changes in Xinjiang, as new roads, industries, cities, and waves of new migration ensued. The political calculus in Beijing was straightforward: in the 1990s many Chinese policy makers took the view that economic development reduces local nationalism and aids national integration. The transfer of ethnic Chinese labor was and is still seen widely in Chinese policy making circles as aiding political integration and ultimately removing reasons for political unrest. These polices in fact may have exacerbated political tensions because of a predictable local reaction to mass migration and the fact that many of the economic gains were unevenly distributed and favored the Han segment of the population. Uighurs felt increasingly marginalized and left behind.

These tensions became evident in February 1997 when a number of residents of Yining, a town fifty kilometers from the Kazakh border, staged a demonstration to protest Chinese policies in Xinjiang, in particular, restrictions on religious and cultural activities, as well as the migration of Chinese settlers to the region. The protesters requested that the provisions of the legislative autonomy regulations that govern all ethnic minority regions in China be respected. These guarantee the right of minority nationality populations to set up “organs of self-government,” as well as to retain some control over their local affairs and economic resources.7

The protest was peaceful. However, the security forces, composed of the Public Security Bureau and the People’s Armed Police, brutally put down the protest and shot a number of unarmed demonstrators. Three days of rioting followed. This led to further harsh reactions by the authorities. Casualty figures for the Yining riots vary depending on the source, but a conservative estimate suggests that nine people died and hundreds were injured.

In subsequent weeks, the authorities responded with arrests of thousands of Uighurs. Suspected activists were rounded up and public sentencing rallies were held across the region. The government also instituted new, far-reaching policies focused on religion as a supposed source of opposition. Mosques and religious schools were closed down.

A month later, in March 1997, separatists detonated bombs simultaneously on three public buses in the provincial capital of Urumqi, killing nine and seriously wounding sixty-eight. This is the only known occasion in recent decades when Uighur activists are known to have attacked civilians indiscriminately. Subsequently, attacks were also carried out on police stations, military installations, and individual political leaders.

Among the actions attributed to separatist forces include the August 1998 wounding of a prison official in Kashgar by a booby trap package placed on his doorstep. Also in August 1998 two prisons in Yining prefecture were attacked by an armed group. Nine prison guards were killed; eighty prisoners managed to escape. Eighteen prisoners allegedly managed to flee to Kazakhstan according to the Hong Kong daily newspaper Ming Pao.8 Despite the indisputably violent character of these incidents, government claims that the 1990s witnessed an escalation of violence are not accepted by all independent observers. For instance, the historian and Xinjiang expert James Millward writes that:

Although the relatively few large-scale incidents in the 1990s were better publicized than those of the 1980s, they were not necessarily bigger or more threatening to the state. There have been, moreover, few incidents of anti-state violence––none large-scale––since early 1998. And none of them since the 1997 Urumqi bus bombings, alleged to be the work of Uighur terrorists, have targeted civilians.9

Post 9/11: labeling Uighurs terrorists

Although the Xinjiang authorities began to publicly acknowledge anti-state violence in Xinjiang in the mid-1990s, they generally suggested that it was carried out only by “a handful of separatists” and stressed that the region was stable and prosperous. In early September 2001, the Xinjiang authorities had stressed that “by no means is Xinjiang a place where violence and terrorist accidents take place very often,” and that the situation there was “better than ever in history.” 10

However, immediately after the September 11 attacks on the United States, the authorities reversed their stance. For the first time they asserted that opposition in Xinjiang was connected to international terrorism. They also asserted that in some cases the movement had connections to Osama bin Laden himself. China claimed that “Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan had provided the ‘Eastern Turkestan’ terrorist organizations with equipment and financial resources and trained their personnel,” and that one particular organization, the “Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM) was a “major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.”11

By October the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman declared that, as “a victim of international terrorism,” China hoped that “efforts to fight against East Turkestan terrorist forces should become a part of the international efforts and should also win support and understanding.”12

On November 12, 2001, China told the U.N. Security Council that anti-state Uighur groups had links with the Taliban in Afghanistan and claimed that they were supported from abroad by radical Islamist organizations. Siding with the U.S. in the new “global war against terrorism,” the Chinese government initiated an active diplomatic and propaganda campaign against “East Turkestan terrorist forces.” This label was henceforth to be applied indiscriminately to any Uighur suspected of separatist activities. There has been no sign of any attempt by the Chinese authorities to distinguish between peaceful political activists, peaceful separatists, and those advocating or using violence.

In its efforts to win support for its post-September 11 equation of Uighur separatism with international terrorism, China has released a number of documents describing in some detail the alleged activities of Uighur terrorists groups in China. The first of these was published by the Information Office of the PRC State Council in January 2002, under the title: “East Turkestan Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity.” 13 It offers the most comprehensive account to date of anti-state violence in Xinjiang and provides a catalog of violent acts allegedly committed by separatist groups in Xinjiang over the past decade. The document asserts that “East Turkestan terrorist forces” had conducted “a campaign of bombing and assassinations” consisting of more than 200 incidents resulting in 162 deaths and 440 people injured over the preceding decade.14 This was the first time the Chinese authorities provided detailed specifics about violence in Xinjiang. The document also asserted that Uighur organizations responsible for the violence had received training and funding from Pakistan and Afghanistan, including direct financing from Osama bin Laden himself.15

The document has a highly charged ideological tone and contains numerous inconsistencies. It also lacks any independent intelligence to support its conclusions.16 In particular, the central claim that all instances of anti-state violence, and all “separatist groups,” originated from a single “East Turkestan terrorist organization” runs counter to known intelligence about the situation in Xinjiang. Even more problematic are the inconsistencies in the account of specific acts of violence within the document itself.

Human Rights Watch has no way of corroborating or disproving the incidents alleged in the January 2002 report. But as James Millward has written in his monograph, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment:

[There] are problems in the document’s treatment of events in the 1990s. While its preface claims that terrorist acts killed 162 (and injured 440) over the past decade, the document itself enumerates only 57 deaths. Most of these people died in small-scale incidents with only one or two victims. The selection criteria for including these incidents, as well as many that resulted in no deaths, while excluding acts that led to the remaining 105 deaths are unclear. But if we are safe in assuming that the document likely mentions all spectacular acts of separatist violence, including those involving high loss of life, then we are left to conclude that over a hundred deaths from “terrorism”––nearly two-thirds the claimed total––occurred in small-scale or even individual attacks. Though definitions of terrorism are notoriously arbitrary, it seems legitimate to question what makes the unlisted acts “terrorist” or “separatist” as opposed to simply criminal.17

In December 2003, the Chinese government released a second report designed to legitimize its policies in Xinjiang and to enlist the support of the international community. The document listing “East Turkestan terrorist groups and individuals” was issued by the Ministry of Public Security and gave the names of four “Eastern Turkestan” terrorist organizations and eleven individual members of these groups, and called for international support to stop their activities, including a request for Interpol to issue arrest warrants.18 The document points to the presence of Chinese Uighurs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including some among the Taliban forces. It suggests that all Uighur opposition to Chinese domination, including non-violent resistance, is connected to international radical-Islamic terrorism.

Literature becomes sabotage

Chinese authorities have not produced extensive evidence of specific activities carried out by what it has termed “terrorist forces” in Xinjiang over the past few years. Instead, Chinese authorities now argue that “separatist thought” is the new approach followed by dissident organizations that previously used violent tactics. This argument allows the authorities to accuse a dissenting writer or a non-violent group advocating minority rights of terrorist intentions and crimes.

The alleged link between terrorist organizations and the ideological content of publications surfaced immediately after September 11:

“Xinjiang independence elements have changed their combat tactics since the September 11 incident,” stated a high-ranking Xinjiang official. “They have focused on attacking China on the ideological front instead of using their former frequent practice of engaging in violent terrorist operations.”19

The official charged that those using “literary means” and “arts and literature” to “distort historical facts” were the same people responsible for “violent terrorist operations” in the

past. He accused them of “taking advantage of art and literature to tout the products of opposition to the people and to the masses and of advocating ethnic splittist thinking.”

In February 2002, the Xinjiang Party Secretary instructed the local authorities to crack down on these “separatist techniques” and detailed the “forms of infiltration and sabotage carried out in the ideological sphere by ethnic separatist forces”:20

1. using all sorts of news media to propagate separatist thought;

2. using periodicals, works of literature and art performances; presenting the subject in satires or allegories that give free reign to and disseminate dissatisfaction and propagate separatist thought;

3. illegally printing reactionary books and periodicals; distributing or posting reactionary leaflets, letters and posters; spreading rumors to confuse the people; instilling the public with separatist sentiment;

4. using audio and video recordings, such as audio tapes, CDs or VCDs, to incite religious fanaticism and promote “holy war”;

5. forging alliances with outside separatist and enemy forces, making use of broadcasts, the Internet, and other means to intensify campaigns of reactionary propaganda and infiltration of ideas into public opinion;

6. using popular cultural activities to make the masses receptive to reactionary propaganda encouraging opposition.”21

From the wording of the document, published in the Party’s official newspaper, the Xinjiang Daily, it appears that Xinjiang authorities equate any expression of dissatisfaction (buman qingxu 不满情绪), even metaphorical or ironical, with separatist thought (fenlie sixiang 分裂思想). The term “spreading rumors” (zaoyao 造谣) used in the article is the same as that used in criminal law: “incitement to subvert the political power of the state and overthrow the socialist system by means of spreading rumors, slander or other means” (Article 105), an offense for which the punishment can be life imprisonment. The document asserts that the “expression of dissatisfaction” in works of art is a form of criminal activity and is liable to criminal punishment. Furthermore, the document uses the terms “sabotage” and “infiltration” to characterize such activities, thus reinforcing the idea that they are equivalent to violent action.

The fact that “popular cultural activities” (minjian wenhua huodong 民间文化活动) are denounced as forms of “separatist” activity appears to be aimed at deterring people from engaging in activities that promote their history, culture, or tradition. Ethnic minority individuals and Uighur organizations abroad had complained in the past about similar official attitudes toward legitimate cultural pursuits, but prior to this official pronouncement their allegations had only been supported by circumstantial evidence, not stated explicitly as high-level Party policy.22

Such comments indicate that the Chinese authorities are trying to erase the distinctions among cultural and minority rights activists, pro-independence activists, and those who use violence. This suggests an historical shift: while before September 11, 2001, not all minority rights or cultural rights activists or those on the “ideological front” (which presumably covers all critics of CCP policy) were considered to be terrorists, after September 11 they are, or should be, assumed to be terrorists.  

In effect, China is claiming that terrorists have now become secret peaceful activists, presumably waiting for the right moment to revert to their former methods. This is a very dangerous set of assumptions that can be acted upon by the Chinese or Xinjiang security services at any time to justify arrests, heavy sentences, and the death penalty. 

The case of Tursunjan Emet, a Uighur poet from Urumqi, illustrates this point. On January 1, 2002, Emet recited a poem in Uighur at the end of a concert at the Xinjiang People’s Hall in the capital Urumqi. The Party committee ruled that the poem had an “anti-government” message and labeled the case as an “ethnic separatist crime in the area of the ideological front.”23 The Chairman of the Xinjiang provincial government immediately called for an investigation, vowing to purge all who “openly advocate separatism using the name of art,” and urged cadres to use “politics” as the only standard in judging artistic and literary work. Emet went into hiding immediately after the incident. He was then detained, probably in late January 2002.24 Official Chinese sources have since denied that he was ever detained. Unofficial sources indicate that he was released, some weeks, or possibly months, later.25

In a similar case, on February 2, 2005, the Kashgar Intermediate Court sentenced Uighur author Nurmemet Yasin to ten years imprisonment for publishing a story allegedly “inciting separatism.” In late 2004, Yasin published “The Blue Pigeon” in the Kashgar Literature Journal.26 A month later, he was arrested in Bachu County. His story told of a blue pigeon that traveled far from home. When it returned, different colored pigeons captured him and locked him in a birdcage. Although the other pigeons fed him, the blue pigeon opted to commit suicide rather than remain imprisoned in his hometown.

In part because pro-independence Uighurs use a blue flag, Chinese authorities read the story as referring to Uighur resentment of the government’s policies in Xinjiang. The court tried Yasin in closed hearings; RFA sources claimed he was denied access to a lawyer.

It is therefore now official policy that criticism or minority expression in art and literature can be deemed a disguised form of secessionism, its author a criminal or even “terrorist.”

The international response––acquiescence and quid pro quos

The new Chinese description of the nature and level of violence and separatism in Xinjiang led to a significant change in the international approach to Xinjiang. The U.S. government, keen after September 11 to enlist Chinese support in its efforts against Islamist terrorism, agreed to a Chinese request that it co-sponsor the inclusion of a little-known Uighur organization, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), on the U.N.’s list of terrorist organizations purportedly linked to al-Qaeda and subject to the freezing of assets. Although American officials declared that they had “independent evidence” of such a connection, the State Department press release explaining this decision quoted verbatim a document issued by the Chinese government in 2002 that similarly outlawed ETIM. The U.S. statement even mistakenly attributed all the terrorist incidents described in that document solely to ETIM, a claim that even the Chinese authorities had not made.27

The “independent evidence” referred to by the State Department appears to have originated from the arrest a few weeks earlier in Kyrgyzstan of a group of Uighurs who were allegedly planning an attack on the U.S. embassy.28 Kyrgyzstan deported to China two persons alleged to be ETIM members who had “plotted to attack the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan as well as other U.S. interests abroad.”29 In their rush to find corroborative evidence, U.S. officials seem never to have questioned the reports from Kyrgyz authorities, who have a record of trumping up terrorism charges against Uighurs. U.S. officials have privately indicated unease at the decision to list ETIM. In December 2003 the U.S. declined to support China's request to list another Uighur organization, the East Turkestan Liberation Organization.30

The U.S. has also publicly insisted that the ETIM listing and the international war on terror should not be used by China to justify internal repression against political opponents or minorities. President Bush stressed in October 2001 in Shanghai that, “The war on terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities.”31 U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt similarly stated in January 2002 that “Being a valuable member of the coalition does not mean that China… can use terrorism as an excuse to persecute its ethnic minorities.”32 However, the U.S. has not withdrawn or formally qualified its condemnation of the ETIM from the U.N. list. In the process, it has handed China a major propaganda victory against its political opponents in Xinjiang. 

China has also been very active in enrolling the support of its Central Asian neighbors in the crackdown against Uighur ethno-nationalist aspirations. It is the driving force behind the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security body composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan set up in 1996 (Uzbekistan joined in 2001). The SCO was established in part to address Chinese concerns about a number of small Uighur political and opposition movements that, in the first years of independence for the former Soviet republics, set up organizations in the region, giving Uighur exiles a much closer base for their operations than the previous generation of activists, who had been based in Turkey and, later, Germany. Under pressure from Beijing, since 1996 these Central Asian countries have effectively silenced independent Uighur organizations on their soil and on several occasions have repatriated refugees in response to requests by China. Some of those repatriated refugees were executed upon their return.33

Since the co-option by China and other states of the notion of the “war against terror,” international co-operation has been leveraged in the Central Asian region by means of mutual agreement about those regarded by these states as political opponents. These cases have not always involved activists involved in the use of violence. In October 2004, China and Russia made a joint call for international efforts to help in their respective fights against opponents, with the Russians seeking help against Chechen rebels and the Chinese seeking help against Uighur separatists. The statement referred to “terrorists” and “separatists” in Chechnya and Xinjiang, whom it said “are part of international terrorism” and “should be the targets of the international fight against terrorism.”34 The wording of the Chinese part of the statement referred both to terrorism and separatism, but implied that they were interchangeable:

China understands and firmly supports all measures taken by Russia to resume the constitutional order of the Republic of Chechnya and to fight against terrorism. Russia firmly supports all measures taken by China to fight against the terrorist and separatist forces in “East Turkestan” and to eliminate terrorist jeopardy.35

The Kazakh government acknowledged in November 2004 that it had extradited fourteen Uighurs to China and Kyrgyzstan since 1997.36 Pakistan has boasted that it has eliminated Uighur “terrorists” in its northern areas.37 Beijing has also pressured Pakistan and Nepal for the repatriation of refugees. In January 2002, Nepal forcibly repatriated three Uighurs who had been granted refugee status by the UNHCR and were awaiting relocation to a third country.38 One of them, Shaheer Ali, was executed shortly thereafter after being convicted for separatism. He left a detailed account of torture inflicted on him in Chinese jails before his death.39

China has asked the United States to send to China the twenty-two or twenty-three Chinese Uighurs held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.40 The detainees had allegedly been fighting alongside Taliban forces in Afghanistan at the time of the U.S. invasion, and were arrested by Pakistani authorities when fleeing into Pakistan when the U.S. offensive against the Taliban started. Despite the fact that the Pentagon ascertained that these prisoners had “no intelligence value,” a Chinese mission was reportedly permitted to interrogate the prisoners at the Guantanamo detention facility.41 Following reports in December 2003 that the U.S. was about to release some of the Uighurs without charge, and was considering handing them over to China,42 Human Rights Watch and others raised concerns over Chinese authorities’ track record of swiftly executing repatriated “separatists.”43 The first reports that the U.S. government had ruled out return to China because of the risk that the Uighurs might be tortured or executed appeared in June 2004.44 In August 2004, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared publicly that the U.S. would not return the Uighurs.45 The Chinese embassy in Washington continues to press for their repatriation. It has declared that Beijing considers the Uighurs at Guantanamo to be “East Turkestan terrorists” who should be returned to China.46

While there are genuine security concerns in Xinjiang, they are manipulated by Chinese authorities for political and economic ends. When it is expedient, the authorities insist that only “an extremely small number of elements” are engaged in separatism and that the situation is “stable.” In March 2005, the head of the Xinjiang government, Ismail Tiwaldi, confirmed that “there have been no terror attacks in Xinjiang in recent years," thus corroborating his statement of the previous year that “Xinjiang ha[d] not recorded a single violent incident, nor any assassination case [in 2004],” and that “there hadn’t been even a small incident,” throughout 2003.47 When, however, the government desires international support for its crackdown on Uighur challenges to Chinese authority, including peaceful activities, it raises the specter of Islamic terrorism.

[4] "Analysis of the characteristics of population migrations in the western regions during the 1990s," Social Science Review, vol. 19, no. 2, April 2004, pp. 14-15 [90年代中后期西部地区千亿人口特征分析, 科学纵横,2004年4月 (总第19卷第2期), 14-15页].The Chinese authorities have consistently refused to acknowledge publicly any influx of migrants from interior China into Xinjiang.

[5] The 1990 national census showed that the mortality of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang was 3.6 times higher than for the Han population. Life expectancy was 61.62, against 71.4 for the Han population and 70 for China overall (“The quality and labor situation of the population from Xinjiang ethnic minorities,” Journal of Xinjiang University, September 1999, vol. 7, no. 3 [新疆少数民族人口的素质与就业, 新疆大学学报, 1999年9月第7卷第3期]).

[6] James Millward, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment (Policy Studies No. 6), (Washington DC: East-West Center Washington, 2004), [online]

[7] Law of the People's Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy, 1984 [中华人民共和国民族区域自治]. The law was amended in 2001. See “National autonomy law revised to support Western Development policy,” Tibetan Information Network, March 13, 2001.

[8] Human Rights Watch, “China: Human Rights Concerns in Xinjiang,” A Human Rights Watch Backgrounder, October 2001, [online],

[9] Millward, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang, p. 10.

[10] Bao Lisheng, “Chinese Officials Say Not Much Terrorism in Xinjiang,” Ta Kung Pao, September 2, 2001 (in Chinese).

[11] “Terrorist Activities Perpetrated by ‘Eastern Turkestan’ Organizations and Their Links with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban,” November 21, 2001, posted on the official website of the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations, [online] (retrieved October 5, 2003).

[12] “China Asks Help Against Muslims,” Associated Press, October 11, 2001.

[13] “East Turkestan' Terrorist Forces Cannot Get Away with Impunity,” January 21, 2002, issued by the State Council Information Office, [online] [国务院新闻办,“东突”恐怖势力难脱罪责,”2002年1月21日,].

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] For a detailed analysis of the problems of the January 2002 State Council Information Center report, see James Millward, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang.

[17] Millward, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang, pp. 12-13.

[18] “Combating terrorism, we have no choice,” People’s Daily Online, December 18, 2003. The identified "Eastern Turkestan" terrorist organizations were the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organization (ETLO), the World Uighur Youth Congress (WUYC), and the Eastern Turkestan Information Center (ETIC).

[19] China News Agency, March 13, 2002, FBIS, March 25, 2002. [CHI-2002-0313].

[20] “For the first time Xinjiang reveals the six forms of sabotaging operations of the separatist forces in the ideological sphere,” Xinjiang Information Network, February 1, 2002 [“新疆首次披露民族分裂势力在意识形态领域破坏活动的六种形式,” 新疆新闻网, 2002-02-01].

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Separatist Artist under Watch,” South China Morning Post, January 15, 2002.

[23] Ibid; China News Agency, March 13, 2002, FBIS, March 25, 2002 [CHI-2002-0313].

[24] “Surge in Arrests and Prosecutions for Endangering State Security,” Newsletter of the Dui Hua Foundation, Issue 11, Spring 2003.

[25] Amnesty International, “People’s Republic of China: Uighurs fleeing persecution as China wages its ‘war on terror’,” July 7, 2004 [AI Index: ASA 17/021/2004].

[26] Radio Free Asia Uighur Service, February 8, 2005, [online], (retrieved February 10, 2005).

[27] See “Criminalizing Ethnicity: Political Repression in Xinjiang,” China Rights Forum, no. 1, 2004.

[28] “U.S. has Evidence ETIM Plans Attack,” People’s Daily Online, August 30, 2002.

[29] U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002, [online]

[30] “China seeks co-op worldwide to fight ‘East Turkestan’ terrorists,” Xinhua News Service, December 15, 2003.

[31] “U.S., China Stand Against Terrorism: Remarks by President Bush and President Jiang Zemin,” press conference at the Western Suburb Guest House in Shanghai, People's Republic of China), [online]

[32] “United States-China Relations in the Wake of 9-11,” speech by Ambassador Clark T. Randt, Jr., United States Ambassador to China, The Asia Society, Hong Kong, January 21, 2002, [online]

[33] Amnesty International, “People’s Republic of China: Uighurs fleeing persecution as China wages its ‘war on terror,’” July 7, 2004 [AI Index: ASA 17/021/2004].

[34] “Leaders unite in terrorism stand,” South China Morning Post, October 15, 200; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC: “China and Russia Issue a Joint Statement, Declaring the Trend of the Boundary Line between the Two Countries Has Been Completely Determined,” October 14, 2004 (available on the website of the ministry at

[35] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC: “China and Russia Issue a Joint Statement, Declaring the Trend of the Boundary Line between the Two Countries Has Been Completely Determined,” October 14, 2004, [online]

[36] “Kazakhstan Reveals Uighur Extraditions,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 16, 2004.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with senior Pakistani intelligence official, February 2004. To protect the confidentiality of sources, we have removed potentially identifying details from citations to interviews we conducted in Xinjiang and elsewhere, including the specific date and in some cases the location of the interview.

[38] Amnesty International, “Urgent Action Appeal: Fear of forcible return,” April 22, 2002, [UA 119/02].

[39] “Executed Uighur refugee left torture testimony behind,” Radio Free Asia, October 23, 2003. Shaheer Ali spoke to RFA’s Uighur Service in May 2001, describing eight months of torture from April to December of 1994 in the Old Market Prison, in Guma (in Chinese, Pishan) county, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In several Human Rights Watch interviews conducted by telephone from Nepal, Shirali described how he was beaten with shackles, shocked in an electric chair, repeatedly kicked unconscious, and then drenched in cold water to revive him for more torture.

[40] Demitri Sevastopuolo, “U.S. fails to find homes for Uighur detainees,” Financial Times, October 28, 2004.

[41] “US fails to find homes for Uighur detainees,” The Financial Times, October 28, 2004.

[42] “Eleven Turks at Guantanamo base,” United Press International, February 6, 2004.

[43] “U.S.: Don’t Send Detainees Back to China,” Human Rights Watch, November 26, 2003, [online]

[44] “China torture fears hamper jail releases,” The Financial Times, June 22, 2004.

[45] "Powell Says Detained Uighurs Will not be Returned to China," Agence France-Presse, August 13, 2004].

[46] “US fails to find homes for Uighur detainees,” The Financial Times, October 28, 2004.

[47] "Head of China's northwest Muslim Xinjiang region says area safe from terror attacks," Associated Press, March 13, 2005 ; “Xinjiang confident of reining in rebels,” South China Morning Post, March 13, 2004.

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