Even as most countries around the world including India have for quite sometime been concerned with the expanding tentacles of international terrorism, China used to display a somewhat indifferent attitude towards the pressing need for a combined global strategy for countering the threat of terrorism. However, the Chinese perception about the ramifications of global terrorism underwent a sea change in the after math of the shocking terrorist attack in the capital city of Beijing. That no part of the world is free from the vicious shadow of terrorism was clearly demonstrated by a well planned , daring suicide car crash in late October 2013 at the historical Tiananmen square in Beijing—the seat of bloody crack down on pro-democracy protesters in 1989— that left five people dead. China’s political leadership was quick to describe this audacious terrorist outrage in the heart of China’s capital city as a “premeditated and well planned suicide attack” meant to destabilise the Communist giant.
According to the Chinese authorities ,this terror attack was masterminded by the al-Qaeda supported East Turkestan Islamic Movement(ETIM), which is fighting for a separate Islamic homeland in China’s restive north western autonomous province of Xinjiang bordering with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir(POK) and Afghanistan. Chinese security agencies point out that the Tiananmen Square attack was the handiwork of a group comprising eight ethnic Muslim Uighurs belonging to ETIM who hailed from Hotan, an urban settlement in the south of Xinjiang. In the after math of this suicide attack, China’s ruling Communist party announced the removal of the military commander of the disturbed Xinjiang province from the regional governing council of this autonomous region.
Meanwhile, strategic analysts project the view that the latest suicide attack marks a significant shift in the militant activities of t ETIM whose violent acts were till now largely confined to Xinjiang. The cross country connection of ETIM, said to have been founded in early 1990s, has been clearly proven by the presence of Uighur extremists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Chechnya. Both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ETIM recruits have a synergistic linkage with groups owing allegiance to Taliban and al Qaida. A spokesman of China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry says that ETIM has for long been engaged in central, east and west Asia and has colluded with other international terrorist outfits. But analysts believe China is reading too much the activities of ETIM whose immediate goal is to channelise the “grievances and frustration” of Uighurs who are being subjected to the process of “regimentation and homogenisation” by the Chinese authorities keen on bringing the community into Chinese national mainstream.
For well over two decades now, the ruling dispensation in Beijing has been blaming Uighur extremists for acts of sporadic violence and destruction in the sprawling and sparsely populated Xinjiang autonomous region which is home to 12 million Uighurs. Incidentally, Uighurs have a cultural affinity to the adjoining central Asian republics and in physical appearance they are distinct from Hans, the predominant Chinese ethnic group.
Both circumstantial evidence and media reports confirm that ETIM cadres receive funding and training from Al Qaeda. Many of them are also known to have fought alongside Taliban militia in the neighbouring Afghanistan. Interestingly, many Uighur radicals have been captured by the American forces in Afghanistan. US officials are said to have gathered information about Uighur militants linked to the dreaded militant outfit al-Qaida from more than 20 Uighurs captured during the operations in Afghanistan.
Independent observers believe the acts of violence and destruction engineered by Uighur extremists is an expression of the pent up grievances of the community against the “repressive policy” of the Chinese Govt. However Chinese authorities point out that the “senseless acts” of violence instigated by ETIM has resulted in burning of buses, market places, govt institutions as well as killing of innocent civilians in Xinjiang. Incidentally, ETIM had on many occasions claimed responsibility for the acts of violence and vandalism in Xinjiang. “Violent terrorist crime is the shared enemy of all humanity, the shared enemy of all ethnic groups in the country and it must be severely punished under law,” said a commentary in the Communist Party mouth piece People’s Daily.
Turkic speaking Uighurs, conspicuous for their heavy accent and European features, are one of the fifty five minority groups in China. Incidentally, Chinese officials in Xinjiang have in the past used to blame ETIMs overseas members, chiefly those active in camps in Pakistan, for fomenting trouble in many parts of the province. On many occasions, Beijing had expressed concern over the failure of Pakistan to crack down on Uighur terror groups frequenting Pakistan for arms training. But then there is also a view that China might be exaggerating the transnational linkages of ETIM. “It is not that China should not be concerned about those ties but the issue is that the linkages have been exaggerated by the Chinese Government ,” says Michael Clarke, a Professor at Griffin University in Sydney.
Xinjiang, about the size of Iran, was contested by various Turkic groups, Mangols and Chinese till the 18th century when China’s Ming dynasty brought the region under the Chinese rule. But since 1990s, Xinjiang has been in the media limelight for acts of violence indulged in by disgruntled Uighurs. In 2009,around 200 people had paid with their lives in one of the bloodiest clashes that took place between the native Uighurs and Han settlers in the provincial capital of Urumqui. Thereafter in April 2013 violent clashes involving Uighurs and policemen in Kashgar left 21 dead. And in June 2103, 35 people were killed in an attack against a police station in Luquan. However, Uighur radicals have had no track record of having carried out suicide attack of the type witnessed at Tiananmen square. Rohan Gunaratna, an international terrorism expert at Nanyang Technological University(NTU) in Singapore points out that this attack would help bolster Beijing’ s contention that Uighur Islamists have allied with terrorist group known as ETIM and pose a serious threat to China’s sovereignty. Possibility of the Chinese authorities exploiting this event to step up the repression of Uighurs, who follow a moderate version of Sunni Islam,can not be ruled out. All said and done, ETIM has practically insulated itself from China’s counter terrorism measures by developing roust transnational ties that include alliance with other terrorist groups and safe operational bases in other countries.
Uighurs are upset that their religious , cultural and commercial activities are being curtailed by Beijing presumably to put a lid on the separatist sentiments embedded deep in the psyche of the community. In recent years, Chinese authorities have been trying to regulate the functioning of the mosques in the region. There are also allegations that Chinese authorities have been pressurising Uighur men not to grow beards and Uighur women not to use veil or other Islamic clothing. These steps have been justified by Beijing as a cornerstone of the strategy designed to end the spread of religious extremism said to be responsible for the quest for an independent Islamic country.
The grouse of the ethnic Uighurs is that today the migrant Hans largely control the resources of this region that is more than twice the size of Texas. Many Uighurs say that they are made to feel like a second class citizens in their home turf. Further, they feel that the presence of Hans in their homeland is a form of imperialism. But a Chinese Government white paper on Xinjiang says that the province has been an “inseparable part of the unitary, multi ethnic Chinese nation” since the days of the Han dynasty.
The ruling elite in Beijing cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the separatist sentiments prodding Uighurs to the desperate acts of sporadic violence. For the current low key Uighur upsurge could very well evolve into a full fledged guerrilla war for a separate Islamic state. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square attack, which has been described as the handiwork of jehadi forces, China has for the first time came out with a strong support for international counter terror strategy. Chinese Foreign Minster Wang Chi discussed this issue with his Indian counterpart Salman Khurshid during the third Russia-India-China (RIC) tri-lateral meeting held in November 2013. Incidentally, following the RIC meeting a joint statement was issued which condemned the incident in the “strongest terms”. The statement also said, “Terrorism is threat to international peace and security and a grave violation of human rights and a crime against humanity”. Whereas India has always been vocal on bringing the issue of terrorism to the forefront of discussion in international forum, China was far from keen on deliberating on the issue of terrorism in international platforms. Ofcourse, now China is fully well aware that the war against terrorism need to be waged on a global scale to ensure world “peace and stability”.