After years of repression by the Chinese government, with forced interracial marriages, mass arrests, a threatened way of life, occasional killings and population displacements, China’s Uighur group, which mostly lives in Xinjiang Province, has every right to seek an end to oppression as well as help from the international community.
In light of this, the Turkestan Islamic Party’s claim of responsibility on Saturday for a series of bombings in China in the past two months, which have claimed three lives and injured many more, may not come as a surprise. Nor should its timing, less than two weeks before the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing.
Grievances notwithstanding, the great majority of Uighurs do not condone violence or support terrorism to achieve their political aims. In fact, if asked, most would say that Commander Seyfullah, who issued the video statement on Saturday, or the Islamic Party of East Turkestan (ETIM) — listed as a terrorist organization by China and the US and believed by some to be another name for the Turkestan Islamic Party — does not have any right to speak in their name, let alone commit acts of violence for their cause, much as most Muslims worldwide do not accept al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as their spokesman, however thick their list of grievances against the West.
In terms of strategy, Seyfullah’s approach has numerous precedents, most recently the Kosovo Liberation Army’s (KLA) — also once listed as a terrorist entity — recourse to attacks on Serb civilians in the 1990s to break the status quo. The KLA’s plan proved successful, as it sparked massive retaliation by Serbian paramilitary forces, attracted publicity worldwide after crimes against humanity were committed, and ultimately managed to draw in the US and NATO to fight on their behalf in 1999. After years of uncertainty, Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence — and recognition by most countries — may also have persuaded militants that when the odds are stacked against them, violence works.
Aware that with the world’s attention turned toward it, Beijing’s Achilles Heel is more vulnerable now than it has been in more than a decade, Seyfullah and his followers may have claimed responsibility with the hope that doing so would invite a violent crackdown by Chinese authorities against the Muslim community. As Beijing’s greatest nightmare is domestic instability, it is highly unlikely — despite the Games — that it will act with restraint. (Beijing later said the claims were not credible, a position that probably had more to do with allaying the fears of delegations to the Games than with intelligence ascertaining the fact.)
The end result for the Uighur group will either be more reports of indiscriminate arrests and violence targeted at Muslims, or tightening up of the media, which would break Beijing’s Olympic pledge to lift restrictions on reporters. In either case, Beijing loses, as it faces a dilemma that has confronted every single occupying power, from Israel in the Palestinian Occupied Territories to the US in Iraq, the British in Kenya to NATO in Afghanistan.
In the end, however, it is ordinary Uighurs, who had nothing to do with the bombings and who would never support such acts, who will suffer the repercussions. Sadly, this new development may well be a consequence of nonviolent activism having failed over the decades to break the status quo and improve the lot of China’s minorities. However logical the Kosovo analogy may appear to those who were responsible for the attacks, it fails to take into account the tremendous difference between China’s security apparatus and that of Serbia, as well as the ability (or willingness) of the international community to interfere in another state’s domestic affairs.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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