Diplomatic hijacking

September 18, 2002

MENTION TIBET and much of the West glows with support for the often over-idealized theocracy lost to Chinese domination. Mention Xinjiang - or, more properly, China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region - and the likely response is a blank stare.

Never mind that this vast northwestern region of forbidding deserts and mountains accounts for a sixth of all Chinese territory or that its untapped oil and gas reserves are critical to China's economic future. Never mind that 50 years of Chinese subjugation of Xinjiang's natives, mostly about 8 million Turkic-speaking Muslims known as Uighurs, roughly parallels Tibet's terrible repression.

China has long cast Xinjiang independence advocates as traitorous "separatists," stifled Islamic religious practices there, imported so many Han Chinese they outnumber Muslims in many areas, and brutally squashed small-scale armed rebellions.

Picture small bands of horseback guerrillas pursued by Chinese helicopters in the mountains outside Kashgar, imams subjected to "patriotic re-education" campaigns, and Uighurs killed and tortured.

Human-rights advocates and the United States have decried this for years. "Authorities have cracked down harshly on suspected Uighur nationals and independent Muslim religious leaders, [imposing] tighter restrictions on political, civil and religious freedoms," said the State Department's last human-rights report on China.

But then came the U.S. war on terrorism - and reported cooperation from China along its central Asian borders - and, lo and behold, there's the surprising specter last month of the State Department agreeing with China that a little-known Uighur independence group is a bunch of "terrorists." Last week, the two nations succeeded in getting the United Nations to also designate the group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), as such.

As a result, there's the well-founded fear the U.S. stance will embolden Beijing to step up its latest "strike hard" campaign in Xinjiang - one that reportedly has already led to the arrests of thousands of Uighurs since last fall.

Talk about a diplomatic hijacking.

Perhaps the ETIM does have ties to al-Qaida and does pose a threat to the U.S. embassy and troops in nearby Kyrgyzstan, as Beijing and Washington claimed. But there hasn't been much supporting detail. And let's keep in mind the old notion that all politics is local - that is, the post-Sept. 11, U.S.-led fight against global terrorism has provided convenient new impetus for China's decades of efforts to crush resistance to its rule of Xinjiang.

In other words, China's definition of terrorism is thoroughly polluted by its indefensible self-interest in repressing Xinjiang.

It's also well worth noting the context of the ETIM announcement by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in Beijing. The day before, China finally said it would enact some export controls on its weapons sales. Long sought by Washington, this may not turn out to be worth much: China's parting gift to Mr. Armitage was the test firing of one of its Dong Feng-4 missiles - designed to attack the U.S. military base at Guam and sales of which to Iran and Pakistan have been the subject of U.S. sanctions four times in the past year. What a deal.

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