- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

KASHGAR, China People in this fabled Silk Road city in Western China complain of a harsh crackdown by Chinese authorities, a crackdown fueled in part by U.S. claims that the city is part of a global, terrorist diaspora.
Some Kashgar residents view the war on terrorism as an excuse for Beijing to push a decades-old policy of forcing the ethnic Uighur region to adopt the language and culture of ethnic Han Chinese.
During a visit to Beijing last month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage announced that Washington had placed a separatist group in Xinjiang province, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Mr. Armitage said the movement has been responsible for attacks on civilians.
The day before Mr. Armitage's announcement, China said it would enact some export controls on weapons sales, a decision American officials had been demanding for years. China declared it was gratified by Mr. Armitage's stance on the ETIM, which it said had ties to al Qaeda.
China recently released a report on Xinjiang militants, in which it says more than 1,000 Uighurs, the Muslim and ethnic Turkic people who historically comprised the majority of Xinjiang's residents, have migrated to Afghanistan in recent years to train in al Qaeda camps. Beijing also says that Osama bin Laden has funded violent rebellion in Xinjiang.
But many Uighur specialists think Beijing and Washington have inaccurately portrayed the situation in Xinjiang. They argue that, although there is tension in Xinjiang between Uighurs and Chinese, few Uighurs want to join a global Islamist movement, and that violent incidents in Xinjiang stem from local problems.
"Many Uighurs resent that the Chinese increasingly dominate the economy and society in Xinjiang, but they do not necessarily want their own country since they have seen how independent states in Central Asia have weathered economic catastrophes," says Dru Gladney, a specialist on Xinjiang at the University of Hawaii.
Indeed, the leading Uighur independence group, the East Turkestan National Congress, condemned the September 11 attacks, and it calls for a secular and democratic independent state in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang specialists consider the Uighurs among the most liberal and pro-U.S. Muslims in the world, and in Kashgar women interact freely with men, run businesses and hold political office.
Though there are reports that a few Uighurs are being held in Guantanamo Bay, Nicolas Becquelin, a Xinjiang specialist based in Hong Kong, says these Uighurs traveled to Afghanistan independently and never linked up with al Qaeda.
Some evidence supports Mr. Becquelin's claim. Human Rights Watch said in a report that claims of Uighur links to al Qaeda were spurious, as Uighurs are extremely distrustful of the ethnic Pashtun Taliban. Interviews with Uighurs captured by the Northern Alliance suggested that they had come to Afghanistan on an individual basis and had no connection to al Qaeda.
Yet Xinjiang is hardly a placid place. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Uighurs twice established an independent nation in Xinjiang, which many Uighurs call East Turkestan. The second independent republic was abolished when the communists took over China in 1949.
Since then, Beijing has attempted to minimize Uighur control over Xinjiang by prohibiting many Uighurs from studying in their own language, encouraging Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang and reserving many economic opportunities for Chinese. Although only 300,000 Han Chinese resided in Xinjiang in 1949, more than 6.4 million now live in the province, out of a total of roughly 15 million residents.

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