When Richard Armitage, US deputy secretary of state, announced in Beijing on August 26 that the US has classified the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organisation, the move was interpreted as a “nod to China”, in acknowledgement of its apparent agreement not to sell missile technology to “aggressive states”. But it is clearly linked as well to the growing US presence in central Asia and to Washington’s “war on terrorism”.
Armitage made his announcement after long and intense talks with senior Chinese officials designed to pave the way for the summit meeting on October 25 between president Bush and president Jan Zemin. Armitage told reporters that ETIM had been added to the state department list of terrorist groups in answer to a longstanding request by China. “After careful study we judged that it was a terrorist group, that it committed acts of violence against unarmed civilians without any regard for who was hurt,” he said.
Beijing was naturally pleased. A spokesman of the US embassy later accused ETIM of having ties with al-Qa’ida and of “planning attacks against US interests abroad” and of being responsible for more than 200 acts of terrorism in China itself, resulting in at least 162 deaths and 440 casualties. Even American newspapers were quick to note that the spokesman was merely repeating statistics set out in a Chinese government report issued in January, which blamed the attacks on a number of “Uighur separatist groups”, not just ETIM. The spokesman also conveniently failed to mention that the allegations had been denied vigorously by Hasan Mahsum, ETIM leader.
Mahsum said in January during an interview with Radio Free Asia that ETIM never committed terrorism and never received any assistance from al-Qa’ida. Its main goal was to end Chinese rule in Xinjiang (the official Chinese name for East Turkestan), he insisted. Even the Chinese unwittingly prove that the province is a colony, simply by calling it Xinjiang or Sinkiang, which means “New Dominion”. After the conquest a small number of Han Chinese moved there to rule the province, and the Han have monopolised political and economic power ever since. In 1950 the Han Chinese constituted only 5 percent of the population of East Turkestan, but now they comprise 38 percent of its 17 million people, thanks to a major official resettlement programme. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the Chinese minority has resorted to extreme measures to retain its dominance, and that the Muslim majority has been driven to fight.
The struggle for independence is supported by all Muslim groups and fighters, not just the Uighurs and ETIM; it also preceded the emergence of al-Qa’ida. So calling ETIM a terrorist group that has links to al-Qa’ida and is waging a terrorist war against a legitimate government is irresponsible; indeed, this view is contradicted even by the American media and by international human-rights groups. A report in the New York Times on August 27, for instance, argued that the listing of ETIM as a terrorist organisation could only be of “symbolic value” to China, as the group plays a minor role in the struggle by the people of East Turkestan against China’s repressive rule.
One does not, of course, expect the New York Times to come out in defence of Muslim groups or peoples, but its report did at least admit that the Chinese rule in East Turkestan is repressive, and that the Muslim fighters there are not “fundamentalists”. A leader comment in the Washington Post on September 4 raised the issues of whether the US would protest when China exploits the listing to crack down on “peaceful Muslims who want more religious freedom or cultural autonomy”.
A report in the London Economist on August 23 described the repression in East Turkestan as worse than any practice in the rest of China. It accused the authorities of having “persecuted” for a long time “Muslim Uighurs who have protested at the discrimination they suffer and at the policy of swamping them with migrants from other parts of China.” An earlier Amnesty report had cited the thousands of political arrests, torture and summary executions carried out by the authorities as normal practice. And most reports said that a new wave of executions had begun after the attacks in the US on September 11 last year.
The listing of ETIM was certainly partly designed to reward Beijing for its agreement not to sell missile technology to Muslim states. Beijing issued new regulations governing the export of such technology on August 26. According to the official Xinhua newsagency, the rules set out a licensing system for exporting missile technology, requiring exporters to be registered and transfers to be approved by government regulatory bodies.
The US’s move is also linked to its growing US presence in Central Asia, where local dictators are fighting Islamic movements opposed to their rule. The Americans, who are acquiring military bases and increasing their share of the resources of the region, are helping those dictators to fight Islamic activists throughout Central Asia. The former Soviet Central Asian states are already members of the Shanghai Five (including China and Russia as members), which targets Islamic groups as enemies to be destroyed. Moreover, by saying that ETIM is allied to al-Qa’ida, Washington has declared war on it as part of its “anti-terror” campaign.