Chinese authorities executed two Uighur mujahideen early this month for their part in the Muslim uprising in Chinese-occupied East Turkestan (which the Chinese call Xinjiang Province) in Ramadhan 1417 (February 1997). Several other mujahideen and activists were sentenced to death or to long prison terms in a series of trials apparently timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the uprising.
One thousand extra Chinese police paramilitaries were transferred to the town of Kuldzha (which the Chinese call Yining) last month, and the Chinese police chief in the region admitting early this year that they were waging ‘a difficult and intense war’ against separatists. Kuldzha was the epicentre of the 1997 uprising. Four hundred people were killed and over a thousand injured in two days late in Ramadhan, when police fired on people protesting against Chinese rule and supporting the mujahideen groups.
The two men executed earlier this month were reported in the official Xinjiang Legal Daily newspaper to have been involved in the 1997 protests. Late in January, two men were reportedly sentenced to death and 10 others to lesser sentences after being convicted in the town of Korgas of subversion and making bombs. In a separate trial, 29 people were reportedly jailed for subversion and incitement to riot.
Also last month, the director of a hospital, clearly a very senior figure, was reportedly sentenced to three years in a labour camp for unspecified political offences. Named as Abulatadi, he was among 13 senior communist party officials who were jailed for various offenses. Chinese authorities have repeatedly accused Xinjiang communist party members of collaboration with the ‘splittists’, an indication of the depth of the problem they face in the region.
In a report on the progress of the authority’s battle against the mujahideen, the Xinjiang Legal Daily said last month that authorities had arrested hundreds of ‘terrorists’ last year, had discovered and destroyed a ‘terrorist training camp’, and had arrested members of an ‘underground supply network’ in the region. It also claimed that police had arrested 80 people in connection with 15 bomb attacks in the city of Kashgar. A local official told the paper that many of those arrested had been recruited by foreign terrorist groups during their pilgrimages to Makkah.
Information coming out of the region has to be treated with extreme caution, as the Chinese reports are bound to misrepresent facts and likely to mix propaganda with the truth. However it is very clear that the Chinese are facing an increasing problem from the Muslim Uighur people of the region, which is properly the eastern end of Central Asia rather than China.
It first came under Chinese rule in 1759, when it was conquered by the Manchu Empire. Over the next 100 years, the Muslims revolted against Manchu rule 42 times, finally succeeding in expelling the Manchus in 1863. China re-invaded the area in 1876 and finally secured control in 1884. Since then, it has been ruled by the Chinese except for brief periods of independence.
‘Xinjiang’ is now the largest province of China, covering one-sixth of that country’s territory, but is sparsely populated. It is also rich in minerals, including oil. Communist China has pursued numerous strategies for colonising it since 1949, with limited success. Islam has not been effectively suppressed, despite decades of aggressive secularism, and local Muslims continue to identify more with the Muslims of Central Asia rather than the Chinese.
There have been signs recently that the west is increasingly interested in exploiting the Uighurs’ struggle to pressurise China. The US added Uighur language programming to its Radio Free Asia broadcasts late last year, and Amnesty International has recently stepped up its reporting of Chinese atrocities in the region. While this may make it easier for Muslims to get news of the mujahideen’s struggle, it is unlikely that the west would welcome the creation of another Muslim country in Central Asia, or assist the Muslims of East Turkestan in their struggle.
Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1999