The deadly ambush Monday in China's majority Muslim northwest may have raised fears about terrorist attacks when the Beijing Olympic Games open Friday. But many China experts say that the government is using the pretext of heightened security for the Olympics as an excuse to crack down the Uighur minority group within its borders.
In recent months, the Chinese government has implemented broad restrictions on religious activities, movement, and speech on the Muslim Uighur minority, human rights groups say. Police have arrested 82 individuals for allegedly plotting an attack at the Games, and the Chinese government publicly executed three accused militants. Chinese police have also conducted house-to-house searches near the traditionally Uighur city of Gulja (Yining in Chinese), a center for opposition to Chinese rule, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in July. Police denied that they were targeting any specific population, just "specific areas," an officer told RFA.
And already, the Chinese government is pitting blame for the ambush -- which killed 16 border patrol agents and wounded another 16 -- on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a shadowy Uighur separatist group in the northwest region of Xinjiang.
The tension has been building for some time. In January 2007, the Chinese government said it raided a terrorist camp run by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in Xinjiang, seizing grenades, other explosives and cash. Chinese police killed 18 and arrested 17, according to state media. In March of this year, the government said it disrupted a plot to attack the Olympic Games. And in another raid July 5 in Urumqi, police killed five young Uighurs they said were terrorists.
But many China experts say there is so little independently verified information about the northwest of China that it is impossible to assess the validity of the Chinese government's claims about the alleged Uighur terrorist threat.
"When it comes to terrorism, the Chinese have one true north," said Charles Freeman, China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "Whatever the Uighur people in the northwest do is terrorism, whatever anybody else does is not."
The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim community of Turkish descent with ties to Central Asia. Many of them view Chinese rule as a form of imperialism and seek autonomy from the government.
The allegations of terrorism stem from the activities of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that has long been on China's radar.
The Chinese government has asserted that movement is the "greatest threat" to the Olympics.
"Terrorists and terrorist activities do exist in China," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a press conference last Monday. "Therefore we hope the international community can understand China's concerns and promote cooperation with China on the issue of fighting against terrorism, including fighting against East Turkistan."
Analysts say China is using a broad brush to paint the entire ethnic group as terrorists.