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.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Chinese government has often sought to portray violence by Uighurs as coordinated acts of terror. But, the 2007 U.S. State Department report on human rights noted, the Chinese government has "continued to repress Uighur Muslims, sometimes citing counterterrorism as the basis for taking action that was repressive." The report also noted that there were a high number of executions and mass detentions in the Xinjiang region.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will head the U.S. delegation to the Olympic closing ceremonies, said in July that while security threats in China have to be dealt with, "security should not become in any way a cover to try and deal with dissent."
The Uighur American Association said that Chinese officials have exploited the "war on terror" and Olympics security concerns to wage a "sophisticated propaganda crusade against the Uighur people."
The group says the Beijing government is committing systematic human rights violations against the Uighurs on a massive scale, referring to religious repression, executions, and mass detentions.
The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) Security Department and the Chinese Embassy did not return phone calls requesting comment on this story.
What's more, human rights groups say, the Uighurs aren't the only minority group that has come under government target. The Tibetans are also likely to face greater scrutiny from the government, which human rights groups believe only hurts China and its image in the long run.
"It's not contributing to either a peaceful Olympics or a peaceful society," said Sharon Hom, director of the Human Rights in China, also based in New York. "They're targeting whole groups of people as terrorists."
Kristin Jones is a Fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. Click here to read her latest CPJ blog post.