Sep 15, 2006

East Turkestan: Lack of Evidence Undermine China’s Claims of ‘Terrorism’

The Uyghurs Human Rights Project reports that Chinese government records for armed and politically motivated violence in East Turkistan reveal glaring inconsistencies.

In late August 2006, the Chinese authorities claimed that security forces in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), also known as East Turkistan, have seized over 41 metric tons (45 tons) of explosives “from the hands of terrorists” since 1990.

The claim was made by Wang Lexiang, deputy director of the regional department of public security, during a conference on improving regulations covering civilian-use explosives in East Turkistan. Explosives are readily available throughout most parts of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and are used extensively in construction, mining and in road building and maintenance.

Wang Lexiang further claimed that around four tons of materials used for manufacturing explosives were also seized over the same period, along with large quantities of detonators, hand grenades and other military paraphernalia, all supposedly to be used by ‘terrorists’ against Chinese government targets.

However, Wang offered no evidence to support these claims, nor the claim during the same conference that security forces had foiled several plots by ‘separatists’ to sabotage oilfields, power plants and highways in East Turkistan.

“We’ve seen these kinds of statements before, but we’ve never seen any evidence to support them,” said Alim Seytoff, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP). “If I knew a diplomatic way of saying ‘put up or shut up’, I’d say it,” he added.

Mr. Seytoff pointed out that in the absence of any independent verification, it is plausible that all explosives seized in East Turkistan – whether from farmers or miners – could conveniently be claimed by Chinese officials as originally intended for ‘terrorist’ use.

“It’s on the basis of these unsubstantiated claims – especially since 9/11 – that the Chinese government attempts to justify its crackdown on Uyghur political opposition to Chinese rule,” continued Mr. Seytoff. “The Chinese government wants the rest of the world to view the Uyghur people with the same disdain, suspicion and distrust as they themselves do; and post-9/11, repeatedly accusing Uyghurs of being terrorists can apparently be an effective way of achieving that – incredibly, we’ve started seeing the western press repeating these accusations with no caveat whatsoever.”

In light of the Chinese authorities’ extremely tight controls on information in East Turkistan, it is impossible to give an independent and accurate impression of the true scale and nature of political violence in the region. UHRP has compiled this short backgrounder not to analyze and discuss political violence in East Turkistan – about which very little is known – but rather to analyze and discuss the Chinese authorities’ claims on the nature and extent of political violence in the region.

It is hoped that this briefing will encourage a necessary and greater degree of skepticism towards the Chinese authorities’ statements on the situation in East Turkistan. This briefing is also intended to guide readers towards independently researched information and analysis which would be useful to the general reader wishing to try and assess for themselves the reality of the security situation in East Turkistan. Footnotes are provided throughout, and additional suggested reading is provided at the end of this backgrounder.

The figures

Even the most casual examination of Chinese government figures for armed and politically motivated violence against government and civilian targets in East Turkistan reveals glaring inconsistencies.

For example, in March 1999, the then-governor of the region, Abdulahat Abdurishit, claimed there had been “thousands” of explosions and assassinations throughout the 1990s. But by early September 2001, barely 18 months later, Abdulahat Abdurishit claimed that the situation in East Turkistan was actually “better then ever in history”.[1]

In the immediate wake of 9/11 the Chinese government again reversed its position, once more claiming an imminent threat of terrorism in East Turkistan while expressing an intention to stand “side by side with the United States in the war on terror”. At the time, skepticism towards China’s stance was so high that U.S. president George W. Bush saw it necessary to caution the Chinese government against using the war on terror as “an excuse to persecute minorities”.[2]

Nevertheless, the central Chinese government released a document in January 2002 called “‘East Turkistan’ terrorist forces cannot get away with impunity”, which claimed on the basis of “incomplete statistics” there had been “at least 200 incidents of terrorist violence, causing 162 deaths and more than 440 injuries” between 1990 and 2001.[3] However, the document’s vague language and incomplete tabulation of alleged incidents and casualties – as well as mention of alleged terrorist groups in East Turkistan never heard of before or since – inevitably undermined the document’s credibility.

The document was further undermined in 2004 when Ismael Tiliwaldi, the successor to Abdulahat Abdurishit, said, “In Xinjiang, not one incident of explosion or assassination took place in the last few years. […] Last year Xinjiang’s public security situation was very good.”[4] But in September 2005, Zhao Yongchen, deputy director of the counter-terrorism bureau under the ministry of public security, said that, “under the influence of many complex international and domestic factors, violent acts of terrorism in Xinjiang have been escalating seriously.”[5] He provided no details.

And then on August 30, 2006, Wang Lexiang stated at the conference where he presented the figures on the amount of explosives seized since 1990, that there had been a “successful” terrorist attack on a People’s Armed Police barracks and a railway line in 2004 – without giving any further evidence or details – and added that there remained a “grave social situation” in East Turkistan.[6] Again, this is despite a claim made in the People’s Daily just four days earlier that record levels of investment are pouring into the region.[7]

“Record levels of investment in a region aren’t usually an indicator of a grave threat of terrorism,” Mr. Seytoff pointed out. “It seems the Chinese authorities want it both ways: they’d have us believe that they’re fighting terrorism in a region where they’re also leading an economic miracle – well, which is it? What do they want us to believe? If it weren’t for the fact that Uyghurs are paying for this farce with their human rights and their future as a people, the Chinese government’s chopping and changing of the facts would be laughable.”

Other inaccuracies and accusations

Another central feature of the Chinese authorities’ claims on the levels and nature of terrorism in East Turkistan, particularly since 9/11, is that individuals and organizations in the region are closely affiliated with groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban – even receiving training and funding from them. On the basis of these claims, the Chinese authorities have attempted to portray East Turkistan as a ‘battleground’ in the ‘international war on terrorism’ – claims also made in the document “‘East Turkistan’ terrorists cannot get away with impunity”.

However, aside from the fact that – as usual – no corroborating evidence has ever been released to support this claim of a broader international jihad being fought in East Turkistan, it is notable also that the Uyghur people, East Turkistan and even Xinjiang have never been mentioned in the public pronouncements attributed to Osama bin-Laden and other al-Qaeda figures.

Although this detail is far from being conclusive evidence of no involvement by al-Qaeda in East Turkistan, the burden of proof of any involvement should be on the Chinese authorities. For its part, the Uyghur diaspora points out that the Uyghur people – unlike supporters of jihad – look to the United States as a model of human rights and democracy in contrast to the current regime in East Turkistan, and regard the United States as a natural ally of the Uyghur people. In addition, Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in the region refer to the fact that the first East Turkistan Republic in 1931-1934 was the first democratic Islamic republic in the world outside Turkey.

The Chinese authorities’ tendency to associate Uyghur political opponents in East Turkistan with al-Qaeda was exposed in August 2005 when members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) conducted a mission to the region. Commission members and their staff were told by Chinese authorities that “elements of al-Qaeda” were targeting the mission during its visit to East Turkistan. The threat was found “not to be credible”, and according to the Commission, “seemed to have been issued to restrict Commission activities and to monitor its contact with local people not approved by government officials.”[8] 

The Chinese authorities also accuse Uyghur political opponents abroad of engaging in terrorism, again without releasing any corroborating details or evidence. In August 2005, while the Chinese authorities in East Turkistan were preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the XUAR, Wang Lequan, the most senior Chinese official in the region, publicly accused Ms. Rebiya Kadeer of plotting a terrorist attack on official celebrations in the regional capital of Urumchi.

Since her release from a Chinese prison in March 2005, Ms Rebiya Kadeer, a human rights activist and former prisoner of conscience, has worked to highlight the extremely poor human rights situation of the Uyghur people in East Turkistan. When she was released from prison, Ms. Kadeer was warned by Chinese officials not to speak out about the plight of the Uyghur people when she reached exile.

“It appears that Ms. Kadeer’s work has been such a cause of annoyance and embarrassment to the Chinese authorities that accusing her of plotting terrorist attacks is regarded in Beijing as an appropriate counter-strategy,” said Mr. Seytoff.


An obvious problem when attempting to discuss terrorism in East Turkistan is the definition of ‘terrorism’ itself. Indeed, even in international law a conclusive definition has yet to be agreed upon.

The Chinese authorities are very selective in their choice of which incidents and which people and organizations are defined as ‘terrorist’ and which are ‘criminal’. In recent testimony to the US government, Professor Dru Gladney, a prominent scholar on Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim peoples in China and Central Asia, referred to a study which showed that “[…] of 140 publicly reported ‘terrorist’ incidents in China between 1990-2000, only 25 can be connected to political causes or separatism, and only 17 events can be connected to Xinjiang or Uyghur separatists. The vast majority of incidents are best described as isolated cases of worker discontent and civil unrest, in a country that reported nearly 84,000 incidents of civil unrest in 2005 alone.”[9]

Another comprehensive study claims that there have been no acts of political violence in East Turkistan attributable to Uyghurs since 1998.[10] There may indeed have been other acts of violence perpetrated by Uyghurs against the Chinese government prior to and since 1998, but observers must be more careful than the Chinese authorities in deciding which of these acts constitutes ‘terrorism’ while similar acts are perpetrated throughout all of China.

While condemning without hesitation or reservation all acts of violence in East Turkistan, it is important to nevertheless consider the reasons why such violence may have occurred in the past and why it may have reason to occur again in the future. While the Chinese government claims political violence originates and is funded from jihadists abroad, there is a far more plausible explanation. Professor Gladney quotes from Oxford Analytica in his testimony:

“Distinguishing between genuine counter-terrorism and repression of minority rights is difficult and the Uyghur case points to a lack of international guidelines for doing so. In any case, Chinese policies, not foreign-sponsored terrorism, are the cause of Uyghur unrest. China’s development and control policy in Xinjiang is unlikely to stabilize the region as long as development benefits remain so unevenly distributed.”[11]

“The Uyghur people in East Turkistan face a daily chorus of half-truths, ‘propaganda’ and bare-faced lies from the Chinese authorities,” said Mr. Seytoff. “Uyghurs can’t argue back though, and it’s reached the stage now where if the government says ‘up is down’, Uyghurs in East Turkistan don’t dare disagree. So what we are saying now, and what we’d like to see everyone say to the Chinese authorities when they talk about all of these explosives and incidents and everything else, is ‘prove it’. That’s all.”