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July 31, 2008

The World Under Fire


by Sascha Matuszak

In the past ten days, bombs have ripped people apart in high profile, bloody locations like Baghdad and India, killed more in relatively safe locations like Kunming and Istanbul and scared others in Spain. The world is on fire and Beijing is about to party.

In China, unconfirmed reports of bomb threats, apprehended terrorists and defused bombs circle throughout the media establishment and parts of the populace. The Chinese Public Security Bureau has chosen to play down all risks in the days leading up to the Olympics, but the threat level internally must be at its highest pitch following the Kunming bombings. There have been several bombings, fires, explosions and other disturbing incidents this year in China, many of them attributed to "the crazy lone man" such as the disgruntled worker and the angry gambler in Shanghai and the cancer victim in Wenzhou.

These reports can only be taken at face value, but it must be noted that the lone deranged bomber is a much more desirable perpetrator – from the State’s point of view – then an organized and determined cell of hard core fighters. Not only does it present less of an enemy, but it keeps the people calm: there is no organized enemy out to get us, its only the crazy guy …

Unfortunately for China, an organized group is exactly what they might be facing in the Islamic Party of East Turkistan (IPET), the group that claimed responsibility for the Kunming bombings and several others, including the Shanghai and Wenzhou incidents, in a video released two days after the Kunming bombing.

China has been dealing with separatist "freedom fighters" or "terrorists – depending on your perspective – since the 1950s when the Communists took over Xinjiang. Every few years, the Turkic Uigher people rise up against Chinese rule, setting off bombs, demonstrating in the streets and calling for their own state: East Turkistan. These demands have been toned down in recent years to include basic economic rights and freedom of religion, but China’s heavy-handed approach to governance in areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet has resulted in a deep, abiding hatred simmering amongst the Uigher.

After 9/11, the government’s most prominent nemesis in the region, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was hounded into obscurity by Chinese security forces, with tacit world approval. The remnants of ETIM are believed to have crossed over the mountainous border into Afghanistan and worked their way south toward Pakistan. For the past few years, what has survived of this group has received training and guidance by the Islamic fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This new organization, the IPET, may be the new incarnation of ETIM, with more sophisticated tactics, more support and a deeper dedication to violence as a means of achieving their aims.

In Xinjiang, independence from China does not necessarily sound good to the average Uigher. Without China to develop the region’s oil, gas and mineral resources, Xinjiang would be fought over like a juicy bone by some other powers in the region, most notably Pakistan or even Russia. The Chinese have brought "modernity" to the region. However, as with Tibet, modernity means the death of Uigher culture and religion and the rise of Han Chinese social, political and economic control over the Uigher.

If the Chinese would allow Uighers to practice their religion, give them a piece of the economic pie and try and integrate them as Turkic Muslims into Greater China, perhaps there would be no need for violence. But this is not the case. Children under 18 are forbidden to study Islam and mosques are under the tight control of the Communist Party, which advocates "Patriotic Religion."

Chinese who have lived for generations in Xinjiang claim there is no problem – and on the surface this may be the case – but speak with any Uigher out of earshot of a Han and he will express disgust, hatred and frustration. Speak with any Han long enough, and he will express paternalistic arrogance. It’s the same story all over the world …

Even in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in the developed north, the youth have begun dating each other and Progress is smothering Hatred. But the divisions are still clear. If the people were allowed to continue to grow together without the interference of radical Muslims and fascist police, Xinjiang might know peace.

But in Hotan and Kashgar, in the south of Xinjiang, there is a heavy police presence and the Uigher are subjected to a Cultural Revolution-style indoctrination program which includes mass rallies in favor of Party policies, where the Uigher people are urged to sing and chant pro-Party and Mao Zedong songs.

Naturally, this leads to resentment and anger amongst the Muslims. Additionally, the economic might of the region is in the firm control of Han officials and businessmen, adding fuel to the fire.

Pakistani businessmen, many of them very religious and sympathetic to the plight of their Muslim brethren, make frequent trips across the Karakorum Mountains to engage in trade, and it is not unlikely that they bring Islam and the reality of free religion with them.

Measures to alleviate the anger of the Muslims in Xinjiang are now, sadly, a moot point. IPET, even if their claims to all the bombings and explosions in China turn out to be wild grasps at publicity, are organized enough to put a video out. Any group that puts up a video will engage in acts of violent sabotage in order to increase their profile, achieve their aims and recruit more jihadists.

The Olympics Threatened

Beijing is a huge city of 13 million people. It is virtually impossible to close the whole city down and protect against every possible bomb threat. So far the authorities have done a tremendous job. Granted, the Chinese approach to security so far has been to blanket the area with Chinese eyes, but so far so good. Though there have been unconfirmed reports of bomb threats that have been defused – no actual explosions have yet to take place. For the people of Beijing and the thousands of tourists, athletes and dignitaries arriving in the next two weeks, unconfirmed reports are definitely more desirable than confirmed explosions.

However, the threat of a deadly attack remains. In Beijing, the drive to rid the skies of smog has resulted in plans to reduce the amount of traffic on the streets by 90%. What this means is that the public transportation system – able to handle about 4 million people – will be stretched to the maximum capacity before all of the foreign delegations arrive. If even 1/3 of the foreigners take to the public system – which is likely, given the convenience and efficiency of the metro and bus systems – then the numbers are likely to rise.

It is impossible to maintain a tight security web under these conditions.

Today the Chinese dealt with pollution and human rights questions from reporters and several stories have been file din the past few days that question China’s ability to "be ready" for foreigners. Closing DVD shops, mass "civilize the people" campaigns, walling up eyesore neighborhoods, trying to ban undesirables from bars and disco – all these topics have been hitting the headlines as much if not more than the threat of terrorist attacks.

The world should be taking IPET very seriously, for this is their one and only chance to make a big impact on China and drive more and more harried Uighers into their ranks. The Islamists in Pakistan and Afghanistan adhere to a "Doomsday" mentality of massive civilizational war between the modern countries of the West and the Islamic religious nations of the Middle East. Part of the plan is to unite the two warring sides to create clear boundaries between the Infidel and the Believer.

A strike at Beijing – whose people are convinced that the Muslims and the Chinese have good relations with each other – would galvanize an already extremely patriotic people to support full heartedly (not that don’t already) a pogrom of destruction against the DongTu – the Uigher separatists. Such a pogrom – coupled with increased Western presence in Afghanistan, graveyard of Empires – can only play into the hands of the fatalistic.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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