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Chicago Tribune
31-07-08, 21:20

In Western China, two conflicting messages

Evan Osnos

Tribune correspondent

5:27 PM CDT, July 31, 2008

KASHGAR, China — This windswept city lies on the western edge of the Chinese empire; it's a shorter trek to Kabul, Afghanistan, from here, than to Beijing.

Kashgar has been a strategic spot ever since the days of Marco Polo — first, as a Silk Road crossroads connecting the mountains of India and Persia with the Chinese heartland. Later, it was a listening post for spies in the 19th Century Great Game, when the British Empire and czarist Russia jockeyed for control of Central Asia.

Walk the city today and you'll glimpse evidence of another reason to pay attention to Kashgar: two very different messages written on the walls capture why China's regime is watching this distant outpost with particular interest in the final days before the Beijing Olympics, scheduled to start Aug. 8.

One message is emblazoned, in Chinese, on crisp new banners: "One World, One Dream." That's the official motto of the Beijing Olympics. Out here, it feels not only like a call for global celebration but also like an appeal to China's most distant — and volatile reaches — to pull together for an event that is intended to underscore the nation's unity.

The other message is also from the government, but this one is spray-painted in red lettering along the narrow sun-dried brick alleys that form the capillaries of the city: "Severely strike the Islamic Party of Liberation."

That group, also known as Hizb ut-Tahrir, is a global Islamist party that seeks to create a unified Muslim state, or caliphate. It is banned in China and many Central Asian and Arab countries, which consider it a terrorist group, but it operates openly in Britain.

The party has found support in this part of China among members of the indigenous Muslim minority, known as Uighurs, many of whom want greater autonomy from Beijing's control of the region, its religion and its abundant natural resources. Beijing blames another Uighur-led group, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, for a range of bombings and assassinations within China over the past two decades. The U.S. classified the group a terrorist organization in 2002, because of alleged links to Al Qaeda.

After years of rebellion and crackdown in Xinjiang, the northwest region of China, the Chinese government says it is worried that it could be a breeding ground for a terrorist attack during the Olympics, China's moment of maximum political exposure. That prospect is receiving added attention this week after a video surfaced online under the banner of the "Turkistan Islamic Party," which terrorism specialists in the U.S. and abroad suggest is a branch of the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, known as ETIM. The group claimed responsibility for recent explosions in four Chinese cities, including a pair of bus bombings in the city of Kunming that killed two and injured 14 people.

"Our aim is to target the most critical points related to the Olympics," the group's commander, Seyfullah, said, according to a translation by IntelCenter, a Washington-based security analysis firm. Chinese authorities have dismissed that claim of responsibility for the recent explosions, which they declared to be accidents but they continue to warn of a threat posed by the Eastern Turkestan group.

"Intelligence reports show the group has been planning to carry out terrorist attacks during the Games," Ma Zhenchuan, director of security for the Beijing Games, told state television last week.

The prospect of an attack poses a problem not only for China's regime but also for foreign powers that must decide whether their support for China's anti-terrorism efforts gives Beijing a freer hand for repression of nonviolent political opponents. Independent security analysts say the Olympics is, indeed, a rich target for terrorism, but overseas human rights groups also caution China has used security as a pretext for silencing or arresting non-violent activists who seek greater political, religious or property rights.

Here in Kashgar, police announced earlier this month that they have broken up 12 cells of ETIM and Hizb ut-Tahrir so far this year. Separately, 17 people were recently convicted in Kashgar of membership in ETIM and sentenced to prison terms of 10 years to life, according to Radio Free Asia.

Trying to get a sense of where loyalties lie here is not easy.

"The Olympics doesn't have much to do with me. It's a Chinese event," said a 52-year-old shopkeeper— who, like everyone, it seemed—waived off a request for his name.

"Don't talk to me, if you want to know about that," said another, when asked about Uighur political parties.

Before long, I gave up. Since Uighur groups abroad report that people in Xinjiang face repurcussions for speaking with foreign journalists, searching too far seemed unfair to whomever might agree. Besides, the competition for loyalty in Kashgar is not difficult to grasp. It's written on the walls.

Evan Osnos was recently on assignment in Kashgar.


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