With Tibet still simmering--Lhasa is in ruins and at least 100 people have reportedly died in various skirmishes over the last two weeks--the Chinese government has accused the Dalai Lama’s associates of collusion with terrorist organizations. “The Dalai Lama is scheming to take the Beijing Olympics hostage to force the Chinese Government to make concessions to Tibet independence,” read an editorial in the state-sponsored People’s Daily. The charges, though absurd--it’s the Dalai Lama--are hardly unique. In fact, they’re of a piece with a new tactic the Chinese government seems to have developed: using Olympic security as an excuse to crack down, beyond any sense of proportion, on its “enemies.”
Take the case of the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group located primarily in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. (Though primarily Buddhist, Confucian, and atheist, China has a Muslim population of one to two percent.) Earlier this month, China announced that Uighur terrorists had targeted the Games, a claim that understandably drew headlines around the world. Given the Games’ horrific history of terrorist attacks, many sporting fans probably breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that the Chinese authorities had busted a plot hatched by militant separatists. Wang Lequan, the top Communist Party official in Xinjiang, told the Associated Press that materials seized had described a plot with a purpose "specifically to sabotage the staging of the Beijing Olympics." But the details of the terror plot don’t seem be so clear cut, and Wang provided little to justify his claims.
Terrorism clearly could threaten the Games. And there are obvious grievances in western China. In the early and mid-1990s, Uighurs in Xinjiang launched large-scale riots and attacked and even killed Chinese officials. But by the end of the 1990s, the Chinese authorities had crushed most Uighur movements, often through extremely harsh methods, like public executions. Many leading Uighur activists fled to neighboring Central Asian states, and the last major Uighur attacks were roughly a decade ago.
By the turn of the millennium, Beijing had not only driven away most Uighur separatists, but also decimated Uighur culture. In traditional Uighur cities like Kashgar, a vibrant bazaar town on the border of Central Asia, the authorities tore down Uighur stalls across the central square, where Muslim men once gathered for open-air shaves before heading to the central mosque. The local government replaced them with a bland plaza patrolled by Chinese troops. In another unpopular move, Beijing offered financial incentives for ethnic Chinese migrants to come to the province and set up businesses. Now, ethnic Chinese dominate nearly all big businesses in the region.
Uighurs who spoke out against these policies were punished severely, and, as a result, a veil of fear shades most conversations. When I have traveled to Xinjiang, I found few Uighur acquaintances willing to meet me in public. Even in private, many would turn up music before venting their anger at Chinese policies, to ensure no one could hear.
After 9/11, Beijing clearly saw an opportunity. Pledging its support to the global war on terror, China pushed the U.S. to put an obscure Uighur group, called ETIM, on the State Department’s watchlist of global terrorist organizations. (Some Xinjiang analysts doubt whether ETIM even exists.) Shamefully, in 2002, the State Department agreed, and later provided Chinese intelligence with access to Uighurs detained at Guantanamo Bay, who were later deemed innocent.
With the power of the U.S. behind it, Beijing has launched an even harsher crackdown since 2002. As chronicled in an extensive report by Human Rights Watch, Chinese authorities have put Uighurs “under wholesale assault by the state” in the past several years. Uighur religious leaders were arrested, tortured, and even executed, just for practicing their religion, HRW noted. Other Uighurs have been locked up following mass round-ups. Prominent secular Uighur leaders like Rabeeya Kadeer, a well-known businesswoman, were locked up as well. And by linking the Xinjiang repression to terrorism, HRW found, Beijing was able to justify its actions to most average Chinese: “This perception [of Uighurs as terrorists] seems to have now become dominant with the Chinese public, which because of the lack of a free media has little ability to compare sources of information and come to independent judgments about this claim.”
If the success the Chinese have had in playing up the terrorist "plot" against the Games is any indication, the Olympics may offer Beijing a chance to whitewash its Xinjiang repression for a broader, global public. Never mind that ETIM may not exist, or that most experts consider the threat of terrorism, even during the Olympics, in China to be low--the Chinese government knows that hyping the threat of violence at the Olympics provides them a once-in-a-generation opportunity to justify their repressive tendencies and antagonize old enemies anew. Don’t be surprised, then, to hear about the peaceful Dalai Lama--or, say, Falun Gong--“plotting” more nefarious deeds as the Opening Ceremonies get closer.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a special correspondent to The New Republic.
By Joshua Kurlantzick