China's most wanted

The Australian
Rowan Callick
Asia-Pacific editor
January 16, 2009

THE 17 Guantanamo Bay inmates Washington wants to send Australia as it closes down its controversial camp for suspected terrorists are high on China's most-wanted list. They are Uyghurs, members of the nine-million-strong group of Turkic Muslims - some of them sandy-haired and blue-eyed - who live in the arid northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang, which is about the size of Queensland.

Five other Uyghurs who were hauled to Guantanamo after 9/11 were sent to Albania, a majority Muslim country, in May 2006. But the remainder have proved harder to place.

The Weekend Australian revealed last week that Beijing has lobbied Canberra fiercely against accepting the 17. China says they are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which is listed as a terrorist group by the UN Security Council. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "The Chinese Government requires these terrorist suspects be repatriated to China. We firmly oppose any countries receiving these people."

China also battles relentlessly against the four other prominent "poisons" it views as its biggest threat: the Dalai Lama's Tibetans, pro-independence Taiwanese, the Falun Gong movement and campaigners for democracy.

But it is the Uyghurs - and especially the ETIM, which is fighting for independence - that Beijing most fears; they have been blamed for almost every act of political violence in China in the past decade or more.

An atmosphere of anxiety pervades Xinjiang as a result. The Chinese and Uyghur communities largely live in separate worlds. A Han Chinese businessman brought up in Xinjiang says: "I respect - no, I love - the Uyghur culture. But ultimately it comes down to a battle for the land. It's either us or them. And my father's bones are buried there."

Way out west in Xinjiang, the five-starred Chinese flag hangs limply over the military outpost at Ghez, on the Karakoram Highway, the highest international road in the world, reaching 4700m, which traces the main route of the ancient Silk Road.

There is a basketball hoop in the barracks yard but no one is playing ball. The People's Liberation Army contingent consists of Han Chinese and they are more watchful than playful. Their assignment is to control access to the military zone that lies to the west, 500km towards the Pakistan border.

This Friendship Highway was completed, in its present, sealed form, in 1986, cementing the close ties between Beijing and Islamabad The Afghan border is not far to the north.

Even Chinese citizens require special passes to enter this zone, where the astoundingly beautiful Karakul lakes attract growing numbers of tourists. Otherwise, the traffic mainly comprises military convoys travelling to and from secret camps and dusty trucks ferrying foodstuffs, machinery and manufactures between China and Pakistan.

Surrounding the Ghez checkpoint is a ramshackle array of stores that sell cheap goods and fast food for truck drivers. All are run by Uyghurs, whose barefoot children play in the dust.

The Xinjiang region was the centre of a mighty Buddhist Uyghur empire 1200 years ago. It was conquered, like most of Asia, by the Mongols 800 years ago, and later converted to Islam. Although the word Uyghur means "united", the people have frequently quarrelled among themselves.

The Manchus, who had earlier invaded China to form the Qing dynasty, first conquered the Uyghurs in 1759, but did not fully subdue them until 1884, when Beijing gave the region the name Xinjiang, meaning "new territory". After the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Xinjiang came into play in the Great Game in Central Asia between Russia, China and Britain, which then ruled the Indian subcontinent. Short-lived East Turkestan Republics were established in the region in the 1930s and '40s.

But following the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949, Mao Zedong swiftly seized control of Xinjiang.

Large numbers of people, many of them living on marginalised land in other parts of China, were pressed into the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corporation: a quasi-military brigade usually known as the Bingtuan that was sent to Xinjiang, especially to the frontier areas, where cotton became a prominent crop despite a lack of water.

Along 5600km, the region borders eight countries: Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Here, a 21st-century Great Game is being played out, with oil and gas the main prizes, and with Islamist extremism and post-Soviet national borders providing a complex and challenging setting.

In Xinjiang - where the Bingtuan program has led to the Uyghurs being outnumbered by other groups, mainly Han Chinese - the oil reserves are estimated to be 30billion tonnes and gas reserves 10.3 trillion cubic metres. These resources are mainly in the Tarim Basin that comprises much of the region's southern part. In its centre is the vast Taklamakan Desert, whose name means: once you go in, you don't come out. It covers 338,000sqkm, more than five times the size of Tasmania.

In recent years China has invested extensively in highways criss-crossing Xinjiang, including across the Taklamakan, traversed by giant road-trains, where it is erecting the world's second biggest wind farm. It has built a gas pipeline 5000km to Shanghai.

Of the 2.3 people who live in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, 77 per cent are Han. It is an industrial and retail centre much like other Chinese regional centres, except for its grand bazaar and its excellent museum.

The museum's prize exhibits are mummies of people of European descent who once lived in the region, including the disturbingly well-preserved Loulan beauty, a woman of about 45, 157cm tall, who died 3800 years ago.

Outside the capital, the ancient oases villages and towns are dominated by Uyghurs, who continue to farm with donkeys, goats and mules. In the east, they irrigate their crops - including nationally prized melons and grapes - through the Karez system of underground channels, some of them first dug 2000 years ago, from invisible lakes of snow run-off.

Many Uyghur women wear headscarves, but not the full veils commonly seen across the border in Pakistan. The staple food includes naan bread and lamb kebabs. Officials say the region's 24,000 mosques - whose imams are state-funded, like the clerics of China's other official religions - are permitted to broadcast the call to prayer to their neighbourhoods. But they are not often heard.

The governor of Xinjiang is usually a Uyghur (the incumbent is Nuer Baikeli), while the Communist Party secretary, the more powerful figure in the regional hierarchy (the incumbent is Wang Lequan), has always been Han Chinese. Official signs in Xinjiang are written in Chinese as well as Arabic: after the Uyghurs converted to Islam, they adopted the Arabic script for their language, which is related to Mongolian.

Like other Chinese minority groups, rural Uyghurs are mostly allowed to have three children, while those living in cities are restricted to two.

The revival of Uyghur nationalism, widely blamed for bus bombings in Urumqi and Beijing in the late 1990s, and of an associated Islamist zeal, have provoked anxiety among the Chinese. Some Uyghur settlements in Chinese cities, starting with Beijing, have been broken up and their inhabitants dispersed, or sent back home.

The Chinese security forces warned of likely efforts by the "five poisons" to undermine last August's Beijing Olympics, but the only serious incidents reported were attributed to Uyghurs. These included the attempted hijacking by young Uyghur women of a China Southern Airlines flight from Urumqi to Beijing. But details of the incident remain murky and contradictory, as do those of the killing in Kashgar, four days before the Olympics opened, of 16 Chinese border police, allegedly by an Uyghur taxi driver and a vegetable seller, accused of being ETIM members. On August 9, the first day of Olympic competition, eight people were reported killed in a series of bomb attacks on a police station and commercial buildings in Kuqa in southern Xinjiang.

There is evidence that ETIM members trained with the Taliban in Afghanistan before 9/11, and that the movement has organisational links with al-Qa'ida. There is no public access to Afghanistan through the border with China: traffic is routed via Pakistan.

Beijing signed on to George W. Bush's war on terror and, six years ago, the US listed ETIM as a terrorist organisation, shortly before the UN added the movement to its list.

Seventeen alleged members of the ETIM were seized during a raid by Chinese security forces in January 2007 on what was said to be a terrorist training camp in the mountainous border country of western Xinjiang, during which 19 people, including a policeman, were killed.

The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a regional group focused on Central Asia, comprising China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, was established in 2001 with a strong security focus in fighting Muslim separatism and extremism.

In Kashgar, where Uyghurs dominate, the Chinese police patrol constantly in electric golf carts that can penetrate swiftly and silently the massive covered bazaar and the old city, with its narrow, labyrinthine alleyways lined with the open shopfronts of people plying ancient crafts.

Every Friday more than 10,000 men - there is no room for women - attend prayers at the Id Kah mosque, the biggest in China, facing the central square of Kashgar's rambling old city.

At the top of the People's Park at the heart of the newer, Chinese area, stands a massive statue of Mao Zedong, his right arm outstretched as if to assert his authority over the land. One midnight several weeks ago, an earthquake of 6.8 on the Richter scale struck the nearby border zone, and people spilled out of their homes and hotels into the People's Park. The police rushed in their golf carts to the scene, fearing the worst: either an insurrection or the collapse of Mao.

Neither happened, and everyone gradually melted back to their homes. But Mao remains on guard. And when it comes to guarding against trouble in Xinjiang, his successors don't sleep either.

Canberra has recently received that message, loud and clear.