When Beijing received news that America had been attacked by Islamic militants on September 11, it sent 32 counterterrorist intelligence officials to the US to unconditionally provide intelligence on the Taliban.
For nearly ten years China had been attempting, without much success or notice, to crack down on Uighur separatists training with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. In the days before 9/11, China was not the only country worried about restiveness in Muslim Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A number of countries feared instability over a wide arc fueled by Afghan opium, Saudi religious extremism, and oil money. Kazakhstan, the People’s Republic of China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan created an informal counterterrorist network called the Shanghai Five as early as 1996. The group later expanded to include Iran, Pakistan, and India as observers under the title Shanghai Cooperative Organization.
Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Chinese publicly attempted to link their fight against Islamic separatists with America’s War on Terror. Sending 32 counterterrorist intelligence experts was Beijing’s way of saying “welcome to the party, pal.”
Muslims, who had once been a ruling administrative class over the Han Chinese during the Mongol era, have solid reasons to resent China. The Manchus annexed a population of Turkic ethnicity called Uighurs in Xinjiang in 1759, but had only brought them under Mao Tse Tung’s tight grip after 1949. The Uighurs, after a brief period of independence as the East Turkestan Republic, sold out by Josef Stalin to the Chinese Reds. Its political society was decapitated when many of its most prominent leaders died in a mysterious plane crash en route to a “negotiation” conference in China. Their territory was subsequently absorbed and Uighur culture was systematically dismantled. Mosques and Muslim clergy were subjected to strict controls. Crackdowns and severe torture were liberally employed.
China was playing for more than cultural dominance. Xinjiang was rich in oil and gas and in the post-Soviet era it was the springboard from which to “build strategic oil and gas pipelines in Central Asia, which would both counter United States and Russian pipelines and give the Central Asian states alternative routes to export their energy.” China was particularly interested in building a pipeline with Iran “taking oil 386 kilometers to the Caspian Sea where it could link with another planned pipeline from Kazakhstan to China.” All this meant that China had to remain a power in Central Asia, Uighur nationalism or no. When in the 1990s the Sunni Uighurs began to train with Bin Laden (then a bitter rival of the Ayatollahs for leadership of the Islamic revolution), Beijing became a sudden convert to the cause of counterterrorism.
But while the new Great Game is normally followed by only a few foreign policy analysts, the Olympic Summer games are followed by billions all over the world. And ever since Mexico ’68 was used to highlight anti-Vietnam causes and the Munich Games were employed as a poster to emphasize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Olympics have been about more than sports. They are now the premier advertising venue for political causes.
Groups as varied as “Uighur jihadi terrorists who have close links with Al-Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (IIF), [to] Tibetan activists [and] members of the Falun Gong” plan to disrupt or use the Beijing Olympic Games to plead their case before a worldwide audience. Actions by Tibetan activists attempting to seize and extinguish the Olympic Torch relay in Paris represent the low end of the threat. Yet even this low end threat has become a public relations nightmare for China, as the torch relay through the French capital “descended into chaos” with “protesters scaling the Eiffel Tower, grabbing for the flame and forcing security officials to repeatedly snuff out the torch and transport it by bus past demonstrators yelling ‘Free Tibet!’”
The number and variety of groups which have some sort of grievance against China was reflected in protest efforts to disrupt the Olympic Torch relay through San Francisco. Zombie, in a photo-essay depicting the cat and mouse game between the Torch and the protesters, observed that it “turns out a lot of people have a beef with China. I counted at least 20 different causes being championed at the protest, on a dizzying array of topics.”
First, of course, were the Tibetans and their supporters … the second largest contingent were the Darfur supporters, who blamed China for propping up the genocidal Sudanese regime … next up were the Burmese dissidents, who demanded that China stop supporting the repressive military dictatorship there … the Uyghurs had a surprisingly large turnout … Taiwanese Nationalists turned up en masse to warn China: Keep your hands off …
And then there were the Vietnamese protesters, animal rights activists, and the union members angry at the Chinese competition for jobs. There would have been more had Zombie somehow run into the Falun Gong. Yet the travails of the torch in San Francisco and elsewhere could be a walk in the park compared to what lies ahead.
Although China has warned against “Tibetan suicide bombers,” claiming “searches of monasteries in the Tibetan capital had turned up a large cache of weapons” and that “the next plan of the Tibetan independence forces is to organize suicide squads to launch violent attacks,” clearly the threat it most fears is from Muslim Uighurs who reportedly were trying to crash an airliner into the Beijing International airport. Uighurs who have trained with Osama Bin Laden could do far more damage than the political protests of the Tibetans. The Olympic games have become a play within a play; a stage upon which the larger Great Game for geopolitical and oil dominance in Central Asia has been projected.
One of Beijing’s worries is that one set of protests will set off another, like a string of Chinese firecrackers, until they cumulatively embarrass the government. “Uighur activists say that as soon as protests started in Tibet, China began detaining suspected Uighur dissidents in an effort to prevent unrest from spreading to Xinjiang, which shares a long border with Tibet. … the Tibetan protests … are spurring Uighurs abroad to speak out — and to explicitly link their aspirations to those of Tibetans … hundreds of Uighur demonstrators gathered in Istanbul for an anti-China protest during the Olympic torch relay passed through the city.” But the opportunities available to dissident groups to target Olympic related activities are so varied that B. Raman of the South Asia Analysis Group thinks Beijing will face a whole spectrum of challenges.
On the basis of the evidence presently available, it is assessed that the Uighur terrorists have a capability for diversionary attacks in Xinjiang and against Chinese nationals, interests, diplomatic missions and offices in Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics. The Tibetans have motivated activists, who might indulge in political acts such as shouting slogans, demonstrations, self-immolation etc. The Falun Gong could also indulge in such political acts.
One way or the other, China is doomed to become the target of protest and terrorist actions in the days leading up to the Games. Because the overseas reach of Chinese security agencies is limited, and as Christopher Bodeen of the Associated Press says “especially when it comes to groups based outside the country,” Beijing must rely on alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to make up the difference.
Recently China raised the possibility of joint action with countries outside its borders. “In a recent exclusive interview with Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television Channel, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Lieutenant-General Ma Xiaotian, said that during the Beijing Olympics the Chinese military would take joint action in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well as through other channels against the East Turkistan terrorist organisation and other forces of terrorism in order to ensure security at the Olympic Games.”
When the Beijing Games close in August the spotlight on Chinese dissident groups will have momentarily been turned off. But they will continue in the shadows. Until then protests centered on the Olympics will provide a glimpse into a greater game, one in which there are no prizes for second place.
Richard Fernandez writes at the Belmont Club.