In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States, China has launched its own "war on terror." Beijing now labels as terrorists those who are fighting for an independent state in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, which the separatists call "Eastern Turkestan." The government considers these activists part of a network of international Islamic terror, with funding from the Middle East, training in Pakistan, and combat experience in Chechnya and Afghanistan.
In fact, separatist violence in Xinjiang is neither new nor driven primarily by outsiders. The region's Uighurs, most of whom practice Sufi Islam and speak a Turkic language, have long had their national ambitions frustrated by Beijing. The latest wave of Uighur separatism has been inspired not by Osama bin Laden but by the unraveling of the Soviet Union, as militants seek to emulate the independence gained by some Muslim communities in Central Asia. For a decade now, Xinjiang has been rocked by demonstrations, bombings, and political assassinations. According to a recent government report, Uighur separatists were responsible for 200 attacks between 1990 and 2001, causing 162 deaths and injuring more than 440 people. In the largest single incident, in 1997, as many as 100 people may have been killed during a pro-independence uprising in the town of Ili, with the government and the separatists blaming each other for the fatalities. These incidents have occurred despite the best efforts of the Chinese authorities to suppress them. As part of their continuing "strike hard" campaign against crime, for example, Chinese police recently reported the arrest of 166 separatist "terrorists" and other "major criminals" in a series of raids carried out in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital.
The separatists have accused the regime of resorting to arbitrary arrest, torture, detention without public trial, and summary execution. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has alleged that members of a shadowy "Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement" have obtained funds and training from al Qaeda. As the security environment in Xinjiang grows increasingly tense, the conflict shows just how complicated such struggles can be, and how