Xinjiang Authorities Pledge Crackdown Against "Three Forces"

May 5, 2008

Officials in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) renewed a pledge in early March to crack down against the government-designated "three forces" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. The government has waged a longstanding campaign against the "three forces" and has used its anti-crime campaigns as a pretext for severe rights abuses in the XUAR. The pledges came as the government provided limited details on recent alleged terrorist activities in the region.

Government Pledges Crackdown

On March 7, XUAR government chairperson Nur Bekri announced that the "three forces" had "recently become more active in planning violent activities," according to a China Daily paraphrasing of his remarks in a March 8 article. "We should stay on high alert all the time to crush any attempt to damage Xinjiang's development and stability," he said. At a March 9 press conference for domestic and foreign reporters, XUAR Communist Party Chair Wang Lequan said that authorities would "destroy" groups plotting to disrupt the Olympics, according to a transcript of the event posted March 10 on Tianshan Net. At the same press conference, Nur Bekri described the government's policy of making preemptive strikes against separatists and maintaining a posture of "striking hard with high pressure."

The March 9 statements from Wang Lequan and Nur Bekri came as the two provided details on two recent criminal incidents, one of which official sources described as terrorist activity aimed at the Olympics and one of which government sources initially said was under investigation but later described as "sabotage" and terrorism. At the press conference, Wang Lequan referred to a January 2008 incident, also reported on by Chinese media in February, which Wang described as a raid on a cell that had manufactured weapons and conspired to attack the Olympics. At the same press conference, Nur Bekri announced that on March 7, a plane en route from the XUAR capital Urumqi to Beijing made an emergency landing after an "attempt to create an air disaster," according to the transcript of the press conference.

Government Links Alleged Terrorist Plot to Olympics

According to the transcript of the March 9 press conference, Wang Lequan made reference to the January raid while answering a question about groups in the XUAR allegedly aiming to disrupt the Olympics. "Just recently, Xinjiang security departments destroyed a gang. They made explosives and grenades in order to cause destruction, and in the process of their preparations, they were discovered by us. When we arrested them, they threw three grenades at our security officers, and seven received minor injuries," he said. In response to another question about the attack, Wang said, "We haven't fully wrapped up the case involving the incident that broke out on January 27. But concerning your questions, I can tell you...their aim was very clear, which was to destroy the carrying out of the Olympics." Official Chinese media writing in English also reported on his remarks. See, e.g., a Xinhua report posted March 9 on the China Daily Web site which quoted Wang as saying "Obviously, the gang had planned an attack targeting the Olympics."

Mainland Chinese media first reported on the January raid in February, but media reports described Wang Lequan's March remarks as the first time the event had been connected to the Olympics. (See, e.g., a March 9 report from Agence France-Presse (AFP), via Yahoo.) On February 18, the Global Times, a publication connected to the People's Daily newspaper of the Communist Party (CP), reported that on January 27, police broke up a "violent terrorist gang" operating in the Xingfu Gardens area of Urumqi's Tianshan district and discovered firearms, self-manufactured explosives, terrorist training equipment, and materials propagating religious extremism. Police killed 2 and arrested 15, according to the report. (Translation available from Open Source Center (subscription required), February 20.) The article did not explicitly describe the intended targets of the group, but a Chinese terrorism expert quoted in the report said that the "incident reminds us that Olympics security is not only limited to the Beijing area" and that "more attention should be paid to areas that have had terrorist activity break out in the past." A February 19 China Daily article that reported on the information from the Global Times said that "[t]he raid was the latest in a series of efforts by the local government to crack down on violent activities by Uygur [sic] separatists who have carried out several terrorist acts since the 1990s." Elsewhere, Chinese sources have claimed over 260 terrorist attacks have taken place in the region, but they have used shoddy evidence and inconsistent statistics to support their claims.

Outside of mainland Chinese media, information on the January raid appears to have first been reported on February 14 by the Hong Kong-based Sing Tao newspaper (via the Sing Tao Canada Web site and an English translation from the Open Source Center, February 14). It reported then that police had broken up a terrorist ring in Xingfu Gardens, confiscating firearms and explosives and killing "at least 18 terrorists," a death toll similar to that reported for a January 2007 raid. (See below for more details on the 2007 incident.) Sing Tao said the terrorist group was planning activities to commemorate that 11th anniversary of protests in the city of Ghulja, which the government responded to through a violent crackdown. In a February 19 report (via Open Source Center, February 19), AFP noted that "it was impossible to independently verify" the different accounts of the January incident, noting that "[i]ndependent information gathering is difficult in Xinjiang, made particularly hard by China's heavy security presence[.]"

In a March 11 press conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson Qin Gang said the case was still under investigation and did not mention its reported ties to the Olympics. (See the transcript in Chinese and English on the MFA Web site.)

March Airplane Incident First Said To Be Under Investigation, Later Identified as "Sabotage" and Terrorism

At the March 9 press conference, Nur Bekri provided limited details on an emergency flight landing in response to a reporter who asked if an incident had taken place recently involving four ethnic Uighurs who had brought gasoline aboard a China Southern flight. After presenting his view of the security situation in the XUAR and pledging a crackdown against separatists, Nur Bekri responded that on the afternoon of March 7, a Beijing-bound China Southern flight from Urumqi made an emergency landing in Lanzhou, saying that "from what is understood at present, we can confirm that this was an attempt to create an air disaster." Nur Bekri said that an airline employee detected a problem and prevented an incident from taking place. He said that after the plane had stopped for several hours in Lanzhou, it arrived in Beijing on March 8. He added that suspects were in custody but that their identities and their motives were still under investigation. Nur Bekri did not discuss whether the incident constituted terrorist activity. For reporting in English on Nur Bekri's remarks, see a March 9 Xinhua report.

Government officials openly provided few details on the attack in the days immediately following Nur Bekri's announcement. MFA spokesperson Qin Gang, speaking at the March 11 press conference, said the incident was still under investigation, which he reiterated at a March 13 press conference (on the MFA Web site in English and Chinese). Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also provided limited details at a March 12 press conference (via Open Source Center, March 12). On March 11, however, a Chinese-language article from the Global Times (via the China News Net and Open Source Center, March 12), the publication affiliated with the CP-controlled People's Daily, cited an unnamed official source who described the incident as "clearly" a terrorist attack.

Roughly two weeks after the incident, Wang Lequan identified it as an act of sabotage. In a March 19 article based on an interview he gave that day with XUAR media and posted on the Xinjiang Daily Web site, Wang said that "it has now already been ascertained that this was a grave incident of sabotage instigated and implemented by 'East Turkistan' separatists from outside the country." He also described "western hostile forces" as "unceasing" in their efforts to sabotage the region and said they had "penetrated everywhere." He called for various measures, including "striking hard with high pressure" against the "three forces," to ensure stability in the region. For English reporting on his remarks, see a March 20 article from Xinhua.

The following week, on March 27, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) issued a notice stating that police investigation had found the incident was an "organized and premeditated case of terrorism aimed at the aircraft[.]" The MPS notice identified one criminal suspect who had "confessed everything" and said the case was still under investigation. For reporting in English, see a March 27 Xinhua report on the China Daily Web site. In a March 27 press conference (via the MFA Web site in Chinese and English), Qin Gang said he had nothing to add to the MPS report.

Media Rehashes January 2007 Incident

Some reporting on the March and January incidents (see, e.g., the March 9 Xinhua report) also referred to a January 5, 2007, police raid at a location on the Pamirs plateau that Chinese officials described as a terrorist training base. Chinese media reported on the raid shortly after it took place. According to a January 8, 2007, Tianshan Net report on a XUAR Public Security Department press conference held that day, police killed 18 people, captured 17 others, and confiscated 22 homemade grenades and 1,500 partially completed grenades during the raid.

One day after the raid but two days before Chinese media reported on the event, Wang Lequan called on the XUAR government to make stability the "overriding" concern in the region and to "strike hard" against the "three forces," according to remarks at a January 6 conference reported January 7, 2007, in the Xinjiang Daily. While noting that ethnic unity and political stability were strong in the XUAR, Wang said that forces from within China and abroad had carried out infiltration and sabotage activities in the region, the article reported. Wang described the "struggle with separatist forces" as a "long and complicated task," and called for making preemptive attacks against them.

Chinese Reporting Draws Doubts, Concerns From Observers

Official reporting from China on the January and March 2008 events and earlier 2007 raid has drawn doubt from outside observers and concerns that the government is using the incidents to increase repression in the XUAR. In a March 10 AFP article (via Yahoo), scholar James Millward noted that information on the recent events was limited to Chinese press coverage. The Chinese government exerts tight controls over the press and limits the ability of both domestic and foreign reporters to do on-the-ground reporting in the XUAR. (See Section II, Freedom of Expression, in the 2007 CECC Annual Report, via the Government Printing Office Web site, and a CECC analysis on foreign journalists for more information.) Speaking of the January 2007 terrorist raid, scholar Dru Gladney said that the government had not provided clear evidence indicating the existence of a terrorist base, and that the incident could have involved another criminal, but non-terrorist, operation, according to a January 10, 2007, AFP article (via Nexis, subscription required). In a 2004 East-West Center Washington paper titled Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment, James Millward similarly noted the Chinese government had not provided enough details about previous alleged terrorist crimes to prove that the acts were separatist or terrorist "as opposed to simply criminal."

In the March 10, 2008, AFP article, Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch said that the organization was "concerned that the Chinese government may use these alleged terrorist plots as a pretext for a new campaign of repression against the Uighur population in Xinjiang and to stifle any public expressions of dissent[.]" In press releases issued on February 19 and March 11, the Uyghur American Association called for independent investigations into the January and March incidents and expressed concern that the government would use the incidents as cause for continuing repressive policies in the region.

Government Reports on Anti-Separatism Measures

Recent reporting on the XUAR details a range of measures used to address perceived security threats, both prior to and after reports of the January and March 2008 incidents.

  • A March 14 report from the China News Agency (via the Xinjiang News Net) described recent measures by the Urumqi Public Security Bureau to strengthen security and "strike hard and keep tight lookout against sabotage by the 'three forces'" in the run-up to the Olympics. According to the article, "the city's Olympics security and guard work has already entered into a state of actual combat."
  • A report posted March 7 on the Qumul district government Web site described a recent meeting aimed at "ideology reeducation work" for the "battle against separatism and infiltration," designed to heighten awareness of the issue especially among ethnic minority cadres and strengthen supervision and management of the state's work on the issue. The article stressed raising awareness of the "protracted nature, severity, complexity, and arduousness" of the anti-separatism battle.
  • A February 28 article posted on the Chinese Ethnicity News Web site detailed a new agreement between ethnic and religious affairs bureaus in Kashgar district and counterpart bureaus in Wuhan city, Hubei province, that includes security measures aimed at Kashgar residents living in Wuhan. "According to the principle that 'safeguarding stability is the number one duty,' Wuhan city will strengthen the intensity of its work to attack the 'three forces,' communicating in a timely manner and sharing information on conditions; Kashgar district will establish a database of information on relevant persons who violate the law and commit crimes, enjoying it with Wuhan and mutually channeling inspection and control categories, attacking in a timely manner those who violate the law and commit crimes, and safeguarding ethnic unity and the unification of the country," the article reported. It also outlined measures to strengthen education in patriotism.
  • Former Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang is the new leader of the Central Xinjiang Work Coordination Group, according to a March 11 report from the Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao (via Open Source Center, March 11). According to a source cited in an April 17, 2007, article from Sing Tao (via Open Source Center, April 18, 2007), personnel appointments for the Xinjiang group and a counterpart group on Tibetan policy have indicated "priority to handling Xinjiang affairs with an iron hand."

Rights Abuses Remain Rampant

As noted in the CECC 2007 Annual Report, the Chinese government has increased repression in the XUAR in recent years and targets the Uighur population in particular with harsh policies to squelch political dissent and control expressions of religious and ethnic identity. The government has used anti-terrorism policies to conflate the peaceful exercise of rights with terrorist or separatist activity. Uighurs remain in prison for activities including conducting historical research on the region and for writing a fictional short story. The government couples "strike hard" anti-crime campaigns with "softer" policies aimed at diluting expressions of Uighur cultural identity.

For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section II--Ethnic Minority Rights, subsection on Rights Abuses in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in the 2007 CECC Annual Report.