China's Curious Olympic Terror Threat

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EyePress / AP

A paramilitary police unit surrounds a China Southern Airlines passenger plane during an anti-hijack drill in Harbin, in China's northeastern Heilongjiang Province, April 28, 2007.

The dramatic news came in the midst of China's staid and boring annual legislature: a terrorist hijacking plot, perhaps meant to mar the coming Olympic Games, had been stopped. Security forces had thwarted a plot to "create an air disaster," Nur Bekri, chairman of the Xinjiang regional government, told reporters at the ongoing session of the National People's Congress (NPC). Apparently, on Mar. 7, a hijacking attempt by separatists from the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang had been foiled. Initial reports stated that China Southern flight CZ6901 had made an emergency landing in the northwestern city of Lanzhou at about 12:40 p.m. after an apparent attempt to blow up the aircraft. The plane was en route from the Xinjiang capital Urumqi for Beijing.

The news however has been met with considerable skepticism outside China, particularly since details of the incident remain confusingly murky. According to the English-language China Daily, Bekri declined to give more details, only saying that the authorities are investigating "who the attackers are, where they are from and what their background is... But we can be sure that this was a case intending to create an air crash." Some details began to emerge later of between two and four hijackers, possibly carrying gasoline. But concrete information remained elusive.

Russell Leigh Moses, a China analyst based in Beijing, says that affair clearly provided the authorities with an opportunity to reiterate that the rulers of the People's Republic would brook no resistance to their will in troubled areas like Xinjiang and Tibet. It parallels a growing security crackdown on public interest lawyers, activists and other dissenting voices. Says Moses: "It's not what a lot of people outside China expected from the Games. I think there has been a conscious decision at the highest levels of the party that showing some teeth for deterrence sake is much more domestically viable than marching off into the unknown of reform and relaxation."

The paucity of details and the apparent laxness with which Chinese security officials treated the hijacking incident were particularly curious to Steven Tsang, a China specialist at St. Anthony's College, Oxford University. He noted that among the numerous anomalies in the accounts of the incident, the most glaring was that after stopping in Lanzhou, the airplane had apparently been allowed to continue its scheduled flight to Beijing. "This is more like an air rage incident in which you land and get rid of the troublesome passengers and then continue on to your destination. There's no way any anti-terrorism police would have released the plane and passengers to fly on without extensive interviews of the passengers, forensic examination of the plane and so on." Tsang also noted that it was particularly easy to blame a shadowy Islamic separatists movement in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics, possibly as a deterrent to those or any other groups who might want to disrupt the Games.

Some observers also wondered at the timing of the announcement — coming as it did smack in the middle of the annual session of the NPC, when media attention is focused on the capital. "This is exactly the kind of thing that happens around the time of the National People's Congress," says Russell Leigh Moses of the China Center in Beijing. "Cadres who don't necessarily get noticed a lot normally want to be seen as publicly carrying out the orders of the central government."

Indeed, if there is anything that will get the attention of the central government, it is the threat of terrorism. Chinese officials routinely declare that terrorism is "the greatest threat to the Olympic Games," as Minister of Public Security Zhou Youngkang put it last year. China's security forces exercise iron control and virtually unchecked powers. And yet the paranoia persists, stoked over the weekend by the Xinjiang delegation to the NPC. Bekri was not alone in making his announcement. Xinjiang Party Secretary Wang Lequan joined in the tough talk: "Terrorists, saboteurs and splittists are to be battered resolutely, no matter what ethnic group they are from."

The alleged attempt to blow up an airliner is the latest in a series of incidents relating to Xinjiang that have been made public in recent months. In January, the Chinese authorities said they had broken up a group calling itself East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), killing two and arresting 15 others. Chinese media suggested the group might have ties to al-Qaeda. Last November, Chinese media carried stories detailing death sentences against five ethnic Uighurs, natives of Xinjiang, for allegedly plotting terrorist activities. Chinese authorities say a small group of separatists is attempting to overthrow Chinese rule in the province and establish an independent Uighur state. The Lanzhou incident is bound to increase scrutiny and repression of Uighur dissent — with a Chinese public eager and concerned for a successful Olympics likely to be supportive of any new crackdown.