China's Murky Olympic Terror Threats

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China Daily / Reuters

Paramilitary policemen participate in an anti-terror military drill in Urumchi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region April 9, 2008.

The run-up to the Beijing Olympics has been clouded by one confusing crisis after another. Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee president, said on Thursday that he was "saddened" by the violence that broke out along the torch relay's bumpy road and acknowledged that it had not been "the joyous party that we had wished it to be." Hours later, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security held a press conference to announce that the authorities had nabbed two terrorists groups in Xinjiang that had "attempted to carry out sabotage to undermine the Beijing Olympic Games." Despite Beijing's alarm, however, some observers are looking at this unveiled terror threat with a skeptical eye.

Officially, the revelations sound ominous. One of the groups was allegedly headed by a terrorist sent into China by "East Turkestan" separatists from overseas, said the ministry spokesman Wu Heping. East Turkestan is the name given to China's huge Xinjiang province by separatists belonging to the Uighur ethnicity. (It was used by a couple of short-lived republics in the area during the period of China's civil wars in the first half of the 20th century.) The group, Wu said, had "carried out 13 explosion experiments inside China, and was to carry out attacks in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai to disrupt the coming Olympics." The other group, apparently apprehended by the Chinese authorities less than a week ago, "made plans last November to kidnap foreign journalists, tourists, as well as Olympic athletes during the Games to cause an international sensation and disrupt the Beijing Olympics." This group, said Wu, had also been looking for members who were willing to carry out "jihad" in the capital city of Xinjiang Province, Urumqi, and in Chinese cities in the interior.

It has been only a month since Beijing said that it had prevented a terrorist attack on a passenger plane from Urumqi to Beijing, one that was to have been carried out by a 19-year old ethnic Uighur woman "terrorist." The first two months of the year did not pass peacefully either. In January, police destroyed a terrorist camp in Xinjiang, "killing 18 terrorists in a gun battle and seizing 17," according to the official Xinhua News Agency. In February, two members of a "terrorist gang" were shot dead, and 15 arrested during a police raid in Urumqi city.

"I think those 'East Turkestan' separatist groups have been planning terrorist attacks on the coming Olympics for a long time," said Li Wei, Director of the Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. "The number of these terrorists is very small, and they think the Olympics is a perfect opportunity to magnify their influence with the attention of world media. It is natural that they would intensify their attacks as the games draw closer."

However, that opinion is not shared by all. Nicholas Bequelin, Chinese researcher for the New-York-based Human Rights Watch, says it is "too soon to tell the nature" of the groups condemned by the authorities at the press conference. "Claims of terrorist catastrophe of course need to be taken seriously, but the government also needs to have hard evidence for the charges they are making. China has had a poor record there."

The suspicion is not unfounded. Conflicting official accounts of previous terrorists attacks in Xinjiang have left many confused, and details of such terrorist attempts are always vague. "It's hard for me to imagine China manufacturing fake evidence for non-existent terrorist attacks from scratch, but I do not exclude the possibility of the facts being overblown," said Bequelin, "China has deliberately confused terrorists with ordinary criminals, political organizations, and dissidents before, and has used it as an excuse for repression."

The crackdown on the two groups once again proved that the "Chinese security force is fully prepared to safeguard the life and property of the people, as well as the coming Olympics," Wu Heping concluded at the ministry's press conference. But that promise alone would not do for an event under such international scrutiny. "This sounds like a typical PR line by the Ministry of Public Security," said Bequelin, "I think China doesn't need to reassure the international community with this. What they need to do is to be more precise, objective, and factual in disclosing and presenting criminal evidence for the claimed terrorist attacks."