The leader of the World Uyghur Congress said comments by a regional Communist Party boss about the arrest of Muslims militants who had joined the terrorist group the Islamic State (IS) but returned to northwestern China’s restive Xinjiang region to participate in violent terrorist plots were an attempt to cover up the official’s own policy failures.
Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian said Monday that “extremists from Xinjiang who have joined the Islamic State” in the Middle East had been arrested after they returned home.
His words prompted Rebiya Kadeer, chairperson of the World Uyghur Congress in Washington, to suggest that Zhang’s comments indicated the failure of his policy toward the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
“I think this statement is not about giving updates about the real situation of the region, but an attempt to hide one’s performance failure and direct the blame to others,” Kadeer told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
Uyghur groups, such as the World Uyghur Congress, have been critical of Chinese authorities who associate Uyghurs with international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
Zhang told Chinese media that radical Muslims from Xinjiang were caught when a terrorist plot was recently uncovered, but gave no further details.
“I believe Xinjiang has extremists that have joined IS,” Zhang said at a briefing on the sidelines of China's annual session of parliament, according to a Reuters report. “Recently, we broke up a few cases involving those who had returned directly after fighting in war.
“To break the case, to reduce human loss and casualties and ensure security, sometimes you have to keep some things confidential for a time.”
Kadeer said Zhang’s comments were “not convincing.”
“If what he said is true, then why have the Chinese media been so silent about it thus far? So, I think the ‘fact’ is fake or twisted,” she said.
No atmosphere of calm
Kadeer went on to say that when Zhang replaced former Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Wang Lequan in 2010, people and the Chinese government believed he would change course in the region to ensure an atmosphere of calm following deadly riots on July 5, 2009, in the regional capital Urumqi.
On that day, a Uyghur protest escalated into violent attacks that mainly targeted Han Chinese people in the area, resulting in deadly clashes during which nearly 200 people were killed, although Uyghur exile groups maintain that the death toll was higher.
Wide-scale police sweeps followed, leading to the arrests and some executions of Uyghurs and the closure of mosques.
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese authorities have conducted an antiterrorist campaign throughout Xinjiang following a spate of deadly bombings. The campaign has included police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Failure to meet expectations
Zhang failed to meet the expectations of the Chinese government and some Chinese people when he was appointed Xinjiang Party boss in 2010, which put him in a very difficult situation, Kadeer said.
“After he [Zhang] was assigned there, especially over the past two years the situation has become even more critical,” she said.
She went on to say that “there was and is a harsh really that Zhang Chunxian had to realize there had not been a change in China’s Xinjiang policy, and he was there to inherit Wang Lequan’s heavy-handed, oppressive policy.”
But instead Zhang took an easy path, Kadeer said, and directed blame to the Islamic State for continued tension in Xinjiang, which Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs refer to as East Turkistan.
“We know for sure that Zhang Chunxian is also helpless at this point, because the East Turkistan situation has not gotten better merely by changing the bosses there,” Kadeer said. “But it might get better by changing the main policy towards [Xinjiang].”
Kadeer said that both people from Muslim countries and from western ones have been joining the Islamic State, so it could be possible that Uyghurs from Xinjiang had joined it as well.
“But, this cannot reflect East Turkistan’s situation, especially since it doesn’t have anything to do with the resistance activities that have occurred there over the past years,” she said, referring to what she called the Uyghur national resistance movement against Chinese “colonization and oppression.”
She continued to say that she did not expect Zhang or other Party representatives from Xinjiang to speak the truth because Zhang is an appointed official, not an elected one.
“So, expecting them to speak the truth and do something that’s in the interest of the Uyghurs would be very naïve,” she said.
She said increased tensions between different ethnic groups, such as the predominant Han Chinese and the minority Uyghurs, which had resulted in deadly clashes over the past two years, should be discussed by representatives at the national political meetings.
“Because these are the issues not only related Uyghurs but also related to the security of Han Chinese, or if we say it, as the Chinese do, these are issues that pertain to the ‘sovereignty of the country.’”
But she said representatives have chosen not to discuss the reasons behind recent incidents such as the knife attack at a train station in March 2014 in the southwestern city of Kunming in which attackers said to be militant Muslims from Xinjiang killed 29 people and injured dozens more.
“I call on the Chinese government to give up using the same tactic, such as hiding the reality and twisting the facts when it comes to the East Turkestan issue,” Kadeer said.
“I believe that free media, open debate and transparency, and accepting public supervision are the first steps to resolve the East Turkestan problem.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur of RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.