It is perhaps no surprise that there should be plots against the Beijing Olympics. It is more surprising that they should become public. China keeps as tight a lid on the appearance of threats of dissidence as it does on the dissidence itself.
State media did report in January 2007 a police raid on a “terrorist training camp” in far western Xinjiang run by a Uighur separtist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, with the death of 18 ETIM members and the capture of 17 others, but there had been no mention until now of any connection with plots on the Olympics. And that only came out following a subsequent raid on January 27 this year in which two were killed and 15 arrested. Even then not much evidence has been presented to support the claim. (Update: Richard Spencer of The Daily Telegraph details how state media have since dial back the Olympics connection.)
China will be unflinching in its response to any challenge to its most important event of the year. Wang Lequan, the Communist Party boss in far western Xinjiang province told Xinhua on Sunday that China would strike first against the “three evil forces” of terrorists, separatists and extremists. Not that it is the first government to see those three as the same.
Beijing has been fighting for years a low-key battle against separatist movements among Xinjiang’s Uighurs, 10 million Turkic-Muslims culturally and ethnically distinct from the country’s Han majority. As in Tibet, iron-fisted rule has largely suppressed violence. No significant bombings or shootings have been reported in almost a decade. Or at least word hasn’t got out if such incidents have occurred.
ETIM was designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York, though somewhat reluctantly and at the lower of its two levels of designation as Washington wants China to recognize the legitimate rights of the Uighur minority. Some Uighurs have been fighting with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the U.S. is holding 15 Uighurs at its Guantanamo Bay prison. China has sought to have them extradited but Amnesty International has argued they would be safer staying in Guantanamo.
No doubt those responsible for the thwarted China Southern airplane attack on Friday will be found by the Chinese authorities to have similar links.
The Games will be an interesting test of Beijing’s counter-terrorism capabilities. It knows how to do blanket law enforcement and to send in troops, but its intelligence-gathering and analysis is not held to be strong by international standards. And if they are to be used to crack down further on Uighurs and China’s other minorities, they also raise an interesting question about the extent to which the U.S. and the E.U., including their military, should support
security at the games (as the U.S. did with the Athens games in 2004) to protect their citizens and how much they should cooperate with the People’s Liberation Army and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police.