Will China Use War Against Terror As Pretext for Repression?

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Human rights activists are concerned that Beijing may use President Bush's war against terrorism as justification for further clampdowns on opponents, including Muslim separatists in western China and pro-democracy campaigners elsewhere in the country.

Dissidents have written to Bush and other world leaders, warning them of this perceived risk.

At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Shanghai at the weekend, China threw its support behind Washington's anti-terrorist drive, with President Jiang Zemin declaring last month's suicide hijacking attacks in the U.S. as "an affront to peace, prosperity and the security of all people, of all faiths, of every nation."

The gathering issued a strongly-worded condemnation of the attacks, the economic grouping's first key political statement in its 12-year history.

At a joint news conference after face-to-face talks with Jiang, Bush praised Beijing for standing "side by side with the American people as we fight this evil force."

But the U.S. president also made it clear that Washington shares concerns about the treatment of minorities.

"We've had a very broad discussion, including the fact that the war on terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities," he said.

And in an address to business executives in Shanghai, Bush pressed the point home.

"All peoples of every religion and ethnic group must be allowed to participate in the forces of progress," he said. "No government should use the fight against terrorism as an excuse to persecute minorities within their own borders."

A Hong Kong-based spokesperson for Human Rights in China, Sophia Woodman, said Monday the organization had been pleased to hear Bush's strong statement regarding ethnic minorities.

"That's an important point. But on the whole the issue of human rights had rather a low profile at the [APEC] summit," she added.

Woodman said the question of China's legal development - the fairness of its courts, for example - was a major overriding concern when it comes to the suppression of human rights in general.

It was also meant to be an important element in the discussion over China's membership of the World Trade Organization.

"There needs to be more focus on the fact that the government has not committed itself to any of the reforms that are urgently needed. That might have been a natural focus [at the APEC gathering] as it does relate to trade, although they're separate sets of laws, of course."

Earlier, Human Rights in China released a letter from dissident Shen Liangqi, appealing to the APEC leaders not to forget human rights as they garnered the support of "some totalitarian states" in the campaign against terror.

He accused Beijing of using the fight against terrorism "as a pretext to increase oppression of political dissent and to trample on human rights."

In a separate letter, leading dissidents Wan Dan and Wang Juntao urged Bush not to "succumb to fear of terrorism and abandon its efforts to promote human rights and freedom."

Their letter, released by another Hong Kong-based human rights organization, accused China of suppressing dissident and religious groups.

All three dissidents have served jail terms inside China. Wan and Wang now live in exile in the U.S., while Shen is still based in China. Woodman said Monday Shen, like most dissidents, found that the state persecution continued long after he had left prison. Any attempt to get a job was stymied by the authorities.

Separatist struggle

In New York, the international group Human Rights Watch released documents highlighting the situation in western China's Xinjiang region, where many Muslim Uighurs are pressing for independence from Beijing.

China has in recent days drawn attention to alleged links between Uighur separatists and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network - the main focus of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks.

While acknowledging that some Uighur groups are waging a violent campaign, and recognizing China's legitimate security concerns, HRW said the struggle was a nationalist rather than Islamist one, and no evidence had yet been made public to support the claims of a bin Laden link.

"Some individual Uighurs have made their way to Afghanistan, but that hardly justifies the broad crackdown now underway," said the group's Asia director, Sidney Jones.

China should not be given "a blank check to suppress the basic rights of the Uighur community."

HRW also argued that China was quick to play down the scale of the security threat in Xinjiang when trying to lure foreign investment there, but when it suited Beijing to win international backing for its clampdown, it raises "the specter of Islamic terrorism."

The Uighurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims who briefly ran an independent republic called East Turkestan in 1933 and again in 1944. In the 1949 the area fell under communist Chinese rule, and various nationalist movements have been fighting for independence ever since.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow