Since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, China has repeatedly claimed it also faces a terrorist problem - from ethnic minority Uighurs seeking an independent state. ( dpa )
The world was sceptical. Human rights groups accused Beijing of trying to use the war against terrorism to crush dissent over Chinese rule.
But a spate of deadly attacks in north-west China's Uighur- populated Xinjiang region in the past two weeks and attempted attacks earlier which China said were by Uighurs, are making experts rethink how serious a threat the Turkic speaking minority are to China.
"Whatever the propaganda war Beijing is perceived to be playing, ETIM's capability to strike China should not be under-estimated," said Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, referring to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Chinese officials have blamed the group for some of the attacks, which killed at least 26 people in less than 10 days.
On August 4, two Uighur men ploughed a truck into a group of paramilitary soldiers on their morning jog in Kashgar city and used homemade bombs and knives to kill 16 soldiers, injuring 16 others.
Last Sunday, more than a dozen explosions were set off in Kuqa county, damaging mostly government buildings, with 10 "terrorists" killed by police bullets or their own bombs, the government said.
On Tuesday, three security guards were stabbed to death at a roadside checkpoint near Kashgar although the cause was unclear.
Soldiers and police have clamped down on the area and a group of exiled Uighurs said police have made nearly 100 arrests.
Over the past few decades, Uighurs have resisted Chinese rule, including a riot in Yili city in 1997, a bus bombing, and sporadic attacks against Chinese people in Central Asia.
But experts said unlike previous incidents, the latest attacks appear coordinated, well-planned and are targeted at government, army and police personnel.
Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said attacks have taken on a more militant character due to a growing radicalism of Uighur separatists, as more have been trained in neighbouring Central Asian nations, including by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
"ETIM was established to create an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang. But the avowed goal of ETIM has changed in the last five years. Under the influence of al-Qaeda, ETIM began to believe in the global jihad agenda," Gunaratna said in a response to questions sent by email.
Analysts believe the August 8-24 Beijing Olympic Games provided militant Uighurs an opportunity to draw attention to their cause.
But there are many unanswered questions and a reluctance to believe the information China has provided, especially when authorities detained journalists who traveled to Xinjiang to report about the attacks.
No group has claimed responsibility, but two videotapes threatening to attack the Beijing Olympics were issued in the name of the Turkestan Islamic Party, a little known group whose connection to ETIM is unclear.
Whether the attacks are carried out by trained militants or simply disgruntled people and whether they are connected is something even the government seems unsure about, although top officials in Xinjiang have called the attacks "terrorist violence" and some have identified ETIM as the culprit or suspected mastermind.
The scope and organizational structure of ETIM or other separatists groups is also unclear, although some experts believe that in addition to a few hundred cadres trained in Xinjiang, ETIM had about 900-1000 Uighurs trained in camps in Afghanistan prior to 2001, mainly in weapons-handling and guerrilla warfare tactics.
Analysts said that regardless of the latest attacks and how big a threat ETIM is, China's policies which repress the country's eight million Uighurs are fueling militancy and could be turning even those who not previously in favour of independence into sympathizers.
The biggest source of resentment is policies promoting migration of Han Chinese into the region, said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Human Rights Watch.
In the early 1950s, shortly after the Communist Party took over control of China, Hans made up only 6 per cent of Xinjiang's population, but now they comprise over 40 per cent.
Large businesses such as big restaurants, hotels and tourism offices are often operated by Hans, who are also favoured for top civil service jobs.
In the regional capital, Urumqi, for example, it's easy to find Han taxi drivers but not so easy to find Uighur drivers. The common explanation is that Uighurs are not qualified because they do not speak fluent Chinese. Meanwhile, few Han Chinese take the time to learn the local language and customs.
Over the centuries, the Chinese empire had made many attempts to control Xinjiang, where Uighurs were historically the largest ethnic group, but it was only during Communist rule that so many Hans moved into the area.
" China has reversed the demography of the region," Bequelin said. " China sees the ultimate resolution of the minority problem as assimilation. It thinks the problem will go away once Xinjiang becomes indistinguishable from the rest of China."
The government is also hoping economic development will stabilize the region, but government policies favour Hans and breeds resentment, said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled Munich-based Uighur group World Uyghur Congress.
"The economy is controlled by Hans. The Uighurs are working for the Hans," Raxit said.
Since September 11 and especially in the run-up to the Olympics, Chinese police have stepped up pressure against Uighurs, arresting an estimated 10,000 people in Xinjiang during the pre-Olympic period, said Raxit.
He believes China's inability to allow Uighurs to express peaceful dissent have forced some to take up arms.
"We did not want to see this, but the problem in Xinjiang is increasingly becoming an armed conflict," he said.
On a daily basis, Uighurs are subjected to much harsher scrutiny than other people in China. Religious and cultural activities are monitored and sometimes banned. Civil servants frequently have to undergo anti-separatist brainwashing. School teachers have lost their jobs for things they said in class.
"In China, if you criticize government policy, you're not going to end up in jail. In Xinjiang if you criticize the government, you're identified as a separatist sympathizer," Bequelin said.
"There is an atmosphere of fear in Xinjiang. People know they can get arrested and disappear, and that has happened to people they know," he said.
A key source of discontent is that the government does not distinguish between separatism and terrorism, lumping separatists and other peaceful dissenters as terrorists, Bequelin said, adding that police often act indiscriminately.
"The yardstick should be what is a crime and what isn't; it shouldn't be what people advocate," Bequelin said.
"What we're likely to see in next few years is a very renewed repressive campaign against terrorism and it will be very indiscriminate. It will not only extend to groups that use violence, it will expand to mainstream Uighur society. This is what we've seen in the past."
China appears to recognize the battle ahead is long.
Wang Lequan, the Communist Party's top official in Xinjiang, said in a speech this past week that government leaders at all levels must understand that the struggle against separatism, terrorism and religious extremism "is one of life or death".
"In Xinjiang, the fight against separatist forces is long-term, arduous and complex," he said.