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Behind the China Riots -- Oil, Terrorism & 'Grey Wolves'

New America Media, News Analysis, Yoichi Shimatsu Posted: Jul 13, 2009

Editors Note: Chinese media reported that the Urumchi riots were sparked by a clash between migrant workers in a Hong Kong-owned toy factory in southern China. But other evidence indicates the incident was merely a convenient pretext for a premeditated plan to destabilize Xinjiang province, the center of China's oil and gas industry. NAM contributor Yoichi Shimatsu is an environmental consultant for agricultural businesses in western China's arid regions and former editor of the Japan Time Weekly.

DUNHUANG, China -- Along the Silk Road super-highway, olive-green truck convoys of the People's Armed Police, China's internal security force, roll past sand dunes and crumbling fire-signal towers toward riot-hit Urumchi. The absence of army vehicles on the morning after indicated the situation in neighboring Xinjiang province was under control.

On the previous day, just hours before the Urumchi eruption, tension was palpable in this gateway to Xinjiang. The residents of this historic caravanserai, once the last fortress of the Chinese Empire in Central Asia, were not donning their customary white caps, and none offered a smile of welcome. Residents avoided eye contact; the sun-toasted plazas crackled with tension.

That evening, as angry mobs knifed passersby, torched shops and stoned buses, a longtime friend in Urumchi, who is an Uyghur scientist, sent me a curt message: "My heart is crying." The sight of screaming children and blood-gushing wounds was a scene from hell -- a long stretch from Urumchi's image as a prosperous oasis of gleaming towers at the foot of the snowcapped Tianshan mountains. By Friday prayers, Muslims across the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region asserted that the riots had nothing to do with religion or ethnicity, and that the violence and looting were simply criminal acts of a hate-demented mob.

The Chinese media reported that the Urumchi riots were sparked by a clash between migrant workers in a Hong Kong-owned toy factory in faraway southern China. When Han Chinese workers accused several Uighurs of raping two coworkers, a bout of shouting and scuffling ended with the death of an alleged rapist.

Yet other strands of evidence indicate that the toy factory incident was merely a convenient pretext for a premeditated plan to destabilize Xinjiang province, the center of China's oil and gas industry. An uneasy coalition of exiled Uighurs has been riven with personal rivalries between the veteran Munich-based separatists and the newcomers in the United States led by Rebiya Kadeer, an Urumchi businesswoman and former member of China's parliament. The distrust between old-timers and newcomers was heightened by Washington's drive to install Kadeer as the leader of the World Uighur Congress, usurping Germany-based figures like Isa Dolkun and members of the Alptekin family. Kadeer's husband was promoted to head Radio Liberty's Uighur section, making him the boss of the Munich staff. As tensions smoldered among the exiles, action was clearly needed to unite the separatists.

Enter the Grey Wolves, one of the world's most notorious terrorist organizations. Founded in the 1960s, the Wolves are a pan-Turkic paramilitary group with 1 million followers across the Near East, Central Asia and inside Xinjiang. During the decade of political violence in Turkey in the 1980s, the military-backed activists launched a wave of assassinations, massacres of ethnic minorities, and extortions of businesses. By official count, the Turkish government holds the Wolves responsible for more than 600 murders, while leftists estimate the victims numbered in the many thousands.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Grey Wolves set up training camps in Central Asia for youths from Turkic language groups, including Uighur. Their indoctrination program embraces the goal of establishing Turan, a Turkish empire across Euro-Asia, subjugating non-Turkish races and unleashing violence to achieve their ends. Out of the limelight, the Wolves provided commando training and material support for the East Turkestan Independence Movement.

Admirers of the Wolves are influential in the mafia-like trucking syndicates and street-market operations across Xinjiang. It was the "strong arms" from these informal networks, and not the "long beards" from the mosques, who precipitated the violence of July 5.

The timing of the attacks coincided with other key events -- the Wolves' involvement in an aborted military coup against the Motherland Party government in Turkey, the rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization regional security group, and the recent joint anti-terrorist exercises by Kazahkstan and China. As the noose tightens, the pan-nationalists failed to attack any Central Asian government and therefore targeted Xinjiang in a regional destabilization strategy. In Europe, their front group, Turkish Workers' Federation, struck at Chinese tourists in the Netherlands. The rebellion failed to spark a general uprising, and now the Wolves are being hunted down across the continent.

The brutality befallen the desert city is a far cry from the high ideals behind the short-lived Republic of East Turkestan, which bloomed and fell from 1933 to 1934. The guiding spirit of the modern Uighur state was the poet Abduxaliq Uyghur. Educated in a madrassa, or Islamic school, he eagerly read the works of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China. He went on to Moscow to study Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy, and there became enchanted with the model of the Soviet republics in Central Asia, which combined socialist economics with Islamic values.

With western China fragmenting under civil war and warlordism, Uighur intellectuals unfurled the flag of East Turkestan. The urbane idealists had no real chance against the wrath of Sheng Shicai, the Chinese warlord, who ordered mass executions of the Uighur nationalists and their Kazakh allies, including Abduxaliq, who was 32 at the time.

In a further twist of treachery, Sheng invited the communist guerrilla chief Mao Zemin, younger brother of Chairman Mao, to Xinjiang to discuss a potential alliance against the Japanese invasion. However, as the Nazi blitzkrieg (surprise attack) rolled across the Soviet Union toward the uranium mines in Xinjiang's mountains, Sheng turned coat and assassinated Mao Zemin. Had Mao and the poet Abduxaliq met, they would likely have found in each other a kindred spirit committed to ethnic autonomy, economic development and social progress.

Instead, the twin murders of the Uighur people's most eloquent voice and the pioneering Han Chinese revolutionary triggered a cycle of ethnic hatred and violence, whose repercussions still ring across these stony deserts and glacier-laced mountains today. The Central Asian drama revolves around a tragic misunderstanding between two ancient civilizations haunted by the ghost of a ruthless warlord.

The Chinese regime has imposed martial law and deployed more than 70,000 troops to Kashgar and 30,000 to Urumchi. A new period of unrest has begun.

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