»  National Review Online

November 5th, 2001

  One Man's Terrorist


I'm going to perform a little exercise in humility — one of the trickier virtues, in my experience, since it is one of the easiest to fake, and also one that is grossly unattractive when taken to excess. Well, I'm not going to fake it, and I'm not going to cringe and wring my hands, don't worry. I'm just going to admit that I may have been wrong, or at any rate wrong-ish (see? no excess humility here!) and see what can be learned.


I write a lot about China, and when the stuff I write touches on politics, it is strongly hostile to the Chinese Communist Party. This hostility arose in the first place as an accident of personal history. After spending part of my youth in Hong Kong and Taiwan, I lived and worked in a small provincial town in mainland China for a year, for most of which I was the only big-nose devil-head for 70-odd miles around. It was a full-immersion deal. I got to see Chinese communism at very close quarters, and found it loathsome beyond anything I can express briefly here. I am sure I would have had the same reaction to any other totalitarian, or probably even authoritarian, system: but China's is the one that, by the inscrutable dictates of fate, I got up close and personal with. I have made several visits back since, and re-calibrated my opinions slightly, though not fundamentally. I have also read everything on China that came my way, and a good deal of stuff that I had to ferret out from the stacks of academic libraries. I am aware of all the sub-issues here, like: "How 'Chinese' is Chinese communism?" and have worked over them in hundreds of discussions with people, Chinese and otherwise, of every shade of opinion and every degree of passion.

There are certain large political principles I believe in, and believed in before I ever went to China: constitutional government, freedom of expression, rational economics, open inquiry, national self-determination, personal liberty and so on. When I meditate on those principles, it is communist China that, to me, represents the foremost negation of them in the world today. I have no doubt those principles are just as thoroughly negated elsewhere, and if I had lived a different life, I might be writing scathing pieces about Cuba, or Syria, or the Congo. You play the cards you're dealt. I got dealt a real close look at modern China, and I believe I can do some good to my fellow men — and also to China, with which, such is the way of life, I have acquired intimate and affectionate connections — by telling people how cruel, dishonest and dangerous Chinese communism is. This belief, like any other belief, may of course be mistaken, but it is sincere, and the stuff I have written about China has been praised by people who know much more about the place than I do, including some dissidents with real credentials (i.e. time in the camps). So as long as I can find an outlet, I'll keep swatting away at them ChiComs.

A couple of years ago in The Weekly Standard, I took a swat at them for their treatment of the Uighurs, in a piece some clever sub-editor put under the title: " Hell, No, Uighur Won't Go." The Uighurs are a Turkic people (that is, they speak a language closely related to Turkish) who live in Central Asia. They have lived there pretty much for ever, and had a modest civilization going, with a writing system, using a script they got from the Middle East, as far back as the seventh century — which was also about the time English began to be written down. They converted to Islam in the tenth century; but it was the "stripped-down, racing style" of Islam described by Jason Goodwin in his fine book about the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizons. The Turkish/Turkic peoples seem to carry some gene that makes them immune to religious fanaticism. Turkey herself is the only Islamic nation to have attained constitutional government*, and so far as one can judge, there is a reasonable prospect that the ex-Soviet Turkic nations of Central Asia — Uzbekistan etc. — will take the same road.

In the later 18th century the Uighurs were conquered by the Manchus, who at that time controlled all of China. They remained subjects of the Manchu Emperor until the dynasty fell, though always very rebellious ones — they had a brief spell of independence after a successful rebellion in the 1860s. In the 20th century they found themselves the playthings of the two great powers they sat between: Nationalist China and the U.S.S.R. During short periods when both these powers were distracted by events elsewhere, they enjoyed temporary independence as the "Eastern Turkestan Republic." Then Mao Tse-tung incorporated them into his re-created version of the Manchu empire in 1949, and the Uighurs have ever since been subjects of the new emperors in Beijing, though very unhappy ones.

Well, in the piece I wrote for The Weekly Standard in 1999, I spoke approvingly of the resistance that the Uighurs are putting up against Chinese imperialism. It is, I noted, much more formidable, and probably much more feared by the communist leaders of China, than is Tibetan resistance. For the most part, Uighur resistance is principled and constitutionalist, but there is also an extremist element that has let off bombs in public places in China. There is, in short, a terrorist component to the Uighur resistance. The Chinese communists have, of course, seized eagerly on this fact to discredit all resistance to their imperial rule. In their statements of support for this new war on terrorism, they are careful to say that what they are supporting is a war against "terrorism and separatism." Translation: The democrats of Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, and Uighurs struggling for the independence of Eastern Turkestan, are no better than the World Trade Center bombers. In his press conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin last week in Shanghai, George W. Bush, to his great credit, stood up against this sophistry, saying that: "The war against terrorism must never be an excuse to persecute minorities." The Chinese communists, of course, see it as exactly such an excuse, and pointedly did not permit the press conference to be broadcast on their state-controlled TV.

Now, here is where I wonder if I have done wrong. First, in that 1999 piece on the Uighurs, I mentioned the terrorist bombings by Uighur separatists without any word of disapproval. I don't think a fair-minded reader could say "with approval," but I gave the impression that I didn't find them especially deplorable. Here is the relevant text:

Current attitudes among the Uighurs can be gauged from the fact that their main expatriate organization, the Istanbul-based Eastern Turkestan National Center, is headed not by a monk but by an ex-General in the Turkish army, Korean War veteran Reza Bekin. Even so, the ETNC is regarded as insufferably tame by yet more militant Uighur groups. Chinese dissident journalist Cao Chang-ching, who published a long and illuminating report on East Turkestan in the October 11th Taipei Times, unearthed one group calling themselves "The Home of Eastern Turkestan Youth" who claimed 2,000 members and told him that "the Chinese only understand force." They also refer to themselves as "the Hamas of Eastern Turkestan" and brandish slogans like "every one of us is a bomb."

This is not idle boasting; the three bomb explosions of February 1997 in Urumqi, Eastern Turkestan's capital, was only the best-reported of a large number of violent incidents in the region — including, most recently, a well-equipped attack on a Chinese missile base …

Second, I worry that the Chinese communists, who are unscrupulous in such matters, could use the piece to tag me and discredit me as a "supporter of terrorism." I am not a supporter of terrorism — not even, as it happens, as a strategy for people like the Uighurs, who are up against an amoral and utterly ruthless totalitarian occupying power. (Though there is an interesting argument to be made in such cases.) I don't think a reasonable person would take that 1999 piece as a call to support terrorism. But since September 11th I have been looking back through my own archives and turning up stuff like this — stuff that, if I wrote it now, I would write differently. I wonder how many other opinion journalists are doing the same? It's true: the world really has changed.

* One of the things to which we bloviators are wearily resigned is that any nice thing you write about Turkey will generate a flurry of very angry emails from (a) Armenians, and (b) Greeks. Could I ask these people to please take their anger elsewhere just this once? I have been through it before and don't need any more history lessons, thanks all the same, especially ones typed all in capital letters with strings of exclamation marks. As an Englishman, I have a soft spot for the Turks for a very English reason: they gave us a good thrashing in 1915, and I was brought up to respect them as a formidable foe who beat us in a fair fight. Some things you can't switch off. The English always admire a brave enemy. The older male members of my family, Englishmen who had fought in the 20th century's great wars on the side of France and against Germany, all respected and admired the Germans but loathed the French.