China may be overstating the danger of the terrorism threat emanating from its Muslim-majority far northwest, experts said Monday, after authorities warned they had foiled a plan to attack the Olympics.
Chinese officials stoked the climate of fear over the weekend when they said a group of "terrorists" who were raided two months ago in the Xinjiang region, which borders Afghanistan and Central Asia, had been targeting the Games.
They also said a flight from the regional capital of Urumqi narrowly escaped a hijacking last week.
While authorities spoke ominously about the threat in Xinjiang -- describing it as the "frontline" in the nation's fight against terrorism -- few details were given about the intended attacks or who was involved.
Against this backdrop, foreign and some local analysts expressed doubt about the magnitude of the threat from Xinjiang -- a region that critics allege has seen severe repression during 60 years of communist Chinese rule.
"When it comes to Xinjiang, the terrorist threat is not too serious.
But of course you can't avoid it completely," said Zhang Jiadong, a counter-terrorism expert at Shanghai's Fudan University.
"I don't believe we'll see any major terrorist attack on the Olympics... but we might see some small groups based in Xinjiang attempting to undertake some type of limited action."
China regularly accuses the independence-minded East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), listed by the United Nations and the United States as a terrorist organisation, of being a major threat in Xinjiang.
While the scale of the terrorism threat is unclear, Uighur groups often express anger and unhappiness over Chinese rule.
But overseas observers have criticised the Chinese government for not providing enough information about the situation in Xinjiang, where Muslim Turkic-speaking Uighurs form the largest group.
Foreign journalists have few opportunities to report freely about the situation in Xinjiang, making it difficult to test the veracity of official accounts of the apparent risk of terrorism.
"We don't have any other real evidence that I have seen," said James Millward of Georgetown University in the United States, who recently published a history of Xinjiang, about the latest claims by the government.
"As to what's actually going on, whether there is an organised group, either a militant group or a potential terrorist group, or a separatist group, we only have Chinese reports to go on."
The dearth of information has given rise to suspicions the alleged incidents are being used as an excuse for cracking down on dissent before the Olympics, said Phelim Kine, Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"We're concerned that the Chinese government may use these alleged terrorist plots as a pretext for a new campaign of repression against the Uighur population in Xinjiang and to stifle any public expressions of dissent in Xinjiang ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing," he said.
Chinese officials have in recent days warned about the "separatist" threat in Tibet headed by the exiled Dalai Lama, who won the 1989 Nobel Peace prize.
However, some Chinese analysts voiced anger that foreign critics blamed China for taking its terrorist threat seriously.
"Western countries have double standards on this issue," said Zhang Xiaodong of the China Institute of International Studies, who recounted his observations from a visit to Xinjiang last year.
"It was really shocking. So many people had been killed or injured. They had used both imported weapons and homemade arms. It's not just something we made up," he said. (AFP)
Secrecy obscures level of 'terror' threat to China: experts