Even 100,000 soldiers and missile batteries couldn’t stop a couple of determined Uighur militants with grenades. Photo By Psaila Jean-Michel/CP Photo
"Safety is our top concern," said China's Vice-President Xi Jinping in late July, pointing to the deployment of 100,000 troops around Beijing and the surface-to-air missile batteries that protect the main stadiums as proof of the regime's determination to ensure that no terrorist attack would disrupt the Olympics.
But it couldn't stop two equally determined Uighur militants from killing 16 Chinese police in an attack on a border post near Kashgar.
True, Kashgar is in the far north-western province of Xinjiang, 4,000 kilometres from Beijing, but if two men armed only with hand grenades and knives could do that much damage there, what is to stop others from doing it in Beijing?
Certainly not surface-to-air missiles.
The best way to prevent terrorist attacks is to remove the grievances that often motivate them, and to penetrate the terrorist organizations with informers. China hasn't done very well on either front.
In Xinjiang, as in Tibet, it has inundated the local population with a wave of Han Chinese immigrants who live essentially separate and far more prosperous lives. That was the real reason for the explosion of anti-Chinese violence in Tibet earlier this year, and it has been the motive power behind Uighur separatist movements for 20 years now.
The solution to separatist sentiments, Beijing reckoned, was lots of development and rising prosperity, which would reconcile both Tibetans and Uighurs to Chinese rule.
Maybe it would have, too, if the subject peoples had actually shared in the prosperity, but they didn't. Educational levels and technical skills were lacking in the indigenous populations, so the real (although probably unintended) effect was to draw in millions of Chinese immigrants who did have the necessary skills.
And it was they, of course, who got all the good new jobs. In 1945, 90 per cent of Xinjiang's population were Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic-speaking people related to the other Muslim populations of Central Asia.
Now the Uighurs are down to 8 million out of 19. As in the case of Tibet, urbanization has been very rapid, but most of the native population lives in ghettos that are little better than slums.
The difference between the two regions is that in Xinjiang there have been sporadic terrorist attacks against Chinese people and interests. Tibet is isolated by geography, religion and language. It has no strong affinities with anywhere else, which largely explains its relative political passivity between the big 1959 revolt and this year's disturbances.
By contrast, Uighurs have strong cultural, religious and linguistic links with the other Central Asian groups - all of which got their independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
That example, of course, was very seductive. The rise of "Islamist" terrorism latterly has given them a more coherent ideology than mere nationalism, and also some useful contacts in the more distant Muslim world. They have only killed a couple of hundred people in 20 years, but they remain a serious headache for the Chinese regime.
In all that time, Beijing has not succeeded in penetrating and breaking up the small, numerous and fragmented Uighur groups waging this campaign.
So could Uighur separatists, or even Tibetan ones, carry out a terrorist attack in Beijing during the Olympics? Of course they could. Nothing too spectacular, of course. No hijacked airplanes crashing into stadiums. But two men with grenades (or two women) could do a lot of damage, and even 100,000 troops would need some luck to stop them.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
During the Olympics, let the Chinese government and the international community know you care about freedom in Tibet.
Thursday, August 7
• Rally at Parkdale Collegiate Institute (209 Jameson) at 10 am and march to the Chinese Consulate (240 St. George).
• Candlelight vigil Join the protest from 8 to 10 pm at the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre (40 Titan), boycotting the Olympics opening ceremony - or light a candle at home.
Friday, August 8
• Rally at Queen's Park at 10 am and march to the Chinese Consulate.
Monday to Thursday, August 11-14
• Daily prayer vigil outside the Chinese Consulate, 10 am to 3 pm.
Friday, August 15
• Buses to Ottawa rally Purchase tickets beforehand.
Saturday, August 16
• Bike for Tibet through T.O., starting at Parkdale Collegiate Institute, at noon.
Monday to Friday, August 18-22
• Prayer vigil outside the Chinese Consulate, 10 am to 3 pm.