TIME Viewpoint

China’s Silent War on Terror

Chinese soldiers patrolling in old Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, July 30, 2014.
Chinese soldiers patrol in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on July 30, 2014 Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

A virtual media blackout makes it hard to know what's happening as China tackles unrest among its Uighur Muslim minorities

On a clear, sunny morning last October, an SUV carrying three people turned right on to Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue, plowed through crowds gathered near the entrance to the Forbidden City and burst into flames at the northern edge of Tiananmen Square. The wreck killed five people, including three in the vehicle and two bystanders. Dozens more were injured.

Almost immediately, eyewitnesses started posting pictures. The photographs showed scenes of chaos in the heart of China’s capital: a plume of smoke rising in front of a portrait of Chairman Mao; the charred carapace of the vehicle resting at the foot of the ancient Gate of Heavenly Peace. Almost as quickly as the images were posted, however, they started to disappear. It became clear that the Chinese government, and the government alone, would tell this story.

Nearly a year later, they are still pulling the strings. On Aug. 24, state-backed media announced that three masterminds behind the incident were executed, alongside five other convicted terrorists. The report listed their names and charges, but did not mention when or how they were put to death, where they were held, in what conditions, or whether they were offered legal counsel. (State broadcaster CCTV did note, however, that Usmen Hasan, the driver of the SUV, once beat a middle-school teacher and was “feared” by his wife.)

Though some elements of the official account may well be true, the reporting is clearly selective — and impossible to confirm. Hasan, his wife and his mother were killed in the crash, and the others were held out of public view. Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, says rights groups and foreign journalists have effectively been blocked from looking into the matter. “We are just as much in the dark about these individuals,” she says. “We have almost no independent information, except what the state press has released.”

The handling of the case is part of an effort to manage when, and how, China talks about terrorism. This past year has seen a wave of attacks, starting with the Tiananmen crash and moving, in bloody succession, to ambushes at train stations in Kunming and Urumqi in March and April, respectively. In late May, Urumqi was hit again, when attackers targeted a morning market, leaving dozens dead. Each was pinned, directly or indirectly, on “separatists” or “extremists” from Xinjiang. If and when details are released by state media, they tend to point toward a straightforward story of radicalization at the hands of overseas Islamic terrorist groups. And those reports are always followed by news of the government’s swift and effective response.

The reality is more complex. Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Pakistan and several Central Asian nations, is claimed as the traditional homeland of the Turkic Uighur people — and as part of China. Since coming to power in 1949, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has sent waves of military personnel and migrants west to settle the area they call New Frontier. Many Uighurs resent the influx of ethnic Han Chinese and worry they are getting cut out of the region’s resource-driven economic boom.

A small minority of the Uighur population, meanwhile, has waged a decades-long fight against the central government, often targeting symbols of state power including police stations and government buildings. There have also been direct attacks on civilians. The ruling party has responded by beefing up security and trying to forcibly integrate the mostly Muslim Uighur population. In recent months, entire cities have been sealed off by police checkpoints. Some areas are trying to discourage, or outright ban, certain types of beards and veils.

This has not stopped the bloodshed. In July, violence broke out in Xinjiang’s Shache county (called Yarkand in the Uighur language). State media waited more than 24 hours before announcing the unrest. As soon as they did, conflicting accounts emerged, with the government saying the violence broke out after police foiled a terrorist plot, and exile Uighur groups saying police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against restrictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and against the alleged extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family. The state says 96 people were killed; Uighur groups claim the figure is much higher.

We might never know what happened there. The authorities moved quickly to restrict access to the area and pulled comments from the almost-always-out-of-service web. (In times of unrest, authorities slow, or stop, Internet traffic in Xinjiang; after the 2009 riots the entire region was without Internet for nine months.) Given China’s weak record on the rule of law — and the sensitivity of the case — it’s highly unlikely that there will be an impartial investigation, let alone a fair trial. People on the ground in Xinjiang are rightly frightened that they will be punished if they comment. According to Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit media group, one blogger was already arrested for “spreading rumors” about the number of deaths.

Perhaps in 10 months we will finally hear more about the people involved in the incident. Like those killed in Beijing, Kunming, and Urumqi, the people who died in Yarkand deserve justice. The question is, what kind of justice will it be?

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the Effects of World War I Persist

We still live in the long shadow of a war that began a century ago

It was supposed to be over in a matter of weeks. In the summer of 1914, the European war that began in the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand drew great armies into the fields, launched ships of war upon the seas and engaged imperial ambitions and fears. There was, however, a sense of optimism among several of the combatants, an expectation that victory would be quick. “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees,” Kaiser Wilhelm II told the German troops in the first week of August.

Of course, it wasn’t over by the time the leaves fell, and what became known as the Great War really isn’t over even now. From the downing of the civilian Malaysian airliner by Moscow-supported insurgents over Ukraine to the Israeli-Palestinian combat in Gaza to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, the troubles of our time directly descend from the world of 1914–18, the era that inflamed ethnic and nationalistic impulses and led to the ultimate creation of new nation-states, especially in the Middle East.

To understand the madness of the moment, then, one needs to take a long view–one that begins in 1914 and not, as many Democrats would have it, with the election of George W. Bush or, as many Republicans think, with the election of Barack Obama. The spectrum of political conversation in our time is, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, inadequate to the stormy present.

The 19th century has been said to have ended in 1914, with a war that became, in the words of historian David Fromkin, “in many ways the largest conflict that the planet has ever known.” One could argue that the 20th century lasted only 75 years, ending under the Administration of George H.W. Bush, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the death of the Soviet Union (itself a product of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). As the news of this summer reminds us, we are now in a world much like that of 1914, without a truly controlling order.

Americans who grew accustomed to a largely static balance of power during the Cold War must teach themselves to think in kaleidoscopic terms, not binary ones. Our national imagination is still partly shaped by the FDR-JFK rhetoric of American responsibility and the idea that we are capable of bearing any burden and paying any price to bend the world to our purposes. Yet we must be realistic–not defeatist but realistic–about our power. While we should never give up the conviction that we can effectively exert our will around the globe, we should also appreciate that any undertaking is inherently limited, a point supported by the experience of the American President of the 1914–18 era, Woodrow Wilson, who believed that the war of that age would end all wars. He was wrong–woefully so. The first Bush was closer to the mark when he spoke, usually privately, of how foreign policy was about “working the problem,” not finding grand, all-encompassing solutions to intrinsically messy questions.

And those questions today remain urgent and dangerous. In his insightful book Europe’s Last Summer, Fromkin writes that “it takes two or more to keep the peace, but only one to start a war … An aggressor can start a major war even today and even if other great powers desire to stay at peace–unless other nations are powerful enough to deter it.” To think of another conventional conflict on the scale of the Great War–16 million dead, 20 million more wounded–stretches credulity. Still, the forces of ambition, greed and pride are perennial in the lives of men and of nations, and wars of any size bring with them large and unintended consequences.

Summing up August 1914, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope–the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again and the hope that when somehow it had been fought through to a resolution, the foundations of a better-ordered world would have been laid.” We know now that such hope was illusory. It did happen again, from 1939 to 1945, and now, a century on, we live in a world that remains vulnerable to chaos and mischance and misery. Such, though, is the nature of reality and of history, and we have no choice but to muddle through. There is, in the end, no other alternative, whether the leaves are on or off the trees.

TIME In the Arena

In Gaza, a Just but Bloody War

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: Relatives of four boys, all from the Bakr family, killed by Israeli naval bombardment, mourn during their funeral in Gaza City, on July 16, 2014. . ALESSIO ROMENZI
Relatives of four boys from the Bakr family, mourning at their funeral in Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

Hamas provoked this round, and Israel had no choice but to respond

Clarification appended July 27, 2014

Ori Nir is a man of Peace. He was born and raised in Jerusalem, spent many years as a prominent journalist for Ha’aretz, Israel’s finest newspaper, and is now the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. He is not shy about disagreeing with the Israeli government, especially when it comes to the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the general bellicosity of Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime. But he hasn’t protested the current Israeli incursion into Gaza. “It is a just war,” he told me, “carried out with a great deal of care.”

This may seem surprising to people who don’t follow the Middle East as closely as Nir does, and you might rightly ask, Why is this incursion different from all other Israeli incursions? Because Hamas, which was in an existential jam this spring, needed a new strategy. It had lost its prime ally in the region when the Egyptian army overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood. (Hamas is the official Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.) It also alienated another of its supporters, Iran, when it sided with the Brotherhood against Bashar Assad in Syria. Opposition within Gaza to Hamas’ corruption and misrule was also on the rise. What to do?

Provoke Israel. It had worked in the past. A kidnapping of Israeli soldiers on the northern border had led to Israel’s less-than-discriminate assault on Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006. Rocket attacks had provoked Israel’s two previous Gaza incursions, in 2008 and 2012. Hamas and Hizballah had “won” those wars because their fighters resisted the Israelis more effectively than conventional Arab armies had done in the past but also because the images of collapsed buildings and blood-soaked children had bolstered Israel’s growing reputation as an oppressor and a bully in the eyes of the world.

This time is different, however, for several reasons. The initial provocation, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, was indefensible, as was a retaliatory murder of a Palestinian teen. In a moment of moral clarity, Hamas lauded its kidnappers, while a furious Netanyahu called the retaliation “reprehensible.” Indeed, Israel’s actions have been more prudent across the board. It confined its bombing at first to Hamas’ military facilities and leaders. Civilians were killed in the process–as was Hamas’ intent–but these were targeted strikes, not the free-range assault on Gaza City that had occurred in Operation Cast Lead in 2008. The ground campaign that followed was limited as well, confined to Shejaiya, a neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City that was a warren of Palestinian fighters and the launch point for a very elaborate tunnel system from Gaza to Israel. The fighting has been brutal, to be sure. More than 500 Palestinians and 32 Israeli soldiers have been killed. But it was not an indiscriminate massacre. Israel was protecting its border, the right of any sovereign nation; its citizens were threatened by Palestinian assaults at the receiving end of the tunnels (several of which were attempted, and foiled, during the fighting). “I don’t like the civilian casualties that result from bombing the homes of the Hamas leaders,” Nir says. “And what’s happening in Shejaiya is horrible, but I think it falls within the normal rules of war. The moral bottom line seems clear.” And then, semi-amazed to be doing so, he quoted Netanyahu: “‘We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.'”

There have been the predictable anti-Israel riots in Europe, mostly populated by Islamic groups; the parlor left has been appalled, on cue, by the alleged Israeli brutality–without questioning the deadly cynicism of Hamas. Meanwhile, Hamas has been outfoxed diplomatically: it opposed the cease-fire agreement proposed by Egypt, which Israel–and the Arab League–supported. If you’re really the aggrieved party, it’s not easy to explain why you won’t accept peace. By now, in a reasonable world, Hamas would have lost all remaining shreds of its tenuous moral credibility.

A cease-fire will be negotiated sooner or later, perhaps even by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. It is likely that nothing good will come of it. But Hamas’ weakness, its inability to dictate terms, does leave a tiny possibility for peace. The first step is to restore legal order in Gaza by returning the Palestinian Authority–ousted by Hamas in a 2007 coup–to power and bringing in the U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces who have done such an excellent job of bringing law and order to the West Bank. The next step is free elections in Gaza, which, given Hamas’ current unpopularity, might be won by more moderate factions, perhaps even Fatah.

This is the Middle East, of course. Israel remains intransigent on a West Bank agreement. Peace is a chimera; only the dead bodies are real.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/politics

Clarification: The views expressed by Ori Nir in this column are his own and not those of Americans for Peace Now.

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