China: Discontent on the Eve of the Olympics

Like the city's pervasive smog, Olympics paraphernalia covers Beijing. Flags bearing the Olympic rings, banners that read Beijing 2008, and "I love China" stickers smooshed on kids' faces flaunt the country's national pride in itself as host of the world famous Games. Millions were spent on dazzling athletic advertisements along with billions more on new subway lines and buildings. For a town that needs to cut down on both its greenhouse gas and waste–be it paper, plastic or coal–there are definitely one too many posters and electric lights conspicuously lining the sides of Tiananmen Square. The traffic is not as bad though-at least until the last day of competition.

One week after the impressive opening ceremonies in China's new multi-billion dollar stadium, the Games are in full swing. But so is concern about a simmering instability in a distant part of the country. The months, weeks, and days leading up to opening ceremony on Aug. 8 were not entirely placid. In April, riots exploded in Tibet and an earthquake struck Sichuan Province a month later, killing more than 70,000 people. What didn't make the headlines were a series of demonstrations, arrests and disappearances in the far reaches of northwestern China where separatist sensibilities have been simmering for generations.

Earlier in March, the Chinese government told the world it had uncovered a terrorist plot in the northwest province of Xinjiang that intended to bomb Olympic venues and kidnap visiting athletes. Toward the end of the month, the authorities faced an uprising of 500 Muslim women further south in Hotan who bravely carried placards under their dresses demanding independence for Uyghurs, China's largest Muslim minority group. Like countless other spontaneous civic actions, Chinese cops rapidly squashed the protests and locked up the alleged ringleaders.

Noone expected this growing tide of civic unrest to turn violent. On Aug. 4th, just four days before the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing's Birds Nest, two Uyghur men decided to seek deadly revenge for generations of marginalization. They drove a truck into a group of policemen on their morning jog. 16 cops died that day. Six days later, bombs exploded in multiple locations in the city of Kuqa, a Silk Road town on the northern edge of the Taklimakan Desert. 12 people were killed in those attacks. Then on Aug, 12, three policemen were stabbed to death with knives and swords at a checkpoint in a town south of Kasghar called Yamanya, meaning "bad place" in the local Uyghur language.

Xinjiang hasn't seen violence like this since 1997 when a series of deadly riots shook the town of Yinning. This remote, arid region, also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, has gone through periods of restlessness since the founding of the contemporary Chinese state. Xinjiang is home to about 9 million ethnic Uyghurs who have experienced widespread persecution for their belief in Islam. They identify more with the Turkic cultures of Central Asia than the dynastic and Confucian tradition of the Han Chinese. The Silk Road, and all of its historical and economic glory, runs right through their homeland which is nestled in the strategic, geographical center of Asia. Uyghurs live at the crossroads of both Eastern and Western histories and economies, cultures and religions and therefore were probably always destined to run into trouble with a centralized government that encourages homogenization and is suspicious of difference. In the 1930's and 40's, Uyghurs carved out a short-lived independent state and called it East Turkistan. However, since the beginning of the Communist Revolution in 1949, Beijing has suppressed all Uyghur political aspirations. And because traditional Uyghur territory encompasses 30 percent of the country's oil and natural gas reserves, China has vowed never to give it up. In order to solidify is control over the territory, the government continues to encourage Han Chinese migrants to make their fortune out west. This has effectively displaced Uyghurs from the best jobs and opportunities. It's the same story as the country's 55 other ethnic minorities. Tibetans and Uyghurs seem to have it worse though.

It's no huge surprise then that a handful of Uyghurs would eventually act on decades of frustration. The last major organized demonstrations occurred in Yinning in 1997. Although those protests turned very bloody, it has been quiet in Xinjiang over the last 10 years, primarily because China instituted an iron-fisted, anti-separatist policy known as Strike Hard.

With the recent attacks on the country's security forces–some of which resemble the cell-like suicidal tactics in the global jihadi movement but rely on much cruder weapons– China's response is sure to be swift and stern.

Uyghur exile groups like the Uyghur World Congress in Germany believe that the detentions have already begun.

The number of tickets sold and tourists who came to Beijing to watch the Games are not the only figures the Chinese government has massaged. How many Uyghurs the police have arrested in Xinjiang Province, and what percentage of them have emerged from Chinese gulags alive with both hands and ears, is one of the country's best kept secrets. Few of the tourists who flocked to China's capital to revel in Olympic pageantry know, or care to know, about the recent spate of attacks in towns like Kashgar and Kuqa that has left dozens dead and an undetermined number of people locked up in jail. A few of the foreigners I've met here get a sense that the Uyghurs have a raw deal and like other ethnic and religious minorities in China, enjoy far fewer rights. However, this isn't dinner-time conversation. Talking about it in the open could get someone arrested.

I've come to Kasghar to get a sense of who the Uyghur community is and what its aspirations are. I'm here to photograph daily life against a backdrop of the kind of repression that involves night-time arrests and demolition of homes that no journalist would ever be allowed to see. One thing I certainly see plenty of are cop cars and Olympics Ads written in Mandarin, and not the Uyghur dialect.

The most loudly advertised billboard slogan–"One World, One Dream"– contradicts the internal strife found within this tiger of a nation. China may think the Olympics will push it further along in its quest to become a superpower. With superpower status, however, comes a responsibility to allow for greater freedoms for all people, including ethnic minorities. That's a process that won't bear fruit in two weeks of sport and self-congratulation.