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Story Publication logo November 7, 2008

China Cracking Down on Muslim Minority Uighurs


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Four days before the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, the Chinese government faced an...


Following a spate of political violence, security has been so tight around here that a 25-year-old Muslim jade dealer agreed to talk to a reporter only if they met 20 miles outside this historic Silk Road town in remote northwestern China.

"I wanted to study teachings like the Hadith," said the man who identified himself only as Hussein, referring to a collection of the prophet Muhammad's sayings. "I'm too old now. It makes me sad."

As children, Hussein and millions of other young Uighurs never attended the religious schools known as madrassas or prayed at mosques because of a government ban on Islamic education for those under 18. Since Hussein never learned about religious laws governing marriage and family, he feels unprepared to have children, and he wonders whether future generations will be able to practice their faith before adulthood.

"Maybe in 10 years, there will be no more religion in Xinjiang" (province), said Hussein.

Human rights groups and Uighur exile organizations echo such concern.

Since the end of the Olympic Games in late August, the Chinese government's crackdown on Uighurs with alleged separatist ties in this oil-rich province has escalated, according to Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Uighur American Association, based in Washington, D.C.
History of tension

Friction between Beijing and China's largest Muslim minority community is hardly new. Uighurs have long chafed at restrictions on Islam, which include studying Arabic only at government schools, banning government workers from practicing Islam and barring imams from teaching religion in private.

But the latest round of unrest is the worst since an uprising in the town of Yining 11 years ago killed scores of people, observers and residents say. Since August, at least 33 people have been killed in a series of attacks and bombings.

On Aug. 4, two Uighur men rammed a truck into a group of Chinese paramilitary officers taking their morning jog through the city of Kashgar. Sixteen of them died in what Chinese authorities called a terrorist attack by Uighur separatists. The New York Times later reported that the attackers wore paramilitary uniforms, casting doubt on the official version.

Six days later, there were several bombings in the city of Kuqa, followed later that month by two stabbing incidents in which several police officers died.

In response - after the Beijing Olympics ended and the world's eyes were no longer upon China - the government deployed soldiers throughout the province, Uighur rights groups say. Security forces made mass arrests of local Muslims and tightened surveillance of religious activities in Xinjiang's southern and central counties, the rights groups say. In some towns, prayer in public places outside the main mosque is forbidden and an imam's sermon is limited to no longer than a half-hour.

Even though no group has claimed responsibility for the violence, Chinese authorities say Islamic separatists are behind it.

The battle against religious extremism is a matter of "life or death," said Wang Lequan, the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang, in a press statement.

To buttress the point, China President Hu Jintao told fellow leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at an August summit that members should "deepen cooperation" in their fight against the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.
Searches and restrictions

At most major towns in Xinjiang, soldiers search cars and scan identity cards at checkpoints ringing the perimeters.

Xinjiang's Communist Party officials have also curtailed Islamic dress and diet. During Ramadan, an Islamic celebration that ended in September, local authorities required some Uighur-owned restaurants to remain open during the day, when Muslims normally fast. Government employees have been told to shave their beards, and police have been ordering women to remove their veils.

"It's virtually martial law there," said Seytoff of the Uighur American Association, who calls Xinjiang province East Turkestan, the name the region was known by before being annexed by China in 1949. "East Turkestan is a police state. As long you're a Uighur, you're a criminal suspect in China."

Dilshat Rishit, spokesman for the Germany-based World Uighur Congress, estimates that close to 700 people have been detained since August.

"People can be arrested anytime or anywhere without warrants or charges. People are panicking," said Rishit. "These strategies will worsen the conflict between Uighurs and the Beijing government."

Meanwhile, even Chinese Han residents are complaining about the crackdown.

A clothing store owner in Kashgar named Gao says he has lost regular customers from nearby towns because of lengthy security checks.

Another Chinese Han businessman, who manages an import-export company and asked not to be named, said many Chinese residents now view most Uighurs with suspicion.

"There is fear in Kashgar," said the businessman, whose family was among millions of Han immigrants that left poor villages in eastern China for a better life. "But they (the militants) are not qualified to challenge the Chinese government. It's like trying to fight a wall."

Some Uighurs say that even though they worry about security, the growing influence of the Han Chinese over the economy poses a larger threat to their livelihood. A hotel employee in Kashgar named Omar said that most Uighurs experience job discrimination on a regular basis.

"Even if a Uighur knows English, Russian and French, and does a good job, a Chinese will still get the position," he said.
The struggle of the Uighur people

The Uighurs (WEE-gurs), who live in China's western Xinjiang province, are a Sunni Muslim ethnic group related to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. The Uighurs have long resisted Beijing's efforts to make them adopt Han Chinese ways, as well as its stringent regulation of Islam, which includes barring youths under 18 from entering mosques.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Uighurs fought for and established an independent state they called East Turkestan. Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army took the region by force in 1949.

Although a smattering of loosely organized separatist groups have periodically fought to recreate East Turkestan, most clashes fizzled out in the 1980s after the Chinese government began investing in Xinjiang's economic development. The independent Jamestown Foundation in Washington estimates that Beijing has invested about $88 billion in western provinces, including Xinjiang.

A booming construction industry sparked a huge influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang ("New Frontier" in Mandarin). Beijing still encourages poor Han Chinese to "go west" with promises of housing, employment and seed money.

Nicholas Bequelin, who monitors the province for Human Rights Watch, says that continued Han migration, rapid economic development and authoritarian rule are a long-term strategy to crush Uighur dissent. Han Chinese now comprise more than half of Xinjiang's population of 20 million people.

"This isn't reactive repression. It's a deliberate policy to control, monitor and sterilize Uighur culture so it can't be a vehicle for autonomy," said Bequelin.


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