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Story Publication logo October 21, 2008

Unrest in China's Wild West

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

Ryan Anson, for the Pulitzer Center
Xinjiang Province, China


Like many of China's inland waterways, the Yurungkax River in Xinjiang Province is filled with waste. Tailings from local jade and coal mines have turned this tributary into a channel of thick grey sludge that oozes out of the icy Kunlun mountains and meanders toward the desert floodplain. Closer to the Silk Road city of Hotan where security has been tight following a spate of violence in this remote northwestern region, bulldozers drained part of the river so that residents could dig for jade stones.

The dry, boulder-strewn riverbed is also the only place where one young Muslim jade dealer feels safe talking about China's heavy-handed policies toward the Uyghur community.

"I wanted to study teachings like the Hadith (a collection of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings). I'm too old now. It makes me sad," says the 25-year-old man who asked to be identified only as "Hussein". A Sunni ethnic group more related to the Turkic peoples of Central Asia than the dominant Chinese Hans, Uyghurs have long chafed at Beijing's rule and stringent regulation of the practice of Islam.

Hussein and millions of other young Uyghurs did not attend madrassahs (religious school) or pray at mosques as children because of a government regulation that bans Islamic education for anyone under the age of 18. Since he did not learn about religious laws governing marriage and family, Hussein feels unprepared to have children and wonders if future generations will be able to practice their faith at all.

"Maybe in 10 years, there will be no more religion in Xinjiang," says Hussein.

Human rights groups and Uyghur exile organizations echo Hussein's concern. Since the end of the Olympic Games in late August, the Chinese government's crackdown on Uyghurs in oil-rich Xinjiang appears to be worsening. Beginning with the Aug. 4 attack on 16 policemen in the city of Kashgar, a wave of violence carried out by what security officials tagged as Islamic separatists has resulted in a significant military deployment throughout the province, mass arrests of local Muslims, and a close surveillance of religious activities in the region's southern and central counties.

"It's virtually martial law there," says Alim Seytoff, Secretary-General of the Washington D.C.-based Uyghur American Association, who calls Xinjang Province East Turkestan. The name comes from the short-lived independent state Uyghurs fought for and established in the 1930s and 1940s before Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army retook it by force in 1949.

"East Turkestan is a police state. As long you're a Uyghur, you're a criminal suspect in China," says Seytoff.

Checkpoints that went up during the Olympics still ring the perimeters of most major towns where soldiers search cars and scan the identity cards of anyone that looks Muslim. Recent security measures also require passengers to disembark from both public and private cars at gas stations.

Xinjiang's Communist Party officials have also curtailed basic expressions of religion such as Islamic dress and diet. During Ramadan, an Islamic celebration which ended last week, local authorities told restaurants to serve customers during the day when Muslims normally fast. Government employees were ordered to shave their beards while police routinely searched women on the streets after telling them to remove their veils.

"The Chinese are attacking Uyghur cultural and religious identity," Seytoff says. "They say we can't be Uyghur, and we can't be Muslim."

Several bomb explosions in the city of Kuqa on Aug. 10 and two stabbing incidents in which several policemen died later in the month also triggered a series of arrests in southern and central Xinjiang. Dilshat Rishit, the spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress, estimates that close to 700 people were detained during the months of August and September.

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

Friction between Beijing and the country's largest Muslim minority community is not new. Although a smattering of loosely-organized separatist groups have periodically fought to recreate East Turkestan, most clashes fizzled out during the 1980's when the Chinese government began investing in Xinjiang's economic development. A booming construction industry sparked a huge influx of Hans-China's dominant ethnic group-into Xinjiang (meaning "New Frontier" in Mandarin). Chinese Hans now make up more than half of Xinjiang's population of 20 million people.

The latest round of unrest, which analysts say is the worst since an uprising in the town of Yining 11 years ago, began just four days before the Olympics' opening ceremonies. Two Uyghur men rammed a truck into a group of paramilitary officers taking their morning jog through the Silk Road city of Kashgar. 16 of them died. Although the government blamed Uyghur "separatists", no specific group claimed responsibility for this attack, or any of the other three incidents in which 29 more people were killed.

Still reeling from the April 2008 demonstrations in Tibet, various government leaders have promised an aggressive response to insecurity in this part of China. Wang Lequan, the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang, said in a press statement on Aug. 5 that the battle against religious extremism was a matter of "life or death". Then on August 28th, at a summit in Tajikistan, Chinese President Hu Jintao told fellow leaders of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which groups China, Russia and four Central Asian countries, that members should "deepen co-operation" in their fight against the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.

As the identities of the militants remain unknown two months after the turmoil began, a climate of anxiety continues to hover over both Han Chinese and Muslim neighborhoods. A Han clothes store owner named Mr. Gao says most of his regular customers from nearby counties no longer shop in Kashgar because it takes to long to get through the rigid security checkpoints outside the city. A Muslim shop owner who sells dried snake skins and live scorpions for anti-cancer treatments on the other side of town recently talked about how Party officials discouraged people from attending the Olympic torch relay when it passed through the area.

"That really hurt us," said the Uyghur man who did not want to be identified by name. While discussing the increased police presence in the Old City district, an unmarked white van with tinted windows drove past his shop's entrance. "The market has eyes," he said and quickly shifted the discussion back to traditional medicine.

A Han businessman who helps manage an import/export company said after the Aug. 4 attack, many Chinese residents began looking at Uyghurs with suspicion. "These guys were just jogging and didn't even have guns. It was so bad. There is fear in Kashgar," said the businessman whose family was among millions of Han immigrants that left poor villages in eastern China to make a better living in Xinjiang. "But they (the militants) are not qualified to challenge the Chinese government. It's like trying to fight a wall."

Some Uyghurs say that while they worry about security problems, the Hans' growing influence over the economy poses a larger threat to their livelihood. A hotel employee said that Muslims experience job discrimination on a regular basis. "Even if a Uyghur knows English, Russian, and French and does a good job, a Chinese will still get the position over the Uyghur," he said.

Nicholas Bequelin, an expert on Xinjiang for Human Rights Watch, says that continued Han migration, along with rapid economic development and authoritarian rule, represents the government's longer-term strategy of exerting greater control over the province and crushing Uyghur political dissent. According to Bequelin, the end goal is to steamroll Uyghur traditions and make the province more Chinese.

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

This two-decade approach of transforming Xinjiang into China's new epicenter of growth is most evident in the regional capital of Urumqi, a city of 2. 5 million people that is 1800 miles from Beijing. It was in this booming metropolis that police say they busted a cell of Uyghur militants who had planned to bomb Olympic venues and kidnap athletes.

Massive skyscrapers that resemble those found in Shanghai or Guangzhou dot the city's skyline. Urumqi's 70-story buildings now seep out into the suburbs and subsume entire Uyghur neighborhoods.

Yamalik, a wind-blown shantytown nestled in the hills above the city, is one of several areas slated for demolition in order to make room for new high-rise apartment buildings.
One recent afternoon, an old Uyghur man watched four Han laborers tear down his neighbor's house to clear space for the expanding Trans-Asia Railway line, which bisects this impoverished village. City officials said his house would be next and offered a small buyout to help him move his family of six.

"We don't really have a choice, but I don't know where we'll go. We've lived here for 35 years," the man said while wiping the dust from his neighbor's collapsed roof off his shirt sleeve.

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