State of resentment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2008, 12:00am

For the oasis city of Hotan in China's far northwest, the night now brings fear instead of the usual respite from the desert heat.

For thousands of years the settlement was a stop along the Silk Road trading route between Asia and Europe, famed for its jade. On March 23, more than 1,000 residents of the once-peaceful oasis rose up in protest against Chinese rule, confronting armed security forces.

More than a month after the incident, the reasons for the clash remain unclear. Residents say a few people with protest signs gathered near the main mosque and urged others to join them. Among their grievances was the alleged death in police custody of a prominent businessman and restrictions on Muslim women wearing head scarves.

'They oppose our religion,' said long-time resident Omar, claiming that the government had arrested thousands and shut several religious schools following the incident. His allegations could not be confirmed.

'They' are the Chinese, the political rulers of the Xinjiang region. The unspoken 'us' are members of the Uygur ethnic group, who practise Islam, speak a Turkic language and trace their ancestry to Indo-Europeans.

Coming days after protests by Tibetans in Lhasa turned violent on March 14, the central government deemed the Hotan demonstration to be an attempt to overthrow the state. The local government said the incident occurred 'under the flag of separatism'.

'During the day, it is like this - peaceful,' said Omar, as he waved his hand at the bustling bazaar that fills the streets near the city's biggest mosque every Sunday. 'At night, they arrest people.'

Human rights groups fear Beijing is using terrorism as an excuse to suppress dissent in Xinjiang, especially in the wake of the Tibetan riots and ahead of the Olympics.

Xinjiang has endured what Beijing labels terrorist acts, including bombings, assassinations, arson, poisonings, looting and riots. In the most detailed figures given by the government to date, police said there were more than 200 such incidents between 1990 and 2001.

Beijing blames most of the violence on a shadowy group with alleged overseas links known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement - which is also considered a terrorist group by the US. US forces have captured Uygurs fighting in Afghanistan, bolstering Beijing's claims of terrorism.

The violence in Xinjiang tapered off sharply due to a central government crackdown after the September 11 attacks on the US. But things are heating up again, with Beijing announcing a raid on a terrorist training camp in January last year, an attempt to blow up a plane in March and the arrest earlier this year of members of two terrorist groups allegedly planning attacks during the Olympics.

'I wouldn't automatically dismiss the claims,' said Scott Harrison, managing director of business risk consultancy Pacific Strategies & Assessments. 'On the other hand, it may not be as bad as they are portraying it. It gives them justification to be more repressive. The sceptics will say that's exactly why they are touting this at this particular time.'

Omar sees other causes for the unrest in Hotan besides agitation for a separate state - such as poverty, a rapid increase in the number of Han Chinese settlers and more conservative religious ideals. The arid settlements of southern Xinjiang, which have a larger proportion of Uygurs, are traditionally a hotbed of dissent.

Hotan is perched between the Taklimakan Desert - one of the world's largest sandy deserts - to the north and to the south by the rugged Kunlun Mountains on the border with Tibet . The city has a population of about 2 million - 96 per cent of them Uygur. Nearly 85 per cent live in rural areas, with an average annual income of US$214 per capita, half the level for Xinjiang as a whole.

An increase in population, driven partly by Han Chinese immigration, has stretched resources such as water and land and fuelled competition for jobs. The problem is common across Xinjiang, where oases make up only 4 per cent of the land but support 95 per cent of the population.

Encouraging Han Chinese migration into Xinjiang is a long-standing government policy aimed at stabilising the border area, providing land and exploiting natural resources. In the 1960s, people went out of patriotic zeal, but today the new migrants are seeking economic opportunity. The region's population, now 19 million, is 43 per cent Han Chinese, official figures show.

The instrument that originally supported such migration is the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an organisation formerly linked to the military that has become a massive business conglomerate. The 'soldier group', as it is popularly known, runs farms but it also operates labour camps and maintains its own army to quell ethnic unrest.

'Its main role is the stability of Xinjiang. Without the corps, Xinjiang would be more chaotic,' former member Zhou Xinliang said.

Among the earliest settlers, Mr Zhou lived near Aksu city for 30 years but rarely mixed with Uygur people. Even after three decades, he has only a few Uygur friends and Xinjiang has never felt like home. 'There was no contact. There was never a feeling of safety, because we were [Han] Chinese,' he said.

A resident of Turpan city in eastern Xinjiang said job discrimination was the problem, not just the number of jobs. Omir, 35, gives himself as an example: a university graduate, he is working as a tour guide in his home village.

'If you have a Uygur and a [Han] Chinese, they prefer to give the job to the [Han] Chinese,' he said.

A government study put the jobless rate among Uygurs at 15 per cent in 2000, but current figures are not available.

In the recent crackdown, Uygurs have been the victims of other forms of discrimination. Authorities have harassed young men with beards and women wearing full head scarves, targeting them as religious extremists.

'Beards are only all right for old men,' Omir said.

Racial slurs are also common. A Han Chinese taxi driver in Turpan said: 'Their brains are simple, but their arms and legs are developed. They don't eat pork, but they are as dumb as pigs.'

Often, inability to speak Putonghua is a barrier to better jobs. Housewife Aygul, 37, has encouraged her sons to learn the language as a gateway to a better career. But she teaches them the Uygur language and the Islam religion at home, wanting them to maintain their ethnic identity.

At state-run schools, instruction in Putonghua now begins from kindergarten and students are not allowed to observe Muslim religious holidays, such as fasting during Ramadan.

'It's called the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. But it's only Uygur in name,' she said, referring to the official name of Xinjiang. 'Tibet wants independence. We want independence too, but we can't say it.'

The call to prayer at the main mosque in Kashgar city , Id Kah, illustrates what Beijing fears: the power of religion and the link to more radical forms of Islam from outside China. On a Friday afternoon, there are so many worshippers at the mosque that they spill out on to the surrounding plaza, where they spread their prayer mats.

At Kashgar's bazaar, merchant Turgunjan expresses his lifelong wish. 'I want to see Pakistan. There are many more people there who can explain Islam,' he said.

To Beijing, the religious schools of Pakistan are an ever-present danger, a training ground for extremists. So the government keeps a watchful eye on Id Kah Mosque with a system of monitors. At the main mosque in Turpan, copies of the law on religion and rules against cults are posted prominently at the entrance.

The government's solution to the travails of Xinjiang and other areas with ethnic minorities is to throw money at the problem in the hope that higher living standards will ease discontent. But riots in Tibetan areas, which have also received massive injections of state funding, have shown the shortcomings of that policy.

Some mainland academics say a more nuanced strategy might be needed. 'The problem of western China is not only one of economic development. Chinese might very well have to focus on how to achieve solutions for problems linked to nationalities and religious development,' said Yao Dali, a professor at Shanghai's Fudan University.

The desires of Uygur people are rarely heard in the debate about their future, and they lack the kind of charismatic leader Tibetans have in the Dalai Lama. Uygur nationalism has found some expression in the story of Xiangfei, also known by her Uygur name, Iparhan, who was a concubine of the Chinese Emperor Qianlong during the Qing period.

In the Chinese version, she willingly served the emperor after her husband died, but in the Uygur telling, she always sought to return home, but did so only after her death to be entombed in her native Kashgar. 'She was our hero,' said Mahmut, a university graduate who guides tourists at her family tomb.

A modern hero is Uygur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer. Labelled a threat to the state and jailed, she went into exile to the US in 2005 and has spoken out against the persecution of her people. 'Rebiya Kadeer is a model for all Uygur people,' one Kashgar resident said.

Ms Kadeer, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, recently expressed solidarity with Tibetans and claimed that Beijing had fabricated reports of terrorist threats. She, too, is unlikely to return home in her lifetime.