China’s West Province Is a World Apart
Down the cramped alleys of Hotan’s main bazaar, flat discs of bread roast in cone-shaped coal ovens. Bearded men in embroidered skullcaps hawk melons and aromatic cumin from donkey carts. On dusty walls of mud and brick, the script is Arabic and the language Turkic.
This is China, although you wouldn’t know it by looking. And to the communist government, 2,300 miles east in Beijing, that’s precisely the problem.
In Xinjiang, the Muslim region making up an Alaska-sized swath of China’s far west, the central government says it is fighting terrorism. But in an area divided from the rest of the land by language and religion, philosophy and tradition, it’s hard to tell exactly who the enemy is.
Is it what the government calls “separatists” -- those Turkic members of the Uighur ethnicity who advocate, sometimes violently, creation of a country called East Turkistan? Is it Islamic extremists backed by global terrorist networks? Have they joined forces?
Or, as some activists say, is it all simply an excuse to come down harshly on people who won’t bend to Beijing’s rule?
“Anti-government activity and religious extremists and terrorists, they are all the same in nature,” said Zong Jian, deputy Communist Party secretary in Kashgar, a city near the Afghan and Pakistani borders. “They incite people to be involved in violence. That unites them.”
The accusations are vague, and the evidence is scant. Beijing-backed leaders tell stories of Uighur separatists who worked with neighboring Afghanistan’s Taliban to sow unrest in Xinjiang, of Al Qaeda involvement in training camps inside China.
This much is indisputable: The Chinese government fears any whiff of rebellion at the edges of its control, be it by Dalai Lama followers in Tibet or the leaders of Taiwan, recently accused by Beijing of waging a “holy war.”
In Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan and whose 11 million Muslims are the majority, things have been simmering for years. But the problem took on particular urgency after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
That day changed China’s approach: It made Beijing more wary of Islamic extremism, and it gave the government -- long criticized for its human rights practices -- a globally endorsed excuse to crack down.
“A lot of people sort of feel that they are using the threat of terrorism to strengthen their control of the region,” said Dru Gladney, a specialist on Xinjiang at the University of Hawaii.
Today, government-run provincial television airs programs chronicling Al Qaeda’s evils and characterizing Chinese-Uighur relations as close. And Beijing is trying to broaden ties with Central Asian nations to reduce terrorism at its western edge.
In October, Ujimamadi Ab- bas, an Uighur, was executed in Hotan after being convicted of “ethnic separatism.” No details of his alleged offenses were given.
In December, Hasan Mahsum, leader of the outlawed East Turkestan Islamic Movement, was killed in a shootout with Pakistan authorities. A week earlier, his name was among 11 “Muslim separatists” on a list released by China in a plea for foreign help against Xinjiang “terrorist organizations.” The East Turkestan Islamic Movement was identified by the United States as a terrorist organization in 2002, a classification that many believe was a diplomatic bone thrown to Beijing in exchange for its tacit support of the U.S.-led war on terror.
“China thinks Uighur separatism is two kinds -- Islamic extremism and political separatism. But since 9-11, they’ve put them together and said they’re the same,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the East Turkistan Information Center.
“Uighurs love their country -- because that country is East Turkistan,” said Raxit (pronounced “Rasheed”). “The Beijing government knows that. But they demand that their nationalism is directed toward China.”
Xinjiang’s dual identity is the partial result of a deliberate attempt, through decades of encouraged migration of Hans from the east, to make the region more Chinese. It’s not easy.
Xinjiang not only seems far from the rest of China, it is. Even the official time zone is ignored; many follow their own informal clock that runs two hours earlier. And ancient linguistic ties link the Uighurs to Turkmenistan, three countries away, and even to Turkey, on Europe’s doorstep.
Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, resembles most Chinese cities evolving from uninspired communist architecture. But drive south on rutted desert roads and the landscape changes dramatically. Mud-hut villages and the serpentine old parts of towns like Hotan and Kashgar resemble Kabul more than Beijing.
In Hotan, where authorities say separatism is rampant, there is little visible police presence. This, whispers one Muslim man, is because of spies -- Uighurs who work closely with the government to monitor neighbors and report dissidence. His account is difficult to verify. Most Uighurs speak halting Chinese, if any, and in several cities, those asked about unrest melted into the masses, unwilling to talk.
Hotan is also home to a curious anti-terrorism exhibit in the local Communist Party’s walled compound. In a small dusty room, grenades, guns and bomb equipment sit under glass near videotapes and violent photos.
“These people are a terrorist force that has close relations with international terrorism,” said Pamir Abdul-Rahman, a party official. “They were trained in foreign training camps and sent back to be terrorists here. Its leader is following orders from Osama bin Laden.”
There is little evidence of this, and he acknowledges as much, saying authorities are “not clear on” the relationship between religion and extremism. They emphasize that although the Chinese government is officially atheist, Islam is protected -- in theory, at least.
“It’s easy to get confused here. We have no problem with Islamic devotion. It is when people use that to instigate activities that we become concerned,” said Wang Lequan, Xinjiang’s Communist Party secretary
At the magnificent Idqar mosque in Kashgar, men file in by the hundreds each afternoon, walking through a vast plaza leveled for reconstruction. Chants begin. Stooped graybeards lay down bags, baskets of bread, cartloads of apples. They kneel and pray.
This pastiche distills what worries China’s central government most: beliefs that transcend party and nation, motivations they can’t control. It’s particularly true in Kashgar, as near to Mecca as it is to Beijing.
The mosque’s government-backed imam, Mohammed Amin, paints a picture of a society that is overcoming its differences -- celebrating them, even.
“Nationalism and religious feeling are not incompatible,” said Amin, cross-legged on a prayer mat. He goes on, in words that echo those of the leadership that endorses him: “There were terrorists here. Now, if there are any, they are very few. We don’t have all these problems. Islam doesn’t mean terrorism, and it doesn’t mean terrorism here.”