East Turkestan: Uighur Minority subdued under Chinese Repression
Not so long ago, far western China was roiled by more than 200 bombings and assassinations. More recently, a brutal crackdown reported by human rights groups has ushered in a measure of calm to remote, oil-rich Xinjiang.
China has shrugged off criticism and pledged anew to obliterate any glimmer of separatist sentiment within the ethnic Uighurs, who number about 8 million.
Today, the Uighurs, who live in arid dun-colored towns and cities on the edge of the forbidding Taklimakan Desert, dwell in resentful coexistence with migrant Han Chinese flooding their homeland. They bristle at how China has restricted their religious freedom, yet fear to speak out amid the pervasive presence of security agents.
Communist Party leaders sound triumphant in describing their efforts to quash Uighur separatists, linking them to a global network of Al Qaeda terrorism.
"Xinjiang has dealt a heavy blow to nationalist, splittist and terrorist forces since the 1990s," Wang Lequan, the top Communist Party official, told a group of visiting foreign reporters in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, a huge area officially called the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
So far this year, Wang said, police have broken up 22 cells of Uighur rebels and handed out sentences to more than 50 of them, including the death penalty.
Dreams of independence
The last known violent attack in Xinjiang was in 2001. But Uighur activists in exile say they haven't given up on their dream of an independent homeland, which they call East Turkestan.
"I do not know when the pressure-cooker situation will explode, but I am sure it will happen," said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the East Turkestan Information Center, an exile group based in Sweden and Germany.
Chinese officials portray Xinjiang as pacified and the Uighurs as a contented part of a national tapestry that includes 55 other ethnic minority groups.
In organizing a tour for foreign journalists around Xinjiang, the Foreign Ministry set up meetings with what they called a typical Uighur family and officials, many of whom said Uighurs should integrate more fully into China.
Even as they speak of pacification, officials wield an iron fist in Xinjiang. Most Uighurs spoke only warily.
At a housing compound in the eastern part of Kashgar, near Kyrgyzstan, Uighurs grew agitated at a visitor's questions. A weeping woman held her wrists together as if handcuffed. Others exhorted a translator: "Tell him the truth!"
The translator began to voice their grievances, then stopped.
"We are not alone," he said, signaling some agents lurking nearby.
A minority subdued
Uighurs have numerous complaints, ranging from overcrowded classrooms to health care issues to lack of religious freedom.
HIV infection per capita in Xinjiang, acute among Uighurs, is the highest in China, because of widespread use of heroin imported from Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Authorities limit the religious practice of Uighurs more than of other Muslim minorities, such as the Hui. Under the rubric of the "10 No's," officials bar those under 18 from entering mosques, ban foreign Muslims from meeting local religious leaders known as imams and prohibit the use of the word "jihad," or "holy war." Mosques routinely are blocked from using loudspeakers.
After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, China saw an opening to crack down further on Uighur separatists.
"Over the last three years, tens of thousands of people are reported to have been detained for investigation in the region," the London-based human rights group Amnesty International said in a report in July. Thousands are believed to toil in forced labor camps. Others have been executed, though how many is unclear.
"The government basically sees Islam as a threat to China's stability," said Alim Seytoff, the general secretary of the Uyghur American Association, an exile group that represents some 1,000 Uighurs living in the United States.
Wang, the party official, said Uighur terrorism in the 1990s killed more than 160 people and injured 400.
More than 1,000 Uighurs trained at Al Qaeda or Taliban bases before U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, Wang said, and Uighur extremist groups overseas are seeking to fuel violence in Xinjiang.
China has rallied a regional security alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to lean on neighboring central Asian nations to repatriate wanted Uighur extremists. Those returned generally have faced execution.
China also has gotten limited support from the United States, which after months of pressure from Beijing agreed in mid-2002 to freeze the assets of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a small Uighur separatist group, as a terrorist organization.
The Bush administration also reportedly allowed Chinese agents to observe interrogations of 22 Uighurs believed to be among the 600 or so detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. So far, the United States has declined to repatriate the Uighurs.
Whether China has subdued Uighur separatism permanently is an open question.
Some tout the public security. Others say Uighur discontent simmers and will vent one day.
"If you push a group of people into a corner by stripping
them of their rights, it will radicalize the people, forcing them to strike
back," said Seytoff.