May 02, 2008

East Turkestan: An Assimilation Policy of Intimidation

Sample ImageChina is trying to build a single nation with the Han Chinese dominant, but its policy is causing only resentment and spreading dissent.

Below is an article written by Lindsey Hilsum and published by the New Stateman:

In the central square, under the gaze of a giant statue of Mao and a grateful peasant, a hundred young people in tracksuits pledged allegiance to the flag. They held up their fists in a lacklustre manner and chorused: "I solemnly swear not to let down the motherland . . ."

We were in Hotan, in China's far western Xinjiang Province, 2,000 miles from Beijing but only 300 from Islamabad. Many of the Uighur people who live here do not accept that China is their motherland at all. Xinjiang is the other Tibet, where restive Muslims rather than Buddhists chafe under Chinese rule, and 18-year-olds are forced to undergo a citizenship ceremony, in the hope that this will, somehow, make them loyal to the Chinese Communist Party.

The government says Uighur terrorists, in league with al-Qaeda, are plotting to disrupt the Beijing Olympics in August, targeting foreign athletes and journalists. After 9/11, the Chinese started to refer to Uighur separatists as "terrorists", a move that persuaded the Americans to put a small and ineffective rebel group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, on its terror list.

There is little proof that the threat of terrorism is grave, but ample evidence that the Uighurs pose a challenge to the official view of all China's ethnic minorities as one big, happy family.

Hotan town centre is all white tiles and blue window glass, like any Chinese city. Han Chinese, encouraged to migrate here as an extension of Beijing's power, have clustered their shops around a military post. They know they are seen as emissaries of an alien, much-resented power.

"If the Uighurs protest, we don't feel safe," said a Han shop owner. "Of course we're afraid."

Half a mile away, the mosque dominates the Uighur part of town, where donkey carts weave their perilous way through hooting traffic and bearded men earnestly discuss the price of jade, gleaned from the nearby riverbed. At the end of March, protests erupted during Sunday market after news spread that a prominent Uighur jade merchant, Mutallip Hajim, had died in police custody. Then the women started demonstrating for the right to wear the hijab at work. The protests were rapidly quelled.

It was hard to establish why Hajim had been arrested in the first place. His padlocked shop was covered in notices reading "Sealed by the Public Security Bureau". When approached, his neighbours simply said: "We're too frightened to talk." Outside, young men in sunglasses and T-shirts shifted from foot to foot, pretending to look the other way. The spies of Hotan make little effort to hide their identity - their job is as much to intimidate as to gather intelligence.

Gradually we got a few answers. "He became too powerful." "He gave money to an Islamic school." An old man in a trademark Uighur green-and-white pillbox hat told us that many had been arrested since the demonstrations.

"This place belongs to Uighurs," he said. "But we get arrested if we read the Quran and go to mosque. People are arrested every day and taken to detention centres, where they're locked up and beaten. Everybody is afraid."

Another man risked arrest or worse to show us a detention centre in town and a labour camp a few miles out, where we could see prisoners in orange jerkins tilling the land, watched by guards sitting on stools.

Dominated by the Taklamakan Desert, fringed by the Pamir and Karakoram Mountains, Xinjiang is so remote that it is scarcely reported. In the 1930s, the Times correspondent Peter Fleming brought back "news from Tartary". These days it is less romantic, but equally obscure. Westerners are partial to Tibetans, primarily because they feel - mistakenly - that Buddhists are intrinsically peaceful, and partly because Hollywood stars have publicised the cause. By contrast, some of the old Uighur man's complaints would garner little sympathy in London or Washington. "The women of Afghanistan all wear the hijab, so why shouldn't ours?" he said.

Yet the Uighurs suffer similar discrimination at the hands of the Chinese state. No one under 18 is allowed to enter a mosque, and praying is strictly controlled. Their culture, which has much in common with that of their neighbours in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and other central Asian states, is regarded as a source of entertainment. In a Chinese version of The Black and White Minstrel Show, Uighur dances will be performed at this year's Olympic Games.

"To China, the most important thing is territorial sovereignty," said Wang Lixiong, a writer who has criticised government policy in Xinjiang and Tibet. "The question is whether Uighurs and other ethnic groups in this territory can be assimilated as the government wishes." For the moment, the answer seems to be no.

At the market, a balding camel sauntered among the stalls while an itinerant preacher ranted outside the mosque. A few Han Chinese haggled over jade, but this did not feel like China. In Xinjiang, as in Tibet, the government tries to bend unwilling subjects to its will, rather than accommodate the disparate cultures and beliefs.