- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

HOTAN, China — 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, though you wouldn’t know it by looking. To the communist government, 2,300 miles east in Beijing, that’s precisely the problem.

In Xinjiang, the Muslim region that makes up an Alaska-size swath of China’s far west, the central government says it is fighting terrorism. But in a region 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” — the Turkic members of the Uighur ethnicity who advocate, sometimes violently, the creation of a country called East Turkestan? 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?

“Antigovernment 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 presented is scant. Local Beijing-backed leaders tell 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 followers of the self-exiled Dalai Lama in Tibet, or the leaders of Taiwan, recently accused by Beijing of waging a “holy war” against it.

In Xinjiang, which borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan and whose 11 million Muslims are the region’s majority, things have been simmering for years. But the problem took on particular urgency after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

That day in 2001 changed China’s approach in two ways: 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,” Dru Gladney, a specialist on Xinjiang at the University of Hawaii, said in December.

Today, government-run provincial television airs programs chronicling al Qaeda’s evils and characterizing the Chinese-Uighur relationship as close. Beijing is trying to broaden ties with Central Asian nations to reduce terrorism at its western edge.

In October, a Uighur named Ujimamadi Abbas was executed in Hotan after being convicted of “ethnic separatism.” No details of his reputed offenses were given. In December, Hasan Mahsum, one of the country’s most wanted men and the leader of the outlawed East Turkestan Islamic Movement, was killed in a shootout with Pakistani authorities.

A week earlier, Mahsum’s name was among 11 “Muslim separatists” on a list issued by China seeking foreign help against Xinjiang’s “terrorist organizations.”

The United States identified the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization in 2002 — a classification many believe was a diplomatic favor to Beijing in exchange for its tacit support of the American-led war on terrorism.

“China thinks Uighur separatism is of 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 Stockholm-based spokesman for the East Turkestan Information Center.

“Uighurs love their country — because that country is East Turkestan,” said Mr. Raxit. “The Beijing government knows that. But they demand that their nationalism is directed toward China.”

This dual identity of Xinjiang is partly the result of a deliberate attempt, through decades of encouraged migration of ethnic Han Chinese from the east, to make the western region more Chinese. It’s not easy.

Xinjiang not only seems far from the rest of China, it is. Even the official time zone set by Beijing is ignored; many follow their own informal clock that runs two hours earlier. 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 into profit-making shininess. But drive south on the rutted desert roads and the landscape changes dramatically. Mud-hut villages and the serpentine old parts of towns such as Hotan and Kashgar resemble Kabul more than they do Beijing or Shanghai.

In Hotan, where authorities say separatism is rampant even after a 1999 crackdown, little police presence is visible. 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 antiterrorism exhibit in the local Communist Party’s walled compound.

In a small dusty room, grenades, guns and bomb equipment are displayed under glass near videotapes and violent photos — a naked, mutilated female body, a decapitated head, a slit throat. Christmas lights ring the room.

“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 Mr. Abdul-Rahman concedes as much, saying authorities are “not clear on” the relationship between religion and extremism. They emphasize, though, that while 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. Talking to visiting reporters recently, he insisted that Xinjiang insurgents had training camps in Pakistan.

At the magnificent, green-trimmed Idqar Mosque in Kashgar, men file in by the hundreds each afternoon, walking through a vast plaza that has been leveled for reconstruction.

Chants begin. Stooped graybeards lay down bags, baskets of bread, cartloads of apples. They kneel and, ignoring the occasional cell-phone ring, they pray.

This pastiche distills what worries China’s central government most: beliefs that transcend party and nation, motivations they can’t control or mold. It’s particularly true in a city such as 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 Mr. 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.”

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