- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

URUMQI, China — Although it rarely reaches the outside world, news from Xinjiang province in northwestern China near the border with Kazakhstan is sel-dom good and never happy.

Xinjiang is part of Muslim China, and the news from Beijing is that a number of separatist rebels have been arrested and detained. The news was worse a few months ago, when authorities acknowledged that 18 rebels and separatists had been killed and 17 wounded by government troops.

They were killed in the border region near Afghanistan, next to Tibet, the other rebellious and separatist region of China. The central government says it is vital to stop religious extremism and the threat of terrorism in restive Xinjiang.

Chinese rule over Tibet is questionable and controversial, as it is in Xinjiang province and Inner Mongolia. All are autonomous regions, officially allowed but not encouraged to use their own languages. Use of a local national anthem is prohibited, and there is no local politics.

A world away

For a foreign reporter, there is no other way to visit these regions except supervised by a few Beijing officials and agents who apparently work undercover. The first stop is Kucha in Xinjiang. At first, it is difficult to identify as Chinese this town of nearly 100,000 inhabitants in the Tarim Basin desert.

The shop signs are in Arabic, women are veiled, and men wear turbans. The big, newly built mosque replaces the old, demolished one and is near a shopping mall where McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken dominate the skyline.

“Of every hundred people living in Kucha, 80 are Uighurs, and we risk being arrested, tortured and sentenced to labor camps for anything the government accuses us of — without trial,” a woman of Uighur descent at a human rights group in Beijing told us before we left.

“Life is pretty tough for Muslims in Xinjiang,” she added, warning that residents may get into trouble if they speak to foreigners. Speaking to foreign reporters is even worse, and could land them in jail.

China is flooding the region with Han Chinese. It builds roads, banks with ATM machines and modern housing, as China’s central government puts a premium on emulating the West. Developing infrastructure is part of the strategy to bring the rebel province under control and closer to Beijing.

The party line

The press trip is mainly to convince the audience about the region’s security and safety.

Chinese officials say: “Everything is under control,” despite the fact that Uighur rebels have been trained by Osama bin Laden and seek to separate Xinjiang from China.

Beijing officials say that there is no need for separation, that the Uighurs are not oppressed nor discriminated against and that there is complete freedom of religion.

After the prayer, one of the imams meets visitors in the mosque’s inner court. Sitting cross-legged, the cleric tells us that all is peaceful and quiet on the Western Front.

Followers surround the imam, listening eagerly to what he has to tell the foreigners. An interpreter translates from Uighur into Chinese, followed by another translation into English.

There is no need for the Beijing officials to contradict or interfere. Not a single unwise word comes from the imam.

“Yes, we Uighurs are free to worship our own religion, and everyone here has already been on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

“No, not a single Muslim is imprisoned because of his beliefs. Anyone imprisoned has violated the law, and the terrorists are a handful of hooligans — enemies of Islam and China.”

The Uighur preacher shifts into a more comfortable position when asked where all the mosques have gone. There were many more in the old days, but then, he explains, there were no sound systems to raise the level of the call to prayer.

He also dismissed the idea that courses in Chinese for Uighur leaders are used for political indoctrination. Instead, he says, they are meant to increase knowledge of the law.

But the imam offers no comment on the killings earlier this year and the reports of intimidation.

Under guise of terror

Not long ago, a similar “press conference” would have been impossible. Reports of attacks never reached the outside world and were covered up in Beijing. The big Uighur uprising of 1997 became a regional and national secret.

The September 11 attacks appeared to be a gift for the central government in Beijing, which stepped up its own campaign against Uighur nationalism and gave China a place in the global battle against terrorism. Human rights groups, however, accuse Beijing of terrorizing the people of Xinjiang.

Sadness covers the whole region, including in Urumqi, a day’s travel from Kucha. Repression seems worse here. The call to prayer is not given on loudspeakers and only heard within the inner court. And officials and civil servants are prohibited from participating.

Two months ago, police troops eradicated a purported terrorist camp of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), killing 18 rebels said to be linked to al Qaeda. Seventeen others were arrested and detained. Three years ago, Beijing persuaded Washington to recognize the ETIM as a global terrorist threat.

Unfortunate events along the historic Silk Road are rarely reported in Beijing, where there is much news about investing billions in the construction of pipelines, railroad tracks and highways in China’s territory in Central Asia.

Gas and oil have been discovered here, creating a need to build a transportation network that can move the fuel to the east, where the real economic action takes place. The idea of improving this impoverished and backward region by permitting a free, market economy is not mentioned.

The gap between rich and the poor has widened, despite the fact that since the 1950s, nearly 50 percent more Han Chinese have moved to Xinjiang. The first group to go down the poverty ladder are the Uighurs.

As a result, no one lacking Chinese government identification is free from serious questioning. Xinjiang natives do not go out at night, and traffic lights seldom work.

In Beijing, a human-rights worker of Uighur descent said of China’s rule in Xinjiang: “They rob the local people of their existence. That is not good.”

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