Resentment and Rebellion Fester On the Silk Road

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Kashgar is an ageless town, hewn out of legend and peopled by faces as weathered as the surrounding mountains. An oasis in the desert where China, Central Asia and India converge, Kashgar has been fought over for centuries, and has grown accustomed to seeing invaders come and go. At the turn of this century it was the Russians and the British who used Kashgar as a base to spy on each other from their grand consulates in the town center. Now China is the overlord, but the rhythms of life for the local Uighurs owe as little to the Han ways as they do to the British or Russians before them: the mosques are full on Fridays, the script is Arabic, people eat bread instead of rice and older women cover their faces entirely when they walk the streets. At its heart, Kashgar remains a huge bazaar, a trading point along the ancient Silk Road that even today brings in hordes--on camels, horses, donkeys and rusted old buses--for the weekend street market. By Saturday evening the bazaar around the central Aidkah mosque is crowded with men and women picking their way through stalls selling hats, knives, boots, carpets, jewelry, lamb kebabs, melons. It is a colorful spectacle, and aside from a few TVs showing action videos, the market has changed little from the days when Genghis Khan's men rode through. The resentment at outside control has not changed much either. In a narrow alley behind the mosque in the old town, two Uighur men squat outside their homes talking--in rebellious language that they dare not use in public--about life under Chinese rule. If there is a fight, and even if I am in the right and the Chinese is in the wrong, the police will always take his side, says a 20-something man with a small moustache. He married at 18--to a 14-year-old girl--and has two daughters: one of the few concessions to the minorities in China is exemption from the one-child rule. But he fears this privilege may be suspended, as China eats away at other traditions. Already they forbid boys from 8 to 18 to go to the mosque, he claims. Children run by, laughing as they whip their spinning tops on the uneven mud-brick paving. But the adults have sullen faces and smile rarely: unemployment is a problem for Uighur men, who complain that the state gives jobs only to ethnic Chinese. The other man talks of Uighur communities living abroad, particularly in Germany. But he despairs of ever joining, since the government won't grant him a passport to leave China. We like countries that don't like China, he says, smiling for the first time. Some Uighurs still dream of reviving the independent state of East Turkestan that existed briefly in the mid-1940s until the area was liberated by the communists in 1949. As the government pushed Chinese to relocate to Xinjiang province, Uighur rebels based in neighboring Kazakhstan carried out sporadic attacks. The response of Chinese security forces has been harsh: human rights organizations say beatings and executions of suspected splittists are common. Resistance to Chinese rule received a new impetus in the mid-1990s after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the establishment of three independent Muslim-majority states--Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan--along Xinjiang's border, giving the Uighurs the idea that something similar could take place on China's fringes. The shortage of jobs and perceived discrimination against Uighurs contributed to anti-Chinese sentiment, and in early 1997 serious rioting broke out in the town of Yining near the Kazakh border. By official accounts 10 people, mostly Chinese, were lynched by Uighur demonstrators. Nine more were killed shortly thereafter, on the day of Deng Xiaoping's funeral, by three bombs planted on buses in the capital Urumqi. This was followed by widespread arrests and executions of Uighurs and even tighter surveillance of suspected splittists that continues to this day. In July, 18 people were jailed for up to 15 years for attempting to split the motherland, while Amnesty International has recorded 190 executions in Xinjiang since 1997. Most Uighurs are now resigned to Chinese control, even if they do not like it. Armed resistance is proving increasingly futile, and demographically the province has changed radically. From a mere 300,000 a half-century ago, the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang is now more than 6 million, about 38% of the province's total. As the numbers expand, fear of the Chinese security apparatus grows widespread. I would like to speak to you of how the Chinese treat the Uighurs, says a young man sitting outside a mosque. But I am sorry I cannot. If I do, the police will come. Beijing has always been nervous of a large-scale Muslim uprising, and it's had some success in persuading neighboring Kazakhstan to stop offering safe haven to Uighur separatists. After Russia, China is now Kazakhstan's largest trading partner. Business contracts and plans for a potentially lucrative oil pipeline to be built across Kazakhstan into Xinjiang at China's expense have made Almaty more receptive to Beijing's requests to crack down. The separatists have nowhere to turn. Unlike Tibet, with its high international profile and charismatic leader, Xinjiang's Muslims are little known in the outside world, and their cause has not attracted much sympathy or foreign backing. For China, the aggravations of the separatists are minor compared with the perceived benefits of holding on to Xinjiang, with its vast land, mineral reserves and agricultural riches. Much of the province has been developed by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military organization of former Chinese soldiers, convicts and self-willed frontiersmen drawn to the province to build a new future. Their energy has been prodigious. Irrigation systems fed by melting snow from the mountains have already turned parts of the desert into rich farmland. Oil wells have been sunk, and along one stretch of the new six-lane expressway from Urumqi to Turpan huge fields of windmills are generating electrical power. A drive across the province is more reminiscent of the wide open spaces of the American West than the densely populated heartland of China. Xinjiang, which makes up one-sixth of the country's land area, is home to just 17 million people. China's rush for development has barely touched Kashgar, which remains, as ever, a small player in a much bigger game. Once a resting post for the caravans carrying silk to the West, it is now an outpost on the edge of China's economic development to the east. Like the Plains Indians in 19th-century America or the Aborigines in Australia, the Uighurs have been given little say in the way their land is being used by their new economic masters. The merchants in the bazaar curl their lips and mutter, but they know they have to find some way of accommodating themselves to their new rulers--as their ancestors did so many times in the past.