Chinese Leaders React To Growing Muslim Unrest

Incidents in western region highlight bid to assert identity

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ERSHAD ABDULLAH, alias Jin Xizhen, exemplifies the survival prescription of Muslims in China: To get by is to become like a Han Chinese.

Standing in the courtyard of a 13th century mosque that looks like a classical Chinese temple, Mr. Abdullah, imam of the mosque, outlines how the Muslim minority must conform to the Chinese mainstream.

``We have the right to believe or not believe. But religion is not to run counter to the regulations of the state,'' says the religious leader of 60,000 Muslims in this capital of eastern Shandong province. ``We can have only spiritual contact with other Muslims. And there can be no special effort to propagate Islam.''

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Yet as economic reforms force open Chinese society and hard-line Communist controls erode, China's 20 million Muslims have begun asserting their Islamic identity.

In contrast to the conforming Muslims of eastern China, western China simmers with ethnic strife between authorities and the Islamic minority. Last month, Qinghai Province erupted with violent demonstrations over publication of a book considered offensive to the Muslim community.

The book, called ``A Swift Turn in Thinking,'' was published in Taiwan but distributed in China and caused outrage by depicting Muslims praying in the presence of a pig. According to reports received in Muslim quarters of Beijing, a demonstration by thousands of Muslims was put down by the People's Liberation Army.

According to New China News Agency, troublemakers ``assaulted local party and government offices, smashed police vehicles, ... and attacked people.''

According to Asia Watch, the international human rights organization, Army units also reportedly suppressed an armed uprising in a Muslim area of Gansu Province, and Muslims in Beijing report that tensions are high between Muslims and Han Chinese in the southern part of Xinjiang, China's most ethnically volatile province. Last summer, Muslim groups reportedly launched a bomb attack on a hotel in Kashgar, the Xinjiang capital.

``Many Hans now want to leave Xinjiang,'' says a Muslim observer in Beijing.

At a meeting of government and Communist Party leaders recently, President Jiang Zemin warned that China would put down unrest among religious and ethnic minorities. Demanding stronger controls, Mr. Jiang said, ``Religion must operate within the bounds of the Constitution and law, while government must manage and supervise religious work in line with laws, regulations, and policies.''

``If one does not love one's country, one hardly deserves to be considered a devout Muslim,'' Shen Xiaxi, president of the official Chinese Islamic Association, said in a commentary in Qinghai Daily. ``The Koran advises us: `You should obey Allah, obey the messenger, and obey the governor among you.' ''

Muslim observers say that growing resentment against the Han Chinese is compounded by the migration of ethnic minorities from the dissolved Soviet Union into Xinjiang.

In 1964, tens of thousands of ethnic Uighurs hoping to establish a separate state fled from the Chinese province into the former Soviet Union. Amid economic and political instability in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, many people from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan now want to return to Xinjiang where the influx of Han Chinese has brought economic growth and an improvement in living standards, although the far western provinces still lag far behind China's booming coastal region.

Viewing the Central Asian border as its most ethnically volatile, China attempts to restrict movement across it. Still, barter thrives, carrying separatist sentiment into western China, diplomatic observers say. ``Now, those who fled in the 1960s are coming back as businessmen and disseminating the seeds of rebellion just as [Chairman] Mao [Zedong] disseminated the seeds of rebellion,'' says a Chinese businessmen whose family lives in Xinjiang.

``Separatism is spreading from central Asia into Xinjiang,'' he continues. ``Now, because Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan have their own problems, the influence is not that great. But eventually, they will be able to do so, and Xinjiang will become independent of China.''

To counter the threat of Islamic unrest, China has launched a campaign to improve relations with the Middle East. In the past two years, China has held high-level visits with just about every Arab country, defusing diplomatic or other interference in its troubled western provinces.

But if China engaged in widespread suppression, other Islamic countries would feel compelled to support Chinese Muslims, diplomats here say. ``At that point, these Middle Eastern countries would no longer be able to ignore repression of Muslims by the majority Han Chinese authorities,'' a Western diplomat says.

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