Rail link a mixed bag for China's Uighurs

The push to develop China's western regions includes new transport ties to Xinjiang and Tibet.

The government's decision to build a railroad connecting Kashi with the rest of China seemed like a good idea. Completed nearly a year ago, the railroad for the first time in history links the gateway of the ancient trade route to the Mediterranean, the Silk Road, with the rest of China. But the new trains have brought in ethnic-majority Han Chinese immigrants, sparking fears among the local Turkic people, the Uighurs, that the newcomers will dilute their culture and dash hopes for creating an independent homeland.

A massive government spending program to boost living standards in this western desert region has prompted the new migration of job-seeking Han from other poor parts of China. Some locals see the new railroad station as evidence of the government's commitment to raising living standards. But for others, it's a potent symbol of the Communist regime's attempt to subjugate this region.

The views reflect the mixed feelings stirred by the central government's year-old drive to develop the western two-thirds of the country, which has lagged behind the more economically vibrant coast. It's a plan that includes the Tibet Autonomous Region, just south of Xinjiang: Last week the government announced that it is going ahead with initial efforts to better connect Tibet to the rest of China, with a rail link from Lhasa to Qinghai, the province just east of Xinjiang and Tibet. In the next five years, the government plans to spend some $12 billion for more railway construction to the western regions.

"From our point of view, the development drive is an attempt to colonize and integrate the land into China proper," says Erkin Dolet, editor in chief of the Washington-based Uighur Information Agency. "In the last 50 years, China has tried to put more and more people in the region."

Immigrants have increased resentment among the locals.

"Opening up of the west? Opening up for whom?" says a Uighur luthier, who like his ancestors makes the long-necked, three-stringed guitar used in the local Turkish-flavored music. "This is just another chance for more Han to come here so they can control us."

The question of control has long bedeviled China. Even 2,000 years ago, China's emperors stationed garrison towns along desert routes to protect the lucrative trade along the Silk Road. Rich in oil and mineral deposits, the region has renewed strategic importance because it borders Russia, Pakistan, Tibet, and the former Central Asian Soviet republics.

After 1949, the newly established Communist regime quickly quashed the brief-lived Republic of East Turkestan. Since then, the Uighurs have sporadically struggled for independence. In 1997, ethnic tensions bubbled over to violent protests in the town of Xining. Human rights groups say hundreds were killed when the Army suppressed the riots. Stringent security measures are still evident, and people are hesitant to speak to foreigners for fear of reprisals and arrest. Anti-separatist propaganda is everywhere, even on bank ads.

Already, Uighurs have lost dominance in many parts of Xinjiang, including the provincial capital, Urumqi. More than 650 miles northeast of Kashi, Urumqi now resembles a typical Chinese city. Only Kashi, or Kashgar as it is known by the Uighurs, still holds a distinct Islamic flavor. Mud-wall houses teeter over narrow lanes where craftsmen hammer jewelry and tools. Worshippers crowd outside mosques for the five-times-daily prayers. Many women cover heads and faces as a sign of piety and modesty.

Most striking is the absence of anything Chinese: few Chinese tourists, no Chinese signs, Uighurs are more likely to speak English than Mandarin.

But just outside the old city is a new world. Broad avenues with Stalinist apartment blocks, new department stores where the staff and customers are Han, and in the center of the city stands a seven-story statue of Mao.

Even the Sunday bazaar, the very heart of Kashi, has a Han Chinese imprint. While there are only three Han merchants among the hundreds of stalls, the management company is Han Chinese.

The central government has helped the locals. When Richard Houser, a father of two from Seattle, arrived here seven years ago, vegetables were scarce in winter and there were few cars on the streets. "Overall, China has the urge to develop to an elevated standard of living. You can't change without some resistance," he says while sitting in his cafe, where backpackers can sip a cappuccino and listen to Bob Dylan.

Setting aside the issue of independence, some worry that the recent changes may be leaving the Uighurs behind. Most do not speak Mandarin, a prerequisite for any high-paying job or government position. And few have any education higher than primary school.

English student Michael Apez, a Uighur who picked his first name after watching "The Godfather," tells a parable as he stands on a hillock overlooking the bazaar.

"There is a story. God said he would give the moon to those who get up early," he says. "The Han Chinese got up early and God gave them the moon. My people are still asleep."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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