Pressure to conform in west China
China's 'Go West' effort poses a challenge to the identity of eight million ethnic Muslim Uighurs.
In the blurry quarter-light of dawn, a long line of Uighur men streams silently out of morning prayers at the Idkah Mosque - known as the "Mecca of Xinjiang." The men walk in twos and threes, wearing dark clothes and solemn expressions, and head off to work or homes.Skip to next paragraph
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For centuries, the outside of this mosque, a central symbol of China's most Islamic city, which lies along the old Silk Road, was a gathering place for ethnic Muslim Uighurs after prayer - a rich jumble of Persian-style shops, stalls, adobe homes, and tea vendors.
No longer. In recent months, the old neighborhood has been flattened - to be replaced by an open plaza designed to attract tourists. An artist's conception is plastered at a bus stop just off the building site; Uighurs nearby stare blankly at an image of mostly Han Chinese visitors, some with cellphones and short skirts, skipping across the ancient venue.
Such changes are systematically under way throughout the vast province of Xinjiang. An ambitious "Go West" campaign is bringing new populations and infrastructure to one of China's least developed regions. The change is a sharp challenge to the identity - and, some say, the viability - of a desert Central Asian people that were a majority in Xinjiang until the late 1990s.
The eight million Uighurs of Turkic Muslim origin are facing new policies - such as requiring their children to learn Chinese in primary schools - and large funding cuts in majority Uighur colleges. They are confronting as well the effects of a five-year "strike hard" campaign to wipe out acts of "separatism" through round-ups, arrests, and executions. More executions take place in Xinjiang, an estimated one or two a day, than in any other part of China, according to Human Rights Watch. Since Sept. 11, moreover, the government has tried to conflate, as one expert puts it, all local separatist movements and Uighur identity struggles as part of an "Islamic terrorist" movement.
Idkah's prayer leader, Imam Mohammed Ammin, is about as moderate an imam as one will find in Kashgar. He says the new plaza is progress because it will bring ethnic Uighurs and Han Chinese closer together.
A Uighur bread vendor nearby offers a more typical local street feeling: "Look what they are doing to our mosque! What more do I have to say about what is happening to us?"
In some ways, these two views sum up the stark question of the Uighur future, as Han Chinese roll into Xinjiang with money, police, know-how, and greater numbers: the Uighur people can either join and participate in the new world inexorably being built around them - or they will be pushed aside.
At the Idkar Mosque at afternoon prayers, for example, tourists, including women with their heads uncovered, walk right into the Muslim rituals, for a look around. The Uighurs say nothing. But one later said, "We hate it, but what can we do?"
"The Uighurs are becoming the new Kurds of Central Asia," says Dru Gladney, a leading Uighur specialist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, a people without a state who desire, at the least, to preserve their culture, and to have a voice in their affairs.
Though Uighurs live in China, they do not eat Chinese food, speak the Chinese language, look Chinese, or intermarry with Chinese.
Yet pressure to conform to Chinese norms is rising. In January, a young poet who chanted a verse at a Kashgar concert hall during a performance was arrested. Security officials told foreign journalists here the young man was guilty of "spiritual terrorism." Officials said the poem "attacked our government policy" regarding ethnic minorities.
"He wanted to destroy the unity between the Uighur and Han," says a local party official. "We regard this as terrorism in the spiritual form. But we want to educate, not punish him."
One does not have to be in Kashgar long to realize there is not much actual unity between Uighur and Han. The antipathy is palpable and deep. Even cursory exchanges among the Uighurs, who make up 90 percent of Kashgar, suggest a state of resentment, or a resignation.
Surface tensions between the groups seem to have lessened from several years back, however, when the "strike hard" crackdown, and something called "sentencing rallies," were more common. (Sentencing rallies involved large groups of Uighurs accused of capital crimes entering a sports stadium and being read a sentence of death, followed by execution outside the stadium, according to diplomatic sources, and the New York-based Human Rights in China.)