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Pressure to conform in west China

China's 'Go West' effort poses a challenge to the identity of eight million ethnic Muslim Uighurs.

(Page 2 of 2)

Reporters on an official visit were not offered Uighur translators and were kept on a tight schedule. But in random exchanges on the Kashgar street, there seemed little understanding between the ethnic peoples.

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"We do not share the same heart with the Chinese," said one Uighur in Kashgar. "The Uighur and the Chinese are not alike in any way. We do not trust them," said another, who offered that she and her family listened to Radio Free Asia broadcasts originating in Washington.

By all accounts, a discussion is now under way among Uighurs about how and whether to participate in a Han world. Some Uighur leaders say it is the only realistic answer - that the moment has passed for international sympathy for the separate state of East Turkestan that many Uighurs claim. They say the only question now is the terms under which participation should happen. To not participate will only mean further alienation and economic deprivation that will set Uighur children further behind.

China may be offering Uighurs a choice to participate by avoiding "the three evils" of separatism, fundamentalism, and terrorism. But in a region that is being systematically repopulated and modernized, there is bound to be ethnic competition.

As official Li Dezhu said famously at a National State Council meeting in 2000: "The development of the west campaign will accelerate the natural selection process" in Xinjiang.

Unlike the cause of Tibet - well funded, represented by the moral authority of the Dalai Lama, and given high media profile by Hollywood actors - the East Turkestan cause has never attracted attention internationally.

"Compared to the Tibetans, we get no publicity," says Alim Seytoff of the Uighur American Association in Washington. "We are the latecomer in the game. We only got started in the 1990s."

The one universally respected figure among the Uighur peoples is Rabiya Kadir, and she sits in a Chinese jail in Urumchi. Ms. Kadir, described by one diplomat as a "cross between Mother Teresa and Oprah Winfrey," was a delegate to the Chinese People's Congress, a millionaire businesswoman, and was widely popular among Uighurs as an example that they, too, could make it in China.

Some scholars and diplomats feel it would be a wise and ameliorative move for the Chinese to release Kadir, whose crime was to possess newspaper clippings that Chinese authorities said were separatist in nature.

Yet Uighurs like Mr. Seytoff in Washington say Kadir was arrested and is being held to make a different point: "If the US police were to arrest Bill Gates for no reason, and hold him, what message would that send? It would say that US authorities can arrest anyone, even a billionaire. When China arrested Rabiya Kadir, the message to Uighurs is, 'We can do anything to you.' We understand that very clearly."

Even some Uighurs who want to participate in a new Chinese Xinjiang are quite firm about wanting their children to continue to learn Uighur language and customs. An especially sore spot is the new government policy to have young children study Chinese in school.

"I'm very concerned, and my husband is upset," says one Uighur mother of a second-grader, whose family is involved in local cooperation with the party.

"We will teach our children our language no matter what it takes. We do not want this new policy," she adds.

To improve assimilation, efforts are under way to have Uighur and Han students attend school jointly. At Middle School No. 1 in Korla, 730 Uighurs mix with 1,800 Han.

The Uighurs are invited to study in Chinese if they wish. About 75 do.

The school hallways display paintings of Chinese poets, Albert Einstein, and a Uighur communist hero, Abdul Halik Regur, who fought the Kuomintang nationalists.

A large instructional poster in a stairwell highlights "two musts." The first must: "We must fight separatism." The second: "We must believe in Marxist atheism and not attend religious activities."

Social-studies classes at Middle School No. 1 do not contain materials on the intermittent periods prior to 1949 (and often cited by Uighurs outside China) when the region was called "East Turkestan" and enjoyed some autonomy.

"A student asking about this period would be considered a separatist," says one social-studies teacher, herself a Uighur.