Pressure to conform in west China

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Fall in line - or fall behind?

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.)

Little common ground

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.

"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.

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