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Uighurs struggle in a world reshaped by Chinese influx

In China's far west, the Muslim ethnic group finds itself relegated to menial jobs. Chinese officials also restrict religious practice and use of their language in schools.

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"I don't have any Uighur friends. I don't deal with them," says Mr. Mi, an old man waiting in line for a therapeutic massage in Urumqi who says he has lived in Xinjiang for 50 years. "They are rude and brutal."

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That attitude has marked even Hadji, a wealthy young Uighur entrepreneur who drives a pearl gray Chevrolet and says that he personally has always got on well with his Han neighbors in Urumqi.

"They look down on us," he says of the Han immigrants. "When I take a bus, I hang on to the straps with both hands so nobody even thinks I might be trying to steal their bag."

Often, Chinese people seem insensitive to Uighur fears that their distinctive Muslim culture, derived from their Turkic origins, is being stifled by the flood of Han immigration.

"We all belong to the same country, so the two cultures should assimilate," says one Chinese student as he eats a plate of stir-fried pork and vegetables in the Xinjiang University canteen in Urumqi. "There is a universal law: survival of the fittest."

Others are more sympathetic. "We can understand that they feel their culture is being diluted" says Zhu Lijuan, another student. "But without Han people, how would they have cellphones or computers?"

The Chinese government has indeed brought economic development to Xinjiang, acknowledges Qutub, picking at a rice pilaf studded with raisins and pieces of lamb in a bazaar restaurant. But he is not impressed. "They give us bread," he says. "But they take away our hearts."

"The Uighurs are in a very difficult position," says Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "They can modernize but at the expense of their culture, or they can refuse to do so and end up marginalized economically."

Of special concern to many Uighurs is their Muslim religion, which local people say is attracting increasing numbers as an expression of their identity, and which the authorities see as a potential breeding ground for separatism.

On the wall of the 16th-century ochre brick mosque here in Kucha, a predominantly Uighur town of 200,000, a red banner proclaims – in Chinese and Uighur script: "Fight Against Illegal Religious Activity: Create a Harmonious Society."

Inside the prayer hall, a notice board explains "illegal religious activity." Near the top of the list is a warning that indicates the government's worries: "It is forbidden to praise jihad, pan-Turkism, or pan-Islamism."

Young men under the age of 18 are not allowed to pray in the mosque, the guardian says. Recently introduced regulations forbid local government employees from going to the mosque and ban teachers from wearing beards and students from bringing the Koran to university, human rights activists say.

"If you get too religious, the government gets worried," says one cotton farmer in a village 50 miles south of Kucha, where, he says, 50 young men have been arrested in recent months for studying at private religious schools, accused of belonging to the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Party.

"There is no religious freedom here," the farmer says bluntly.

The Chinese government "conflates … any religious activities outside the official framework with terrorism and separatism," argues Mr. Bequelin, leading ordinary Uighur believers to fear they could be charged with aiding the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an armed separatist organization on the US government list of terrorist groups.

On China's frontier: Uighurs

Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are the largest Turkic ethnic group in China's vast far-western Xinjiang region.

The Red Army first moved into Xinjiang in the late 1940s, and China began occupying the region in 1955.

Uighurs speak a Turkic dialect and write in Arabic script. Uighurs, who have Caucasian features, once made up 90 percent of the region's population, but Han Chinese immigration has seriously eroded that.

Sporadic protests have broken out in the region, with violent separatist attacks throughout the 1980s and in 1997.

Ethnic nationalism and religious solidarity have renewed ties among Muslims across the former Soviet Union and Middle East, prompting Beijing's sensitivity to separatist influences from central Asia.

Chinese authorities recently blamed Uighur separatists for a series of terrorist conspiracies, which they denied.

Source: Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, Reuters. Compiled by Peter Smith