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.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Muslims: Chinese Uighurs leave a mosque in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Province. The Chinese do not let Uighurs attend mosque until age 18.
Nir Elias/File
April Warmth: A well-hatted Uighur at the market in Hetian, Xinjiang Province.
Pascale Nivelle
'I am the last vestige of the feudal system,' says Daoud Mehsut, the last former Uighur monarch still alive in China. His government-refurbished palace is now a 'Triple-A Tourist Spot.'

King Daoud Mehsut of Kucha, 12th in his royal line and the last man still alive in China to have sat on a monarch's throne, is a man of noble bearing and proud visage.

The old man's fate, however, is dispiriting. Once a leader of his Uighur people – the Muslim ethnic group that predominates in this far western province of Xinjiang – King Daoud is now wheeled out by two young Chinese female assistants presenting him as a tourist attraction to visitors prepared to buy a 200 RMB ($28.60) ticket. "I get a cut," he says simply.

King Daoud's humiliation, say some Uighurs (prounced WEE-gur), is a sign of what is in store for their culture as a whole in the face of the Chinese government's relentless drive to settle more and more ethnic Han Chinese in traditionally Uighur territory, rich in oil and minerals.

"We feel like foreigners in our own land," complains one Uighur teacher in the provincial capital of Urumqi, who offers only a nickname, Batur, for fear of angering the authorities. "We are like the Indians in America." Or Tibetans in Tibet. "Most Uighurs sympathize with the Tibetans," says Batur. "We feel we are all under the same sort of rule."

Though Xinjiang's 8 million Uighurs have shown only a few signs of the sort of unrest that shook Tibet recently, the Chinese government is just as nervous about "splittism" here among the country's fifth-largest ethnic minority, afraid that beneath the surface calm, resentment is bubbling.

The authorities claim to have foiled three Uighur terrorist plots in recent months – one aimed at bringing down a passenger plane and the other two at this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing – though they have given scant details to support the reports.

That concern, many Uighurs charge, translates into harsh government control of their lives, restrictions on the use of their language in schools and on their Muslim religious practice, and a colonial-style economy that keeps most local people in menial jobs while Han Chinese immigrants run businesses and the local administration.

Since the Communist government took over Xinjiang in 1949 from a warlord allied with the Nationalist Army, the proportion of Han Chinese (China's dominant ethnic group) in the province has shot up from 6.7 percent to 40.6 percent, according to official figures. The Han population now almost matches the Uighur population, after a six decades-long campaign by Beijing to settle Han in the remote region.

"The government wants the Uighurs to be their slaves, they want our race to vanish," says a clothes trader in the bazaar in Urumqi who calls himself Qutub. "They are destroying the demographic balance by bringing in Chinese people," he adds. "They are drying out our roots."

Though Han and Uighur people share the land, they have little in common, little to do with each other, and little desire to change that state of affairs.

Uighurs are resentful at the way Han Chinese monopolize the best jobs and the top political posts, even though Xinjiang is theoretically an autonomous province. Han residents routinely complain that Uighurs are dirty, lazy, and dishonest.

"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."

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.

ETIM, a shadowy group that advocates an independent Islamic state for Uighurs, is seen by the Chinese authorities as the principal security danger in the region. Accused of a failed bomb plot on a Chinese airliner last month, the organization "is the preeminent threat to the Beijing Olympics," says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

That threat, however, says Mr. Gunaratna, comes not from "ETIM's support network in Xinjiang, but from an operational network" based abroad, along the Pakistan-Afghan border, comprising about 40 men who have linked up with Al Qaeda allies there.

Of more concern to the cotton farmer, who asked that neither his name nor his village be identified for fear of official retribution for talking to a foreign journalist, is the fact that the government has ordered him, like everyone else in the district, to tear down his home and build a new one more resistant to earthquakes.

The authorities are offering 4,000 RMB ($571) towards the cost of this work, the farmer says, "but rebuilding the house I live in would cost me 30,000 RMB." Instead he plans to build a smaller home, which will still cost him the price of a year's cotton harvest. "What can we do?" he asks. "That's just the way it is."

Some Uighurs have broken the silence of acquiescence recently, such as the several thousand demonstrators in the southern town of Khotan who spilled onto the streets in protest a month ago at the death, at age 38, of an imprisoned local philanthropist. The official reason was a heart attack.

But fear of being branded a separatist hangs heavily over most Uighurs. Asked if he is happy with the way the government treats him, one man says that answering that question would make him choose between "committing a political sin or a sin against my conscience." He chooses the latter, and is silent.

A local government employee in the small city of Korla, where the discovery of oil has drawn hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese workers, is a little more forthcoming.

Since last term, he complains, key school subjects such as math have been taught only in Mandarin, starting in the second grade. To preserve his people's culture, he insists, "education is central. If education is in Mandarin, what do you think will happen?"

Meanwhile, back in his government-refurbished palace that has been transformed into a "Triple- A Tourist Spot," according to a plaque by the gate, King Daoud seems resigned to his role as a folkloric money spinner for Xinjiang's real rulers, with whom he long ago made his peace.

His "kingdom has disappeared" since the Communists deposed him in 1949, he acknowledges. "I am the last vestige of the feudal system."

Soon, fears Batur, his people will go the same way if the Chinese government maintains its current policies.

"The government thinks Uighurs are a threat to Xinjiang's stability," he says. "If they can assimilate us as soon as possible, there will be no threat. Xinjiang will be Chinese, and there will be nothing for them to worry about."

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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