Circle of steel around the silk road

Hazy outlook ... a Uygur man in a sandstorm as he delivers hay in
Xinjiang province, which has seen unrest from his ethnic group
wanting independence.

Hazy outlook ... a Uygur man in a sandstorm as he delivers hay in Xinjiang province, which has seen unrest from his ethnic group wanting independence.
Photo: Reuters

May 10, 2008

It's not just Tibet that China stands over, Kirsty Needham reports from Xinjiang.

He was arrested as he arrived at the school gate, in full view of fellow students and his teachers. Taken away by police, the Uygur teenager remains in jail three months later.

His crime was to look at websites and send an email to an overseas group - daily activities for most teens. But in Xinjiang, the vast region of desert and mountains in China's far west, this constitutes a political crime - no matter how young the emailer - if it suggests contact between the Uygur ethnic minority and external organisations pushing for Xinjiang to become a separate, Islamic, state.

His friends say they do not really know what was in the email. There has been no trial. The school was afraid to get involved - it would only lead to more arrests. Guilt by association is common here, I am told.

"Thieves receive better justice here than people accused of political crimes," says Ali (not his real name), the director of an Islamic network whose work involves assisting unemployed youth.

In the Olympic year, and particularly since the Tibetan monk uprising that reached neighbouring provinces, things have been worse, Ali says.

Any hopes held by some of his young friends of being in Beijing for the Games in August - perhaps to sell Xinjiang's famous dried fruit to tourists - have gone, because, he says, people are being denied permission to travel to other provinces.

At the edge of an empty paddock, sitting in the gutter of one of the new highways built by the Chinese Government as it seeks to show off the infrastructure benefits it has brought to the region, Ali can speak boldly because there is no one within earshot. But he says there is no freedom of speech in Xinjiang, and secret police and informers are widespread, even among the Uygurs.

He knows many people, like that schoolboy in another town, who have been taken away this year, and of Uygurs working as secret police who have broken down crying after questioning those brought in as "terrorism" suspects under China's "strike hard" campaign against Islamic separatism.

"Tibet is better off than Xinjiang because the world is watching. But no one watches or knows about Xinjiang," he says.

Once on the fabled Silk Route between East and West, now the gateway to central Asian countries with which China has struck gas pipeline deals, Xinjiang sits on a third of China's oil reserves. The Government says that it has spent $U125 billion ($133 billion) on infrastructure in western China, and this year forecasts Xinjiang's gross domestic product to rise by 12 per cent.

Ali concedes the Chinese have invested heavily, and life is good for the urban middle class of Xinjiang's neat capital, Urumqi. But he explains that those seeking independence are motivated by other factors. In common with the Tibetans, their gripes centre on the loss of cultural identity, social inequality and lack of religious freedom.

In the ancient trading post of Kashgar, a large notice erected by the Government in the grounds of the 15th-century Id Kah mosque warns that worshippers should "oppose ethnic separatism and illegal religious activities".

"Young people cannot learn about their religion," Ali says. Children under 18 are not allowed inside mosques, and by the time they reach this age "their minds are formed and they have no time for religion". He blames the vacuum left by the absence of religion for a rise in alcoholism, drug abuse and prostitution in Uygur society. Xinjiang has the second-highest HIV infection rate in China.

The Uygurs feel the Chinese are wiping out their culture, he says, as large numbers of Han Chinese, encouraged by the Government, have migrated to Xinjiang and now make up about half of the population. Students must speak Chinese, not Uygur, in school.

Young Uygurs say it is difficult to find work after graduation. The official unemployment rate is 4 per cent, but is said to be much higher outside Urumqi, and higher among the Uygurs who live in greater numbers in smaller towns. Rural incomes of about 4500 yuan ($683) a year are four times lower than those of urban residents.

Ali says the Government has become aware of the problem of ethnic discrimination in the workplace by Chinese companies and government departments, but he says it may be too slow in addressing the issue.

"I do not hate the Chinese, because they are just people, but we need to be treated equally," he says.

The Uygur people make up 8.8 million of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region's population of 19.6 million, and their presence here dates back to the clan of Dingling in the third century BC and the kingdom of Gaochang in the eighth century BC.

In southern towns such as Yarkand, on the edge of the Taklaman Desert, historic mosques draw thousands to Friday prayers but are no longer permitted to serve as Islamic pilgrimage sites. A rich heritage of Uygur kingdoms is remembered in the dusty tombs of past kings and the Uygur queen and recorder of folk songs, Ammanisahan.

But in the multimillion-dollar Xinjiang Autonomous Region Museum in Urumqi, the Chinese Government puts forward a different history: "In 59 BC Xinjiang was listed as [the] Han Dynasty's domain formally and it became an inalienable component of the great motherland."

Although housing an admirable collection of Tang dynasty relics, the museum has scant detail on the arrival of Islam in Xinjiang between the 10th and 14th centuries, the role of the Altun mosque in Yarkand as an important Asian madrassa, or Islamic school, in the 16th century, or prominent Uygur scholars or poets.

"Xinjiang has been the multinational homeland from ancient times. Forty-seven nationalities live here today," reads a display that highlights the colourful hats of the 12 largest ethnic groups. These include 1.35 million Kazaks, 40,000 Tajik's, 11,100 Russians and 4900 recently arrived Tartars. The role of the Uygurs is played down as just one ethnic group among many. A similar argument - that there are many other ethnic groups living in Tibet - is frequently rolled out in the Chinese state media against Tibetan "splittists".

In recent weeks a convoy of 50 People's Liberation Army trucks could be seen rumbling across the desert roads of Kashgar; and large groups of military officers from Lanzhou, in Gansu province, and riot police in open trucks were a daily sight in Urumqi. Hundreds of village walls have been painted with red slogans urging people to put the nation first and build a peaceful society. Security is tight at Xinjiang's airports, bus and train stations because of a history of bombings by violent separatist factions, and a recent failed attempt by a suicide bomber to blow up an aircraft.

The Government is concerned that terrorists will seek to use the Olympics to draw international attention to their cause, particularly after the Tibetan protests. Uygurs are keen to learn of the world's reaction to the Lhasa uprising.

But Ali is sceptical of the Government's report last month that it had uncovered a plot by Xinjiang separatists to kidnap foreign journalists and tourists during the Olympics.

"This is just politics. Who do the terrorists hate? It is not the foreigners."