It's not just Christians & Muslims

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Mon 09 Dec 2002 - 15:35:07 GMT

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    Wednesday, December 4, 2002 Struggle for cultural survival stirs up fundamentalism in Xinjiang


    Urumqi, the provincial capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, is not unlike most other mainland cities, boasting shiny new buildings, huge roads, some still under construction, and endless shops and restaurants, with colourful banners and balloons advertising their existence.

    The Erdao market is one of the few places a visitor can find a strong Uygur flavour. Here, food vendors sell naan breads and kebabs, bearded men sell cloth, shoes and domestic necessities and little music shops blast out the latest Pakistani hits.

    In what appears outwardly to be an Islamic resurgence, an ever-increasing number of veiled women can be seen in public places. The men, too, seem to adhere more closely to the requirements of Muslim dress, with long beards, tunics and covered heads becoming increasingly popular.

    Beijing's official spin on Xinjiang portrays the region and its Uygur inhabitants in two ways. The first describes the region as a highly unstable area that could ''potentially affect the stability of the entire country'', where ''hostile foreign forces'' are plotting the disintegration of China together with ''local Islamic terrorists''. This is the line that was presented to the United Nations and the United States immediately after the September 11 attacks to legitimise the central authorities' tight grip on the region.

    The other version, and the one commonly given to Hong Kong and foreign businessmen to attract investment, holds that apart from small, isolated incidents, the region is safe and stable, devoid of ethnic strife, with huge economic potential just waiting to be tapped.

    It does not take too deep a study to recognise that both these portrayals are off target.

    Today, Xinjiang has a population of 18 million, with eight million Uygurs, about eight million Han and the rest Mongols, Kazaks, Tajiks and other minority groups.

    Even the most superficial traveller can see the main characteristic of contemporary Xinjiang is the increasing polarisation among ethnic communities. Understanding this polarisation is the key to analysing the region.

    So far, the central government's policies have exacerbated this polarisation, putting the indigenous communities on a collision course with the Han, China's dominant people.

    The authorities have encouraged Han immigration into these ''underpopulated lands'', which is fostering growing resentment among the Uygur population.

    In spite of its apparent size, Xinjiang is a region of deserts and snow-peaked mountains, and the fertile lands cannot sustain high human density. Thus the Uygur's fear of being outnumbered in their own ancestral land is very real.

    It is plain to see the main threat to stability is not a radicalisation of Islam, but a struggle started in the name of cultural survival.

    Yet the way in which the central government is trying to keep a lid on the simmering resentment seems to be counterproductive. Just this summer it was announced that classes in the Uygur language were to be phased out from all local institutes of higher learning, and local witnesses have reported many instances of Uygur-language books being publicly burned.

    Also, serious human rights abuses by the authorities are constantly being documented. Thought control of Orwellian dimensions has been going on for a decade. It extends to everybody through patriotism classes and
    ''anti-separatism'' courses. All of this has only one tangible outcome: instilling a climate of fear and resentment, and exacerbating the ethnic gap.

    Given this situation, Islam may often seem the only safe haven for those striving to keep their cultural identity.

    Women are the first victims of such an evolution. More and more, they are required to venture out only if heavily veiled. Many can be heard lamenting that they are expected to have more children these days, part of the
    ''numeric battle'' with the Han.

    With this in mind, it is clear further repression and state violence will not win the hearts and minds of the Uygur population it will only increase the tension and give a stronger hand to creeping fundamentalism.

    * * *

    Nicolas Becquelin is research director at Human Rights in China. Ilaria Maria Sala is a Hong Kong-based journalist. This article reflects the authors' own views and not necessarily those of Human Rights in China.

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