Image: A Uighur man tends his junk shop
Elizabeth Dalziel  /  AP
An ethnic Uighur tends his junk shop in the city of Hotan, China, on Wednesday. A media campaign to promote unity between the Uighurs and other Chinese is being met with skepticism.
updated 7/15/2009 6:17:38 PM ET 2009-07-15T22:17:38

The chorus of smiling Muslims and Han Chinese wore matching yellow polo shirts and appeared on television Wednesday, singing: "We are all part of the same family."

The TV spot was the latest effort in a relentless propaganda campaign by the Chinese government to end the worst ethnic rioting in the far western Xinjiang region in decades.

But the message was falling flat on the streets of the dusty jade-trading oasis city of Hotan, where many Muslims are still seething with resentment over the Han, the dominant ethnic group in China. The residents spoke about the long-standing tensions in hushed voices in the Silk Road town's bustling bazaar, where donkeys pulled carts piled high with melons, and women in colorful head scarves sold wheels of flat bread that looked like pizza crust.

One Muslim shopkeeper picked up a hatchet, raised it over his head and lowered it with one quick stroke before saying, "That's the best way to deal with the Han Chinese."

The store owner, who only identified himself as Abdul, scoffed at the TV shows featuring members of his own Turkic minority ethnic group, the Uighurs, gushing about how harmonious and happy most of the people are in the sprawling oil-rich Xinjiang region, three times the size of Texas.

"I don't believe these people," the businessman said with a whisper, as he scouted the street for plainclothes police. "They get paid to say these things. Ninety percent of the Uighurs don't believe that stuff."

The media campaign began after July 5 when ethnic rioting killed at least 192 people in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi. The violence started when police broke up a Uighur demonstration in the city's main square, and the protesters scattered throughout the city, smashing windows, torching cars and beating Han Chinese. Two days later, groups of Han Chinese men went on a rampage against the Uighurs.

Framed as an attack of terrorism
In the first days after the rioting, state-run media provided extensive reports about Uighurs savagely attacking Han Chinese, while playing down the subsequent Han-led violence. The government was quick to frame the Uighur attacks as an act of terrorism by a tiny minority of violent miscreants, led by the U.S.-based Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer.

Kadeer has repeatedly denied the allegations and has condemned the violence.

As thousands of security forces restored order in Urumqi, the government's propaganda campaign kicked in with TV shows, loudspeaker trucks and red banners. Many slogans warned against the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism. The campaign targeted all of Xinjiang, even Hotan on the edge of the Taklamakan desert — a two-hour flight south of Urumqi.

Hotan is predominantly Uighur and has a strong Muslim tradition. Most of the women wear head scarves and long dresses, often decorated with sequins. The city is also famous for its carpets and its massive town square with a statue of late Communist leader Mao Zedong shaking hands with a Uighur worker.

Image: Uighur woman and child
Eugene Hoshiko  /  AP
A Uighur woman walks past cars destroyed in recent ethnic violence in the Uighur section of Urumqi, in western China's Xinjiang province, on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the propaganda continued with local TV showing the Uighur and Han singers swaying together as they sang, "We are all part of the same family." There were also several personal profiles of Uighurs who acted heroically during the riots.

One elderly Uighur couple reportedly gave refuge to a Han teenager, allowing him to spend the night in their apartment until his father could pick him up in the morning.

Another Uighur man was an ambulance driver who continued to rescue the wounded, even though he was injured and the windows of his vehicle were smashed. "I'm a Communist Party member," the man said. "I should be doing more than the average citizen."

'Our lives are getting better'
One news report showed farmers, some still gripping their shovels, huddled in a field as a communist cadre wearing a skullcap, or doppi, led a study session about the importance of ethnic harmony.

"Our lives are getting better and better each year," said one of the farmers, whose voice was dubbed into Mandarin Chinese because he spoke the Turkic language of the Uighurs. "We won't let the three evils ruin everything."

But on the streets of Hotan, it was difficult to find people who would say the same things. Most Uighurs declined to discuss the issue because they feared they might be overheard by informants or plainclothes police who were following an Associated Press reporter.

One vendor, who identified himself as Habib, said he disliked the Han Chinese. "Was the July 5 incident a bad thing? I don't know," he said with a grin and a laugh.

A college student, who identified herself as Gulinisa, said she was tuning out the propaganda. "I just can't stand to watch the TV anymore," she said. "It makes me so mad."

Many Uighurs believe the real underlying grievances — discrimination and restrictions on their religion — were being ignored and that pent-up anger will explode again. They also complain the propaganda campaign delegitimized their concerns.

The government has long used a two-pronged approach to Xinjiang: push for rapid economic development while crushing any signs of dissent. It has been mostly successful on both fronts. The region's economy has grown by an average annual rate of 10.3 percent in the past 30 years, the government said. Large-scale uprisings have been relatively few in the past decade or so.

Some believe government is insensitive
Xiong Kunxin, a professor of ethnic policy at Central Nationalities University in Beijing, said he agreed with the government's view that the recent rioting was an act of terrorism, partly whipped up by outside forces. But he also believed that internal cultural, religious and political factors played a role.

He said local officials are often insensitive to the Uighurs' culture. He said he visited a village near Hotan, where the Muslim farmers were told to raise pigs during the Maoist era. The local officials were trying to follow instructions from Mao, who wanted to increase agricultural output, he said.

Xiong said the government needs to undertake a comprehensive review of its policy for minorities.

"I am optimistic about the future for ethnic minorities in China, but we should not be blind to the severity and complexity of the long-term ethnic minority problems," he said. "These are problems that affect the entire country."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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