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Muslim resentment poses problem for China

Resentment against the Chinese has long simmered in this traditionally Muslim western region, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia.
Image: China Xinjiang
A young Uighur man and a boy chat while waiting for customers to sell Muslim caps for men at a Hotan bazaar in China's Xinjiang province.Eugene Hoshiko / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

There was no sign of dissent in the bazaar, where men wove through the crowd on motorcycles with freshly butchered sheep draped behind them. But a Muslim merchant pinched his lips together with his fingers to show he could not talk freely.

"The Chinese are too bad, really bad," said Hama, who added that the Chinese had broken up a protest of about 200 people last month. He put his wrists together as if handcuffed. "I can't say more or I'll get arrested."

As China grapples with protests in Tibet, it also faces unrest on its Central Asian frontier.

Resentment against the Chinese has long simmered in this traditionally Muslim western region, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia. The problems in Xinjiang came on top of nearly a month of anti-government riots and protests in Tibet and other provinces with sizable Tibetan populations.

Clashes growing as Olympics approach
Such clashes are growing as the Olympic Games approach, with the world's spotlight on China and its human rights record. However, the situation with the Muslim minority Uighurs (pronounced "Wee-gers") is even more complicated because China worries about separatist sentiment and brands more militant Uighurs terrorists. Human rights groups say China exaggerates such threats so it can clamp down on the Uighurs and arrest dissidents.

The Chinese blame last month's protest in the jade-trading Silk Road town of Hotan on Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, a radical group that wants to create a worldwide Islamic state. The group, which claims to disavow violence, has been banned in Russia and Central Asia, where it reportedly has a large following among the predominantly Muslim former Soviet republics.

The Chinese have accused the group of handing out "reactionary" leaflets and calling for people to demonstrate in Hotan as well as Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi, the state-run China News Agency reported on its Web site. Last month, officials also accused the East Turkestan Islamic Movement — a group on the U.S. terrorism list — of trying to crash a domestic flight from Xinjiang, though the details of the case remain sketchy.

About 9.4 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, making up almost half its population. They speak a Turkic language, follow their own customs and live on land that is bigger than Alaska and covers a sixth of China's territory.

China has often used harsh repression to control them, and has imprisoned or killed Uighur nationalists. The government has also flooded the land it renamed Xinjiang — or "New Frontier" — with soldiers and members of China's ethnic Han majority who control much of the economy, fueled by rich oil and natural gas reserves.

In Hotan last weekend, the situation seemed to have cooled off. A few uniformed police patrolled the bazaar, where almost all the shoppers and traders were Muslims. Women wearing spectacularly colorful head scarves watched over stands piled high with walnuts, almonds, dates and raisins.

Tensions between Muslims and Chinese
But despite big signs urging the masses to "Create a peaceful Hotan," the animosity between Muslims and Chinese was palpable in this city of about 100,000.

A chirpy Chinese coffee shop waitress smiled as she rattled off sites travelers should see, but urged them to avoid the bazaar.

"Some Muslim separatists caused some trouble. It's terrible," said the waitress, who would only give her surname, Zheng, when discussing the sensitive subject.

The Chinese also say the Uighurs are ungrateful for all the government investment that has modernized the region.

"They have no culture and they don't try to study and improve themselves," said a Chinese delivery driver who would only give his surname, Wang, because he said the government didn't want him to speak ill of the Uighurs. "Most businesses don't want to hire them. That's why they hire Han Chinese. Their religion, Islam, it's no good. It fills their heads with nonsense."

Most Uighurs practice a moderate form of Islam. The men wear ornate skullcaps, or "doppi," while most women favor head scarves but rarely cover their faces. Many can be seen dressed in tight skirts or stylish hip-hugging designer jeans and high heels.

The last major series of riots in Xinjiang happened a little more than a decade ago. But there are occasional reports in China's state-run media of weapons busts or bombings that are difficult to confirm.

Often, it seems the Chinese and Muslims are content to live in their own worlds. During a recent two-hour China Southern Airlines flight from Urumqi to Hotan, none of the young Chinese flight attendants spoke Uighur to the passengers. Even basic phrases like "Please sit down" or "Fasten your seat belts" were spoken in Mandarin to the Uighurs, who often looked puzzled or asked them to repeat themselves.

But the Uighurs often show the same disinterest in the Chinese. One Uighur university student who would only give his English name, Steve, said he didn't have to go to class last Friday because it was a national holiday — Ching Ming, a day when Chinese clean their ancestors' graves.

"I don't know what the holiday is called or what it's about," the 20-year-old student said. "It's a Chinese holiday. It has nothing to do with me."