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Frontline/World

Stephen Talbot and Monica Lam
Series Editor and Co-Producer
Friday, January 14, 2005; 11:00 AM

This Week: Series editor Stephen Talbot and co-producer Monica Lam discussed Frontline/World's report from the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, home to eight million Sufi Muslims, known as Uighurs, investigating the growing tensions between the Chinese government and Uighur demands for more freedom.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


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Indiana: What first interested you in this region? Why did you want to explore this topic?

Monica Lam: Hello, this is Monica Lam. The reporter of the story, Serene Fang, first got interested in the topic when she went to Xinjiang as a tourist a few years ago. She went at first to learn more about the history of Buddhism in the area, but became intrigued by the Uighur culture and language as she encountered it.

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Norwood, Mass.: Have you been in touch with Dilkex's family or friends? How are they responding to this incident, and how to do they view his interaction with you?

Monica Lam: We have been in touch with DIlkex and his family through friends. We have not contacted his family directly because we fear that direct communication would only cause them more difficulty right now. We have pursued the case with human rights organizations and requested information about him through official and unofficial channels. We have tried "quiet diplomacy" and have now decided to make it a public issue. As far as we know, he is still in custody.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I saw your story on FRONTLINE/World last night. What can be done to help the man you interviewed? Does the Chinese government admit that they have him in custody?

Monica Lam: Uighur groups have told us that people concerned about Sitiwaldi "Dilkex" Tiliwaldi's status can write a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. or the Chinese consulate in your city (if there is one). The Chinese government has not admitted publicly that they have him in custody. This is because information about these kinds of cases is closely guarded by Chinese authorities.

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Cupertino, Calif.: Would it help the man who was taken away by police if we sent letters to the local Chinese consulates asking information about him? If so please give us his full name and details again. Thank you.

Monica Lam: Several Uighur groups and human rights groups have indeed suggested that concerned people should write letters or call the Chinese Embassy to request information about the status of the case. Our source's proper name is Sitiwaldi Tilivaldi, and we knew him by a nickname, Dilkex. He lived and worked in the city of Ghulja (also known as Yili) on the Yili River near the Chinese border with Kazakhstan. He was taken away on the night of Oct. 19, 2004, by the Ministry of State Security. At this point, we are still not sure where he is being held.

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Arlington, Va.: Is it true that there are no time zones in China -- that even western China must follow Beijing time? I seem to recall an account of a visitor to western China who was shocked to find that sunrise was at "1 p.m." and sunset well after midnight.

Monica Lam: In Xinjiang people follow two time systems. The local time (which matches the sun's activity) and "Beijing time." When making appointments, one should always double check whether it's "Beijing time" or local time that's being discussed. Most official timetables, like plane and train schedules, are in "Beijing time" and you have to do the math to make sure you get to the station on time.

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Boston, Mass.: Is Al Queda an issue in Xinjiang? I think it is very rare to hear any news from this area of the world.

Monica Lam: This is Stephen Talbot. The Chinese government is very concerned about possible Islamic terrorist activity in the Uighur area. But there is no direct evidence of any Al Qaeda link. U.S. forces did capture about 20 or so Uighurs in Afghanistan and they were taken to Guantanamo where they have been held for several years. But recently the U..S. decided to release them. Colin Powell has said they will not be returned to China for fear that they may be executed. The U.S. is searching for a third country that might accept them. Our overall impression is that the Uighurs want more freedom and autonomy. They feel they are victims of discrimination. They have protested, sometimes violently in large demonstrations. But there has been little of what might be called "terrorist" activity.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Your report states that the interview with your source was brief and relatively innocuous. But there is suspicion on the part of the Chinese authorities that many or some Uighur Muslims are involved in terrorist activities. Did you get any indications at all that this was the case? Did you experience anything in your travels that seemed suspicious? And, on what is the Chinese goverment basing its case? Thanks for answering any of my questions.

Monica Lam: Hi, this is Monica Lam. We'd like to distinguish between groups that have declared themselves separatists and Uighur people who want to engage in civil dialogue about improving their standard of living in China. There are certainly groups that want to separate from China. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement is one group that the U.S. has acknowledged as a terrorist group (since 9/11). But we were primarily interested in learning about the general situation in Xinjiang. How people felt about their lives, the religion and culture, and everyday cultural clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese.

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Monica Lam: This is Monica again. In answer to a previous question about whether anything suspicious happened while we were in Xinjiang: first, if you haven't done so already, do watch the 15-minute video on the website. In it, reporter Serene Fang talks about the efforts that people made to reach out to and talk to her, yet how cautious they remained. One example is the incident that took place in a marketplace in Ghulja (Yili). As soon as Serene Fang mentioned to a vendor that she was American, he showed her a magazine photo, exclaiming, "Look I have a photo of an American." Interestingly however, the photo actually showed an American woman AND a Uighur activist named Rebiya Kadeer. As soon as Serene Fang asked to film the man with his magazine, he quickly put it away, saying "no, no, no!" We think this encounter illustrates a desire to talk but a fear of being punished for talking.

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Cupertino, Calif.: Was there any thought by the U.S. to release those men who were kept in Guantanomo Bay in the U.S.? It seems if they were released to a third country, there is a greater chance that China will take action against them.

Monica Lam: This is a question you should pose to the U.S. State Department.

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Cupertino, Calif.: The US government fears that those men held in Guantanamo will be executed if returned to China, which is an admission by our own government that the Uighurs are treated unfairly. Do you think it will help if we write letters to our own congressmen asking about the fate of the man in question?

Monica Lam: People in Congress always take note of letters and phone calls about a pressing issue.

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Baltimore, Md.: What is the U.S. government's official position on the Uighurs in China? How many, if any, groups are classified as terrorist organizations?

Monica Lam: This is Stephen Talbot. You should ask the State Dept. directly for their official position. But what seems to have happened since 911 is that the U.S. has wanted to enlist China in the war on terrorism, and in return the Chinese have wanted the U.S. to support Beijing's position that there are Uighur terrorists who need to be suppressed and defeated. In the case of one group, the ETIM, the U.S. officially agreed to list them as a terrorist organization. At the same time the U.S. recognizes that Uighurs in general have some legitimate grievances against the Chinese authorities.

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Montreal, Canada: How many mosques and other religious places have been destroyed? What kind of religious freedom the Muslims enjoy in China? Thanks.

Monica Lam: This is Monica. I don't know exactly how many mosques have been destroyed. China's position on religious freedom in Xinjiang (as another writer mentioned) has changed several times in the past several decades. I can tell you what we saw on our journey...there are mosques, big ones, old ones, and people do go to them to worship. Most Uighurs practice a moderate form of Islam. Women cover their hair with colorful, silken scarves, and only some cover their face and head completely. Alcohol is generally avoided but I did not have the sense that it was completely forbidden or restricted. We saw people reading the Koran while sitting on the sidewalk, and people talked openly of their religion with us.

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Boston, Mass.: Following up on al Qaeda, isn't Xinjiang also the area where China mines unranium for its nuclear program? I wonder if the U.S. is concerned by China's nuclear processing as much as Russia's.

Monica Lam: This is Talbot. Lop Nor is China's nuclear tetsing site in Xinjiang, which is a largely desert area. Clearly that is militarily sensitive. Also, a good deal of China's oil comes from this region. Oil and Muslims, on the border with volatile countries such as Pakistan. Clearly, it's an area of great concern for the Chinese.

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Cupertino, Calif.: Other than being told that the people only want to be able to speak freely, we know very little of the actual interview. Can you say what else he said about life in East Tajikstan?

Stephen Talbot: Reporter Serene Fang discusses the interview in my interview with her on our web site: www.pbs.org/frontlineworld. It was a short interview because, as I understand it, Dilkex became nervous about being filmed in his hotel room and they took a break, thinking they might coninue the videotaped interview elsewhere. The main thing he said was that Uighurs wanted more freedom of speech and an end to discrimination. He never expressed support for terrorism. Said he didn't know any terrorists. He did bring a list he had compiled of some 20 Uighurs he had read or heard were imprisoned or executed.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm really submitting this late so I doubt you'll get to my question. I missed the program, so pardon my question if it was covered. I studied the ethnic identity of Uigurs in Uyghurstan (or XUAR) and their propensity for separatist movements. I found that among other things, oppression of their language and over-population of ethnic Han Chinese were the elements that flared up separatist feelings. Did you experience/witness elimination of the Uyghur language? How about the removal of the one-child policy in XUAR? Thanks

Monica Lam: We did see the effects of Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang. Some cities we went to, like Aksu, were basically built by Han Chinese who were sent to the area to help develop it. Walking the streets of Aksu, we saw many Han Chinese faces. Some statistics show that the population was once 90% Uighur, 5% Han and is now almost 50/50. I do think that this influx of people has contributed to cultural tensions, competition over jobs, competition over resources and space, and a feeling on the side of the Uighurs of being pushed around. Many Uighurs also said that they feel their culture and language are not being taught sufficiently in the schools, although some we talked to said they learned both Uighur and Chinese (Mandarin) in their schools.

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New York: I once knew a very smart scientist who grew up in Urumuchi. It just seemed like the most remote place on earth, also apparently very beautiful, but China clearly did a good job with this person. I did have the impression that there was unrest and repression there.

Stephen Talbot: We are streaming the video of Serene Fang and Monica Lam's China story, "Silenced," on our web site, so you can see for yourself what Xinjiang province looks like. It is stark, mainly desert, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It is indeed remote, but was once part of the fabled Silk Road. There are modern cities, thriving marketplaces, but also a great deal of poverty and undeveloped areas. China is actually encouraging tourism to the region.

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McMillan, Wis.: Hello:
It is my understanding that prior to the Manchurian invasion of 1759, the Uighurs practiced a moderate form of Sunni Islam. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communists cracked down on religious expression, with the result that the role of Islam diminished significantly among this population.

With relaxation of state interference in religious life during the 1970s, I believe a religious re-awakening occurred among the Uighurs. Has this re-awakening continued along moderate Sunni traditions or has it been influenced by more radical interpretations of Islam? How successful is the Chinese policy of training and licensing imams? Thank you.

Monica Lam: Clearly there are concerns among Chinese authorities that radical Islam will influence Uighurs in Xinjiang, especially because Xinjiang borders on Pakistan. But the extent to which general religious practice is radicalizing is hard for us to say based on what we observed. In the time I spent in there, I would say that religion did not seem to dominate life in Xinjiang. It was a part of the fabric of life, but didn't dictate it.

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Cupertino, Calif.: Your report mentioned that the city is divided into a Han section which is more modern, and the Uighur section which is more run down and agricultural. Does the Uighur section have city officials who are Uighur, or are all city officials Chinese?

Stephen Talbot: The sections are like neighborhoods, they are not separate cities. There are both Chinese and Uighur city officials. In Serene and Monica's story, you will meet a Han Chinese tour guide, as well as a Uighur guide who speaks excellent, American-accented English.

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