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China's Uighurs Wary, Worried After Attack

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

KASHGAR, China, Aug. 5 -- Fear and caution pervaded the warren of mud-brick homes and shops of this northwestern city's ethnic Uighur neighborhood Tuesday, a day after an attack on a paramilitary police unit that killed 16 officers. Residents said they feared they would be blamed because the two assailants arrested at the scene were identified by police as Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority already subject to strict security measures.

Black-clad police officers carrying short clubs patrolled the Uighur neighborhood, entering several houses to check occupants' names against a government list of registered residents. Police presence at highway checkpoints and throughout the city was beefed up.

"Everyone is so scared," one woman said. "They don't want to open their mouths."

Local officials labeled the attack a terrorist act, timed to occur just ahead of the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, 2,000 miles to the east. Shi Dagang, Kashgar's Communist Party secretary, said at a news conference that the two men had left wills saying that defending their religion was more precious than life and that they would launch a holy war against the Chinese.

Exile groups say hundreds of Uighurs have been detained in recent months while thousands of paramilitary forces have been dispatched to the Xinjiang region in response to what local officials have said are terrorist threats from extremist Uighurs who want to form an independent state. Some foreign experts say China has exaggerated the threat to justify its crackdown on Uighur dissent.

The heavy police and military presence gave this tourist city an uneasy edge Tuesday. When a taxi sideswiped another on a busy downtown street, the drivers, both Uighurs, began shouting at each other through their open windows. But when they slowed to pull off the road to continue their argument, a police van drove by. Both drivers immediately stopped shouting and eased back into traffic. "I'm not going to stop if the police are here," one said.

No Uighur interviewed would agree to be quoted by name, including those who expressed gratitude toward the Chinese and no sympathy with those pressing for independence.

"I prefer we stay with China. They can protect us. Without them, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan can bully us," a 21-year-old man said.

A man chatting with foreign visitors inside Id Kah mosque, the largest in China, pointed out that the wall radiators and thick carpeting had been paid for with Chinese government funds.

A devout Muslim who prays five times a day, the man recalled that when he was in school, his Chinese teachers refused to let him go to the mosque. "The teachers told us we had no time to pray," he said. "We had to concentrate on our examinations."

Still, he shrugged off the idea that his religion was being suppressed. "I can practice my religion the way I want," he said.

Tensions between Uighurs and the Chinese have existed for centuries in Kashgar, once an oasis on the fabled Silk Road. A series of bombings in the region in the 1990s sparked a crackdown by Chinese security forces. Although tensions continued to simmer, there had been little violence here for a decade, until recently.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, China pushed successfully to have a separatist group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement recognized internationally as a terrorist organization. Since then, the government has played up the threat posed by the group, including U.S. assertions that it is linked to al-Qaeda. Chinese officials said the group poses the single largest threat to security at the Olympics.

Others say most of the violence in Xinjiang, including bus bombings in the 1990s, was small-scale and localized, which would not indicate a large, well-funded group.

"The degree of organization of Uighur groups or East Turkestan separatist groups is a big question among many experts outside of China," said James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

Millward said the problem in Xinjiang is a civil rights problem, with Uighurs feeling discriminated against in terms of job opportunities and government resources, which they say flow more fully to Han Chinese.

Wang Lixiong, a dissident Chinese writer and expert on ethnic issues, said Xinjiang represents an even bigger problem for Beijing than Tibet, which was swept this spring with protests against Chinese rule. "The Tibetans have a great leader, the Dalai Lama. He is the leader of all the Tibetans. He has a solution for the Tibetan issue and he wants to solve the problem," Wang said. "But in Xinjiang, there's no such leader. Even the protesters are fighting as individuals, not as a group."

China has poured billions of dollars' worth of development funding into both regions. Kashgar is, indeed, developing quickly, but roughly along two separate axes. The Uighur area radiates out from the Id Kah mosque, built in 1460, and into the old city area. Women in head scarves and men in knitted prayer caps or square traditional hats crowd the streets. Donkeys pulling carts full of watermelons and onions fight with cars, motorcycles and bicycles on narrow lanes.

The Chinese area stretches out from the railway station, built in 1999. White-tiled stores typical of many provincial Chinese cities line a multi-lane thoroughfare called People's Road. The road passes a 59-foot-tall statue of Mao Zedong across from a plaza that resembles Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

A nearby theater that used to stage traditional Uighur dance and music performances is under renovation, soon to be reopened as a hotel. "Not enough people wanted to see it, so they couldn't make any money," one man explained.

Researcher Liu Songjie contributed to this report.

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