KASHGAR, CHINA -- Ever since Chinese security forces quelled a bloody Moslem uprising in a town near here five months ago, authorities have cracked down on this strategic northwest province of Xinjiang, arresting thousands of people, tightening Communist Party controls and closing Islamic schools accused of promoting separatism.
While the government has, on the surface at least, taken firm control of the situation, its actions in this once famed oasis on the ancient Silk Road appear to have only engendered stronger anti-Chinese sentiment. Conversations with Uighurs, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of the population here, as well as with Han Chinese and others who have traveled to the region, reveal a deepening resentment of Chinese rule.
"If people fight the Chinese, I like that," said a 24-year-old militant whose anti-Chinese comments reflected the sentiments of many people here in Xinjiang. "If I die in that fight, I'm very happy because Xinjiang is Turkestan, not China," he said, calling for a return of the semi-autonomous Eastern Turkestan Republic that existed briefly before the 1949 Communist takeover.
Xinjiang, like the region of Tibet to the south, is important to Beijing in part because of its strategic location. China's largest province, oil-rich Xinjiang is about three times the size of France and shares borders with Mongolia, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Beijing tests its nuclear weapons in this region of vast deserts and stark mountains, and has set up listening posts to monitor the Soviet Union.
Although the history, religion and culture of largely Moslem Xinjiang are vastly different from Buddhist Tibet, both regions present the Chinese authorities with ethnic populations that seek to be free of Communist rule. In both Tibet and Xinjiang, tensions are growing not only over suppression of religion but over regulations restricting the growth of families and economic disparities between Chinese and ethnic groups.
Beijing has employed tactics here similar to those used in Tibet to maintain control of the increasingly restive populations. In fact, Fu Qianyou, the new commander of the Lanzhou Military Region, of which Xinjiang is a part, is a former commander of the Chengdu Military Region, which is responsible for Tibet.
Clearly concerned about further violence here, where at least seven clandestine separatist movements are operating, Beijing maintains 16 army divisions in the Lanzhou Military Region, with about 8,000 men in each division.
But the crackdown here has come at a sensitive time for Beijing, as the Chinese leadership has been trying to improve its image abroad and break out of international isolation caused by the army's crushing of a democracy movement in the capital last year. Furthermore, Beijing has been trying to build up ties with Middle Eastern countries, having established relations last month with Saudi Arabia, home of Islam's holiest shrines.
In official interviews and the state-controlled press, Xinjiang authorities describe the area as having returned to normal since the April uprising.
Here in Kashgar, China's westernmost city, and in the provincial capital of Urumqi, the Han Chinese, the dominant majority in most parts of China, and the ethnic minorities now go about their daily business with a minimum of interaction. But the complex ethnic mix in the area makes upholding central authority difficult.
Xinjiang's minorities include Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Uzbeks, considered to be the most rebellious groups in the country. The Uighurs, a Turkic people, are mostly Sunni Moslems who share more religious and cultural ties with Moslems in the Soviet Central Asian republics and the Middle East than with the Han Chinese. Uighurs, a tiny portion of the country's total population, are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, making up almost half of the 14 million population.
Tensions between the Chinese and ethnic groups have marked relations for the last two centuries. During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Moslem practices were forcibly suppressed, mosques were burned and religious leaders imprisoned. A partial liberalization of Communist Party policies in the early 1980s, however, fueled renewed anti-Chinese protests.
In April, ethnic tensions erupted into violence when armed rebels in Baren, 25 miles north of Kashgar, stormed the main government building, held five policemen hostage, and proclaimed a holy war to restore the Eastern Turkestan Republic.
Official accounts said 22 people were killed, including six policemen who were mutilated, in what the government termed an "armed counterrevolutionary rebellion."
Western diplomats, Chinese and Uighur sources say the death toll was much higher. Within days, authorities had closed the entire region to foreign journalists and only recently opened it to a few reporters.
At the time, Chinese officials said the protest was an isolated event, but Xinjiang officials now acknowledge that the anti-Han sentiment was more widespread and had reached the neighboring counties of Kuqa, Xayar, and Xinhe. Among the Han Chinese, the incident exacerbated fears of a violent minority uprising.
"It was anti-Han in sentiment and did shake up some Han Chinese, who were in a panic for some time," Maimet Sayim, director of Kashgar's Minorities Affairs Department, said in a recent interview.
Since the uprising, authorities have increased party controls in grassroots organizations, tightened management of mosques, closed what they described as illegal religious schools and strengthened education about atheism among party members, according to interviews with officials as well as news reports in the official Chinese press.
In addition, the government has launched a major crackdown on criminals and what authorities called "splittist elements," arresting thousands of people, the officials and press reports said.
Residents are being required to view an exhibition of the Baren uprising, complete with photographs of mutilated corpses, that has been sent around the region. Foreign journalists who asked to see the exhibit in Urumqi were prevented from entering, but students at Xinjiang University were all required to see the exhibit during the first week of school.
Religion has come under special scrutiny because Chinese officials claim that Moslem rebels are using mosques to organize and plan their attacks on the government.
The official press has accused "a small number of national separatists" of using the pretext of revitalizing Islam to spread "religious mania. . . . Trying to win over youngsters from us, they set up illegal schools to teach religious scriptures and instill separatism in students."
Already, seven clandestine separatist organizations, such as the Eastern Turkestan National Salvation Committee and the Eastern Turkestan Popular Liberation Front, are operating in the region, authorities have said. Most are believed to be based in Istanbul, where many prominent Uighur separatists live.
At the same time, Beijing is afraid that spillover of Turkic nationalism from neighboring Soviet Central Asian republics will make Xinjiang even harder to control than it is now, especially since a second railway was recently completed that links up with the Soviet Union.
For the moment, Xinjiang appears stable, but Beijing still shows concern. Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin, accompanied by Gen. Yang Baibing, visited Xinjiang in late August, touring military installations and stressing the importance of unity. Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen traveled to Turkey, where he reportedly discussed links between Uighur exiles and the underground separatists in Xinjiang, Chinese sources said.
There are a number of factors contributing to the tensions.
Officials go to great lengths to portray the tension as part of a struggle over national unity rather than a clash between Islam and communism. Some imams, Islamic religious leaders, who receive monthly subsidies from the government, repeat the government's position. "This is not a minority problem nor is it a religious problem," said Umar Kara Aji, an imam of one of Kashgar's mosques, in an officially arranged interview. "It is because of social scum who are using religion with the intention of opposing communism," he said.
But Uighurs and Hans say other factors, such as recently implemented stricter family planning policies and growing economic disparities, also add to tensions.
Until last year, minority families in Xinjiang were not subject to China's family planning restrictions of one child per couple. But in May 1989, authorities began limiting the number of children to two per family in the cities and three or four in rural areas.
Family planning officials acknowledge that there was initial resistance. "Many people were against it because they thought children were given by God, and the state should not interfere," said a local family planning official named Gulinisa, who is a Uighur.
Government officials said the population control policies have overwhelming support from minority groups, but several Uighurs disagreed. "Uighurs are afraid that because they are a minority, if they are not allowed to have as many children as they want, they will eventually disappear," said one young Uighur woman.
Economic disparities between Han Chinese and Xinjiang's minorities have added to the anti-government resentment here. Although the economic reforms of the last decade have fueled growth along China's coastal regions, landlocked Xinjiang has fallen behind.
In some parts of southern Xinjiang, 70 percent of the people still lived below the poverty line of 200 yuan, or $42.50, per person a year in 1988, according to one official report.