There are at least two views of the violence that shook the western frontier town of Yining during the closing days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Exiles in touch with the ethnic Uighurs who live in Yining say Chinese police sparked the violence of Feb. 4-5 by yanking Uighur Muslims out of prayer sessions and arresting them. They say that 300 people died, including nearly 100 members of Chinese security forces, and that as many as 2,000 people were arrested. Many were flogged publicly as a warning, exiles said.
Chinese officials and newspapers have called the violence the work of drug addicts, looters and other "social garbage" who went on a binge of beating, looting and smashing cars. They say that 10 people died and 144 were injured.
Either way, the recent eruption in China's Xinjiang Province is evidence that age-old animosities are still bubbling between Han Chinese, who make up 92 percent of China's population and want to rule the region and tap its resources, and Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people who regard the Han as conquerors. The Uighurs yearn for reestablishment of the once independent Central Asian republic that was called Eastern Turkestan and had its capital in Yining 50 years ago.
"This area has been contested between China and the local people for 400 years," said Linda Benson, professor of history at Oakland University in Michigan and one of the few experts on the region. And throughout that time of changing rulers, she said, "there have been the same bitter feelings between Muslims and Chinese."
At stake for both sides is a huge territory and national pride.
From Beijing's point of view, Xinjiang is a sparsely populated but potentially oil-rich region that has been an integral part of China at least since 1884, when an expeditionary force of the Emperor Qianlong made it a province. In recent years, the government has been resettling Han Chinese into Xinjiang, leasing out tracts of the Taklimakan desert to foreign oil companies and constructing roads across the vast, forbidding terrain.
Beijing sees Xinjiang as vital to Chinese security because it borders Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, Kazakstan and other former Soviet republics. Anxious to prevent Xinjiang from becoming the next battleground for Central Asian Islamic republics seeking to wrest fellow Muslims from communism, China has kept a substantial number of troops in the region.
By contrast, Uighur exile groups say their people are in a fight for survival, battling against the Han influx, repressive security forces and a Chinese campaign to assimilate Uighurs into mainstream Chinese culture by suppressing Islamic traditions and Uighur language and history. They blame Chinese repression for the spate of violence over the last few months that has included a bombing and assassinations of Muslim collaborators.
"All this is an act of desperation," Erkin Alptekin, spokesman for the Eastern Turkestan Union of Europe, said in reference to recent violence. "We are a small group standing up against 1.2 billion people. It reminds me of people in the Warsaw Ghetto who were willing to die with their dignity."
Alptekin said the Chinese are carrying out a 10-point plan approved last March by President Jiang Zemin for pacifying Xinjiang. Alptekin said he has a copy of the plan, which calls for diplomatic pressure on countries harboring exile groups, a purge of "all suspicious persons" in party and government organs, and the installation of people who are "not afraid to die for the party." The plan, he added, also calls for a "rapid deployment force" of police and army units to combat "splittist activities."
The plan allegedly grants preferential economic treatment for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a government conglomerate that runs state farms and factories. In 1992, it employed 18 percent of the province's work force and represented 25 percent of agricultural and industrial output. Human rights activist Harry Wu has alleged that the firm also runs Xinjiang's multitude of labor camps.
The Chinese government has waged a campaign against Islam, banning independent Islamic publishing houses. A September article by Liu Zongkang, director of the religion institute of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, said that good Communists must differentiate between "folk customs" with religious roots and purely religious activities.
China restricts access to Xinjiang for foreign reporters, making it difficult to say for certain what conditions there are like. Some travelers have reported increased security checks and curfews.
Carrying word to the rest of the world from the remote region are a number of Uighur exile groups. One, the Eastern Turkestan National Freedom Center, is located in Washington and is led by 34-year-old exile Anwar Yusuf. Yusuf's organization, established in July 1995, is funded mostly by contributions from some of the roughly 10,000 Uighurs who have been living in Saudi Arabia.
Alptekin, 58, is perhaps the exile movement's main spokesman. Based in Bonn, he said his group is funded by private contributions from Uighurs living in Turkey and Europe.
Alptekin is trying to tear a page from the Dalai Lama's book in an effort to elicit sympathy and get greater publicity for the Uighur cause. "We are working very closely with the Dalai Lama," said Alptekin. "He is a very good example for us."
Alptekin said he is ready to compromise with the Chinese government, although he would rather see an independent state. He listed autonomy as a possibility, yet theoretically that is what Xinjiang has already.
"They talk about autonomy," Alptekin said, "but this autonomy is a fake autonomy."