Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uigurs Defy Beijing

The Uigurs of Xinjiang refuse to give up their dreams of self-rule.
By Ruth Ingram

Every evening, seven-year-old Aziz lowers the Chinese flag in the family courtyard and stamps on it. He then covers it with his Muslim prayer mat and reads his evening prayers.

His behaviour worries his family, but Aziz is determined to continue his act of solidarity with the hundreds of local men rounded up and imprisoned this year, on suspicion of supporting the Uigur separatist movement.

Aziz lives in Xinjiang, the furthest and most remote of China's autonomous regions. The Turkic-speaking Islamic community of Uigurs makes up the majority of its nine million population.

They arrived with the Mongol Turks in the 11th and 12th centuries and their language, culture, traditions and national heroes are so similar to Uzbeks across the border, that they claim a common ancestry.

In China, though, they are vilified as separatists. To counter their perceived threat, Beijing has tried to tip the demographic balance by encouraging mass migration to the region.

Ten years ago, Xinjiang was a sleepy backwater with hardly a high-rise or freeway in sight. Towns were predominantly mud-walled, dusty-laned, farming communities places to which thousands of peasants flooded on donkey-driven carts for the weekly market.

There, they sold home-grown produce and hand-made wares on the sun-dried, mud streets.

This all changed dramatically five years ago when President Jiang Zemin announced his "Go West" policy. He ordered and cajoled hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese to move to the area and begin to exploit the region’s mineral wealth.

It’s now expected that tens of millions will migrate to the area in the next twenty years. Already, their influx is having an impact. They live in faceless apartment blocks, ride bicycles and Chinese rickshaws, open Chinese restaurants and - eat pig.

Uigurs claim to have always hated the Chinese because of their disrespect for God and their love of pork. Latterly, this hatred has intensified because the Han "invaders" have taken their jobs and marginalised their culture.

Uigurs are so resentful of the influx that some have joined a local resistance movement whose ultimate goal is self-rule. A bombing campaign launched earlier this year left a number of people dead. Beijing retaliated with a wave of arrests and executions.

The real crackdown was felt in April and May. ‘Operation Strike Hard’ resulted in the detention of thousands. Over 200 Uigurs were sentenced to death and many more were handed lengthy prison terms.

"They want to frighten us into keeping quiet," said Tursanai, from the town of Hotan. "But the more they do this the angrier we will get."

Beijing is attempting to quell Uigur sympathies by hammering state atheistic teachings and banning public employees from attending places of worship. They hope that by cracking down on Islam, they will somehow undermine the independence struggle.

Students in further education are prevented from attending the mosque and those who pray do so in secret behind closed doors.

Although mosques are theoretically open to the public, no-one employed by the state attends for fear of losing their jobs and in some areas muslims are afraid to wear national head-dress.

When a man walking with his son spotted me in the street, he snatched his son's chinese cap, threw it to the ground and stamped on it. "Chinese!" he said. "We are Muslim, but are becoming Chinese. Why does my son wear a Chinese cap? Because I don't want him to suffer at their hands."

As far as the Chinese are concerned, these Uigur muslims should be muslim in name only.

Nodira, a history teacher at a Chinese school, said if she was rich, the first thing she would buy would be guns to kill the Chinese. She plied me with questions about the number of muslims in Europe. She wanted to know if they had heard of Uigurs. She was looking for solidarity for her cause.

While Tibet enjoys international sympathy, spurred on by a charismatic and peaceful leader, Uigurs feel abandoned by the world. "Who has ever heard of Xinjiang and the Uigurs?" asked Tursanai, whose daughter lost four classmates to the recent wave of arrests. "They just disappeared and no-one knows whether they are dead or alive."

In 1997, all the young men in Ghulja city, on the Kazak border, simply disappeared after Chinese soldiers opened fire on a peaceful demonstration. The men were subsequently shot or given lengthy sentences. "There is no-one to speak to the world on behalf of our children," Tursanai cried.

Despite two failed attempts at independence in the 1930's, Uigurs have never abandoned their hopes for home rule. Spurred on by the 1991 independence of their brothers on the Soviet side of the mountains, the Uigur underground resistance movement has gathered momentum.

But former soviet republics of Central Asia were not very keen to support Uigurs in their struggle for independence as they feared that it might damage their relations with Bejing. Apart from the economic benefits of being on good terms with their powerful neighbour, countries such as Kazakstan and Kyrgystan are at a delicate stage in final negotiations over border demarcation.

Only the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, whose aim is to create a Muslim state in Central Asia, seems to be inclined to support Uigur's idea of freedom for Xinjiang. There are reports claiming that IMU provides training and help to those Uigur groups who favour armed resistance to Chinese rule.

But being associated with an armed movement which is on the US list of international terrorist groups won’t help Uigurs to attract the sort of international support they want.

Ruth Ingram is a pseudonym for a British journalist.