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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Days of Rage in Xinjiang

A mosque scuffle flares into ethnic violence

By Todd Crowell


A LOW-KEY GUERRILLA CONFLICT has been simmering in China's Xinjiang autonomous region. A year ago, Uighur terrorists bombed an army car in the capital, Urumqi. Last May, radicals assassinated Akenmu Sidike, a vice-chairman of the Xinjiang People's Political Consultative Conference. Bombs have been set along the region's principal rail lines. So it is ironic that the disturbances that took place Feb. 5-6 in Yining, near the border with Kazakhstan, were probably spontaneous, though they quickly took on a strong anti-Chinese color.

According to Chinese sources, police tried to arrest two "suspected criminals." Bystanders intervened, and soon there was a thousand-strong mob. It went on a rampage, torching cars, looting Chinese stalls, burning flags and shouting pro-independence slogans. The death estimate ranges from 9 to 90. Outsiders say the police had entered a mosque during a service and tried to arrest two Uighur religious students. When worshippers refused to surrender the pair, a fight broke out and two people were killed by police gunfire. Protests rapidly escalated and, by some accounts, spread to Kuqa, Urumqi and Hotan.

The flareup amounted to the worst ethnic violence in Xinjiang since 1990, when an armed uprising in the town of Baren, near Kashgar, was suppressed, with an official death toll of 22. But while that incident hardly caused a ripple, the Yining troubles resounded in the Muslim world. In Istanbul, Turkey, Uighurs burned Chinese flags outside Beijing's consulate. And Saudi Arabia urged Western human-rights groups to pay more attention to Chinese violations of the religious freedoms of Muslims in Xinjiang.

China has held sway over the region for centuries but never assimilated the indigenous Uighurs, who are a Turkic people. They have a long, proud tradition, claiming to be the only people to have defeated Alexander the Great. During the first half of this century, Xinjiang was the center of intrigue between Russian Communists and a fragmented China. With the Soviet Union's help, Uighurs established a short-lived East Turkistan Republic in 1944. It collapsed after the Chinese Communist victory in 1949, and Xinjiang was reincorporated into China as an autonomous region six years later.

For a long time, the borders of Xinjiang -- once the center of the Silk Road -- were tightly sealed. But in recent years, the region has become a crossroads again -- of trade and contraband, but more importantly of ideas. The independence of neighboring Muslim republics has been a powerful example to local Uighurs, especially of the younger generation, because of religious and linguistic affinities. But the Central Asian governments have refrained from commenting on the latest unrest, not wanting to antagonize Beijing.

China believes that economic development is the best antidote to Uighur nationalism. But growth has been a two-edged sword, since it has stimulated migration of Han Chinese from the more crowded parts of the country. Since 1949, Chinese in Xinjiang have grown from about 300,000 to 6 million, or a third of the local population. They often take better jobs from the less-educated and linguistically disadvantaged Uighurs. Chinese tend to settle in the cities, while the Uighurs remain in backward rural areas.

Another double-edged effect has flowed from Beijing's introduction of a more liberal religious policy after the repression of the Cultural Revolution. Hundreds of mosques reopened, new Islamic colleges were formed, classes in the Koran became popular and contacts were renewed with religious organizations in West Asia. "There has been a rediscovery of Islam, not just as a religion but as a source of cultural and ethnic identity," says one Western analyst based in Beijing.

The authorities have responded to growing nationalism by cracking down on unregistered places of worship and screening preachers for their political views. The Chinese government, however, faces a virtual no-win situation. If it adopts a more tolerant approach to religion, it awakens Xinjiang's Uighurs to the religious-nationalist sentiments sweeping Central Asia. But a fresh clampdown would not only further alienate local Uighurs but also disturb ties with Muslim countries. For Beijing, the latest disturbances provide a stark reminder of its Xinjiang dilemma.

-- With reporting by Najam Abbas/Almaty, Anne Naham/Beijing and Anthony Davis/Bangkok


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