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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

INSIDE STORY CHINA

BEIJING VS. ISLAM

By Michael Winchester


SEVEN YEARS AGO, CHINA'S Uighur Muslims launched a low-level insurgency in Xinjiang. Today it has become a terror campaign of bombings and assassinations. Beijing has responded with executions and jailings, even as it dilutes the Uighur population with waves of Han Chinese migrants. Now the insurgents are calling for holy war. An eyewitness report

Go to a map of the region

"Isolate. Exterminate like a cornered rat. Eradicate like a pest crop." Can such vitriol be meant for the quiet, swarthy man sitting across the table in a crowded lunchtime cafe? Can this fellow with the slow, almost shy smile, picking distractedly at a piece of chicken, really be a brutal thug, a terrorist with whom there can be no compromise?

The hard men from China's security and intelligence apparatus are convinced of it. For more than 20 years they have had him in and out of a string of interrogation centers, jails and labor camps. And right now they would like him back to do more time. Or to face a permanent settling of scores. "Terrorist" or "freedom fighter," Torghun is an ethnic Uighur and veteran of a movement committed to an apparently hopeless, even suicidal, enterprise: ejecting the mighty Chinese state from the vast western territory of Xinjiang, which Torghun and his comrades prefer to call "East Turkistan."

Torghun (who, like other Uighurs I spoke to, requested anonymity) is a long way from his goal, and he smilingly acknowledges that for now the prospects for success are close to zero. That said, he and his fellow separatists definitely have China's leadership rattled. In the last decade, Xinjiang's troubles have escalated from occasional race rios to a full-blown terror wave that is China's most serious internal security problem since the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. A campaign of bombings, assassinations and shootouts have prompted mass arrests, draconian prison sentences and scores of executions. In February, the city of Yining was sealed off for several days following a major riot -- graphic evidence that discontent in Xinjiang is not limited to a "handful" of malcontents and criminals, as China maintains, but is becoming a popular phenomenon. At their annual confab in Beidaihe in July, China's party chiefs pinpointed the Xinjiang troubles as the biggest threat to national unity -- and no amount of cheery official propaganda was going to cover it up.

Between mouthfuls of chicken, Torghun is not admitting that he has personally let off any bombs. But clearly he knows far more about the goings-on in the murky world of the Uighur underground than is healthy in China these days. And he has taken the precaution of leaving the country. Just sitting down with me in this crowded restaurant poses a substantial risk, and I have agreed not to reveal his whereabouts. In fact, getting to meet Torghun and his people has not been easy. I've been to four countries and killed a lot of time in seedy hotel coffee-shops waiting for phone calls that mostly don't come. When they do, it's either a prospective fixer looking for an easy buck or a friendly Uighur exile who has an atrocity story but has not laid eyes on Xinjiang in 40 years.

Finally, more through luck than anything else, a contact from another regional conflict comes good. Rahim once fought communism on the battlefields of eastern Afghanistan. Today he is comfortably settled with a wife, two kids and a "family business" in the Gulf. But the old jihad networks die hard and Rahim still has his ear to the ground. He points the way to Torghun -- who explains why he took up the cause.

Born in the conservative bastion of Xinjiang's rural deep-south, Torghun learned at his grandmother's knee how Muslims are different from "kafirs," or unbelievers. He learned first-hand that many Han Chinese look upon the Uighurs with contempt, and before long Torghun was bridling against them. He had his first run-in with the authorities as a teenager. He and a group of friends tried to steal guns from a police station. "It was crazy really," he recalls. "We got away with a Kalashnikov [rifle] and a machine gun. The idea was simply to fight the Chinese." That early exploit earned Torghun his first stretch behind bars, much of it in solitary confinement. And it was in prison, tutored by an imam [priest] also doing time for anti-Chinese activities, that he developed the faith in Islam that continues to sustain him. "Our strength now is our religious faith," he says and then smiles thinly: "I suppose I should thank the Chinese for that."

In the late 1980s, Torghun threw in his lot with an underground group led by a charismatic religious student named Zahideen Yusuf. Another farmer's son, Zahideen came from Baren, a poor Uighur village south of Kashgar with a long history of anti-Chinese unrest. Inspired by the idea of the "holy war" practiced by the Afghan mujahideen against the infidel invader, Zahideen built a following first in Baren, then beyond, and stockpiled smuggled weapons. "The Baren organization spread all over Turkistan," Torghun recalls. "Students from Baren were visiting different cities urging jihad. Most people, myself included, argued the time was not yet ripe."

Ripe or not, Baren exploded on April 5, 1990, apparently after police raided the village looking for weapons. The army was mobilized and after two days of fighting, 30 people were dead, including Zahideen, many of his followers and several Chinese police. Other insurgents and sympathetic villagers fled to the mountains pursued by helicopter-borne troops in a massive sweep that netted hundreds of people. Torghun himself was not involved in the fight, but was among more than 1,000 suspects rounded up in cities across Xinjiang in the following weeks. For the first time, an overtly Islamic organization with region-wide reach had dared to challenge the might of the Chinese state.

Baren was the beginning. For the two years following the "counter-revolutionary armed rebellion," there was a lull. Torghun recalls being interrogated for months, first in Kashgar, then in Urumqi. He finally ended up in a laogai (reform through labor) camp for several years. But if Xinjiang security officials concluded the back of the separatist "Islamic Party" had been broken, they were badly mistaken. "The organization was never really destroyed," says Torghun. "Some people escaped from Baren; others were released and continued working."

On February 5, 1992, two bombs, timed to coincide with Chinese New Year, exploded on an Urumqi bus, killing six. It was the first blast in a campaign of terror that this year for the first time reached into Beijing itself. The men who began the struggle in Baren are becoming increasingly daring -- and they are finding popular support. I went to Xinjiang to find out why.

Driving into the sweltering summer heat of Kashgar, I half expect to find a city under siege -- armed police on the streets, soldiers at key buildings. The reality could hardly be more different: This is no armed camp, more like a holiday destination. An ancient Uighur city of traders and artisans, Kashgar is a picturesque throwback to an embattled, fast-disappearing Central Asian culture. The central square is dominated by the Eidgah Mosque, where old men with goatees, knee-high boots and embroidered caps doze in the shade of an inner courtyard. Along the dusty, winding backstreets of the inner city, plodding donkeys still haul carts filled with people and merchandise. Nowhere is there a soldier or gun in sight.

Kashgar is very much a Uighur city. Though these Turkic Muslims comprise just under half of Xinjiang's estimated 17 million people, here among the voluble throngs of townsfolk and farmers at the Sunday market there is hardly a Chinese face to be seen. But beneath the mundane bustle of daily commerce, there is real fear and paranoia. No one trusts anyone. Spies may be mingling with the crowds, Uighurs working with the state. A few months before I arrived, Harun Khan Hajji, the 73-year-old imam of the Eidgah Mosque, was nearly stabbed to death. His Uighur assailants presumably viewed him as a government sympathizer and decided to kill him on his way home. In such an environment, no one is eager to speak to foreigners. The fastest conversation-killer in town, I discover, are questions about security or bombs. There are dark hints, however. Lounging in a teashop, I am approached by a stolid, middle-aged Uighur in an embroidered hat. He uses sign language -- a finger-and-thumb round the wrist for manacles, a two-fingered pistol to the head for execution. Then he scribbles a figure in my diary: 2,500 -- presumably an arrest tally.

Later, I sit down for a beer with an engaging young man named Askar. To all appearances, he is a walking advertisement for China's feel-good propaganda about ethnic unity. Askar is young, university-educated, articulate; he speaks and writes Chinese fluently, English well. With a good job in a government office, this is a man with a stake in the system. Or so one might think. As we sip our beers, Askar's good cheer evaporates and one by one the resentments of Kashgar are revealed.

Yes, he says, there have been widespread arrests. How many he does not know. But enough to scare people. And, he adds, almost in passing, a bomb exploded three days before in a taxi and killed the Chinese driver. The bombs have been going off for five years now. From Urumqi in 1992, they reached Kashgar in June 1993. Then they began to explode in Aksu, on the road between Kashgar and Urumqi. Now it's back to Urumqi again. And most recently Beijing. Askar is no supporter of bombers or killing taxi drivers. But if the truth be known, like many young Uighurs, he wants it both ways -- dreaming of independence but wanting no part of the violence.

As Askar sees it, Xinjiang's troubles are increasingly an urban phenomenon. Joblessness and perceived discrimination are at the root of the problem. He glances quickly around the room and lowers his voice: "In Kashgar last year there were some 6,000 graduates from high school and university. But only around 3,000 got jobs and the rest are waiting." He leans forward to make his point: "And 90% of the unemployed are Uighur. Chinese graduates have no problem getting jobs."

Providing more jobs means integrating the south's rural economy with that of booming northern Xinjiang. To do so, the central government is investing in highways and other infrastructure. A new road across the Taklimakan desert has linked the remote southern oases of Niya and Hotan to Korla and the north. And, far more important, by 1999 the railway from Urumqi will be pushed through to Kashgar. Economic development and greater prosperity should blunt the edge of Islamic radicalism and nationalist dissent. Or so the theory goes.

For there is a catch, and it's a big one: As in the north, new opportunities will also inevitably stimulate an influx of Hans, who are linguistically advantaged, better educated and economically savvy. "A lot of people are worried about the railway," says Askar. "It will mean more Chinese people coming and the fact is we can't compete for jobs. We need more educated people, more technically skilled people." But even if Beijing finds an office job for every kebab-seller, the fundamental ethnic divide will not dissipate anytime soon. "The government is too late," says Torghun with a disarming smile. "Once the economy improves, people become better educated and begin to be aware of who their enemy is." Though life has improved for many Uighurs, he says, nonetheless "you find anti-government activities starting in every field. It's not just a matter of the economy."

He may be right. For Uighur anguish cuts to the very core of their ethnic identity and, ultimately, survival as a culture. Divided between China, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan (but with the overwhelming majority in China) the Uighurs are a people without a country. Xinjiang's other main minorities -- Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Mongols -- have their own nation states across the border as bulwarks of cultural and ethnic pride. By contrast, China's Uighurs are trapped in a geographic cul-de-sac with nowhere else to go -- and 1.2 billion Han on the doorstep. The Uighurs are deeply suspicious that the Hans have every intention of inviting themselves in for a long stay.

In Urumqi, Uighur paranoia is instantly understandable. The capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is effectively a Han Chinese city. Prosperous, well-ordered and ambitious, it is a world away from the dust, donkey carts and tumble-down backstreets of Kashgar. Ten years before, when I first came to Urumqi, it was a grimy industrial center, home to about one million souls. The tallest building in town -- in all of western China, in fact -- was the Kunlun Hotel, a bleak Stalinist block all of eight stories high. Today Urumqi has transformed itself into Shenzhen West, a boomtown of nearly 3 million, its center thrusting with high-rise banks, hotels, office blocks, and bustling with night bazaars and yuppie boutiques. And the Uighurs? You don't see too many driving new limousines and four-wheel-drives, that's for sure. Downtown, plenty are making out as kebab vendors, money-changers and doormen -- apparently second-class citizens in their own land.

Han Chinese presence has left its mark across the deserts and oases of the Silk Road since at least the second century BC. But only with its conquest by the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1757-9 was Chinese power firmly established in what, in the next century, would be called Xinjiang -- the New Dominion. Even that was subject to periodic and bloody revolts that continued as late as the Soviet-backed Republic of East Turkistan set up from 1944-49. The victory of Mao Zedong's communist armies in 1949 set the stage for a crash program of Sinification.

In the four decades from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s, more Han Chinese poured into Xinjiang than during the previous two millennia. A state-run campaign of internal colonization aimed at securing an economically vital but strategically precarious region, this was no spontaneous shift of population. In 1955, the Han Chinese made up less than 10% of Xinjiang's population. According to official figures, between 40% and 45% of the region's people are now ethnic Chinese. However, many Uighurs are convinced that the Han population has already crossed the sensitive 50% mark.

Yan Cheng-chi was one of the original Han pioneers. In 1956, aged 17, he left his home in coastal Shandong, jammed into a train on a three-day ride to Lanzhou. From there on, it was trucks west to Urumqi. "Forty thousand of us came west at that time from Shandong and Henan -- mobilized by the state," recalls Yan, now 58. From Urumqi, Yan and his companions were trucked another 230 km west to a bleak, windswept plain bounded to the south by a line of snow-capped peaks.

This was the new home of the 10th Agricultural Division of an army known as the Xinjiang Production & Construction Corps -- or the Bingtuan (corps) for short. A massive para-military force, it originally consisted of demobilized troops who became soldier-farmers. Later it was filled out with "class enemies" and Red Guards. The Bingtuan was the vanguard in the Sinification of Xinjiang.

"When we arrived there was nothing," Yan recalls. "No blocks of flats, no houses even -- just empty land. We had to put up tents, dig trenches." Today Yan has been retired from the 10th Division for six years. With his wife, he earns a modest living selling drinks at a market stall. And on the plain where 40 years ago he pitched tents there is a brand new industrial city. "They started to build Kuitun in '57," says Yan. "At first it wasn't much. But from the time of the open-door policy it really took off."

That's no exaggeration. Fueled with largess from the central government, Kuitun's broad tree-lined streets are lined with new hotels, department stores and markets. On an industrial park east of town new factories are going up; to the south new apartment blocks are rising. The city's main thoroughfare is an eight-lane highway worthy of a national capital. Today, only a few cars and trucks roll along it, and Kuitun is home to less than 100,000 people, most of them Han Chinese. This is a town waiting for a population. If other northern Xinjiang cities are any indication. Kuitun will fill up fast -- and it's a safe bet that the new arrivals will not be Uighur farmers.

Beijing's immediate problem can be summed up simply enough. Since the late 1980s -- just prior to the Baren uprising, in fact -- Islam has become the cutting edge of Uighur nationalism and identity. This has happened in large part because Beijing reversed repressive policies of the Cultural Revolution that turned mosques into cattle barns. The result has been a remarkable Islamic renaissance that is as much cultural as it is religious. Architecture adopted the familiar Islamic motifs; script that was Latin became Arabic; there was a revived interest in religion. Hundreds of mosques opened; Koranic classes and colleges flourished; there was a sudden interest in the haj pilgrimage to Mecca.

But open-door trade policies also meant that Xinjiang could no longer be isolated from the rest of Asia. And along with trade came new ideas and foreign money. In came preachers from Pakistan and the Gulf, exiles from neighboring Kazakstan, money for new mosques -- and smuggled guns. The traffic was two-way: Young Uighurs journeyed to the battlefields of Afghanistan where they imbibed the heady spirit of jihad, or holy war, against another infidel communist power.

As a result, the Barenists have found an increasingly receptive constituency among the bewildered and angry Uighur population. It is clear from official pronouncements that by 1993 some ulema [clergy] were openly advocating jihad from the mosques; that party members and government officials were involved with the underground; and that the separatist message was finding a new hearing among urban students. In an attempt to slam on the breaks, Xinjiang officials issued a string of new laws. From as early as 1991 the authorities have been screening the ulema to weed out the politically incorrect and undesirable.

Since then they have closed down unregistered mosques; forbidden the use of loud-speakers outside registered ones; banned Koranic classes for children and youths; prohibited foreign money for religious purposes; tightened exit requirements; imposed an age restriction on haj pilgrims; outlawed unauthorized religious publications; and cracked down on Communist party members visiting mosques.

"The government is trying to walk a thin line between containing Islam within rigidly defined government parameters and suppressing it altogether," says a foreigner who is well-acquainted with Xinjiang politics. But that line is becoming impossibly thin. Now even mosque visits by government workers, teachers or students are regarded as potentially subversive. "If I were to go the mosque openly, I'd simply lose my job," says Askar, the government employee. Nowadays he prays secretly at home. Increasingly, Islam is retreating underground, often into intensely secretive Sufi brotherhoods and cultural associations called mashrab.

Mindful of the recent experience in Afghanistan, where religious students effectively took over the country, the Chinese are especially wary of Islamic schools (though I could find no evidence of collaboration between Afghan and Uighur militants.). Earlier this year authorities cracked down on a taliban [student] network in Hotan and arrested several people. But in July, the 23-year-old ringleader, Abdul Hamit "Dawat," escaped in shackles right under the noses of four drunk Uighur police. Security forces sealed off Hotan and checked the ID cards and vehicles of anyone leaving or entering the city. A 20,000-yuan ($2,400) reward was announced on TV, a huge sum in the poor south. There were no takers, and Abdul Hamit is still at large.

Like Kashgar, the southern oasis of Hotan has long been a center of traditional Uighur culture and, more recently, Islamic revival. And like Kashgar it appears entirely peaceful, a sleepy town surrounded by a vast oasis of greenery, fields and groves of poplars and vineyards watered by the snow-melt from the lush, upland pastures of the Kunlun mountains. In the town center a new market, new shops and more Han Chinese than before attest to new prosperity. There is even a new (officially approved) central mosque going up. But brooding resentment is not far below the surface. As one young student puts it: "Everybody is angry in their hearts but they can't speak out." On the way here, I met a government worker called Khalid. Last year he was arrested and interrogated on suspicion of being part of the resistance. The experience has left him demoralized and wishing he was "never born a Uighur." Sometimes, he says, "I think our God has forgotten us." This year he didn't even bother to observe the Ramadan fast. "The Chinese just seem to get stronger, richer and more numerous. More soldiers, more civilians."

The first serious trouble flared here in early July of 1995. After an imam critical of government birth-control policy was arrested, an angry crowd of Koranic students stormed the Communist Party offices demanding his release. The demonstration was broken up with no fatalities, but 260 were arrested on the spot and many more later. Three ringleaders, say locals, received 16-year sentences in labor camps. A wider wave of arrests followed last year under the cover of the national "Strike Hard" anti-crime blitz. In Xinjiang it was targeted squarely at the separatist underground and caches of illegal arms and explosives. But in Hotan, as elsewhere, the difference between separatist, separatist sympathizer and devout Muslim was becoming dangerously blurred.

"They moved more troops into town and at least 600 people were arrested, mostly young educated people," says Abdul Ahat, a local student. "The prisons were full and they had to move people to Kashgar. People were angry -- even Uighur people in the government." Here, too, religion is going underground. "I don't think government policy has been successful over the last two years," says Ahat. "Young people who never prayed before and used to drink and go dancing are now praying -- often secretly at home."

China's Xinjiang crackdown may be driving religion underground, but it is having only mixed success. For no sooner, it seems, is one area pacified than another part of the region flares up. "There's no peace in Xinjiang now," says Ahat. "One day the Chinese say they've settled the problem and then -- Bang! We hear something's started in Aksu or Korla." Or Yining, a town near the Kazak border. At least nine died and nearly 200 were injured in February in an explosion of violence when security forces attempted to break up an angry crowd of demonstrators with tear-gas and water-cannon. It was the most serious outbreak of violence since Baren. Eight months on, after arrests, mosque closures and several executions, Yining is still reported tense.

"The conflict is now much more serious," says Michael Dillon, a professor of modern Chinese history at Durham University and an authority on Chinese Islam. "Executions are producing martyrs, and there's a growing resentment against the Chinese that wasn't there 10 years ago -- a feeling of desperation among youth that they've got to do something." Now there are rumors of Chinese troops sweeping the mountains north of Aksu for bands of armed youths, and explosions on railway lines in the east.

Beijing has moved swiftly in recent years to cement good ties with neighbors on Xinjiang's extended borders -- notably Pakistan, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan -- to undercut political or logistical support for separatism in Xinjiang. At the same time, a large if low-key security presence in Xinjiang has produced a potent mix of riot-ready Armed Police and a well-equipped Bingtuan militia backed by regular army units. There is little doubt that Beijing can hold the lid on the Xinjiang kettle indefinitely. But widespread arrests, labor camps and a growing toll of executions are sowing their own seeds.

It's a sobering thought that China's best-case scenario for Xinjiang may be a species of Northern Ireland: a nagging, low-level campaign of terrorism that enjoys considerable popular support but remains within containable limits. Worst-case is what Torghun and the underground foresee and what Beijing would prefer not to contemplate -- a slide into greater repression, more ethnic polarization and violence. That would mean holding down a region bigger than most countries -- not an agreeable thought for a nation that has put economic development first.


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