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Rumblings of discontent among ethnic Muslims on China's Asian frontier

By Rebecca MacKinnon
CNN Beijing Bureau Chief

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

China's flag flies alongside an Islamic mosque in the city of Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang Province  

In this story:

Separation of religion and state

Contrasts make for uncertain future


KASHGAR, China (CNN) -- The sights and sounds of Kashgar in western China seem more Central Asian or Middle Eastern than Chinese.

Men wearing embroidered skullcaps stand talking in a Turkic language called Uighur, the language of Xinjiang's dominant ethnic group of the same name. Women walk by covered from head to toe. The call to Friday prayers sounds from a nearby mosque.

During a break from our official program on a government-escorted trip, I take a walk down a twisting alleyway and wander over to a stall selling Arabic books. The old man running it does not speak Chinese, even though he is a Chinese citizen.

A younger man hanging out at the stall speaks Mandarin, China's official dialect, but with a thick accent. I ask him if the reports I have heard are true that there is a religious revival among the traditionally Muslim ethnic groups here in China's far western Xinjiang province.

"Yes," he says, opening a book. The page he turns to shows the flags of many Islamic countries. "See how many Islamic countries there are in the world?"

"Do you want one, too?" I ask. He nods. "But we don't dare talk about such things," he says, "or the police will find us and take us away."

Another man is buying an Arabic grammar book so that he can read the Koran better. "The government doesn't like young people to believe in Islam," the man says. "We would like to have an Islamic country."

Isn't he afraid? "We are only afraid of Allah," he says, "not the Chinese or the Communists."

Separation of religion and state

Children performing traditional dances at Kashgar's No. 1 Minority Kindergarten  

On the surface, Xinjiang was calm. The towns and cities my TV crew and I visited on our government-escorted trip in early October were full of posters and signs exhorting ethnic unity. The police presence we saw was no heavier than in any other Chinese town we have been to. We saw no outward signs of protest. But underneath the surface, some local residents I talked to say, are growing fault lines.

Our official program included a visit to the Kashgar No. 1 Minority Kindergarten, where preschoolers dressed in colorful costumes danced and sang in the languages of Xinjiang's major ethnic groups -- Uighur, Kazak and Kirgiz.

"We hope to keep all our heritage and customs alive, like ethnic cuisine and dress," said headmistress Mehriban. (Many Uighurs go by only one name.)

But one part of their heritage is actively discouraged in school: Islam.

In Xinjiang, the devout are free to worship in government-sanctioned mosques. Locals say Friday prayers are always packed. Government officials point to this fact as proof of religious freedom here.

But when you examine religious policies closely, it is clear authorities seek to contain religion within tight parameters. Sermons that advocate behavior that contradicts Chinese law or Communist policy are banned. Government-approved Muslim clerics, or Imams, are not allowed to criticize the Chinese government's family planning policies, for example, if they want to keep themselves and their followers out of trouble.

Street scenes in Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang Province  

For religious leaders such as Sadik Kari Aji of Kashgar's government-approved Id Kah Mosque, complying with such conditions often means walking a fine line. "I tell my followers not to oppose the government's policies," he said, "and to do things which are good for social stability."

Xinjiang's young educated elite are told they must choose between their religion and the Communist Party if they want to advance their careers.

At the Kashgar Teacher's College, the majority of students belong to Muslim ethnic groups. Xinjiang's future teachers are discouraged from practicing religion not only at school but also at home. To join the Communist Party, a prerequisite for career advancement, they will be required to disavow religion and declare themselves atheists.

One Uighur who chose that route is Miriban Rousimamait, a 30-something official with the Xinjiang Women's Association. She is in charge of poverty alleviation work in Hotan city. Many of the people here hover just above the poverty line.

Rousimamait is on a crusade to empower the poor women of Hotan, giving them the tools to help themselves through a Canadian-funded micro-credit program. One key to the program's success is changing traditional notions held by local Muslims that women must depend on their husbands.

"Once women get loans and training from our program to run small businesses, they raise their families' incomes and their status in the community rises," said Rousimamait, her eyes shining with pride. "We are working to change unequal ways of thinking in the countryside, and are helping to liberate women."

A side effect of Rousimamait's work: More local families are sending their daughters to school, because for the first time they see how their ability to read, write and calculate can benefit the families' dairy, produce, mutton or handicraft businesses.

Rousimamait, brought up in a secular Muslim family, is proud of her Uighur cultural heritage, dressing in a traditional embroidered hat and patterned dress for her TV interview with CNN. She speaks from the heart when she says she has no time for or interest in Islamic separatism.

"The key issue for most of our people is to shake off poverty, make a living, and send their kids to a good school," she said. "Only a small number of people are making trouble."

Contrasts make for uncertain future

Muslims pray at government-sanctioned mosques in Xinjiang  

The contrast between Rousimamait and the men I met at the religious book stall represents the conflicting views among Xinjiang's Muslims about their identity and their future.

"The vast majority of the Uighurs have very mixed feelings," said Dru Gladney, a professor at the University of Hawaii who is an expert on China's Muslim ethnic groups.

"There is some influence coming from the Taliban [the fundamentalist Muslim regime in Afghanistan], for example." On the other hand, he said, there are "patriotic voices who say we need to give the Chinese government a chance."

Those are perhaps the extremes. One person who tried to find a middle ground between respect for the system and personal convictions was Uighur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer. Once praised by the Chinese government as a model citizen and Xinjiang's richest businesswoman, she is now serving an 8-year jail sentence.

Kadeer, owner of a multimillion-dollar Central Asian trading company, was arrested last year not long before she planned to meet with some visiting U.S. congressional staff members. In March, she was tried and sentenced for "illegally passing intelligence outside of China," allegedly to her husband in the United States.

Friends and family believe the real reason for Kadeer's imprisonment has to do with the fact that in recent years she increasingly used her wealth and influence to speak out for the rights of her people. They say when Chinese officials in Xinjiang abused their power at the expense of Uighurs, she dared to point it out. A private school for poor Uighur children that she founded with money from her own business has been shut down since her arrest. Her son now runs the company.


"She was somebody the Uighurs looked up to," said her husband, Sadik Rouzi, who lives in exile in the United States. "The government was afraid she would inspire the Uighurs to stand up for themselves, so they arrested her."

Xinjiang's governor, Abulait Abdurexit, himself an ethnic Uighur, sees it differently. "We used to support her," he said, "but when she violated the law and endangered national security, we had to punish her."

Whatever the real reason for her arrest, Gladney believes it shows the Chinese government is growing more insecure about its control in Xinjiang.

"If these kinds of international business persons from the region can no longer function," Gladney asked, "is China making progress in the region, or has it been moving backwards in terms of winning the sentiments of the local population?"

Unlike the Tibetans, Xinjiang's Uighurs do not have a single religious leader, such as the Dalai Lama, or a well-organized independence movement. Few people outside the Islamic world have even heard of the Uighurs, or know much -- if anything -- about Xinjiang. Their future remains a question mark.

  • East Asia (includes China)

Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington, D.C.
SIL International Ethnologue: China
UCLA Language Materials Project
United States Embassy in Beijing

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