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The Newsman
11-11-05, 11:49
China battles to convince terror sceptics


A giant statue of China's late chairman Mao Zedong watches over the People's Square in Kashgar.
Photo: Reuters

By Hamish McDonald, Yining
November 12, 2005
Page 1 of 3

IN A freezing late-autumn drizzle a week ago, a local man showed visitors around the mosques of this small city that is hard up against the spectacular Tienshan range, literally the Mountains of Heaven, that forms China's border with Central Asia.

They ranged from a timber mosque in the Chinese pagoda style, built by troops of a Manchu emperor in the mid-18th century, to a gleaming Arabian-style edifice built a few years ago by a rich trader returned from the Middle East.

The buildings are impressive, but silent. What is missing is the buzz of classes, normal during the day between prayers, when mosques are usually full of classes in the Koran for children, and the discussions of young people.

Memet, not his real name, attends the new mosque once a week, but is unable to take his son there. Under an interpretation of China's laws on religion, the communist government of this far-flung region of China bans anyone under 18 from entering mosques, or from taking any religious instruction.

Memet is the internal enemy of China's vast security apparatus, which is trying to convince a sceptical world that China is also a victim of terrorism, like the other countries hit by al-Qaeda-linked bombings.

Once seen mostly as a desert buffer zone, useful as a place for nuclear tests, Xinjiang recently became a vital repository of oil and other resources for the booming coastal economy centred far to the east. It is also China's frontier to the wild and frightening Islamic fanaticism seen just to its west and south in the former Soviet republics, and Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Memet and the rest of Xinjiang's Uighurs, a Turkic people who have flourished for centuries in the narrow band of land between the mountains and the salty Taklimakan desert, are squeezed between these Chinese hopes and fears. Since 1990, when some Uighurs mounted an Islamic-inspired revolt near the fabled Silk Road city of Kashgar, they have faced tightening repression.

Beijing gave financial incentives for more settlers of the Han race, who form 92 per cent of China's population, to "go west". Now the Uighurs are a minority in their own land, about 8 million out of Xinjiang's 19 million people.

The settlers live in tackily modern new cities and drive along freeways in bank-financed cars and trucks, beneficiaries of the $US55 billion ($A75 billion) that Beijing has poured into development of its western provinces in the past five or six years.

The Newsman
11-11-05, 11:51
Uighurs live in shabby neighbourhoods beside the new towns, or in quiet villages that are picturesque, with their mud-brick courtyard homes, avenues of poplars, pony carts, and tiny fields of cotton. The Han settlers regard them with suspicion. "We call them Taliban and al-Qaeda," a taxi-driver in the provincial capital Urumqi said.

The Uighur have not been free of the ferment in the Islamic world. Some purists, inspired by Afghanistan's Taliban, were active in Yining, Memet says. A few others went off to join the jihad across the border. But when this upsurge resulted in arrests and a protest here in February 1997, the result was a mini-Tiananmen, with at least nine killed and hundreds arrested.

There was a spate of bus bombings in Urumqi, killing nine people, but since then, little violence from the Uighurs inside Xinjiang, although two years ago there were attacks on Chinese in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

What has happened since 1997, say human rights monitors, has been a tightening of controls on the Uighurs, with the September 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda in the United States providing Beijing with an opening to put a terrorist label on even the most peaceful types of Uighur dissent and separatist expression.

Nicolas Becquelin, Hong Kong-based research director for the respected Human Rights in China group, said that soon after 9/11, Beijing abruptly switched from playing down the extent of Uighur unrest to exaggerating it.

"The Government has now made pretty explicit what was previously covert: that the separate identity and culture of indigenous people, particularly Uighurs, is the basis, they fear, of ethno-national aspirations," Dr Becquelin said. "What is targeted through Islam is really the basic tenets of Uighur identity."

The repression of Islam is pervasive, with anyone in state or Communist Party employment or studying at colleges banned from overt displays of religious identity, such as beards, head scarves, fasting during Ramadan, or prayer during working hours. Possession of Islamic texts not printed by Government-approved presses is grounds for arrest and detention.

Religious instruction of children has disappeared. Even parents are scared to teach their own children. "As young as six or seven, they have drills at school where they have to give responses to ideological questions and tell teachers if members of family are practising Islam," Dr Becquelin said.

Police and militias recruited from Han military settlements sweep Uighur suburbs and villages, picking up people with identity card discrepancies and taking them off for questioning. The province's "re-education-through-labour" camps are full beyond capacity, prison officials recently complained. Regular prisons have an extraordinarily high proportion of their Uighur convicts, about one in 11, serving time for crimes against state security.

The Newsman
11-11-05, 11:53
About 200 Uighurs have been executed since 1997 for political crimes.

Because of concerns about execution and torture, Washington refuses to return 22 Uighurs it has in the Guantanamo Bay prison on Cuba, whom it has cleared of major involvement with the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

In February, a court in Kashgar gave Uighur author Nurmemet Yasin 10 years' jail for publishing a story called The Blue Pigeon last year, about a blue pigeon captured by different-coloured pigeons and kept in a cage. As some Uighur separatists use a blue flag, China's Ministry of State Security saw the point.

There has been widespread scepticism outside China that Uighurs are a major terrorist threat.

"It's very hard to know — we can't take the Chinese authorities at their word on the situation," Dr Becquelin said.

"They have undermined their credibility by construing non-violent acts and people as terrorists."

Since the Chinese gave in to US pressure and released Uighur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer in March, Beijing is facing renewed scrutiny.

But Dr Becquelin says Beijing's preoccupation with ethnic separatism in Xinjiang (as well as Tibet and Taiwan) may blind it to a threat of Islamist extremism in its heartland areas, such as Henan and Shanxi.

"They have the most incredibly extremist Islamic groups in China among some of the Hui congregations, and they are totally legal," he says. "They are in the mosques. They have all the jihadist, the Salafist material, and doctrines, schools with children attending, very anti-American. It's really puzzling."

source: http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/china-battles-to-convince-terror-sceptics/2005/11/11/1131578236193.html