By Dexter Roberts Recently, I went deep into the interior of China to the Xinjiang region, a vast expanse of deserts and mountains that borders on Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. My mission: Gather some reporting on one of the mainland's biggest infrastructure projects, a 4,200 kilometer, $18 billion gas pipeline that will eventually stretch from the arid desert reaches of northwestern China to Shanghai on the eastern coast.
My five-day visit in April yielded a lot more, however: In a bar frequented by Uighur Muslims in the regional capital of Urumqi, on an overnight train groaning its way over the Tianshan mountains where I talked with a young Hui Muslim woman, and in a sunny city square surrounded by laughing Chinese school children, I got a taste of what's on the minds of Xinjiang's varied people -- and how life is changing in this tense, ethnically-charged region, containing China's largest Muslim populations.
Beijing has long carried out heavy-handed policies of control in Xinjiang that limit the religious and cultural practices of the local Uighurs. That's the Muslim group that still narrowly outnumbers the region's Han Chinese (although a massive inflow of Chinese settlers may soon change that). Since the early '90s, a small number of Uighur Muslims have been pushing for an independent homeland -- a state they want to be called East Turkestan. In fact, the independent state existed briefly after World War II, before China brought the country under its yoke.
KERNEL OF TRUTH. Since September 11, Beijing has been loudly claiming that more than 1,000 Uighurs have trained in Muslim Taliban camps, and that some have already returned to China to join in a separatist movement whose ultimate aim is the creation of an independent and fundamentalist Islamic state.
Beijing's claims have at least a kernel of truth: Xinjiang is a hotbed of ethnic and religious tensions that have occasionally exploded into violence, as Uighurs chafed under Han Chinese domination. For the last decade, ardent separatists have carried out a series of bomb blasts on buses, had shootouts with local police, and occasionally assassinated Chinese officials.
The local Chinese population, for their part, say they have been periodically targeted for harassment as interlopers. And there's no question that some Uighurs fought in Afghanistan against the U.S. Indeed, on May 27, Beijing announced more specific numbers, saying some 300 Uighurs have been captured and approximately 20 more killed in fighting with U.S. forces. Hundreds more, China claims, have fled into Northern Pakistan. While most captured Uighurs are still being held in Afghanistan, at least one is believed to be held in Guatanamo Bay in Cuba.
STAMPING OUT DISSENT. At the same time, international groups, including Amnesty International, say Beijing is using September 11 as the rationale for an intensified human-rights crackdown in Xinjiang that also limits economic freedoms, despite what those groups see as scant justification for China's allegations of a major terrorist threat. Several thousand Uighurs are believed to have been arrested on political charges. Hundreds remain in jails, and some have been executed. Mosques have been closed, and residents have been barred from religious practice.
An already tense situation has now grown much worse, as China uses the new international revulsion with terrorism as cover for a significant tightening of control over this restive region -- labeling Muslims who show any resistance to Beijing's draconian policies as religious extremists and terrorists.
So far, the Bush Administration has resisted embracing Beijing's claims that it is engaged in a deadly fight against terrorism and has refused China's request to repatriate any captured Uighurs. Indeed, a recent State Dept. report on human rights in China continued to single out abuses in Xinjiang as being of particular concern.
CODED REPLY. In reality, most Uighurs follow Sufism -- a more mystical and tolerant version of Islam. And despite widespread dissatisfaction with Chinese rule, there is little evidence of any broad based or organized resistance to Beijing's sovereignty. But from what I saw, Uighurs are clearly suffering new infringements on their rights, as the government cracks down even harder.
That was clear when I joined some friends in a nightclub frequented by Uighurs, in the regional capital of Urumqi in northern Xinjiang. In a smoky bar with many bottles of vodka and beer in evidence (this in itself suggested to me that Beijing's claims of rampant religious fundamentalism in the region are exaggerated), I asked one Uighur companion what I thought was a relatively simple question: How had things changed for Muslims since September 11? He would only nervously say that he held a government job.
The clear inference was that his connection to the government (most good jobs, such as his, going to ethnic Chinese instead) provided him some level of protection from the arbitrary and now increasingly common harassment of Uighurs by local officials and police.
INCREASE IN PREJUDICE. Less egregious, but also troubling, is the overt racism that many Han Chinese show for Muslim minorities -- not just the Uighurs but also the Hui (the Huis in Xinjiang are a much smaller minority than either the Uighurs or Han). A thirtysomething Hui woman whom I met on an overnight train unburdened herself when I asked about Han-Muslim relations in China. (While I only had one night on the hard sleeper -- a class of train car that does without extravagances like separate compartments with doors -- she was travelling for several days all the way to China's eastern Anhui province not far from Shanghai. Believe me, that's a long time to travel with these accommodations.)
"People always ask whether I ride a horse and whether I carry a knife when I tell them I am from Xinjiang and am Hui. I am so sick of it," she said as our car rattled back and forth, making sleep a near-impossible option. True, her pious mother and father, she reported, would never have accepted her marrying a non-Muslim -- her husband is also Hui. Her father prays the required five times per day, and has saved enough money so that he will be able to make the pilgrimmage to Mecca next year, she said.
Prejudices against Muslims in China have only become worse since September 11, she said. As for the terrorist attack and the war in Afghanistan: "It is very sad what happened in New York -- but the U.S. should not be bombing Afghanistan," she said. "War always hurts the common people, not their governments."
"HEROIC" BUTCHER. Equally informative was a conversation I had with a group of bubbly Chinese school children in Korla, which sits on the edge of the Taklamaklan Desert in southern Xianjiang, and is headquarters for China's oil-and-gas exploration operations in the region. They were the children of Chinese entrepreneurs -- restaurateurs, small shopkeepers, cab drivers -- who had come there looking for economic opportunity.
Standing near a hulking statue in the city's center of top revolutionary leader and military man Wang Zhen, the 10- and 11-year-olds gave me a taste of what they're taught in the local school system. Wang, who led the conquest of the Uighurs in Xinjiang in the early 1950s, was a "hero," they said. Why, I asked? "Because he killed many Uighurs," they replied with sweet smiles on their faces.
Wang, whose mammoth statue looks bravely heroic with both a plow in his hand and a gun over his shoulder, gained international notoriety after his death when new revelations surfaced a few years ago about his hardline stance during the Tiananmen Square massacre in June, 1989. In The Tiananmen Papers, he was reported as having this to say about the student demonstrators: "Those goddamn bastards. They're really asking for it. We should send the troops right now to grab those counter-revolutionaries. Anybody who tries to overthrow the Communist Party deserves death and no burial."
I left Xinjiang with no ready answers -- but one clear realization. As long as Beijing continues to hold up the likes of Wang Zhen as national heroes and continues its generally repressive policies towards minorities, it's very unlikely that the growing and increasingly dangerous ethnic resentments in places like Xinjiang and Tibet can be resolved. That's bad news, not only for minorities such as Xinjiang's Muslims but for all Chinese. Roberts is BusinessWeek's Beijing Bureau Chief