Pilgrims' Progress

As turmoil erupted in Tibet and Xinjiang recently, China's leaders seemed genuinely confused. After all, many of the protesters had prospered under Chinese rule—so why were they biting the hands that fed them?

China's military began settling Xinjiang—home to about 8 million Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims—in the 1950s, and in the '80s, Beijing began integrating the Uighurs by relaxing migration and trade barriers. State-owned enterprises set up petroleum bases and pipelines. Coastal Han Chinese flowed in, opening factories and mom-and-pop shops. China built highways and rail links, promoted local tourism and subsidized many Uighurs' housing and education. And the region boomed: from 2001 to 2006, average annual per capita income doubled, from about $950 to $1,900. Yet opposition to Chinese rule didn't diminish—leaving Beijing wondering why.

The answer is that bigger incomes and more access to travel and technology have taught once isolated minorities that, while they may be better off, the Han among them and in China's bustling coastal provinces are doing better still. While incomes in Xinjiang were doubling overall, studies show they remained much lower in heavily Uighur areas than in those parts of the region dominated by Han Chinese. Improved circumstances also allowed Uighurs to travel in larger numbers—and come home demanding the kind of rights their fellow Muslims enjoy abroad.

Such sentiments may now be coming to a boil. On April 10, Chinese security officials claimed to have foiled a Uighur plot to kidnap Olympic athletes and other visitors during the Games. The previous month, authorities said they had thwarted two other Xinjiang Olympic plots—one to blow up an aircraft. Whether the Uighur terrorist threat is real or exaggerated remains a topic of heated debate. But ordinary Uighurs, like Tibetans, still feel a palpable sense of grievance. That's partly due to the recent emergence of a class of Uighur businessmen known as hajjis: those who have made the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. Beijing has been allowing these trips since the 1980s, and most of the pilgrims "come back with greatly enhanced authority and new ideas about Islam," says Dru Gladney, an authority on Chinese Muslims at Pomona College.

They also bring back a sharpened desire for spiritual and political autonomy. Hajjis tend to become "more religious and ethnically oriented," says one Uighur in Hetian prefecture. On their return, the hajjis often are feted with banquets and speaking opportunities. Adelet, who sells Qur'ans next to the Hetian mosque, says her family is "much more respected" since they went on the hajj in 2004.

Many hajjis increase their influence through philanthropy, helping build schools and mosques. A prime example is Mutallip Hajim, 38, a wealthy and generous Hetian jade merchant. A couple of years ago, after a deal with a local party official went sour, police searched Hajim's home. Though a friend describes him as a "moderate Muslim," Hajim was accused of possessing illegal Islamic texts. He died in detention in March under suspicious circumstances—sparking pro-Islamic protests in Hetian. A Chinese official blamed the protests on Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that aims to create a Pan-Islamic state and that is banned in Russia and Central Asia. The truth, however, is that extremism is rare in Xinjiang. "Uighurs in general have not been that captivated by radical Islam," says Gladney.

Beijing now classifies religious radicalism as an "evil force" on par with terrorism, and seems convinced it is growing. In 2004, it restricted pilgrimages by offering only expensive, officially escorted tours to Mecca—at $5,000-plus each—and requiring exhaustive background checks. In 2007, only 3,400 Xinjiang Muslims made the trip. Then, this year, the state extended the rule to block Uighurs who receive a government salary from going at all. State employees were already forbidden from fasting on the job during Ramadan and are discouraged from praying at mosques, locals say. Returning hajjis have faced various forms of harassment. Exiled dissident Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress, says some have had the edges of their passports cut by authorities, making them unusable.

Such measures are unlikely to diminish local unrest, which stems more from economic frictions and religious restrictions than from radical Islam itself. Until Beijing starts addressing the underlying issues, it's likely to see more trouble in its Wild West.