Trouble In 'Turkestan'

The back alleys of Kashgar are a medieval warren straight out of the tales of Tamerlane. In the tree-shaded courtyards of the desert oasis in Xinjiang province, some 200 kilometers from the Afghan border, Uighur women wearing traditional headscarves hand-sew sequins onto green velvet caps. But just around the corner is an abrupt reminder of the here-and-now. Posted on the sun-baked brick wall outside a police post are mug shots of nearly 20 young Uighur fugitives, wanted for such crimes as arson and murder. "Actually they're terrorists," says a Kashgari Uighur, who glances briefly at the pictures before walking away. "Some are separatists, and some are just unhappy with the government. It's hard to keep young Uighurs happy these days."

And getting harder. If China ever fragments along ethnic lines, the unraveling would likely start in Xinjiang--a far-western province that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and three post-Soviet central-Asian states. Two fifths of Xinjiang's 16 million residents are Turkic-speaking Muslims known as Uighurs. As recently as 1944, Muslim rebels briefly declared an Eastern Turkestan Republic in southwest Xinjiang. Some still want to be independent. Uighur separatists have been blamed for riots, assassinations, arms-smuggling and hundreds of explosions since 1997, including bus bombings in Beijing and Wuhan. Just a few weeks ago a Xinjiang government delegation was attacked by armed gunmen thought to be Uighur extremists in neighboring Kyrgyzstan; one official was killed, another injured.

On the surface, life in Xinjiang seems calm. In Kashgar's centuries-old market, vendors peddle everything from fragrant Tibetan saffron to herbal concoctions of deer penis and dried antelope horn. A giant billboard of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declares that the Communist Party's reform policy "will not waver for 100 years." There's little vestige of the old British and Russian powers which a century ago vied for control of central Asian redoubts in the imperialist intrigue known as the "Great Game." Last month the British ambassador to Beijing, Sir Anthony Galsworthy, hosted a nostalgic bash in the courtyard of Kashgar's former British consulate, a seedy relic that's now part of a hotel complex. In the shade of a gnarled elm planted in 1908, Galsworthy toasted a gathering of suitably eccentric Brits--contestants in a London-Beijng classic-car road rally. Just staying in the former consulate gave him "a tremendous buzz," says Galsworthy. "But the job isn't what it used to be. Britain doesn't play the Great Game in Asia anymore."

The game Uighur separatists are playing has Beijing spooked. In 1997 anti-Chinese riots erupted in Yining city, leaving nine dead and more than 200 injured. That and other incidents have sparked a government crackdown. Last month five Uighur separatists were executed in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, for "attempting to divide the country, trafficking arms, murder and theft." Thousands of Uighurs have been detained, and more than 200 executed, over the last three years. Says a Chinese official: "Separatists, international terrorists and religious extremists are running rampant in central Asia." Counterterrorism, this official says, will top the agenda when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visits Tajikistan for a summit of leaders from China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan this week. For now armed Uighur extremists inside Xinjiang are few--and kept on the run--but nonviolent resentment of the communist regime's economic and religious policies is pervasive.

Xinjiang is crucial to Jiang's plans to revitalize western China. It is rich in oil, minerals and cotton, and accounts for 60 percent of China's land mass. Jiang envisions a born-again Silk Road running from China to Iran; it would cut straight through Xinjiang. One of China's western-development projects is a $14 billion pipeline linking Xinjiang's natural-gas fields to the port of Shanghai, 4,200 kilometers away. Xinjiang's deputy director of economic planning, He Xiaorong, figures the pipeline alone could add three points to the provincial economy's growth rate. Beijing hopes an economic boost will help quiet the province's ethnic unrest.

But money is not the issue. Many Xinjiang locals fear Beijing's edifice complex will dilute the indigenous culture. Kashgar already has one square, dominated by the world's biggest statue of Mao Zedong, that looks like Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Now, Kashgaris say, authorities plan to demolish traditional Uighur homes near Id Kah, the largest mosque in China, to make room for wide Tiananmen-style avenues. Sighs an Uighur matron, "Our family has lived here for decades, but now our house will be cut in half" by new development.

Every new project seems to bring in more Han Chinese. Fifty years ago only 15 percent of Xinjiang's population was Han; now it's 40 percent. Urumqi is 85 percent Chinese. Statuesque Manchurian prostitutes stalk customers in a busy hotel. Late-night markets teem with clothes peddlers from coastal Zhejiang and noodle hawkers from Sichuan. Local Muslims grumble that "outsiders" are taking scarce jobs. At a time when ethnic tensions "are a time bomb waiting to explode," warns Erkin Alptekin, a Uighur activist living in Germany, "more investment means more Chinese will come in."

According to Alptekin, Xinjiang's youth are mired in "desperation and frustration." But the Uighur ferment is not confined to poor malcontents. Instead, says Paul Wilkinson of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's St. Andrew's University, "questions of ethnic identity and language matter enormously to a group that feels its culture is threatened." In March, China sentenced millionaire businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, who with her husband had run a prosperous textile trade, to eight years in prison for "illegally offering state secrets across national borders." She had been detained in 1999, just before she was due to meet visiting U.S. congressional staffers. Her husband, Sidik Rouzi, was a political prisoner from 1969 to 1978. In 1996 he sought asylum in the United States. "She was jailed even though she'd only mailed me official newspapers, like the Xinjiang Daily," says Rouzi. "It was just an excuse; she wasn't political."

Beijing worries that Uighur separatists may join forces with Islamic "holy warriors" battling secular authorities in other central Asian states--and in Chechnya. Late last year Russian security personnel nabbed several Uighurs in Chechnya. An investigation suggested "they weren't terrorists, just Uighur cooks," insisted a Chinese official.

The Uighurs lack a charismatic leader like Tibet's Dalai Lama, but the diaspora is becoming more vocal. Exiles in Germany, Turkey and the United States are publicizing the Uighur cause. The recently formed Uyghur Human Rights Coalition in Washington, D.C., demonstrated last week against the recent case of Uighur activists who were expelled from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and returned to China. Isabel Kelly of Amnesty International in London, which published an extensive report on human-rights abuses in Xinjiang last year, says global concern about the Uighur cause is growing. That will only exacerbate Beijing's jitters, and probably intensify an already bitter fight.