SPECIAL REPORT - CHINA/XINJIANG: 'Foreigners Should Not Prevent Us from Praying' Say Local Muslims.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 8 March 2002

On a visit from 22 February to 7 March to the two main cities of the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of north-western China, Keston News Service found tight restrictions on the religious practice of the native Muslim population and government attempts to woo Muslims away from their faith. Controls on mosques were renewed in 1996 after a period of much freer Muslim practice, as the central Chinese authorities seem to have stepped up their concern about what they regard as links between Uighur separatism and Islam.

The main aim of the visit - to Urumqi, the regional capital, and Kashgar, the region's second largest city, 1000 kms (600 miles) south-west of Urumqi - was to gather information about the relationship between the state and believers (primarily Muslims) and to establish whether the Uighur separatist movement has a religious basis. Keston met considerable difficulties in gathering information. Almost everyone who spoke to Keston said that if the authorities learned that they had supplied "negative information" to a journalist they could get long prison sentences. "In China even the walls have ears. Be very careful if you don't want to cause us problems," was a frequent comment from local people. Keston therefore cannot give the names of its informants.

Situated in the north-west of China (bordering Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia) the XUAR (or Eastern Turkestan) is China's largest province with 16 percent of its territory. According to official Chinese statistics, the population of the XUAR is 16.5 million. About half of the population are Chinese and the other half are Turkic-speaking nationalities of Muslim background (Uighurs 42%, Kazakhs 6.2% and Kyrgyz 1%).

Historically Eastern Turkestan forms one ethno-cultural region with Central Asia. The native Turkic-speaking peoples are close in language, culture, customs and history to the native peoples of the Central Asian republics. In ancient times the Uighurs had a powerful civilisation which had an enormous influence not only on Central Asia but also on China. In 1759 under pressure from Manchurian-Chinese forces the Uighurs lost their independence. The occupied territory became known as Sinkiang (Xinjiang - "New frontier" in Chinese). Since their conquest by China the Uighurs have rebelled over 400 times.

Relations between Uighurs and Chinese became especially tense in 1950, when Beijing began the mass settlement of Chinese in Eastern Turkestan. While in 1949 there were only 200,000 Chinese (about 10% of the population), today there are about 8 million (about half the region's population). Since the early nineties there has been a powerful Uighur separatist underground in the XUAR, with occasional acts of terrorism and spontaneous rebellions. In 1990 a bus was blown up in Kashgar and in 1992 another in Urumqi. In 1990, after the authorities denied believers access to the mosque, there was an uprising in the settlement of Baren (a suburb of Kashgar). In 1995 in the town of Khotan (Hotan), 530 kms (330 miles) east of Kashgar, there was an uprising after the authorities replaced the local imam.

The most serious unrest in recent years occurred in February 1997 in the town of Yining (close to the border with Kazakhstan, 390 kms - 240 miles - west of Urumqi). A demonstration of Uighurs carrying banners demanding that the Chinese authorities observe the rights of Muslims grew into open rebellion. The uprising was brutally quashed by the Chinese army. At least 25 people were killed and 200 injured.

Beijing regards Uighur separatism as a serious threat to the security of the state. "Today in private conversation it is possible to criticise the communists, but to express support for Uighur independence is not possible, even within one's own family, under the threat of arrest," Keston was told. At first sight Muslims in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region are not repressed by the authorities. Working mosques can be seen almost everywhere in the Uighur districts of Urumqi and Kashgar. Keston found that the number of functioning mosques is considerably greater in the XUAR than, for example, in Uzbekistan, where the authorities are trying to limit the number of Muslim places of worship. Everyone said, however, that the mosques are under the strict control of the authorities: for example, all the imam-hatybs are appointed by the authorities.

An unofficial instruction threatens Muslims working at state enterprises with dismissal if they go to the mosque. Keston saw notices at mosques stating that persons under the age of 18 are forbidden to attend. In Kashgar Keston was told that during the school winter holidays (mid-January to the end of February) teachers forced pupils to come to school on Fridays to prevent them from praying at home. Religious education outside the mosque is strictly forbidden. Keston was told of a woman who was sentenced to prison for this even though she was pregnant at the time. Keston was told in Kashgar that the authorities periodically conduct searches of Muslim homes in order to confiscate banned religious literature. At the same time the authorities are trying to secularise the Uighurs. For example, an inhabitant of Karamai (an oil town 300 kms - 185 miles - north-west of Urumqi) told Keston in Urumqi that Uighur workers in the town are periodically given free gifts of strong alcoholic liquor.

It appears that restrictions do not apply to all faiths. On 24 February Keston was told by parishioners at the Orthodox church in Urumqi (mostly Russians whose parents fled from the Soviet Union in the 1930s) that Chinese citizens may go to church as long as they are not members of the Communist Party.

From 1983 to 1996, however, state employees and young people were not banned from attending the mosque. Keston was told that at that time Muslims experienced virtually no oppression by the authorities. Evidently in 1996 the Chinese authorities concluded that Uighur separatism had a marked religious dimension. Indeed this is partly true. Keston heard several times from Uighurs that their people could "never live in peace with the Chinese because most of them are atheists". A Uighur would never go to a restaurant owned by a Chinese as the food would not be prepared according to Muslim rules. Many Uighurs do not travel to other parts of China because it is difficult to find food meeting Muslim requirements. There is great indignation at the Chinese law limiting the birthrate (although the Uighurs as a national minority are allowed one more child than the Chinese). "According to our Muslim customs the more children there are in a household the more happiness there is," Uighurs told Keston. "The Chinese law insults our faith." As Keston found, the overwhelming majority of Uighurs have a strong antipathy towards the Chinese. In Kashgar, for example, a Uighur will never take a taxi with a Chinese driver, preferring to pay his money to one of his own people.

Here, interestingly, unlike in Central Asia both during and after Soviet rule, there is no hatred of the "Russian colonialists". The attitude to the Slavs was and remains favourable. For obvious reasons Keston was not able to meet the Islamic underground. It was clear, however, that Islamic radicals in China have much less opportunity to propagandise their ideas. Keston met no-one who knew of the existence of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the international organisation seeking to unite Muslims throughout the world in a single caliphate. Although this organisation is banned in the Central Asian republics, its activity (distribution of leaflets, verbal propaganda) is such that practically all the inhabitants of Central Asia are aware of it. The term "wahhabism" is unknown in Eastern Turkestan (in Central Asia this is the name given to a strand within Islam seeking to return to original Islam unencumbered by any regional customs) although, as Keston found, supporters of this strand of Islam do exist here. Many young Uighurs, for example, consider that veneration of mazars (the graves of famous Muslims) and expensive weddings and funerals contradict the canons of Islam.

While trying to reduce the Uighurs' religiosity, Beijing emphatically respects their national culture. Teaching in schools and universities is conducted in the Uighur language and there are Uighur television and radio programmes and newspapers. In the Chinese army there are special kitchens for the Muslim soldiers. At the same time, Beijing is trying to combat Uighur separatism by investing in this backward province. The changes are impressive. While in 1994 Keston found that the basic form of transport in the towns of the XUAR was horse-drawn carts and bicycles, today cars have become the norm. Even Uighur separatists admitted to Keston that the standard of living in the XUAR has increased considerably in the last ten years. After the suppression of the uprising in Baren, Beijing declared this town a special economic zone receiving additional government grants.

However, Beijing's attempts to pacify the Uighurs are not yet having the effect the government desires. "I can't take money with me to the grave, for me it is much more important that foreigners in my own country should not prevent me from praying to God and living according to the laws of our ancestors," is how many local Muslims expressed themselves to Keston. (END)