Muslims in China say bias is increasing

In addition to violence, China’s 10 million Uighurs face suspicion and an education system that is eradicating their cultural heritage

By Andrew Jacobs  /  NY Times News Service, KASHGAR, China

Fri, Oct 11, 2013 - Page 9

Job seekers looking for opportunities in this ancient oasis town in China’s far western Xinjiang region would seem to have ample options, based on a quick glance at a local help-wanted Web site. The Kashgar Cultural Center has an opening for an experienced dance choreographer, the prefectural Chinese Communist Party office is hiring a driver and nearby Shule County needs an archivist.

These and dozens of other job openings share one caveat: Ethnic Uighurs, the Muslim, Turkic-speaking people who make up nearly 90 percent of Kashgar’s population, need not apply. Roughly half of the 161 positions advertised on the Civil Servant Examination Information Web site indicate that only ethnic Han Chinese or native Mandarin speakers will be considered.

Such discrimination, common across the region, is one of the many indignities China’s 10 million Uighurs face in a society that increasingly casts them as untrustworthy and prone to religious extremism. Uighurs are largely frozen out of the region’s booming gas and oil industry, airport jobs are mostly reserved for Han applicants and truck drivers whose national identity cards list their ethnicity as Uighur cannot obtain the licenses required to haul fuel, an unwritten rule based on the fear that oil and gas tankers could easily be turned into weapons, according to several trucking companies.

Despite its name — the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region — this strategically pivotal expanse of desert and snow-draped mountains that borders several Central Asian nations is tightly controlled by Beijing. Top government positions as well as critical spots in the sprawling security apparatus are dominated by Han Chinese, many of them recruited from the eastern half of the country.

“The bottom line is that the Chinese don’t trust us, and that is having a corrosive impact on life in Xinjiang,” said Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur economist in Beijing. “And the way things are going, it’s going to get worse.”

After a summer of violence that claimed at least 100 lives, analysts, human rights advocates and even a handful of Chinese academics are raising alarms over what they call repressive policies that are fueling increased alienation and radicalization among Uighurs, many of whom subscribe to a moderate brand of Sunni Islam. These policies have been tightened since ethnic rioting four years ago left at least 200 people dead in Urumqi, the regional capital.

The Chinese government blames outside agitators, among them members of a separatist movement it contends has links to global jihadists, for much of the unrest. While there have been a number of unprovoked attacks on Chinese police officers or soldiers in recent years, most experts say the threat from Islamic militants is far less potent and organized than that portrayed by Beijing.

In August, paramilitary police officers not far from Kashgar shot at least 32 men, killing a dozen, during a raid on what was described as a secret “munitions center;” a few days later at least a dozen other Uighurs were killed as they prayed at a farmhouse in Yilkiqi Township, according to Radio Free Asia. The authorities said the men were taking part in “illegal religious activities” and training for a terrorist attack, but did not provide further details.

Other episodes include a shooting outside a police station in Aksu Prefecture that wounded 50 and left three dead, and a violent skirmish in Hotan, another Silk Road outpost, during which dozens of men were reportedly shot while protesting the detention of a local imam. The Chinese state news media described these and other episodes as “terror attacks;” exile groups say they were peaceful demonstrations crushed with brute force.

Local residents say these and other clashes have been fueled by the dispiriting realities of daily life here: the institutionalized job discrimination, the restrictions that prohibit those younger than 18 from entering mosques and the difficulty that many Uighurs face in obtaining passports. Those Uighurs lucky enough to travel abroad say they are often interrogated upon their return by security officials who demand to know whether they have engaged in separatist activities.

“The government should realize that reckless and inappropriate decisions by local authorities are only causing more instability,” said Yang Shu (楊恕), a professor of Central Asian studies at Lanzhou University, referring to rules that discourage women from wearing head scarves and young men from growing beards.

Many Uighurs are also convinced that Beijing is seeking to wipe out their language and culture through assimilation and education policies that favor Mandarin over Uighur in schools and government jobs. Since 2004, a bilingual education initiative has required teachers in much of the region to use Mandarin for nearly every subject. The authorities insist that the policy is aimed at helping Uighurs compete in a country where Mandarin is the lingua franca, but many parents, teachers and Uighur intellectuals are unconvinced.

“My 17-year-old daughter speaks decent Chinese, but she cannot get through a piece of Uighur literature,” said a government employee in Urumqi, who asked to remain anonymous because such criticism can have serious consequences. “A generation from now, I fear our people will be functionally illiterate in Uighur.”

Fear and mistrust between the two ethnicities has hardened in recent years as a growing number of Han Chinese migrants settle into heavily guarded enclaves, especially in the southern crescent of Xinjiang that remains predominantly Uighur. Even in Urumqi, where ethnic Han Chinese make up 75 percent of the population, knots of heavily armed police officers in fatigues are positioned throughout Uighur neighborhoods; after dark, Uighur men are barred from the front seats of taxis, according to a local ordinance cast as an anti-crime measure.

Huang Xiaolin, a Han engineer who was recently lured to Hotan from coastal Shandong Province with a generous salary and subsidized housing, said colleagues frequently warned him against entering the city’s Uighur quarter.

“The local people here are uncivilized and prone to violence,” he said, standing near a propaganda banner that read, “The Han and the Uighur cannot live without one another.”

Beijing has coupled its “strike hard” security approach with turbocharged economic development, but even that has stoked resentment among Uighurs, who say the best jobs go to newly arrived Han.

“The Chinese government is focused on a very outdated understanding of macroeconomic development, thinking that it will bring everyone up to the same level, but it’s clearly not working,” said Sean Roberts, a professor at The George Washington University who studies development in the region.

Part of the backlash, experts and local residents say, has been prompted by increasingly intrusive restrictions on religion. Civil servants can be fired for joining Friday afternoon prayer services, and Uighur college students say they are often required to eat lunch in school cafeterias during the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast. In cities across the region, signs warn people against public prayer, and video cameras are pointed at the doorways of local mosques. Residents also say the government maintains an extensive web of paid informers and monitors Internet traffic and cellphone conversations.

Such policies are born out of concern that the radical Islam that has destabilized neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan will take root in Xinjiang, a fear not entirely unfounded given the region’s proximity to lawless countries that have provided a haven for a kaleidoscope of jihadists from across the Muslim world, including some Uighurs.

However, experts say the raids on unsanctioned religious schools and other restrictions have prompted even greater religiosity.

“Five years ago, you would have been shocked to see a veiled woman in Urumqi, but not anymore,” said a Han academic at Xinjiang University who is critical of Beijing’s policies in the region. “For a lot of Uighurs, growing a beard and asking your wife to cover her head in public has become an act of defiance.”

Despite the growing death toll, analysts say China’s new leadership is unlikely to reconsider its hard-line policies any time soon. During a state visit to four Central Asia nations last month that sought to bolster Xinjiang’s role as the linchpin of a revitalized Silk Road, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) vowed to continue the battle against what he described as the “three forces” of separatism, terrorism and religious extremism, according to Xinhua news agency.

By failing to consider the root causes of Uighur discontent, Beijing could unwittingly radicalize a generation of young people, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who is based in Hong Kong.

“The entire Uighur ethnicity feels asphyxiated, having become suspect as sympathetic to extremism,” he said. “Xinjiang is trapped in a vicious circle of increased repression that only leads to more violence.”