The global effort against terrorism doesn't give China a blank check to suppress the basic rights of the Uighur community," says Sidney Jones, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch. But though reports of an intensified crackdown since September 11 are widespread, even Uighur activists concede there is little hard evidence of one. Things were bad before and they're still bad, says Turdi Ghoja, president of the Washington, D.C.—based Uighur-American Association. "The Chinese have always treated Uighurs as enemies," he says. The only difference now is that the outside world seems to be paying attention.
Beijing increasingly invokes Islamic fundamentalism to justify its continuing repression of Uighurs to the international community. In January, Chinese officials released a report claiming that the "East Turkistan terrorist organization based in South Asia has the unstinting support of Osama bin Laden, and is an important part of his terrorist forces." It expressed fear of a "holy war with the aim of setting up a theocratic 'Islamic state' in Xinjiang." But experts discount this possibility. Though several Uighurs were reportedly among the Taliban fighters captured in Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalism has never taken root among the relatively moderate Uighurs, whose movement is largely nationalist, not Islamist, in nature.
The Muslim minority groups that survived the desert for centuries—and gave the Silk Road its special qualities—wonder whether they will survive the settlement plans of the Chinese government. For all its tough talk, however, China is mindful that the eyes of the world will be watching even more closely as the 2008 Olympic Games approach. For now, at least, camels and kebabs continue to sell at the busy Sunday market, until the chanting from the mosque calls the faithful to prayer.
Ron Gluckman has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and the South China Morning Post. He is based in Beijing.