Repressed Muslim minority or part of the 'bin Laden clique'?More than a thousand miles from Beijing, China's Uighurs struggle to maintain their identity
Frédéric Lagrange

In the center of Kashgar, China's westernmost city, stands a seven-story statue of Chairman Mao. It's practically the only Chinese thing about this historic gateway to the Silk Road. Kashgar is the top tourist destination in Xinjiang province, just over the mountains from Afghanistan. Xinjiang, a sprawling mass of peaks and desert, covers one-sixth of China's landmass but holds less than 2 percent of its population. It is home to a dozen ethnic groups linked by centuries of dogged survival and Muslim faith. The largest, though still a mere blip on the nation's population chart, is the Uighur (wee-gur), an ancient people that has been waging a separatist campaign since long before Mao's day—making this region on the border between the Far East and the Middle East China's most turbulent.

In the past year, reports of increased repression and even executions of Uighur activists have brought Xinjiang global attention. Since September 11, Beijing has been capitalizing on the West's campaign against terrorism, adopting similar rhetoric and branding local Muslims part of the "bin Laden clique." Last October, President Bush, visiting Shanghai for a regional summit, delivered a warning against regimes that were using the anti-terror mantle to crack down on minorities. I visited Xinjiang to see how the international war against terrorism was affecting the people here, at the edge of the Muslim world.

Uighurs trace their ancestry to the indigenous people of the Tarim Basin, who settled around one of the world's largest deserts, Taklimakan (roughly, "desert of death"). To irrigate their crops, they funneled glacial melt from the mountains through thousands of miles of karez, ancient underground aqueducts, creating a land of milk and honey. The karez are still in use around Turpan and Yarkant, where you can stand with one foot in a vineyard filled with ripe grapes and the other in desert sand.

On Sundays, many in the Uighur community head for Kashgar's outdoor bazaar. Donkey carts laden with figs and furs rattle down dirt alleys in what could pass for a biblical metropolis. The air is strong with the aromas of cumin and grilled mutton. Old men bargain for sheep, prying the animals' mouths open mid-baa to check their teeth. Pausing in one of the tea shops—which, like the mosques, donkey carts, and lamb kebabs, lend a Middle Eastern flavor to this unconventional Chinese outpost—I watch a circle of men taking turns test-driving camels. It's easy to understand why each year 20,000 foreign tourists trundle by van or camel along the ancient Silk Road, the world's first superhighway, which once connected Rome with China's imperial capital, Xi'an.

Kashgar is less well known than other stops along the route, such as Samarqand, and it hasn't had the media exposure accorded nearby political hot spots like Tibet and Kashmir. But even here the impact of September 11 was immediate. Visitors stopped coming, and borders closed long before the first snowfall. "For your own safety," explained a local official, refusing my request for permission to hire a jeep for the rough drive through the mountains. Back at my hotel, I was warned that reporters were unwelcome and that "spies are everywhere." It felt like a revival of the Great Game of the late 19th century, when Russia and Britain battled for influence here—more so since my room was at the old British listening post. Yet the intrigue has little appeal for locals.

"We hate the Chinese," a Uighur student told me, spitting for emphasis. "They take our land and our jobs, and try to enslave our faith." Government incentives have encouraged massive immigration to Xinjiang: Han Chinese now comprise about half of the province's population, a tenfold increase since 1949. Every Uighur has tales of discrimination. They are regularly banned from hotels across China and forced to stay in special guesthouses, where it's easier for authorities to monitor them. In Kashgar, they have their own neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, and restaurants. Few Uighurs learn the national language, Mandarin, and Han Chinese are baffled by the local Turkic script scrawled on handwritten signs around the Uighurs' mud-brick communities. Han Chinese and Uighurs rarely intermarry. They even run on different time: because Beijing insists on a single time zone for all of China, Kashgar's government offices open in pitch-dark, even though unofficial Uighur time is two hours behind Beijing.

Some Uighurs yearn for a revival of the independent state of East Turkistan, which existed briefly after World War II. In the decades since the People's Liberation Army marched in to liberate—or conquer, many locals say—Xinjiang province in 1949, resistance has periodically flared up, and there have been riots and bombings. The boiling point was reached in 1996 and 1997, when violence between demonstrators and police erupted in several cities, and bombs exploded in Beijing and in Xinjiang's capital, Ürümqi.

Two years later, Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji urged local officials to use an "iron fist" against Uighurs and other separatists. Strike Hard, an ongoing, nationwide anti-crime campaign, was relaunched in April 2001. From mid-September through the end of last year, as many as 20 people were executed in Xinjiang alone, "on politically driven charges," according to a March 2002 report from Amnesty International. The group notes that Xinjiang is the only province in China where dissidents are routinely put to death. Also in the spring of 2001, Beijing mounted a "re-education campaign" for the imams who run state-controlled mosques across China, forcing 8,000 Muslim clerics through the propaganda program by the end of the year. Amnesty International also charges that the "subjective yardstick of 'terrorism' " was used to detain some who may have done "little more than practice their religion or defend their culture."

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.