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By Bill Smith

EVERY evening Mehmeti Mersum sits outside a restaurant near his home in Hotan, the ancient town on the southern Silk Road through China’s far western region of Xinjiang. Moslem women in headscarfs and bearded men in skullcaps win smiles or greetings as they pass Mehmeti and his Uyghur friends. Chinese women in skimpy dresses or miniskirts draw only glares of mixed hostility and lechery, while the approach of Chinese men often inspires the Uyghurs to inspect their teacups.

The Uyghurs occasionally glance across the road at the Han Chinese shopkeepers and their families. The Chinese also watch the nightly promenade, gazing back at Uyghur waiters, customers and merchants. And that is normally as near as Hotan’s two ethnically divided communities come to meaningful communication.

Many of those across the road are migrants from poor, overpopulated Sichuan province. “They are bad people,” a younger, more outspoken friend of Mehmeti said of the migrants. “The women are prostitutes and the men are pimps.”

Eight million mainly Moslem Uyghurs form the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang, which has some six million Han residents. Police regularly arrest Uyghurs who express public support for independence or criticise the government, Mehmeti said. The arrests have multiplied since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, with some 3,000 Uyghurs detained according to the Germany-based East Turkestan Infomation Centre.

UN human rights chief Mary Robinson has raised concerns about China’s latest crackdown on Uyghurs who promote an independent East Turkestan state in Xinjiang. China tried to justify the campaign by claiming up to 1,000 Chinese Moslems, mainly Uyghurs, were trained by Saudi militant Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network.

But in late November, U.S. special envoy for counter-terrorism General Francis Taylor dismissed the terrorist threat in Xinjiang and said the United States did not designate East Turkestan independence organisations as terrorist groups. “Legitmate economic and social issues... (in Xinjiang) are not necessarily counter-terrorist issues and should be resolved politically”, Taylor said in Beijing.

The crackdown on Uyghur independence activists appears to be an over-reaction to the “small-scale” problem of terrorism in Xinjiang, Professor Dru Gladney of the University of Hawaii Centre for Chinese Studies said. “They don’t seem to be able to show a strong record of serious attacks ... There’s no single co-ordinated group”, said Gladney, who specialises in studying Chinese Moslems and has visited Xinjiang many times.

Undeterred, China has continued its tough policing of Xinjiang and linked the “three forces” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. The crackdown can only widen the stark ethnic division in Hotan and a string of other poor oasis towns flanking the Taklamakan desert in southern Xinjiang.

The rift is most obvious in Kashgar, the furthest west and most important city in the area. Kashgar’s People’s Square is a usually quiet expanse of concrete slabs, enclosed grass and potted plants, overlooked by a statue of Mao Zedong and Communist Party slogans. Relatively affluent middle-aged Chinese women exercise in the space sometimes used for military parades and government rallies. To the east of the square is a new, half-empty parade of shops run by Chinese migrants.

Less than 1 kilometre away is a bustling square dominated by the 500-year-old Id Kah mosque. Few Chinese venture into the Uyghur restaurants and shops around the square, which fills nightly with worshippers, diners and viewers of Indian films dubbed into Uyghur. During the day, Moslems are restricted to praying in an outer area of Kashgar’s most important mosque while tourists take snapshots of the main halls.

“You can’t keep your traditions because you have to develop. Everything must change,” said Dilichati, a young Uyghur studying to become a tour guide. But when he discovered my companion was not Chinese, Dilichati changed his mind. “Just now what I said wasn’t the truth, but I’m afraid to say it,” he said. “Last year one of my friends was arrested after an American woman he spoke to published what he said. He’s still in jail.”

Kashgar guides must pass Chinese examinations, Dilichati said, as bilingual Uyghur and English speakers are not allowed. Men are discouraged from wearing beards or traditional hats. “If you wear traditional dress, the Chinese guides will accuse you of putting dirt in their pot,” he said.

The linguistic and cultural divisions are reflected in dual place names and even time. Kashgar is Kashi to the Chinese, a little closer to its Uyghur name than Silk Road towns such as Yarkant (Shache in Chinese), Kargilik (Yecheng), Hotan (Hetian) and Keriya (Yutian). It lies some 4,000 kilometres from Beijing, closer to Beirut than the Chinese capital, but the government insists on a single time zone and locals use an informal Xinjiang time.

When the extension to Kashgar of the southern Xinjiang railway opened in December 1999, many Uyghurs feared an influx of migrants from central and eastern China. By the end of last year, 17,200 more Han Chinese had settled in the city, a jump of 30 per cent to 74,200 in 12 months. Another 7,700 temporary migrants were not counted in the 2000 Kashgar population total of 340,600, local officials said. The Han population rose just 2.5 per cent in 1999.

Flanked by stunning desert and mountain scenery for hundreds of kilometres, the railway ends in at the modern Kashgar station that symbolises both economic development and Chinese control. The government plans to extend the line through Kirghizstan to Uzbekistan, making it a key part of the political and economic strategy to develop China’s remote western areas.

It hopes its “Go West” plan will attract enough new investment to improve the lives of both Uyghurs and Han migrants. But earlier this year, it spiked an audacious plan by Xinjiang’s leaders to boost development with a Las Vegas-style casino and leisure resort in the vast Taklamakan desert.

The extensive oil and gas reserves in the Tarim basin, inside the desert, are likely to remain the region’s best hope of prosperity. Yet 80 per cent of workers in the Tarim oilfield are Han Chinese, with local minorities mainly doing menial jobs, said Fang Guiliang, an engineer with the state giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

“We provide jobs for them indirectly”, mainly through service industries, said Fang, who lives in the affluent, modern town of Korla, 700 kilometres north across the desert from Hotan. CNPC funds a small college for educating young Uyghurs to replace retiring oil workers. Oil prospectors have also located several new wells under the Taklamakan, Fang said, which could provide a much-needed boost for local agriculture.

Gladney argues that Xinjiang has all the features of a colony, with deep ethnic divisions and the Chinese enjoying the main benefits of the development of the region’s natural resources. “Uighurs, and other indigenous peoples such as Tibetans, now labelled as ‘minority nationalities’, have been turned into ‘internal colonial subjects’ despite being indigenous peoples in lands they once called their own,” he said. “The expropriation of Xinjiang’s vast mineral and petrochemical resources, with processing of petroleum products in the interior, primarily Lanzhou, and sold on the international market – with revenues to Xinjiang based on domestic prices – further fits the internal colonialism model.”

The whole of Xinjiang is known as a border region, even though it stretches some 2,000 kilometres from east to west. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an offshoot of the People’s Liberation Army, has acted as the vanguard of Han colonisation.

The migration is not new. Chinese merchants settled in Hotan hundreds of years ago, as did about 70 of the 100 Chinese families who moved to the area during a gold rush in 1915. But the pace and pattern of migration have changed dramatically since China’s victorious communists began to tame the area in the 1950s.

Today few Uyghurs in southern Xinjiang speak good Chinese and in many rural areas they manage no more than a few simple phrases of putonghua. Likewise, even most second-generation migrants see no need to learn Uyghur. Taxi driver Zhang Shu, 31, was born in the Xinjiang town of Aksu, the son of a soldier from Sichuan. Zhang moved to Kashgar four years ago but still speaks no Uyghur. “When you go to the station, ask the Chinese drivers because the Uyghur people won’t understand you,” he advised.

“We just have to put up with it,” one Uyghur shopkeeper in Kashgar said of the migration. “We can’t speak out,” the shopkeeper’s friend explained with a Koranic metaphor: “They’ll cut out our tongues and gouge out our eyes.”

The names of several Uyghurs quoted in this article have been omitted or changed.Bill Smith is a Beijing-based journalist, currently working mainly for Deutsche Press Agentur – dpa, the German Press Agency.

“The crackdown can only widen the stark ethnic division.”

“Uighurs, and other indigenous peoples such as Tibetans, now labelled as ‘minority nationalities’, have been turned into ‘internal colonial subjects’ despite being indigenous peoples in lands they once called their own,”