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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 13:34 GMT
China's fearful Muslim minority
Chinese Muslim
Relations with China's ethnic minorities are tense
By the BBC's Lucy Ash

Among the various foreign fighters who have been captured in Afghanistan by anti-Taleban forces are a number of Chinese Muslims.

China has a short border with Afghanistan, and now Beijing wants the captured Chinese prisoners returned to face trial in China.

Most are members of the Uighur ethnic minority, and the government says they are members of a violent separatist movement in western China.

But human rights groups fear that the authorities intend to take advantage of the international campaign against terrorism to suppress legitimate dissent.

Activists campaigning for the Uighur people of Xinjiang province say increasingly ruthless tactics are being used to crush local culture in what they call China's "other Tibet".

The Uighurs call their oil-rich homeland, which borders Afghanistan and the central Asian states, East Turkistan.

But as far as China is concerned, these eight million Muslims live in Xinjiang or 'the new province' - a vast tract of mountains and deserts in the far-west of the country.

Minority

Uighurs are ethnically different from the Han Chinese and speak a Turkic language. They were once the majority in Xinjiang, but now they make up less than half the population.

The parallels with Buddhist Tibet are striking. China keeps an iron grip on both.

Xinjiang province
Xinjiang is one of China's remotest provinces

"China regards Xinjiang in the same way that it regards Tibet as having always been part of China, and it will quote historical facts going back thousands of years," said Professor Mike Dillon from Durham University in Britain.

"The reality is that both Xinjiang and Tibet were only brought into the Chinese empire in the form that they are now, in the late 18th Century, but nevertheless, they are regarded as a part of China.

"The Chinese regard any talk of separatism as a kind of national betrayal, and they're not prepared to countenance it."

China usually remains silent about separatist violence in Xinjiang. Now, it is openly condemning it as global terrorism.

Alleged terror connection

The government has just published a list of bombings, shootings and riots in the province. According to this account, Uighur separatists have killed 40 people and injured 330 over the past 10 years.

Uighur clergy
China accuses the Muslim Uighurs of connections with Bin Laden

A Chinese Foreign Ministry announcement recently warned of the danger of an Islamic terror network.

"These people have links with the Bin Laden clique and have been infected with the jihad mentality. We should regard cracking down on these terrorists as part of the international struggle against terrorism," it said in a statement.

Erkin Alptekin, the exiled son of the late leader of the Eastern Turkistan republic which was founded in 1944 and crushed five years later by the communists, says the statement is an excuse.

Mr Alptekin says he believes in finding a peaceful solution, but worries that government policies are creating a new generation of extremists.

"They say we will die anyway in the coming decades. Do you want us to die like a hero, stand up, or do you want us to die like a coward, sleeping in the bed, so what should we tell these people there?" he said.

Suppression

Uighurs fear their language and culture are disappearing, while their leaders are either co-opted or suppressed.

Rebiyah Kadeer
Rebiyah Kadeer: Arrested and imprisoned

Rebiyah Kadeer was a successful businesswoman, hailed by the government as a model capitalist and model citizen.

Then in August 1999 she was arrested on trivial charges and given an eight-year prison sentence.

Her family are exiled in the United States, including her daughter, Akida Rouzi. Ms Rouzi said the detention of her mother was intended to act as a warning to Uighurs not to expect any similar help from the West.


The Uighurs have no charismatic leader, no Dalai Lama to present their case

But she remains optimistic."I know that she's going to get out soon because I know that people are helping us. I know that we're not alone," she said.

However the Uighurs have no charismatic leader, no Dalai Lama to present their case to the world.

Now they fear the new political realities - the coalition against terror - will allow China an even freer hand in its troublesome Islamic backyard.

See also:

15 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
China separatists linked with terror
12 Nov 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
China's Muslims look on in anger
09 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese president 'rebuffs' Robinson
08 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Robinson warns China on repression
19 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Terrorism war unites Bush and Jiang
25 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Iran forges links with China's Muslims
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