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Monday, 12 November, 2001, 17:29 GMT
China's Muslims look on in anger
George W Bush and Jiang Zemin
President Jiang (right) backs the war against terror
By the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing

Deep in the heart of Beijing's old Muslim quarter lies Ox street. Its name is nothing if not appropriate - Ox street reeks of raw beef.

Huge hunks of it dangle from large hooks outside the rows of Halal butchers.

What America is doing is terrible. Why are they bombing these poor Afghans, haven't they already suffered enough?

Mr Xing
Opposite the Ox street mosque stands a row of small noodle shops. At lunchtime the shops are crammed with young students from the nearby Muslim high school, wolfing down bowls of hot beef noodles.

Girls in short skirts laugh and joke with male classmates, and one teenage girl is smoking a cigarette.

This is the heart of Beijing's Muslim community, but Islam in China bears little resemblance to its Middle Eastern incarnation.

Anti-American stance

In the back corner of one shop I meet Mr Xing. Over a bowl of piping hot noodles, I tentatively broach the subject.

"What do you think of what America is doing in Afghanistan?" I ask him.

His languid eyes look me up and down. "Are you an American?" he asks. No, I reassure him.

"In that case I will tell you - what America is doing is terrible. Why are they bombing these poor Afghans, haven't they already suffered enough?"

"But surely America has the right to retaliate for 11 September," I say.

"What does that have to do with the Afghan people?" he shoots back. "What evidence has America shown to the world?"

"Anyway," he adds, "America brought 11 September on itself."

Kashgar in Xinjiang province
China's Xianjiang province has a large Muslim population
"But I don't think it was the Afghans, more likely it was Iraq," he says. "For 10 years America has bullied and bombed the Iraqi people, now they are paying the price."

"But what about Osama Bin Laden?" I ask. "Surely he has to be stopped."

"Osama Bin Laden is a hero to all Muslim people," he tells me. "We are weak, but he stands up to America's bullying."

Constant victims

Mr Xing's concern for his fellow Afghan Muslims is perhaps stronger than that of the average Chinese. But his views on America are widely held.

The Chinese have a deeply held sense of victimhood - that they have been bullied by one western power or another for 150 years. First it was the British, then Japan, now it's the Americans.

It gives many Chinese a natural sympathy for other countries on the receiving end of America's military might.

It's not uncommon to find Chinese openly sympathetic to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Until recently, former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic was welcomed here as an old friend, and showered with praise by China's state-run media.

When Nato bombed Kosovo two years ago, China's Communist rulers howled with anger. But this time the reaction has been different.

Buried news

Following 11 September, there has been hardly a squeak. To the outside world President Jiang been making all the right noises, expressing full support for President Bush's coalition against terror.

But to his own people, President Jiang Zemin has been all but silent. China's state-run media has been ordered to bury the story. On nightly news broadcasts it ranks just above the weather forecast.

It has left many here confused and angry. Outside the US embassy in Beijing an iron security cordon has been thrown up. Iron railings block approach roads, and paramilitary police stand guard, machine-guns at the ready.

Our so called leaders are scared of offending America. Not like in the old days when Mao Zedong was around

Mr Xing
For traders in the neighbouring clothes market, it has been a disaster. The usual crowds of tourists have been driven away. Prices in the market have nose-dived. The stallholders despair.

"It's no good," one tells me. "But what can we do? The government is afraid of something bad happening to the Americans."

China's Communist rulers have their own motives for supporting America in its fight against the Taleban. For years Beijing has been fighting its own, little-publicized conflict with Muslim separatists in its far western province of Xianjiang.

China's 'terrorists'

The people of Xianjiang are called Uighurs. They are closely related to the Uzbeks and other Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia. With their bright green eyes, long flowing beards and aquiline features they have little in common with - and little affection for - their Chinese masters.

Since 11 September, China has officially labelled its fight against Uighur separatism as a fight against terrorists - no different, it says, from America's fight against the Al Qaeda, or Britain's against the IRA.

Picture of Mao Zedong
Mr Xing feels that Jiang should stand up to America, like Mao did
There is growing evidence that in recent weeks, arrests of those suspected of political dissent in Xinjiang have been dramatically stepped up.

But back on Ox street, Mr Xing has a more simple explanation for his government's stance. "They're afraid," he says, looking up from his bowl of noodles.

"Our so-called leaders are scared of offending America. They're weak and corrupt and they've all sent their children to live in America. Not like in the old days when Mao Zedong was around. Then China stood up to America."

"What was it Mao used to call America?" he asks. "Oh yes," he chuckles, " a paper tiger. That's what Mao called it, a paper tiger."

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
"China's Communist rulers have their own motives for supporting America in its fight against the Taleban."
See also:

19 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Terrorism war unites Bush and Jiang
29 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Blair meets China's vice-president
21 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Apec unites against terrorism
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
11 Dec 00 | South Asia
Chinese delegation visits Afghanistan
25 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Iran forges links with China's Muslims
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