Resistance is Fiscal 

After repression, China uses cash to woo Muslims

KASHGAR, CHINA—The last time I wrote from here was 1999. I filed my column from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Now there isn't enough left of that somewhat fictional official autonomy to justify the dateline. Today, the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, famous for its huge Sunday bazaar and Uyghur culture, feels more Chinese than Uyghur. "The Chinese government has given up on brutal repression," a middle-aged patron of a chaikhana in the predominantly Muslim Old City told me. "Now they're seducing us with jobs."

Along with the Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, Uyghurs are one of the Turkic peoples of Muslim Central Asia. Despite their indomitable spirit, Uyghurs have long been subject to Chinese rule. As the kingdom of Kashgaria, they achieved independence just once, between 1864 and 1878. The 20th century brought more turmoil. There were short-lived republics of East Turkestan in 1933 and 1944 and, under the Communist Chinese, a low-level insurgency during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

By 1999, Kashgar was a dusty, impoverished outpost near the Afghan, Tajik and Kyrgyz borders under occupation by a central government whose first instinct was to crush the locals when it bothered to think about them at all. A small but growing minority of Han Chinese colonists, brought in from eastern cities like Beijing and Shanghai, sped in their new Mercedes past impoverished Muslims on foot and riding donkey carts. The Old City, a maze of curvy, unpaved medieval streets running between rows of neglected two-story wood houses built during the 18th and 19th centuries, was cordoned off with razor wire and Chinese policemen armed with riot gear: the Uyghur ghetto. "You don't want to go in there," one hissed at me.

Inside the wire, unemployed men were listening to the United States' Radio Free Asia and its calls to resist. Some had even gone to Afghanistan to attend Taliban training camps so they could take on the Chinese. They believed what they heard in the broadcasts. "America will help us," the Uyghurs said.

Uyghur insurgents had been blowing up government offices all over western China. I was sucking up a bowl of Kashgari laghman noodles (they make a trip to Kashgar worthwhile, all by themselves) when someone bombed the post office; people on the street hardly noticed. Of course, the regime was anything but oblivious.

The East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) was the biggest Uyghur resistance group. Its leaders were executed or imprisoned, its offices raided. Martial law, declared and de facto, shut down Uyghur businesses in Muslim areas. At the peak of the crackdown a few years ago, the Chinese were driving ETIM members around the Old City on the back of flatbed trucks as they shot them.

Sept. 11 was the beginning of the end for the independence movement. In exchange for its support in the "war on terror"—or, more precisely, as a quid pro quo for not exercising its veto option in the U.N. security council—China demanded that the United States declare ETIM (which had received U.S. funding during the 1990s) a terrorist organization. Its 22 remaining leaders were sent not to a Chinese concentration camp, but an American one: Gitmo. Soon even the hardened torturers at Guantanamo were ashamed. If repatriated to China, they would have been killed, so five of the "freedom fighters" were sent to the one nation that agreed to take them in: Albania, whose culture and language were alien to them. The other 17 remain in an isolation unit at Gitmo's Camp Six, where they are reported to be suffering from deteriorating mental health. The United States pronounced itself satisfied that it had done the best it could to rectify its mistake. ETIM, and the Uyghur fight against China, is essentially dead.

Uyghur activists continue to suffer official repression. In February, Ismail Semed was executed on the usual charge of "splittism"—advocating the balkanization of the Chinese state. Quite by accident, however, the Chinese government has found Uyghurs more receptive to money than bullets.

In 2001, geologists confirmed substantial oil deposits in the desert north of Kashgar. Next, in 2005, China opened the first major pipeline to carry oil and gas from Kazakhstan. A big refinery and switching facility opened a stone's throw across the desert from Kashgar. Presto: boomtown!

Today, Kashgar's skyline is one of construction cranes and scaffolding. Most of the Old City has been razed, its streets paved. New buildings are going up everywhere. There are four-star hotels, upscale shopping malls, even a second-floor cafe where you can score a passable strawberry margarita. A walk across town used to take an hour. Now you need a taxi.

In the New Kashgar, it's cheaper to hire the locals than import more Han from back east. So the government has ordered employers to present Uyghurs with a devil's bargain: give up your culture in exchange for a job. Mandatory staff meetings are held during Friday afternoon prayers. Hats (including skullcaps) are prohibited, even during non-working hours. Men's faces must be clean-shaven; women are ordered to wear revealing uniforms. If you refuse? You won't be shot. You'll die slowly of hunger in a communist-in-name-only state that has abandoned its commitment to providing equally for its citizens.

So martial law is no more. The ghetto, which has the best bazaars, is a tourist attraction. True, there's still a big gap between the living standards of the Chinese, many of whom are second-generation Kashgaris, and the Uyghurs. If you see a beggar, a homeless person, someone being led away by the cops, odds are—it's actually a certainty—that he's Uyghur. But there are also Uyghur waiters, hotel doormen and taxi drivers. They're the seeds of a nascent, assimilated middle class. The new post office, it appears, is safe.

Ted Rall is the author of Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.

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