URUMQI, China (Reuters) - The filthy back alleys and packed mosques of the remote far western Chinese city of Urumqi are one of the more obscure front lines in the U.S.-backed war on terror, launched after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Streets crawl with baton-wielding riot police and heavily armed SWAT teams brought in for a trade fair in a tense reminder that China considers the region fertile ground for terrorism and Islamic radicalism, a claim many scoff at.
Ten years ago, China used the 9/11 attacks to justify getting tough with what it said were al Qaeda-backed extremists who wanted to bring similar carnage to Xinjiang, a heavily Muslim region with close cultural links to Central Asia.
A sweeping crackdown on Uighurs (pronounced “Wee-gur”), the Turkic-speaking people who call Xinjiang home, followed.
China has used a carrot and stick approach, going after Uighurs it suspects of harboring separatist views, but also pumping in billions of dollars to boost development and lessen the appeal of the militants.
But a decade later, residents of Xinjiang’s bustling regional capital Urumqi and rights groups say the effect has only been to widen the divide between Uighurs and the Han Chinese majority, and fan the deeper causes of unrest.
China’s often ruthless methods of control in Xinjiang, and in neighboring Tibet, underscore its strategic location for the ruling Communist Party, on the borders of Central Asia, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.
Beijing sees Xinjiang as bulwark facing the Muslim nations of central Asia, and, with a sixth of the country’s land mass, as an important and largely empty space to offer some relief to the teeming provinces to the east. The land also is rich in natural resources, including oil, coal and gas.
Any disintegration of control could wreak havoc for the world’s second largest economy, whose growth Beijing sees as key to maintaining social stability and the Party’s grip on power.
Many Uighurs say the past decade has seen them tarred with the same brush — a fifth column bent on China’s disintegration. Riots between Uighurs and Han in Urumqi two years ago killed almost 200 people, only deepening the mutual suspicion.
“We used to mix with the Chinese but no longer. That restaurant there once had many Chinese customers. None dare to come here now,” said trader Anwar, pointing across the street to a kebab shop in Urumqi’s heavily Uighur old quarter.
He was once able to travel outside of China fairly easily on business for a food import company he set up in the late 1990s. In recent years, his trips abroad have tailed off to zero.
“The Chinese are bad people. They are Communists and have no god. We are Muslims, and God is in every one of our hearts. There are no areas in life where we can intersect now.”
The Han who dominate Urumqi, rarely venturing far into the old quarter, say they in turn have little time for the Uighurs.
If anything, the Uighurs are treated too well, Han Chinese say, spoiled by preferential places at university and no restrictions on the number of children they can have.
“They’re a very backward people. Look at how many children they produce. We get fined it we have more than one, but they can have as many as they want,” said Yan Haisen, born in Urumqi but whose family is from the poor inland province of Henan.
“We have to be here to help them develop and to bring them some culture,” added Yan as his uncle nodded in agreement.
The rather benign Han view of Uighurs which existed pre-September 11, 2001 — as wild, slightly lawless but generally affable and colorful people who love dancing and singing — has been replaced with something much more sinister.
“The Chinese government has always applied labels to Uighurs who chafe at its rule in Xinjiang. They were feudal landlords first, then they were Soviet stooges, then they were counter-revolutionaries, then they were separatists and after 9/11 they became terrorists,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch.
“Unfortunately, contrary to their previous labels this one stuck because of the massive hijacking of security agencies around the world of power and resources in the name of the war on terror,” he added.
China has exerted considerable diplomatic pressure on Asian countries, notably Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Kazakhstan, where Uighurs have claimed asylum. It has urged deportation, saying they are wanted to face terrorism and other charges.
A small number of Uighurs were indeed swept up by the U.S. government during the Afghanistan war launched after the 9/11 attacks, though rights groups said they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, having fled persecution at home.
Despite Chinese protests, the U.S. ended up ruling they were not “enemy combatants,” and sent them to a range of countries, including the balmy Pacific island state of Palau.
The irony of all the security in Urumqi and elsewhere in Xinjiang is that many experts do not consider al Qaeda or its supposed ally, the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” to have anywhere near the influence China portrays.
China invariably blames attacks on the group, which the United States and United Nations regard as a terrorist organization. Still there are doubts about its strength, or even existence.
Al Qaeda leaders have in the past issued statements in support of Xinjiang, for example calling in 2009 for Uighurs to make preparations for a holy war against “oppressive” China. Experts, however, say those links seem tenuous.
“We don’t see organised, sophisticated weaponry, we haven’t even seen any real documented suicide bombers, which is the hallmark of these kinds of groups,” said Dru Gladney, an expert on Xinjiang at Pomona College in California.
“My sense is that in general Uighurs continue to be very resistant to violent terrorism. They think it’ll only hurt their cause.”
The Uighurs who spoke to Reuters in Urumqi, who all asked not to be identified by their last names due to the sensitive nature of the subject, said violence was an unfortunate but natural result of government policies.
“We’re being invaded by the Han. It’s a deliberate policy against us, to flood us with migrants,” complained shoe seller Mehmeti, struggling to string a sentence together in his poor and heavily accented Mandarin.
“People are starting to lose hope that things will ever get better for us, so what do you expect? We are not terrorists.”
Some Han are equally unconvinced, even if they view the causes of unrest differently.
“I get angry when I read that Xinjiang is this center for terrorism and violence. It’s not true. A few problems every now and again should not blacken Xinjiang’s name,” said Urumqi resident Lin Sen, 23, among new tower blocks of one of the city’s heavily Han suburbs.
“Some Uighurs want to live apart from the rest of society because of differences in their lifestyle. We have to show them the benefits of being a part of modern China,” he added.
The idea of better Uighur integration is one of the driving forces behind China’s ambitious plans for Xinjiang.
Annual incomes in rural areas, where most Uighurs live, averaged just 4,600 yuan ($720) last year, more than 1,000 yuan below the national average and more than 5,000 yuan below the top province, Zhejiang, in eastern China.
Beijing has pumped billions of dollars into Xinjiang over the years, giving it hospitals, schools, roads, railways and airports, hoping to win over its people with the bounty of economic growth and fruits of development.
China’s main state-owned companies will double their investments in Xinjiang over the next five years to an eye-popping 991.6 billion yuan ($155 billion), state media said.
“If the economy develops then the standard of living will rise hugely and that will naturally benefit stability,” said Jia Tingyi, deputy head of Yarkand county, close to the old Silk Road city of Kasghar, a hotbed of unrest.
“All peoples of Xinjiang will benefit from development, not just one ethnicity,” he said at the trade fair, which boasts it aims to turn Urumqi into a global trading hub
“There are only a small number of bad people in Xinjiang in any case,” added Jia, an ethnic Han.
The fair, whose guest of honor was Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, also underscored the challenge facing China in trying to bridge Xinjiang’s yawning ethnic divide.
Almost all the Chinese companies present were Han owned, with those few Uighurs who made it through the security cordon mostly made up of officials, reporters for state media and heavily made-up young women ushers.
“All this trade fair has meant to me is a drop in business because the government has banned people from the rest of Xinjiang coming here for security reasons,” grumbled clothes seller Abdul.
Another clumsily handled recent policy meant to help Uighurs has been bilingual education. This is not aimed at teaching the Han to speak Uighur, something few of them try. Instead, Mandarin is replacing Uighur as the main language of instruction at Uighur schools, the aim being that fluent Mandarin will give greater job opportunities for Uighurs.
That hasn’t helped Akhbar, who graduated from a top Xinjiang university with a science degree and speaks perfect Mandarin. He says he has been unable to find any work better than selling imported Pakistani nick-nacks to tourists.
“Now they are trying to wipe out our language too, forcing our children to do almost all of their schooling in Mandarin. I would say 99 percent of Uighur people oppose this,” he said.
More than a few Uighurs say their only alternative may be to draw closer to Islam, and by doing so, further the distance between themselves and the officially atheist Communist Party, as well as the Han Chinese. While many Uighur women in Urumqi dress in much the same casual fashions as their Han counterparts, others have begun to wear full veils.
Some swathe themselves head-to-toe in black.
“I think it’s a very special thing to do, to keep yourself for your man’s eyes only,” said student Golbari, 18, wearing a t-shirt and tight jeans.
“I might like to try it one day. It’s the international trend in the Muslim world,” she added. “But I’m not sure my parents would approve. They’re very liberal.”
Editing by Nick Macfie and Brian Rhoads