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Guns and Steel on the Silk Road: High Noon in China's Far West

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China is sending more troops to the mostly Muslim province of Xinjiang in the far west of the country. Concerns are rising in Beijing of ethnic unrest in the border region. Its plans for economic development there may be in trouble.

Mao Tse Tung defies the icy wind blowing from the Pamir Mountains across the city of Kashgar. Beijing is worlds away from this spot on the historic Silk Road, not far from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Which is perhaps why the Chairman Mao needs such a tall base for his statue, perched 24 meters (79 feet) above the "Square of the People." But Mao is strikingly alone -- the square is practically devoid of people.

It is time for prayer. A few blocks away, locals are streaming into the Id-Kah Mosque, the largest Muslim house of worship in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, home to the Uighur minority in northwestern China.

The faithful wear their fur turbans pulled down over their faces. It's bitterly cold, but it is also to disguise their identities. Many are afraid of being recognized.

Muslims are the majority in Kashgar, giving this ancient city bordering the Tarim Basin the air of an Arabian oasis. Uighurs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks bring their dates, nuts and pomegranates to the market on donkey carts. Instead of Peking Duck, the air smells of roast lamb and flatbread.

Veil of suspicion

But a veil of suspicion hangs over the region. Unlike in other parts of Central Asia, the muezzin in Kashgar is not permitted to use a loudspeaker to call the faithful to prayer from the minaret. His voice sounds muffled as it emerges from the interior of the mosque. Civil servants are essentially barred from taking part in Muslim prayers, evidence of fears among China's atheist leadership that Islam could develop into the core of an independence movement.

Xinjiang in north-western China is home to a large Muslim population.
DER SPIEGEL

Xinjiang in north-western China is home to a large Muslim population.

In January Chinese police attacked a base used by fighters of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in western Xinjiang. The organization supposedly has ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network. It was the bloodiest battle between Chinese government forces and Uighur resistance fighters in a decade. A Chinese police officer was killed, and Beijing has since celebrated the man as a martyr of the revolution. The police shot and killed 18 of the alleged terrorists and arrested 17 suspects.

Since then military transport aircraft and helicopters have been making regular landings at the Kashgar airport, as China builds up its forces in its mountainous border regions. Neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan are seen as the principal hideouts for the region's Islamists.

Since the battle at the ETIM camp, anyone in Kashgar who is unable to show identification is considered a suspect. The police search vehicles on arterial roads and security forces, uniformed or in civilian clothing, lurk in the city. "We stay home at night," says Mohammed, a 26-year-old Uighur who operates a clothing stand near the "Street of the Liberation." The police keep a watchful eye on Kashgar's crowds, even at events as seemingly harmless as the opening of a new supermarket across the street from the mosque.

Massacre in the mountains

In some ways the heightened surveillance runs counter to the Chinese government's aims in the region, where it welcomes every new business, factory or apartment building -- any building to displace the city's traditional earthen structures. Beijing is spending billions of Yuan to develop a modern-day Silk Road in this border region, complete with new pipelines, railroad lines and roads. China plans to use the new infrastructure to bring oil and natural gas from Central Asia to the Chinese heartland and export its electronics and textiles in the other direction.

Beijing's strategists are pinning their hopes on new wealth to pacify the troubled Xinjiang region. But the recent massacre in the mountains could scare away investors, as China wages its own war on Islamist terrorists.

Chinese President Hu Jintao has long believed that his country is already a "victim of terrorism." He is referring primarily, though, to forces fighting for regional independence, or at least for greater autonomy from the central government far to the east.

The government has charged Uighur dissident Rebiya Kadeer with "violent terrorist activities." Two years ago Beijing forced the prominent local businesswoman to emigrate to the United States and imposed prison sentences on her sons in Xinjiang for alleged tax evasion. In quoting an angry Internet user who called Kadeer a "separatist monster," the official China Daily expressed one of Beijing's greatest fears: that the dissident, who was elected president of the World Uighur Congress last year, could be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The "war on terror" doubles as a convenient fig leaf for the Chinese leadership. In 2001 Beijing used its concerns over alleged terrorist activities as the impetus to establish the Shanghai Organization for Cooperation, which also counts Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as members. The dangers of terrorism were also used to justify joint military exercises with the Russians in 2005. Three years earlier China gained US support for its campaign to have the United Nations classify the Islam independence movement ETIM as a terrorist organization. But little in fact is known about ETIM's goals, and Beijing has yet to produce clear evidence of the organization's alleged ties to al-Qaida.

"Robbing us of our livelihood"

Despite its successes, the Chinese leadership remains seriously concerned, fearing a reprise of the bloody unrest of recent decades in Xinjiang. According to official figures, the resistance movement's activities cost 162 lives and caused 400 injuries between 1990 and 2001. Out of an apparent fear of attacks, China imposed restrictions on passengers carrying liquids onto airplanes as far back as 2003 -- well before similar rules were enacted in Europe and the United States. With a view toward the 2008 Olympic Games, security has already been tightened in and around the capital.

China's strategy of using the blessings of capitalism as one of its tools in fighting terrorism tends to have the opposite effect among Uighurs. More and more ethnic Chinese are immigrating into Xinjiang; their share of the population has grown to at least 40 percent since 1949.

The change in the region's ethnic makeup has widened the gap between rich and poor, and social decline tends to affect Uighurs like textile vendor Mohammed first. "The Chinese are the ones running businesses here today," he says angrily. "They are robbing us of our livelihood."

In addition, with Xinjiang having evolved into a virtual military base, even the most peaceful of Uighurs are deterred from staging demonstrations. Tens of thousands of Chinese troops, for example, are stationed in Shule, a garrison town near Kashgar.

Fighting, though, isn't the only reason the soldiers are there. Many have also been sent to the region to develop their own farms and factories. According to one soldier, whenever they encounter unrest the troops simply change into the uniforms of the armed People's Police.

As if that weren't enough, the Chinese government also controls the clocks in Xinjiang. Although the capital is almost 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) away, Xinjiang runs on Beijing time.

Despite the official mandate, clocks at the mosque in Kashgar are set, in quiet protest, to the real local time, which is two hours earlier than Beijing time -- exactly the way nature would have it in Xinjiang.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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