China’s war on terror alienates Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighurs

September 9, 2011

(A Uighur man sits at a street market in Kashgar, Xinjiang province August 3, 2011/Carlos Barria)

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.

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.

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