In China’s Xinjiang, poverty and exclusion are a greater threat than Islam

By Reuters Staff
November 5, 2013

(A man collects waste at a garbage dump site next to a mosque in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region November 1, 2013. REUTERS/Michael Martina )

In the dirty backstreets of the Uighur old quarter of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi in China’s far west, Abuduwahapu frowns when asked what he thinks is the root cause of the region’s festering problem with violence and unrest.

“The Han Chinese don’t have faith, and the Uighurs do. So they don’t really understand each other,” he said, referring to the Muslim religion the Turkic-speaking Uighur people follow, in contrast to the official atheism of the ruling Communist Party.

But for the teenage bread delivery boy, it’s not Islam that’s driving people to commit acts of violence, such as last week’s deadly car crash in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – blamed by the government on Uighur Islamist extremists who want independence.

“Some people there support independence and some do not. Mostly, those who support it are unsatisfied because they are poor,” said Abuduwahapu, who came to Urumqi two years ago from the heavily Uighur old Silk Road city of Kashgar in Xinjiang’s southwest, near the Pakistani and Afghan border.

“The Han are afraid of Uighers. They are afraid if we had guns, we would kill them,” he said, standing next to piles of smoldering garbage on plots of land where buildings have been demolished.

China’s claims that it is fighting an Islamist insurgency in energy-rich Xinjiang – a vast area of deserts, mountains and forests geographically located in central Asia – are not new.

A decade ago, China used the 9/11 attacks in the United States to justify getting tough with what it said were al Qaeda-backed extremists who wanted to bring similar carnage to Xinjiang.

For many Chinese, the rather benign view of Xinjiang which existed in China pre-September 11, 2001 – as an exotic frontier with colorful minorities who love dancing and singing – has been replaced with suspicion.
Read the full story by Michael Martina here.

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