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Tale of two (Muslim) cities

It’s important to track how China's policies toward the eight million Uighurs in Xinjiang evolve with its economic potential for global trade and tourism, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Aug 06, 2008 23:19 IST

On Wednesday, Mandarin-speaking Muslims fervently waved the red flag as the Olympic torch relay entered Beijing’s 1,000-year-old Islamic quarter, where pork is not sold at eateries including McDonalds, to respect the customs of over 10,000 Chinese Muslims in the area.

At the same time at Kashgar in Xinjiang, a Muslim town opposite Beijing in China’s oil-rich far west — a trading outpost to India until the fifties — soldiers patrolled with clubs after 16 policemen were killed this week in an attack by a 33-year-old vegetable seller and a 28-year-old taxi driver suspected to be Islamic militants.

The attack posed the strongest symbolic threat to China ahead of the Beijing Olympics, as it seeks to portray a stable and orderly society. For the sake of India’s potential business and strategic relations with China’s northwest, this simmering unrest among the Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, which borders parts of Ladakh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, cannot be ignored.

It’s important to track how China's policies toward the eight million Uighurs in Xinjiang evolve with its economic potential for global trade and tourism. Xinjiang covers one-sixth of China and is its largest natural gas producer.

A Xinjiang delegation visited India in 2004, pitching for a land link through Ladakh, a Delhi-Kashgar air route, trade in agriculture, energy, food processing and even Chinese herbs.

Rights groups say that the region’s eight million Uighurs remain fearful of a Chinese clampdown over their religious, political and economic freedoms as a growing influx of Han Chinese encouraged by Beijing steadily dominate their lives and livelihood.

China says its security crackdown is targetted at a section of Uighurs seeking independence through the shadowy East Turkistan Islamic Movement that poses one of its top terror threats. Beijing has controversially accused the group of Al Qaeda linkages post 9/11, and blamed it for a failed terror strike aboard a flight from Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi to Beijing in March.

In Beijing, China appeases its 2.5 lakh Hui Muslims (the largest Chinese Muslim group among the country’s 20-30 million Muslims) with housing and education concessions in return for loyalty. It has renovated the city’s oldest and largest mosque that resembles a royal Chinese palace.

“We have a good life because of the government,” Ma Ismail, a middle-aged manager of a Muslim housing colony told HT. As a Muslim, he has been allowed to have two daughters in one-child China.

Unlike the Muslims of Xinjiang where the international group Human Rights Watch says “the government only tolerates religious activities in state-controlled religious venues by state-appointed clerics,” Niujie Street thrives with Islamic institutes, a Muslim supermarket and women in short skirts and no headscarves.