CAIRO – The Chinese government is settling millions of ethnic Han Chinese in the Muslim-majority Xinjiang territory with the ultimate goal of obligating its identity and culture, with many Muslims feeling foreigners in their homeland.
“They are destroying the demographic balance by bringing in Chinese people,” Qutub, a clothes trader in a bazaar in the regional capital of Urumqi, told the Christian Science Monitor in an interview published on Monday, April 28.
“They want our race to vanish. They are drying out our roots.”
The government has been campaigning for decades to settle more and more ethnic Han Chinese in Xinjiang, a territory that is home to millions of the ethnic Uighur minority.
In 1949, when the government took over Xinjiang, Han Chinese made up less than 7 percent of the region’s population.
Now they stand at more than 40 percent, and their numbers are growing.
Uighurs complain that Han have brought their own culture and customs into the Muslim-majority province.
Most of the major companies are owned by Han who largely employ people of their ethnicity, leaving the menial jobs to Uighurs.
Uighurs are treated as second-class citizens with their distinctive Turkic dialect banned in schools and a marginal representation in government departments.
“We feel like foreigners in our own land,” complains Batur, a Uighur teacher in Urumqi.
“We are like the Indians in America.”
The north-west region of Xinjiang, home to an eight-million Uighur minority, has been autonomous since 1955 but continues to be the subject of security crackdowns.
Beijing views Xinjiang as an invaluable asset because of its crucial strategic location near Central Asia and its large oil and gas reserves.
One major concern to many Uighurs is their Muslim religion, which continues to face a suppressive campaign.
“There is no religious freedom here,” one cotton farmer in a village 50 miles south of the Kucha, a predominantly Uighur town of 200,000, told the Monitor.
Muslims in Xinjiang complain about the closure of mosques and religious schools under the pretext of lacking the required license to run.
The government’s regulations forbid young Muslims under the age of 18 from praying in mosques.
Recently introduced regulations prevent local government employees from going to the mosque, teachers from sporting beards and students from bringing the Qur’an to university, human rights activists say.
In Kucha, 50 young men have been recently arrested for studying at private religious schools.
On the wall of the 16th-century ochre brick mosque in the city, a red government banner reads “Fight against Illegal Religious Activity.”
Inside the mosque’s prayer hall, a notice board explains the “illegal” religious activities with a long list topped by a ban to “praise jihad” or “pan-Islamism.”
The government justifies its endless crackdowns on Uighurs in the name of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism.
“If you get too religious, the government gets worried,” says the cotton farmer.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, agrees.
He says the government “conflates any religious activities outside the official framework with terrorism and separatism.”
Rights groups have long accused Beijing of religious repression against Uighur Muslims.
Last month, the authorities claimed that an alleged plot to attack the Olympics was foiled in Xinjiang.
They also said a flight from Urumqi narrowly escaped a hijacking attempt.
But experts and rights activists said the announcements, which could not be verified independently, seemed exaggerated and only a pretext for more crackdowns on Xinjiang Muslims.
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