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

Urumqi, China - 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.

China says al Qaeda and others work with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, in Beijing's eyes the foremost terror group in Xinjiang, and spraypaints warnings on walls against Hizb ut-Tahrir, a supranational group that says its goal is to establish a pan-national Muslim state.

The incident on Tiananmen Square has only added to China's unease.

"The Han seem to be afraid of us. I don't know why. They won't tell us," said a 22-year-old Uighur man who runs a shoe and clothing shop a stone's throw from an armed police training ground in Urumqi.


Since 2001 - a process that started arguably even before - China has conducted a sweeping security crackdown in Xinjiang, further repressing Uighur culture, religious tradition and language, rights groups say, despite strong government denials of offering the Uighurs anything but wide-ranging freedoms.

Some Uighurs believe their only alternative may be to draw closer to Islam, and by doing so, further the distance between themselves and the Communist Party and the Han Chinese.

While many Uighur women in Urumqi dress in much the same casual fashions as their Han counterparts, others have begun to wear full veils, something more common in Pakistan or Afghanistan than Xinjiang.

"It's only since the state has been repressing religious practices in Xinjiang so hard, that ironically it has caused Uighur Muslims to re-traditionalize, to re-Islamise at a very rapid rate now," said Joanne Smith Finley, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Britain's Newcastle University who studies Xinjiang.

"There is no tradition in Xinjiang of any kind of radical Islamism," she added.

The government has recognized the economic roots of some of the problems, and has poured money into development in the form of schools, hospitals and roads. To be sure, incomes have risen, especially in the countryside where many Uighurs live.

Annual rural incomes averaged a little under 6,400 yuan ($1,000) a year in 2012, up some 15 percent on the previous year, though this is still 1,500 yuan less than the national average and more than 11,000 yuan less than Shanghai's rural residents, the country's richest.

Discrimination against Uighurs in the job market - including employment advertisements saying "no Uighurs accepted" - is another issue, despite government attempts to end this.

Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uighur economist based in China and a longtime critic of Chinese policy toward Xinjiang, told Reuters he feared the Tiananmen incident would only lead to more repression and discrimination, further fanning the flames.

"Whatever happens, this will have a long-term and far-reaching impact on Uighurs, and will cause great harm. It will only worsen the obstacles Uighurs face in Han-dominated society," he said.

($1 = 6.0995 Chinese yuan)