TIME China

15 Dead in Attack in West China’s Xinjiang Region

Chinese state media outlets have reported at least 175 deaths in the past six months in eight violent incidents in Xinjiang

(BEIJING) — An attack in China’s troubled western Xinjiang region left 15 people dead and 14 injured, state media reported Saturday, the latest in a wave of ethnic violence there that has claimed dozens of lives over the past year.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that the attack took place at a “food street” Friday in Shache county, the same region where state media said a series of attacks in July left 96 people dead, including 59 assailants.

The Tianshan news portal said the assailants in Friday’s attack wielded explosives, knives and at least one vehicle. Xinhua reported that 11 of the 15 people killed were assailants.

Police in Shache county declined to provide information about the incident.

Xinjiang has seen repeated violence over the past year as members of the Muslim Uighur (WEE-gur) minority group have bristled under what they say is repressive Chinese government rule.

The central government regularly blocks attempts to independently confirm state media reports of ethnic violence in Xinjiang. Uighur groups say police have used indiscriminate deadly force against people protesting the government’s policies in the region.

The U.S.-based Uyghur American Association disputed government accounts of the July attacks that described mobs rampaging through towns with knives and axes targeting majority Han Chinese. The association said police instead opened fire on people protesting against a security crackdown on Muslims during Ramadan, killing more than 20.

Last month, a Xinjiang court sentenced 12 people to death for the July attacks and handed down death sentences with two-year reprieves to another 15 people.

Chinese authorities say their security crackdown in Xinjiang has busted 115 terrorist gangs before they could unleash violence, but tallies of death tolls in the ethnically tense region suggest the violence has continued, and may even have intensified.

Chinese state media outlets have reported at least 175 deaths in the past six months in eight violent incidents in Xinjiang.

TIME

It’s a Long Way to the Top (if You Wanna Be a Uighur Pop Star)

Heartthrob Ablajan embodies the tension between pop and politics in China's Xinjiang region

Sangzhu is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a pop star. An oasis town of some 30,000 people off the old Silk Road in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, Sangzhu is home to ethnic Uighur farmers, mosques and a bazaar. Women move quietly through courtyards, pulling their kerchiefs tight against the wind from the Taklamakan Desert. Bearded men lead donkeys down the road.

Then a bus rattles around the corner, shaking sleepy Sangzhu to life. From the backseats of the rusty clunker comes the kind of feral scream that can only be produced by wild packs of teenage girls. They pound the windows and wave their hands with celebrity-stricken abandon, jostling for a better view. “Ablajan!” they yell as they roll by. “Ab-laaa-jaaan!”

Standing street-side in a studded leather jacket and shades, glancing down at his iPhone, is the object of their frenzy: Uighur pop star, and hometown hero, Ablajan Awut Ayup. He looks up at them, smiles a little sheepishly, and touches his hand to his heart. Then he turns to me and pops his collar with all the mock swagger he can muster. “The ladies,” he says in English, “they like my style.”

Ablajan, 30, is one of the hottest singers in China’s vast northwest. His catchy songs fuse the rhythms of Central Asia with the stylings of global pop—a sort of Sufi poetry-meets-Justin-Bieber vibe. On stage, he channels the theatricality of his childhood idol, Michael Jackson, and the tight choreography of K-pop. His first album, Shall We Start?, sold more than 100,000 copies, no small achievement in a limited market. Local businesses vie to endorse Ablajan, and his face graces billboards in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

For Uighur youth growing up amid marginalization and strife, Ablajan’s story is the stuff of legend. Born and raised in a mud-brick courtyard in one of China’s poorest and most isolated counties, unable to speak Chinese or English until his teens, and lacking training and connections in the music industry, Ablajan somehow made it. To his fans, he symbolizes the possibility of a life that is at once modern, successful and Uighur. He often gives free shows and, during performances, tells kids to study hard and get a good job. “The message is that this is the 21st century,” says Ablajan. “We cannot make a living buying and selling sheep.”

Now Ablajan wants to take his music east to the Chinese heartland. He sees his story as proof that there is more to Xinjiang than what you read in the news. He is right, of course, but Xinjiang is a region on edge, and conflict has a way of creeping in. When my Chinese colleague Gu Yongqiang and I returned to our hotel after visiting Ablajan’s childhood stomping grounds, the police were at the door. They thanked us for coming and asked us to be on our way. Said one cop: “It’s a sensitive time.”

China’s Outsiders

Unlike the country’s majority Han Chinese, Uighurs are of Turkic origin and mostly Muslim. As with Tibet, Xinjiang is historically a contested space, held by a series of Turkic, Mongol and Han empires, including the 18th century Qing Dynasty, which gave the region its current name, meaning “New Frontier.” In the 1930s, Uighur leaders in the ancient Silk Road entrepôt of Kashgar declared the first of two short-lived East Turkestan Republics.

When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came into being, its troops marched into Xinjiang, followed by waves of military personnel and migrants to settle a territory three times the size of France. In 1949, the year the PRC was founded, Han Chinese accounted for roughly 6% of Xinjiang’s population; today the figure is about 45%. Uighurs say they are outsiders in their own land. While Beijing has brought development to Xinjiang, most of the new wealth is concentrated in Han hands. Many Uighurs want greater autonomy, some call for independence.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party views those demands as an existential threat. In recent years, any unrest has been met with ever escalating force by Beijing. In 2009, protests in Urumqi degenerated into clashes that claimed nearly 200 lives, both Han and Uighur. The authorities responded by detaining Uighurs and cutting off the Internet for nine months. They have since further curbed the teaching of the Uighur language in schools, banned under-18s from praying in mosques, and stopped civil servants and students from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. On Sept. 23, Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, a moderate activist, was sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism,” a charge many say was trumped up and a verdict many condemn as excessively harsh.

Such government action has radicalized some Uighurs. In October last year, a vehicle carrying three members of a Uighur family crashed through crowds of sightseers in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five, including the passengers. Some months later, eight knife-wielding assailants—whom the authorities called “Xinjiang separatists”—slaughtered 29 civilians at a railway station in Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan province. Two subsequent attacks by extremists in Urumqi killed dozens more and sparked what Beijing calls an anti-terror campaign that has resulted in mass trials, convictions and executions. On Sept. 22, state media said that blasts in Luntai County, which is about a day’s drive from Urumqi, killed at least two people and injured several others.

Security personnel in riot gear now blanket Xinjiang’s major cities, and towns like Sangzhu are increasingly sealed off by police checkpoints. Chinese security posters feature racist caricatures of Uighurs: scowling, bearded men with big hooked noses—reinforcing the perception many Han have of Uighurs as backward, dissolute and violent. It’s against this backdrop of suspicion and prejudice that Ablajan—and other young Uighurs—try to climb the economic ladder.

Rhythm and Blues

When we landed in Urumqi, two members of Ablajan’s crew, the improbably named Frank and Caesar, met us at the airport and led us to a black SUV. As Frank steered the beast through rush hour traffic, Caesar talked, in rapid-fire Uighur, English and Chinese, about competing as breakdancer in southern China, and lamented that the central government blocks sites like YouTube where you can listen to rap artists like his personal favorite, Notorious B.I.G., “may he rest in peace.”

Most of Ablajan’s dancers and aides are, like him, Uighur kids from the countryside who dreamed of making it big. They live between worlds, learning Chinese to survive, and English as a cultural lubricant, while still clinging to a language and tradition of their own.

Ablajan attended Uighur-language school and spent his evenings toiling beside his father in the fields, singing folk songs to pass the time. He looks back fondly on his youth. “Xinjiang used to be peaceful,” he says. “Then we lost the peace.”

At 14, Ablajan caught a glimpse of Michael Jackson on TV and, for the first time, imagined a life outside Sangzhu. “When I saw him, I was like, Oh my God,” he says. He started practicing the moonwalk and writing songs, and at 19 made the 32-hour bus journey to Urumqi to study dance.

The next six years were a struggle to make it as a musician, and a struggle with the reality of being poor and Uighur in an increasingly expensive, segregated city. He worked as a wedding singer and practiced English and Chinese. Eventually, he was befriended by another young Uighur musician who gave him a computer, his first, and a workspace in his studio. He spent his days writing music and his nights working Urumqi’s restaurant and wedding circuit.

One of his breakthrough hits, “Is There Space to Play?,” turns rural-urban migration into a metaphor for coming of age, according to Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies and translates Uighur music. The song opens with the sights and sounds of Xinjiang childhood: the call to prayer, distant mountains, a bleating goat. By midway, we’re in China’s pressure-cooker schools, where the bags of books are heavy. It ends in the city—skyscrapers and cars are everywhere. Where are the stars at night? Is there space to play?

Hot Ticket

Ablajan is a big star in a small place. When he walks down the street, there’s an endless stream of people waiting to shake hands. At a Chinese Muslim restaurant in Urumqi, two cooks rush out of the kitchen, aprons and, gloves still on, to wish him well: “Peace be upon you,” they say, using the pan-Islamic greeting. In the town of Hotan, a teenage taxi driver refuses to let him pay. “Just write some more love songs,” he says.

With success and celebrity comes perks that young Ablajan might not have imagined. He has enough to live on his own and to send money and gifts to his family. When he visits his hometown he takes a flight, not the grueling overnight bus. And Uighur girls from as far away as Europe and the U.S. send him messages on Instagram, his social network of choice. “So many beautiful ladies,” he says.

But Ablajan also faces obstacles. Many of his fans do not have the money to buy tickets for his shows, and organizing a concert requires multiple layers of state approval. There are technical issues too. For a late spring performance at a college in Urumqi, his team set up a stage on a basketball court and students carried in wooden chairs to form an ad-hoc auditorium. Police lined the perimeter to watch the crowd. When the music started — two hours late because of technical problems — Ablajan was electric. But the guy manning the spotlight from a Toyota pickup mid-court could not quite keep him illuminated.

After the show, the performers gathered in the school stairwell that served as their dressing room. The dancers greeted friends and basked in the post-show glow, but Ablajan held back, despondent about the delays and glitches. He worries about letting people down, he says, and feels the pressure of being a role model to an entire generation of Uighur kids. “I’m only a bad boy on stage,” he said.

When we met the next morning to catch a flight south, he looked beat. I had bought tickets for 8:00 a.m. not realizing that half the region ignores government-mandated “Beijing time” in favor of “Xinjiang time,” which is two hours earlier. It was actually 5:00 o’clock in the morning and Ablajan had been up all night, replaying the performance in his head. But by time we got to the airport, he was himself again, greeting fans and cracking jokes.

As we boarded the plane, Ablajan was humming the tune to a 2013 hit by Toronto-born rapper Drake: Started from the bottom and now we here / Started from the bottom now the whole team here.

The Politics of Music

Ablajan rarely talks politics, wary, no doubt, of jeopardizing his career. But on July 31, violent clashes erupted in a village outside Kashgar, leaving at least 100 dead, according to state media reports. (The cause of the violence and the death toll are still disputed.) When the authorities then canceled a long-planned concert in Urumqi, Ablajan could no longer hold back. His team spent nearly a month, and a whole lot of money, preparing for what was to be a display of ethnic unity performed in front of officials and broadcast to audiences. Police shut it down less than an hour from showtime. Ablajan posted a picture of himself on Instagram, with a caption that read like a cri de coeur: “My name is Ablajan! I am not a terrorist.”

Late last year, Ablajan released his first Chinese-language music video, “Today,” an MJ-inspired epic featuring a car chase and shots of his entourage dancing on rooftops and roads in Urumqi and Kashgar. The goal was to generate some excitement online for the Mandarin single, his first, giving him a foothold in the bigger, more lucrative Chinese-language market. His manager, Rui Wenbin—a Han Chinese born and raised in Urumqi and formerly of Xinjiang’s culture ministry—believes Ablajan’s music can help bridge the divide between the Uighur and Han worlds. Says Rui: “He can be a messenger of peace.”

It won’t be easy. On my last night in Xinjiang, Ablajan and I walk to a public square near the local government office. It’s a warm evening and many people are out, walking arm-in-arm or pushing strollers. On one side, a group of elderly Han women practices a synchronized dance. Nearby, clusters of young Uighurs listen to music. Before the clock strikes nine, however, the cops come out in golf-cart-size squad cars, sirens blaring. Everyone has to go home.

As we walk back, Ablajan talks about going to Kazakhstan in the fall. If he can scrape up the money, he’d love to see Beijing someday too. “I need proper equipment, a choreographer, costumes, but …” He pauses and searches for the right expression. “Mei banfa,” he says in Mandarin: No solution. “I mean, this is Xinjiang, man.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Sangzhu

TIME China

Chinese State Media Now Put Death Toll From Xinjiang Violence at 50

Uyghur Life Persists in Kashgar Amid Growing Tension in Restive Xinjiang Province
A veiled Muslim Uyghur woman walks passed a statue of Mao Zedong on July 31, 2014 in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. Kevin Frayer—Getty

Most of the dead are described as "rioters," killed in the aftermath of last week's explosions

Casualty figures from explosions and their aftermath in China’s restive Xinjiang region last weekend have been increased from two dead to about 50 dead, with some 50 injured, according to state media’s reporting of official figures on Friday.

The unverified numbers are a significant and belated revision to the authorities’ claim five days ago that two people had died in the unrest, the BBC reports.

State media now report that six people died on Sunday in what are described as terrorist bombings at two police stations, a market and a shop in southwestern Xinjiang, the BBC says.

The same official news portals say that security forces later shot and killed people described as “rioters.” In total, 50 people died, comprising 40 “rioters,” six civilians and four police officers, the reports said.

Radio Free Asia, which has Uighur reporters, gave different statistics, saying that about a dozen people were killed and 100 more injured in bomb blasts at three locations. Its report said the injured included 20 police officers.

Xinjiang – home to Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs — has become a hotbed of violence over the past year, with some 200 people dead in clashes there.

Beijing has blamed foreign-trained terrorist groups for the attacks, but human-rights observers put the responsibility for the escalating bloodshed on the central government, saying its discriminatory policies against Uighurs are fanning resentment in the region.

Earlier this week, a Chinese court sentenced a leading academic voice for Uighur rights, Ilham Tohti, to life in prison — a harsh sentence that appeared to signal China’s determination to crush even moderate dissent in its western region.

Some observers, however, say the widely condemned sentence will do just the opposite, silencing an influential and peaceful voice for reform and, in stoking outrage in Xinjiang, herald even more violence.

TIME China

Chinese Court Sentences Prominent Uighur Academic to Life for ‘Separatism’

University professor, blogger, and membe
University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti pauses before a classroom lecture in Beijing on June 12, 2010. Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty

International human-rights observers repeatedly called the trial a sham

A court in northern China has sentenced an ethnic Uighur academic to life in prison for promoting separatism in the nation’s restive Xinjiang province, his lawyer told Reuters on Tuesday.

Ilham Tohti, a prominent advocate for the rights for Muslim Uighurs in China, and an ex-economics professor at the Minzu University of China in Beijing, received the near maximum sentence for the charges, which carried possible sentences ranging from 10 years in prison to execution, Reuters says.

International human-rights advocates had widely decried the separatism allegations against Tohti. Outside China, he is seen as a thoughtful, peaceful and moderate voice who has challenged China’s official narrative of several violent incidents in Xinjiang.

The stiff sentence — the harshest one in years for a Chinese political dissident — appears to be part of Beijing’s aggressive intensification of its campaign to put a lid on brimming discontent in Xinjiang. Clashes between Han Chinese, the nation’s majority group, and Uighurs, an ethnic minority making up about half of Xinjiang’s population, have led to hundreds of deaths in the vast, northwestern region.

Human-rights observers say the Chinese government’s discrimination against Uighurs is to blame for the sometimes violent boiling over of anger in the region.

[Reuters]

TIME

Blasts Kill Two in China’s Restive Xinjiang Region

The explosions come just ahead of a verdict in the trial of Ilham Tohti, a Uighur academic accused of fueling separatist sentiment in Xinjiang

At least three explosions in China’s Xinjiang province on Sunday evening killed two people and injured several others, the latest in a string of violent upsets in the restive region, Chinese state media report.

The blasts took place in Luntai county, according to a state-run regional news portal cited by the South China Morning Post.

Xinjiang, where about half the province’s residents are ethnic Uighurs, is a pressure cooker of simmering ethnic and religious tensions. Beijing has repeatedly accused Uighur separatist groups of terrorism, blaming them for attacks that have killed hundreds of people in the region.

But many observers have said that Beijing is to blame for the violence because of its repression of the Muslim Uighurs and promotion of Han Chinese, the nation’s largest ethnic group.

The blasts coincide with an expected verdict this week in the high-profile trial of Ilham Tohti, an ex-Beijing economics professor accused of promoting separatism in Xinjiang.

“The biggest problem in Xinjiang is not anti-terrorism, nor is it terrorism,” reads a recent post by Tohti, on the Uighurbiz website he founded. “The problem is that political power is unrestrained, unequal, controlled and monopolized by the very groups that profit from it.”

TIME Viewpoint

China’s Silent War on Terror

Chinese soldiers patrolling in old Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, July 30, 2014.
Chinese soldiers patrol in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on July 30, 2014 Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

A virtual media blackout makes it hard to know what's happening as China tackles unrest among its Uighur Muslim minorities

On a clear, sunny morning last October, an SUV carrying three people turned right on to Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue, plowed through crowds gathered near the entrance to the Forbidden City and burst into flames at the northern edge of Tiananmen Square. The wreck killed five people, including three in the vehicle and two bystanders. Dozens more were injured.

Almost immediately, eyewitnesses started posting pictures. The photographs showed scenes of chaos in the heart of China’s capital: a plume of smoke rising in front of a portrait of Chairman Mao; the charred carapace of the vehicle resting at the foot of the ancient Gate of Heavenly Peace. Almost as quickly as the images were posted, however, they started to disappear. It became clear that the Chinese government, and the government alone, would tell this story.

Nearly a year later, they are still pulling the strings. On Aug. 24, state-backed media announced that three masterminds behind the incident were executed, alongside five other convicted terrorists. The report listed their names and charges, but did not mention when or how they were put to death, where they were held, in what conditions, or whether they were offered legal counsel. (State broadcaster CCTV did note, however, that Usmen Hasan, the driver of the SUV, once beat a middle-school teacher and was “feared” by his wife.)

Though some elements of the official account may well be true, the reporting is clearly selective — and impossible to confirm. Hasan, his wife and his mother were killed in the crash, and the others were held out of public view. Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, says rights groups and foreign journalists have effectively been blocked from looking into the matter. “We are just as much in the dark about these individuals,” she says. “We have almost no independent information, except what the state press has released.”

The handling of the case is part of an effort to manage when, and how, China talks about terrorism. This past year has seen a wave of attacks, starting with the Tiananmen crash and moving, in bloody succession, to ambushes at train stations in Kunming and Urumqi in March and April, respectively. In late May, Urumqi was hit again, when attackers targeted a morning market, leaving dozens dead. Each was pinned, directly or indirectly, on “separatists” or “extremists” from Xinjiang. If and when details are released by state media, they tend to point toward a straightforward story of radicalization at the hands of overseas Islamic terrorist groups. And those reports are always followed by news of the government’s swift and effective response.

The reality is more complex. Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Russia, Pakistan and several Central Asian nations, is claimed as the traditional homeland of the Turkic Uighur people — and as part of China. Since coming to power in 1949, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has sent waves of military personnel and migrants west to settle the area they call New Frontier. Many Uighurs resent the influx of ethnic Han Chinese and worry they are getting cut out of the region’s resource-driven economic boom.

A small minority of the Uighur population, meanwhile, has waged a decades-long fight against the central government, often targeting symbols of state power including police stations and government buildings. There have also been direct attacks on civilians. The ruling party has responded by beefing up security and trying to forcibly integrate the mostly Muslim Uighur population. In recent months, entire cities have been sealed off by police checkpoints. Some areas are trying to discourage, or outright ban, certain types of beards and veils.

This has not stopped the bloodshed. In July, violence broke out in Xinjiang’s Shache county (called Yarkand in the Uighur language). State media waited more than 24 hours before announcing the unrest. As soon as they did, conflicting accounts emerged, with the government saying the violence broke out after police foiled a terrorist plot, and exile Uighur groups saying police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against restrictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and against the alleged extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family. The state says 96 people were killed; Uighur groups claim the figure is much higher.

We might never know what happened there. The authorities moved quickly to restrict access to the area and pulled comments from the almost-always-out-of-service web. (In times of unrest, authorities slow, or stop, Internet traffic in Xinjiang; after the 2009 riots the entire region was without Internet for nine months.) Given China’s weak record on the rule of law — and the sensitivity of the case — it’s highly unlikely that there will be an impartial investigation, let alone a fair trial. People on the ground in Xinjiang are rightly frightened that they will be punished if they comment. According to Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit media group, one blogger was already arrested for “spreading rumors” about the number of deaths.

Perhaps in 10 months we will finally hear more about the people involved in the incident. Like those killed in Beijing, Kunming, and Urumqi, the people who died in Yarkand deserve justice. The question is, what kind of justice will it be?

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME China

If China Is Anti-Islam, Why Are These Chinese Muslims Enjoying a Faith Revival?

China's Hui Muslim Minority Attend First Friday Prayers Of Ramadan
Hui imams pray before the main Friday prayers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at the historic Niujie Mosque in Beijing on July 4, 2014 Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Beijing bans some Muslims from observing Ramadan, or boarding public transport while veiled, but it allows millions of others to practice their religion without hindrance

The road to Linxia, in China’s vast, sere northwest, is known locally as the Quran Belt, with a profusion of newly built mosques and Sufi shrines lining the motorway. Some are built in a traditional Chinese style, with pagoda-like eaves; others, with their green tiled domes, echo Middle Eastern architecture.

With violent unrest affecting northwestern Xinjiang, a spotlight has been cast on that area’s Muslim Uighurs, who have long chafed at rule from Beijing. But the Uighurs, some of whom yearn for autonomy from the People’s Republic, are not the biggest Muslim population in China, which has more adherents to Islam than the European Union. That distinction belongs to the Hui, a 10.5 million-strong group that is also the second largest of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. One of the Hui centers of Islamic learning is the Wild West town of Linxia, in Gansu province, where Sufi traditions remain vibrant.

With the bloodshed in Xinjiang escalating — the most recent clash late last month, which the Chinese government labeled a “violent terrorist attack,” saw nearly 100 people killed, according to an official count — authorities have intensified a crackdown on spiritual expression by Uighurs. (Tibetans face religious repression too as their disenchantment with Chinese rule grows.) But this does not mean that Beijing is curtailing Islam nationwide. Indeed, members of the Muslim Hui community are enjoying a flowering of faith in what is, officially, still an atheist communist nation.

Linxia’s Islamic places of worship are just one symbol of this religious boom. Ismail, a Hui who works for a state-owned enterprise in the Ningxia autonomous region, says he openly practices his faith. “Of course, I fast during Ramadan,” he says. “All my Hui friends do it, too. It’s our obligation as Muslims.” But a Uighur college student says he and his classmates were not allowed to do the same. “[Han university authorities] make sure we eat at the cafeteria. They say they don’t want us to be tired, but I don’t believe them. It is because we are Uighur.”

Hui participation in the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has increased over the past several years, say scholars. Another sign of renewed religious commitment: Ismail says he has noticed more Hui women in his hometown wearing veils in recent years. “As more Hui women receive education, they learn more about their own identities,” he says. “As a result, they realize the protection brought by Islam and are starting to wear veils more.”

By contrast, a local paper in the Xinjiang town of Karamay reported last week that residents with long beards, headscarves, veils and clothing with an Islamic crescent moon and star would not be allowed to board public buses while the city played host to a sporting event. In Kashgar, a Silk Road outpost that is a repository of Uighur culture, the local government has promoted a campaign called Project Beauty that urges Uighur women to “show your pretty faces and let your beautiful hair fly in the wind.” Uighurs also have a hard time getting passports to travel abroad, especially to go on the hajj.

“It’s not an issue of freedom of religion,” says Dru Gladney, one of the foremost academics studying Chinese Muslims. “Clearly, there are many avenues of religious expression that are unfettered in China, but when you cross these very often nebulous and shifting boundaries of what the state regards as political, then you’re in dangerous territory. Obviously this is what we see in Xinjiang and in Tibet.”

Unlike Tibetans or Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and are racially distinct from the Han, the Hui are not agitating for increased autonomy, much less a split from China. One reason may be influenced by geography. While Uighurs are concentrated in Xinjiang, and Tibetans clustered on the high plateau in far western China, the Hui are spread out across the nation. True, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is dedicated to them, but Hui communities exist in practically every major Chinese city. A significant population lives in Beijing.

Racially and linguistically, the Hui — whose ancestors include Persian, Central Asian and Arab traders who plied the Silk Road and intermarried with local Chinese — are virtually indistinguishable from China’s Han majority. Often, it is only the presence of a white prayer cap that differentiates a Hui man from his Han counterpart. Partly because of their cultural affinity to the Han and their geographic dispersal, the Hui are far more integrated into mainstream Chinese life than those ethnic minorities living in China’s borderlands.

“The way [the government treats] the Uighurs and the Hui is completely different,” says a foreign scholar who studies the Hui, requesting anonymity. “The standard line for the Uighurs is that everything is oppression and violence and conflict, and the standard narrative for the Hui is that they are complicit with state power and that they are not real Muslims. The Hui are considered the good Muslims and the Uighurs the bad Muslims.”

That division has implications for the future of Xinjiang, which was once predominantly Uighur but has played host to waves of government-encouraged internal migration. While many of the recent arrivals who work at military or state-owned farms and mines are Han, other newcomers are Hui. China’s 2010 national census recorded 983,015 Hui in Xinjiang, up from 681,527 in the 1990 count. During the 2009 rioting in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi that killed around 200 people, one reported refrain from extremist Uighurs spread across social media: “Kill the Han, kill the Hui.”

The Hui’s forebears include a long line of military generals loyal to imperial Chinese governments. (There were, however, Hui rebels who battled the late Qing dynasty from a base in Ningxia.) The Hui also excelled at trading, a talent which spread their numbers across China. Even in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, many trinket stores and restaurants near the main city square are now owned by Hui merchants. The Hui, along with the Han, were targeted when ethnic violence broke out in Tibetan regions in 2008. Indeed, ancient history in China’s far west is filled with battles between Tibetans, Uighurs, the Hui and the Han, with borders and allegiances shifting like desert sands. Animosities endure. “Post-2008 [violence in Tibet] and 2009 [bloodshed in Xinjiang], it’s like it’s every group for themselves,” says the foreign Hui scholar.

External influences are also becoming more important in Chinese Islam. The proliferation of Middle Eastern–style mosques in Linxia mirrors the rise of purist Salafi Islam across the world, from Indonesia to North Africa, in which a unified faith trumps indigenous variations. “In China, the Hui have extraordinarily illustrated this beautiful accommodation between Chinese culture and Islam,” says Gladney, who teaches at Pomona College in California. “But with the rise of social media and an idea of one Islamic world, this historic accommodation is being debated.”

Gladney notes that Hui clerics have studied at Egypt’s al-Azhar University, one of the world’s most important centers of Islamic learning, while around 300 Hui live in the holy Saudi Arabian city of Medina. “For 1,300 years, the Hui have been able to not only survive but thrive,” says Gladney. “But we have to also remember that revolutions in Chinese Islam have tended to come from increased communication and travel abroad, and we’re in a period where the Hui with the right connections are doing just that.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME China

In the Shadow of Beijing’s Rule: Uighur Life in the Ancient City of Kashgar

Getty photographer Kevin Frayer documents a people fighting to maintain their cultural and religious independence

On the morning of July 30, in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, an imam named Juma Tahir led prayers to mark Eid al-Fitr. Soon after, the 74-year-old was found stabbed to death outside his 600-year-old mosque. His murder capped days of violence in China’s vast and troubled northwest — and, many fear, augured conflict to come.

The territory that is today called Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is, and has long been, contested space. The oasis towns that circle the Taklamakan Desert are claimed as both the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, and, off and on for centuries, as Chinese land. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the ruling Communist Party sent forth waves of military personnel to settle the area. They have since been joined by migrants from the Chinese heartland, most but not all of whom, are from the ethnic Han majority; in 1949, Han people accounted for only about 6% of Xinjiang’s population; today, the figure is more than 40%.

The influx has left Xinjiang at odds. Beijing says integration with the rest of China is revitalizing the region, bringing money and jobs to the long-neglected west. Uighurs counter that they have yet to reap the benefits of the economic boom, and worry that their language, religion, and culture are threatened. Many want greater independence for the land they call East Turkestan. A small minority has fought for it, waging a decades-long insurgency that has mostly targeted local symbols of state power, including police stations, transportation hubs and government offices.

This year, the unrest moved east. In October 2013, an SUV driven by three members of a Uighur family plowed through crowds of holidaymakers in the heart of Beijing, killing five, including the occupants, at the northern end of Tiananmen Square. In March, a group of black-clad attackers stabbed and slashed their way through a train-station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. State media blamed the bloody ambush and two subsequent attacks in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, on religious extremists.

The surge in violence prompted the government to tighten its grip on Xinjiang. Its town squares are now patrolled by police officers carrying automatic weapons. Across the Uighur heartland, villages are sealed by police checkpoints. Mistaking cultural practice for evidence of extremist thought, local governments are monitoring people’s habits and dress: there have been campaigns to stop students and civil students from fasting during the Muslim holy month; age restrictions on mosque visits; and, most recently, in Karamay, an ill-conceived move to ban women wearing veils and men sporting beards, from the city’s public buses.

Kashgar, where Getty photographer Kevin Frayer made these pictures, is at the heart of all this. Sitting at the westernmost fringe of the People’s Republic, closer to Baghdad than Beijing, it has for centuries been a meeting point and trading hub, the place that connected Constantinople (now Istanbul) to Xi’an, before playing host to Britain and Russia’s spies during the 19th centuries “Great Game.” A good portion of the alleys and warrens they wrote home about have since been bulldozed; China will flatten 85% of the old city — an unpopular project that is well under way.

It was outside the city, in Kashgar prefecture, Shache county, that the most recent spate of bloodshed took root. What happened there on July 27 is still disputed and, because outside journalists are effectively barred from the area, facts are scarce. Chinese state media initially said “dozens” were killed. Later, they revised the official account, reporting that 96 people, including 37 civilians and 59 terrorists, died in a rampage masterminded by extremists. Their account is at odds with reporting by Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit news service, that linked the incident to state-led violence and suppression during Ramadan.

Days later, outside China’s largest mosque, imam Tahir was killed. China’s state newswire, Xinhua, reported his alleged assassins were “influenced by religious extremism” and plotted to “do something big” to increase their influence. Other nonstate outlets were quick to note, though, that Tahir was not just any imam, but a state-sanctioned one. He held a position in the government-run China Islamic Association and was often quoted backing the party line. Was that was got him killed?

That, like much else, remains unclear. But from wherever you stand, the murder feels like a grisly message: The lines are drawn; pick a side.

TIME China

China Now Says Almost 100 Were Killed in Xinjiang Violence

China Steps Up Security Following Xinjiang Unrest
Chinese soldiers march in front of the Id Kah Mosque, China's largest, in Kashgar, on July 31, 2014. China has increased security in many parts of restive Xinjiang following some of the worst violence in months Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Tensions in China's northwestern frontier region are escalating rapidly

It took a week, but authorities have finally released a death toll for the violence that rocked China’s far northwestern frontier on July 28. Early reports said “dozens” were killed or injured; now the government says nearly 100 were killed, and 215 arrested, making it the deadliest single incident since riots hit Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’s capital, Urumqi, in 2009. But even as more details are released, questions remain about what, exactly, happened in Shache County (also known as Yarkand in the Uighur language). And with the area shut to foreign journalists, and Internet access spotty across the region, those questions will be difficult to answer.

As TIME reported last week, there are at least two competing accounts of what happened in Shache — and neither feels complete. Some 24 hours after the unrest, China’s official newswire Xinhua issued a breaking-news alert stating that dozens had been killed or injured in a premeditated terrorist attack on a police station in Xinjiang. After local officials discovered a cache of explosives, state media said, knife-wielding mobs went on a rampage, killing civilians and torching several vehicles. One report speculated that the attack was timed to coincide with a commodity fair.

The official narrative has changed in the interim. The latest details released by Chinese authorities suggest the incident was both more severe, and less isolated, than it initially seemed. State media now put the death toll at 96, including 37 civilians, and 59 people identified as terrorists. The violence “was preceded by a large-scale police crackdown in Hotan,” reported the Global Times, and was “followed” by the murder, in Kashgar, of an imam with ties to the government. Chinese news outlets say the unrest was coordinated by extremists with links to a group called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and that banners calling for jihad were found at the scene.

Other groups paint a strikingly different picture. An early report by Uighur-speaking Radio Free Asia reporters Shohret Hoshur and Eset Sulaiman said the uprising was linked to restrictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the alleged extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family. In their account — which here bears some similarity to the government’s narrative — knife- and ax-wielding Uighurs went on a rampage and were subsequently gunned down by Chinese police. A representative from the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas exile group, presented a slightly different story, saying the armed Uighurs were in fact protesters speaking out against the Ramadan restrictions, not rioters per se.

The divergent accounts say much about the divisions affecting Xinjiang, and the difficulty of reporting on the area. The vast area known as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, but is claimed also as Chinese territory. Since coming to power, the Chinese Communist Party has sent waves of migrants to Xinjiang in an attempt to settle its far west; in 1949, China’s ethnic Han majority accounted for only about 6% of the population; today, the figure is more than 40%. The government says it is bringing prosperity to the region, but many ethnic Uighurs say they have been cut off from the economic benefits and resent restrictions on freedom of movement and their right to practice their faith. A small minority has waged a decades-long struggle against Chinese authorities, often targeting police stations or transport hubs.

Over the past year, the conflict has intensified considerably. In October 2013, an SUV carrying three ethnic Uighurs plowed through tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five, including the occupants. In March 2014, a group of black-clad, knife-wielding attackers slashed its way through a busy train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. Chinese authorities blamed that incident, and two subsequent ambushes in the regional capital, Urumqi, on terrorist groups with overseas ties. Little information has been released about the perpetrators or their victims. And with much of Xinjiang closed to foreign reporters, the government’s account is difficult to independently confirm.

The central government has responded by tightening already stringent security measures and stepping up efforts to integrate Uighurs — by force, if necessary. There are police trucks and officers in riot gear in town squares across the region, and many towns, particularly in Uighur-dominated southwest Xinjiang, are now sealed off by police checkpoints. The physical lockdown has come with curbs on religious practice, including attempts to ban civil servants from fasting during Ramadan and, reportedly, efforts to stop Uighur women from covering their hair.

The authorities are calling the latest crackdown a “people’s war” on terrorism, urging — and in many cases, paying — people to come forward with information about suspicious activity. The government recently announced it would offer 300 million yuan ($48.6 million), in cash for “hunting terrorists.” At a recent ceremony in the city of Hotan, 10,000 local officials and civilians were given some 4.23 million yuan ($685,000) for their trouble. Critics worry, however, that the scheme will only deepen distrust between Uighurs and the Han-dominated central government, turning neighbors against each other and potentially criminalizing certain religious practices that have nothing to do with organized terrorism.

Meanwhile, amid calls for calm, the government’s rhetoric is heating up. In the wake of the latest attack, Xinjiang party secretary Zhang Chunxian, promised an even tougher crackdown to come. “We have to hit hard, hit accurately and hit with awe-inspiring force,” he said. “To fight such evils we must aim at extermination. To cut weeds we must dig out the roots.”

The statement was no doubt designed to reassure people that the government has the situation under control. Somehow, though, the nihilistic imagery feels more like a warning of more conflict, and violence, to come.

TIME China

China Charges Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti With ‘Separatism’

Ilham Tohti
Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar of China's Uighur ethnic minority, speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2013 Andy Wong—AP

The Beijing-based professor of economics is a moderate but determined critic of China's treatment of ethnic minorities

Prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was charged by Chinese authorities with “separatism” on Wednesday. The long-expected announcement came amid a period of violent unrest in China’s far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

The Beijing-based professor of economics is a moderate but determined critic of China’s treatment of ethnic minority groups. He has been held since January, but was not allowed to see his lawyer until June. His lawyer, Li Fangping, only heard about the charges when the local government posted the news online, the Guardian reports.

Charges against Tohti come at a particularly sensitive time. This week alone, dozens were killed or injured in violence outside the ancient city of Kashgar. Beijing blamed the unrest on Uighur extremists, but human-rights groups claim Chinese authorities exaggerate terrorist ties in order to justify their own use of force. On Wednesday, an imam in the city of Kashgar, who was frequently quoted by state media as praising the Communist Party and denouncing terrorism, was reportedly stabbed to death.

Chinese authorities allege that Tohti used a website to, among other things, “spread separatist thinking,” and accuse him of urging his students to engage in violent struggle — charges at odds with his extensive body of writing and work. Rights groups say the charges amount to a political witch hunt, and show Beijing’s unwillingness to tolerate even the most moderate and measured criticism.

PEN American Center, which awarded Tohti the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award earlier this year, condemned the indictment in a statement, saying that he “has worked within the country’s laws to promote equal rights for all of China’s citizens, and to encourage exchange and understanding between different ethnic groups.”

The charge against Tohti will almost certainly lead to conviction and, potentially, the death penalty.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser