Muslim conflict now hits China as 148 die in ethnic violence

Monday 15 November 2004
By Damien McElroy in Zhengzhou
(Filed: 14/11/2004)
A convoy of military lorries roared along the dirt track leading to a fertile valley of rice paddies and ridges of garlic shoots in central China. Green-uniformed soldiers equipped with razor-wire and cannons stared out blankly at Chinese police, who stood to attention as they passed through a checkpoint.

They were heading for two neighbouring villages, Nanren and Weitang, which have co-existed peacefully for centuries - but where, earlier this month, martial law was abruptly declared after a row over a traffic accident escalated into pitched battles that left 148 people dead.

The soldiers' mission was to prop up the facade of ethnic harmony, constructed by the country's Communist dictatorship over the past 55 years but dramatically undermined by the eruption of conflict between Hui Muslims and their Han Chinese neighbours. The troops sealed off the villages to prevent other militants coming to the aid of their fellow Muslims and stop the fighting spreading across China.

At a checkpoint near the villages, a policeman boasted of his efforts to keep out "foreign" agitators and admitted that the situation was tense. "Our leaders are still holding talks between the two sides but there has been no resolution yet," he said. "Relations are very bitter. Too many people have died in a bad way."

Just 10 days since China's worst outbreak of inter-communal violence in more than a decade, Communist Party officials fear that the unrest in Henan province - the birthplace of China's 4,000-year-old civilisation - is a worrying sign of trouble to come.

The country's politburo security chief has made the rough 400-mile journey from Beijing, an unusual foray by a senior Communist official to such a poor outpost - a collection of ramshackle brick buildings, where dogs hunt for food in piles of rubbish strewn around the pot-holed streets.

In the nearby provincial capital, Zhengzhou, a city of skyscrapers and more than two million advertising hoardings, officials are perplexed by the sudden detonation of violence in the hinterland. As he plucked at a designer-label cashmere sweater, a Hui Communist Party official said: "There were hundreds of people stopped on planes and buses, attempting to travel to Nanren before the army was deployed."

The violence is a setback for the Chinese government's policy of permitting a modest Islamic revival among the Hui, one of the country's most moderate Muslim minorities. It was also a sign that underlying ethnic tensions across China's teeming territory are a continuing challenge to Beijing's rule. At stake is the imperative set out in the official government slogan, "The 56 ethnic groups are one family."

The fighting broke out after a Han youth crashed his motorcycle into a Hui builder's tractor, tipping it over. The confrontation soon escalated into pitched battles between mobs armed with shovels and hammers. Molotov cocktails were launched across the river between Nanren and Weitang - the former predominantly Hui, the latter Han - and Huis from around the country flocked to assist their beleaguered brothers.

A local imam said that one of his followers was found beheaded in rice paddy ditches, a Hui official told The Sunday Telegraph. "They share the same market, but the Hui people are insulted by the Han's behaviour," he said. "The Han stallholders try to sell them pork, pushing it in front of their faces all the time. Now the imam says the Han in Weitang are savages who mock our traditions by cutting our throats."

By appearance there is nothing to distinguish the 10 million Hui from other Chinese: only their faith sets them apart. They are descendants of Muslims who traded along the Silk Road between Europe and Asia, and married local women. In Henan province they number 900,000 among a population of 95 million.

Unlike China's other sizeable Muslim minority, the Uighurs of western Xinjiang, the Hui have never been involved in separatist violence. Now, however, they are becoming increasingly militant in asserting their Islamic identity - partly to prevent their assimilation into the rest of the population, 93 per cent of whom are Han.

Yet many Han are critical of the Hui claim to a separate identity. "They are not a real minority," said Liu Yue, a portrait artist in Zhengzhou. "They don't have their own language, they don't have their own customs, all they do is refuse to eat pork.

"Our government gives them too much favourable treatment. If a Hui is caught speeding, he'll just show his skull cap and the officer will let him off."

At an Islamic centre in Zhengzhou, where writing on the wall is in both Arabic and Chinese script, passions were clearly aroused by the trouble between Nanren and Weitang.

Perhaps ominously, the mosque leaders appear sympathetic to the insurgents in Iraq. The mosque's Ramadan letter declares: "In our Muslim world, our brothers are suffering a great disaster.

"Their actions in self-defence have been judged to be extremist terrorism, but they are struggling in an imperialist war that is killing people and rotting modern civilisation."

The defiant mood in Iraq is apparently shared by mosque elders, a foretaste of further problems ahead for the Chinese authorities. "If our brothers are being attacked," said one elder, Lao Mai, "it is a duty in our religion to join them in the fight."


Muslim terrorists killed in China raid 

By Richard Spencer in Beijing

Chinese police killed five people they said were Muslim terrorists preparing to fight a "holy war" for control of China's western regions, state media said. 

The brief battle between security forces and presumed members of a militant group took place in Urumqi, the capital of the western province of Xinjiang, which is home to the largely Muslim Uighur minority group. 

It began with an unexplained incident in which three of the suspects raided a beauty salon and attacked the Han Chinese owner with knives. 

When the police arrived at their apartment "hideout", the gang resisted arrest, shouting "sacrifice for Allah" and saying they would die together, the reports said. 

"After police used tear-gas on the premises, a roomful of people tried to break out, waving knives and injuring one policeman," a spokesman said. 

Five were shot dead immediately, two more were injured and taken to hospital, and the remaining nine members of the gang were detained, the authorities said. 

According to the report, 30 knives were found at the apartment and those arrested confessed to have received training for the launching of a "holy war" to kill "heretical" Han Chinese, the ethnic group to which 90 per cent of China's population belongs. 

In line with normal practice for sensitive incidents, police spokesmen were unwilling to discuss the issue further.

As in Tibet, there has been a history of protest and dissent among the Uighur population which has occasionally spilled over into violence. 

However, Uighur exile movements deny the existence of an organised terrorist campaign and say previous incidents, such as the arrest of a woman claimed to be trying to bring down an aircraft in March by setting it on fire, are made up or exaggerated by authorities to win international support for repression in the region.

The authorities also said in March they had broken up and arrested members of a group that were threatening to sabotage the Beijing Olympics.

Beijing warns of its own holy war

Published Date: 10 July 2008
By Ben Blanchard in Kashgar

IN A back street in the old Silk Road city of Kashgar, the Chinese government has been spray-painting signs on dusty mud brick walls to warn against what it says is a new enemy the Islamic Liberation Party.

Better known as Hizb ut-Tahrir, the group says its goal is to establish a pan-national Muslim state, or caliphate.

China claims Hizb ut-Tahrir is a terrorist group, and says it operates in the far western region of Xinjiang, home to some eight million Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, many of whom chafe under Chinese rule.

Yesterday, in a sign that such an insurgency may be active, Chinese authorities said police had shot and killed five people who were seeking "holy war" in Xinjiang.

China's official Xinhua news agency said the police had been on the trail of three men in the group whom they suspected of stabbing an ethnic Han Chinese woman at a beauty salon in the regional capital, Urumqi.

But despite such reported incidents, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and some observers, say they do not espouse violence, and they accuse China of playing up the threat as an excuse to further crack down in Xinjiang, ahead of this summer's Beijing Olympics.

"Strike hard against the Islamic Liberation Party" and "The Islamic Liberation Party is a violent terrorist organisation" read the signs in Kashgar, written in red paint in both Chinese and the Arabic-based Uighur script.

Residents passing by appear to give little heed to the notices, accustomed as they are to daily barrages of propaganda from the government denouncing "splittism", "illegal religious activities" and calling for ethnic unity and harmony.

As in Tibet, another strife-hit Chinese region, many Uighurs resent the growing economic and cultural impact of Han Chinese who have been encouraged by the government to move to far-flung parts of China.

Beijing accuses militant Uighurs of working with al-Qaeda to use terror to bring about an independent state called East Turkestan. It claims to have foiled at least two Xinjiang-based plots this year to launch attacks during the Beijing Games.

But the emergence of Hizb ut-Tahrir is a recent phenomenon in Xinjiang.

"The organisation is extremely resilient and its influence, although limited to southern Xinjiang, seems to be growing," said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. "The prison authorities are also worried about the influence of Hizb followers on other inmates," he added.

But it seems unlikely they represent the threat to Xinjiang that China likes to portray, said Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College, California, and a Uighur expert.

"For most Uighurs who are activists, though some of them are very religious in their Islam, their main goal is sovereignty for Xinjiang. Hizb ut-Tahrir doesn't support that. They support a worldwide caliphate, not any one independent region," he said.

Exiled groups and human rights campaigners have long chastised China for its religious restrictions, even as the government hits back and says it guarantees freedom of religion in its constitution, as long as believers respect the law.

Many are not convinced that Hizb ut-Tahrir is the threat the Chinese government says it is in Xinjiang. "This does not exist. They have come up with this group's name themselves," said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress. "They are trying to mislead the world and deflect from concern for the Uighur people."

For its part, Hizb ut-Tahrir denies it advocates violence. "Hizb ut-Tahrir and Muslim voices that do not toe the government line have been severely oppressed by the Chinese government," Taji Mustafa, a media representative for Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain, said in an e-mailed statement.

"It is well known across the world that since its founding in 1953, Hizb ut-Tahrir has exclusively engaged in non-violent political and intellectual work," Mr Mustafa added. He did not comment on whether the group was active in Xinjiang.

Yet China maintains the threat is real. Hizb ut-Tahrir is likewise banned in countries such as Uzbekistan, where it has also been blamed for violence.

In November, China's news agency announced sentences, ranging from death to life in jail, for six Uighurs accused of "splittism and organising and leading terrorist groups", and implicated Hizb ut-Tahrir.

One of the men was found guilty of "proactively carrying out extremist religious activities and promoting 'jihad', establishing a terrorist training base and preparing to set up an 'Islamic caliphate'," Xinhua reported.

In April, the Xinjiang government blamed Hizb ut-Tahrir for inciting protests in Khotan, in which the World Uyghur Congress said about 1,000 people took to the streets.

"By linking the unrest to Hizb ut-Tahrir there's legal cause for suggesting that these individuals were involved in a transnational conspiracy to set up an Islamic state and destabilise China," Mr Gladney said.

Yet while some Uighurs say they have heard of Hizb ut-Tahrir, they dismiss it as being irrelevant to their situation.

"What we want is simple freedom," said a Uighur resident of Urumqi. "But there are too many Han and too few of us."


HIZB ut-Tahrir was established in 1953 in Palestine by Takieddin al-Nabahani al-Falastini. Since its inception, the organisation has denounced armed struggle and operates primarily through the distribution of literature.

The party's stated aim is to unify Muslims worldwide under a single caliphate. Its leadership believes that there is no truly Islamic state in the world. HuT considers western-style democracy to be unacceptable for Muslims; according to the party's theoreticians.

Today, however, given the sheer number of Muslims in the world, HuT thinkers admit that such an approach "would have turned into a farce". Instead, they say, the decision regarding the creation of an Islamic state should be adopted by those wielding the most influence, such as prominent politicians and businessmen.