China's ethnic minorities have little taste for Olympics

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By Anna Bodner
Aug 19, 2008, 8:54 GMT

Lanzhou, China - Olympic fever that has swept most of China seems to have limited influence in Lanzhou, considered the geometrical centre of China.

For many, the 3-million-inhabitant city capital of Gansu province is still a frontier town, and while the Games' influence is hard to miss in the city centre with flags on mass display in shops and cars, hardly a trace of the Olympics can be found in the city's Muslim quarters, where minarets tower over the roofs.

While the Games' influence is hard to miss in the city centre with flags on mass display in shops and cars, hardly a trace of the Olympics can be found in the city's Muslim quarters, where minarets tower over the roofs.

The Olympic dream of a China united in harmony is still a work in progress in the city populated by many of China's 55 ethnic minorities - mainly Hui, Tibetans and Uighurs.

For the Muslim men wearing the traditional white skullcaps from Uighur and Hui backgrounds, the Games are worth nothing more than a throwaway hand gesture.

It is only a few hours to the restive Xinjiang region, where Uighur resentment against the rule of the Chinese is running high and a unprecedented wave of bomb attacks and blooodshed overshadowed the beginning of the Olympics, disrupting the peace and harmony Beijing had hoped to show the world.

'It's all a huge farce,' a 27-year-old Uighur cook grumbles, pulling noodles out of a lump of dough and throwing them into boiling water at astonishing speed. 'They act as if we were also celebrating this circus, and at the same time they arrest our people at home, they say they are traitors.'

'They' are the Chinese, and 'at home' is a small village, west of the border separating Gansu and Xinjiang. 'Those are their Games, not ours,' he said. 'Now, during the Games, they are really afraid, and and we get to feel that.'

The government's fears are not unfounded. More than thirty people in Xinjiang region died in the violence in Kashgar and Kuqa which authorities blame on Uighur separatists.

The noodle-maker has little sympathy for the attacks, but is not surprised, 'Xinjiang has been seething for a long time.'

Some Chinese security officials said the August Olympic Games provided militant Uighurs an opportunity to draw attention to the cause by the Turkic speaking minority Uighur separatists.

'But that does not give them the right to treat us all like criminals,' the man complained.

For Yakup Azizi, a 23-year-old Uighur working in a halal restaurant in central Lanzhou, the attacks came as no surprise, but he has a more positive view of the Olympics.

'It is stupid to be against the games. What does that help?' he asked. 'I live in Lanzhou and the people enjoy the games. They like my T-shirt, so why not,' he said, pointing to his shirt sporting the Olympic logo.

But he is also aware of the more militant side, saying he has a number of relatives with more radical views. 'I know that at home in Xinjiang there are many people who would fight for the region's freedom.'

Azizi has little faith in the independence movement or the drive to reestablish the short-lived East Turkestan Republic of the 1940s. 'That will not happen, Xinjiang is too important for China and the Chinese army too powerful,' he said. 'It is not worth making it worse by violence.'

Uighurs have been long complaining about suppression by the Chinese, who took over the region after the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. In particular after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the government clamped down on alleged Muslim terrorists, closing down mosques and religious schools, and stepping up the military presence.

One of the biggest source of resentment is policies promoting migration of Han Chinese into the region. In the early 1950s, shortly after the Communist Party took over control of China, Hans made up only 6 per cent of Xinjiang's population, but now they comprise over 40 per cent.

Despite the tensions, Azizi does not believe in a violent uprising. 'The Uighurs are not organized well enough for that. And too smart, I hope. It is difficult enough as it is.'

For the Han Chinese residents of Lanzhou both Beijing and Xinjiang are too far away to feel threatened by attacks. Zhang Hai, a 24-year-old student, does not believe the Games are affected by the attacks.

'The penetrating power of the military and the regional security forces is too big. They have everything under control.'

Still, some insecurity among the Han Chinese in Lanzhou remains. Zhang agrees with the authorities that there is no direct link between the violence in Kuqa, Kashgar and the Olympics.

The Uighurs may view the Games as an opportunity, but the reasons are much deeper, said Zhang, adding that he could not understand the violence.

'I know the Uighurs are different to us, they are a people of their own. But nonetheless they belong to China,' Zhang said, reflecting the official Chinese position.