Faking the Olympic Spirit in China's Muslim Region



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6/19/2008
By Andreas Lorenz

The Olympic torch is in China's far West and security is tight. Still, there are some who came out to celebrate the event -- 200 invited guests and a handful of well-trained Uighar schoolchildren. Journalists were watched closely.

A gigantic statue of Mao waves to the people who have gathered in his shadow on Wednesday morning to celebrate the Olympic flame. But despite the size of the stone figure, there aren't many milling about on Kashgar's main square: Perhaps 200 invited guests -- 200 out of the region's 3.8 million residents. Ordinary citizens -- apart from groups of school children in festive costumes -- were not invited.
The children wave banners and flags and shout "Go China." On the stage, the city's ensemble performs Uighur folk dances to music so loud it risks awakening Mao in his glass coffin in Beijing, thousands of kilometers east of here.

Officials in white shirts give stilted speeches, until the last runner finally arrives, an older man with a traditional Uighur hat -- called a dopa -- on his head. Speaking into a microphone, he says it is a great honor to hold the Olympic torch in his hands. He then punches it into the air. It is a gesture the master of ceremonies practiced with him next to the grandstand beforehand.

The Olympic flame, which the government has declared sacred, has arrived in the far West, where it will spend three days on its long journey through China's provinces. Kashgar is one of the country's outposts; it used to be an important caravansary on the Silk Road with a British and a Russian consulate. Today it is known for its big Sunday market, where farmers still trade camels and horses.

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In fact, the city is closer to Islamabad -- both culturally and geographically -- than to Beijing. Yet, just as the rest of China, it has undergone major changes in the last few years. Many of the old quarters with their mud houses and dark alleys have made way for broad streets and modern buildings.

Where once colorful market traders haggled near the famous Idkah Mosque, a sterile shopping center now stands. Donkey carts have become a rare sight in the city, whose residents weave around -- almost silently -- on battery-powered scooters.

In Kashgar the Han Chinese are a minority. In some quarters, they show their faces only very rarely. Some of them fear the Uighurs, with their European facial features and their women who hide their entire faces under brown cloth. Others pull their veils only over their noses. Most, however, only wear a headscarf.

'Be Disciplined and Obey the Law'

In Kashgar men wearing dopas make copper caldrons and tin boxes in their workshops, sell honey and watermelons, gossip in tea houses and pray in the numerous small mosques.

The voices of the muezzins, however, can hardly be heard in the street during the day, as the Chinese authorities have banned them from using loudspeakers. And anyone under 18 years is not allowed to worship Allah in one of the mosques.

Many older Uighars hardly understand Chinese. Yet, many young people also have no grasp of the official language. Written in Arabic and Chinese on a mud wall in an alleyway is: "Be a good citizen, be disciplined and obey the law."

"What I think of the torch relay?" a merchant in a teahouse asks. "Not much, as they are forcing all shops to close for two days. That means no revenue."

In fact, many traders in the city center had to pull down their shutters a day before the Olympic flame arrived in Kashgar, creating a leaden atmosphere in the usually bustling streets.

On the day of the torch run, only invited guests from selected "work units" and schools were allowed to cheer on the runners from the roadside. The homes around the Idkah Mosque and the people's square seemed deserted: No windows were open and no residents watched the spectacle from above. Meanwhile, soldiers, militia and police gathered in large numbers and hermetically sealed off the area around the mosque. They even stuck yellow tape over the storm drains.

The Chinese government is wary of its remote province, in particular of Kashgar. As in Tibet, Beijing sniffs a conspiracy in the autonomous Muslim region of Xinjiang -- not by the "traitorous Dalai Lama clique," but the Uighar separatists who are fighting for an independent East Turkistan.

Yet, how dangerous these groups are is unclear. Uighars in exile accuse Beijing of exaggerating the danger, to give it a reason to clamp down on religious groups.

The Chinese media, however, again and again reports attacks and conspiracies by Uighar terrorists. Recently staff of China Southern airline discovered a female passenger who tried to use gasoline to set a plane on fire. The government said it was a terrorist act, but so far it has failed to offer any proof of the real motives behind the attack.

'More Cheering'

The fear, though, is great, and it overshadows the Kashgar stage of the torch run. There is no sign of the festive atmosphere that attended the first stage of the torch relay in China, on the tropical island of Hainan. In Kashgar nobody seems happy, though the image on television later will no doubt be a different one.

Everything has been rehearsed: "More cheering," a regional television camera man tells a group of young people, who are not waving their Olympic flags enthusiastically enough for him.

Even here, far away from world public opinion, the Beijing Communist Party manages to instrumentalize the Olympic torch: to show a demonstration of unity between the party and the -- non-existing -- people, and a unified China.

"Write a beautiful chapter of harmony and progress -- paint a magnificent painting of scientific progress," the inscriptions of banners along the route read, "Welcome the Olympic Games with all your heart."

Tight Controls on Journalists

The few foreign journalists who have made the long journey into the desert are strangely referred to as "liberators" in their registration forms. Yet despite the moniker, they have not been liberated to watch the spectacle as they might have liked.

The authorities decided who was allowed to go to Kashgar. For "security reasons" they all have to stay at the shabby Qinibagh Hotel. Other hotels were instructed to turn away foreign journalists. Young helpers handed the journalists a comprehensive brochure, which mainly contains prohibitions and urges them "to show courtesy."

The authorities have forbidden journalists to watch the torch relay from the roadside. The foreign press are only allowed to be at the start and finish, where they are first carefully searched and then closely monitored by officials.

The Olympics in China's Wild West is no relaxed affair. Kashgar has been cowed and the Communist Party, with its security phobia, has the city totally in its grip. One wonders what the actual games in Beijing might look like. The answer comes blaring out of the loudspeakers under the Mao statue: "We are ready!"

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