KASHGAR, China (Reuters) - In a backstreet of 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 says Hizb ut-Tahrir are terrorists, and claim they operate in the far western region of Xinjiang, home to some 8 million Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs, many of whom chafe under Chinese rule.
But the group, 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 restive Xinjiang, especially ahead of this summer’s Beijing Olympics.
“Strike hard against the Islamic Liberation Party” and “The Islamic Liberation Party is a violent terrorist organization” read the signs in Kashgar, written in red in both Chinese and Uighur’s Arabic-based 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.
“I don’t know what that group is,” said one Uighur, who declined to give his name, shaking his head and scurrying away.
As in another strife-hit Chinese region, Tibet, many Uighurs resent the growing economic and cultural impact of Han Chinese who have in some cases been encouraged by the government to move to far-flung and under populated parts of the country.
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 organization 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 Hizbut 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.
Though a part of China, many areas in Xinjiang feel a world away from the booming and cosmopolitan cities on the Chinese coast, far to the east.
In Kashgar, a city close to the Pakistan and Afghan borders, some women not only cover their heads, but also veil their faces. In some cases, dark brown cloths envelope the whole head.
Clocks in a lot of mosques, restaurants, cafes and shops are set to Xinjiang time, two hours behind Beijing time, the official standard for the entire country, even if that means the sun does not set until after 10 p.m. in Kashgar in the summer.
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, 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, media representative for Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain, told Reuters in an emailed 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,” 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 Xinhua news agency announced sentences ranging from death to life in jail for six Uighurs accused of “splittism and organizing 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 destabilize China,” Gladney said.
“It’s not clear that the civil unrest had any of those goals in mind,” he added. “They were pretty disorganized.”
Still, authorities launched a propaganda drive last year targeting what China says are the true intentions of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
“Be very clear about the ‘Islamic Liberation Party‘s’ reactionary nature,” the Kashgar government said in a notice on its website. “Be very clear about their pervasive and actual threat to Xinjiang and Kashgar.”
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 Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi, who asked not be identified, fearing repercussions with the authorities. “But there are too many Han and too few of us.”
Editing by Megan Goldin