KHOTAN, China (Reuters) - The two young women trying on headscarves at a dusty market stall have heard of the recent unrest in Tibet’s capital Lhasa, but they say the same could never happen here in China’s border region of Xinjiang.
Despite their confidence, tensions have bubbled to the surface in Xinjiang, much to the dismay of China’s leaders who are anxious to maintain stability in the oil-rich region which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan and is home to about 8 million Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic-speaking people. “All the ethnicities in China are one big family,” said one of the women, 19, as she studied herself in an orange headscarf in the mirror, debating whether to buy it.
It’s a line that echoes the statements of China’s Communist leaders in Beijing, but the sentiment felt hollow when the wave of anti-government protests erupted in its ethnic Tibetan areas last month.
Then came a demonstration in Khotan, an Uighur-majority town on the edge of Xinjiang’s forbidding desert, where hundreds marched through the weekly bazaar in late March in a protest the city government blamed on ethnic separatists.
The demonstration, which was by all accounts a peaceful and isolated incident, nonetheless touched on the worst fears of China’s leaders: the prospect Tibet’s unrest could have a contagion effect on Xinjiang, its other sensitive border region, ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August.
But analysts say Xinjiang is not likely to be the next Tibet despite distrust between Han Chinese and Uighurs and disgruntlement among Uighurs over restrictions on their religion and culture.
“The broader perspective on this is that these kind of local demonstrations happen all over China — if the security figures are to be believed, by the tens of thousands every year,” said one Western analyst, who declined to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
“It’s become almost a standard way of dealing with local issues, a pressure release, but of course it’s much harder for Uighurs to do this because they’re branded separatists.”
The road to Khotan, flanked on either sides by unbroken stretches of desolate desert, is free of the kind of security personnel that has flooded into Tibetan areas since the protests began there in March.
At its weekly market, merchants flog everything from sides of mutton to delicate threads of saffron, much as they have for generations.
Residents say there is plenty of discontent, but not many outlets to express it.
“I could guarantee that kind of thing couldn’t happen here,” said Ahyiguzai, a 17-year-old Uighur resident, referring to the Lhasa riot.
“People have those feeling of dissatisfaction sometimes, but they wouldn’t dare do anything. Those kinds of things are resolutely not allowed,” she said.
Analysts say fears of separatist sentiment and the prospect of radical Islam making inroads have meant that Beijing’s grip on the region is especially tight.
In its annual report, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China said that religious restrictions on Uighurs remained “severe” and cited increased control over Muslim pilgrimages and vetting of the content of sermons.
But rather than having the assimilationist effect the government seeks, those policies could be having the opposite impact, driving the Uighur community to close ranks.
“The policies are actually widening the gap between Uighurs and the rest of the population,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“People build up barriers to protect their ethnic identity from the attempt by the state to remodel it.”
Everywhere in Khotan and nearby towns there are signs of a community that is increasingly devout, an anomaly in officially atheist China.
Uighur women wear headscarves and, once married, many also cover their faces, leaving only their eyes visible.
Many residents in Khotan, as well as Yarkand and Kashgar, Uighur towns stretching along the ancient Silk Route, express a desire to make the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, and unhappiness with government restrictions on the number of pilgrims permitted to do so.
China says the community poses a significant terror threat, and points to a January raid on a group that Xinjiang’s Communist Party boss described as a “terrorist gang” as well as a foiled plot to attack a jet from the region bound for Beijing.
Last week, Chinese authorities announced the detention of 45 East Turkestan “terrorist” suspects, and foiled plots to carry out suicide bombings and kidnap athletes to disrupt the Olympics. Uighur activists say the terror plots have been fabricated.
The United States listed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which advocates for a separate state in Xinjiang, as a terrorist organization in 2002.
Rights groups say China exaggerates the threat of militant activity in the region to exert greater control, and analysts say those exaggerations mean that Beijing’s intelligence on the issue tends to be unreliable.
Still, global fears about Islamic radicalism may limit the kind of international support that has helped the Tibet protests.
Uighurs also lack a figurehead such as the Dalai Lama to press their cause abroad, or an obvious catalyst for protest, such as the March 10 anniversary of the uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet that sparked the marches there.
But most of all there simply may be no space in Uighur society for widespread dissent to bubble to the surface.
“Even for small things you hear about people being taken away,” said Ahyiguzai. “So any kind of bigger incident I don’t think could happen here.”
Editing by Megan Goldin