Both Tibetans and Uighurs complain the autonomy their homelands are said to have is nothing but symbolic because all major policy decisions are made by the Chinese Communist party and almost all of the senior party posts in the region are held by ethnic Chinese. Though Uighurs accounted for more than 90 percent of the region's population when the party came to power in 1949, they account for less than half now.
The region is vast and rich in resources, particularly oil, which has made it a center of China's campaign to develop the western backward provinces. Beijing has tried to tame Xinjiang with its signature style of economic modernization combined with harsh political controls. But the influx of migrants from other parts of China and the government's heavy-handed control over religious activities has fomented resentment among local Uighurs.
Beijing has long alleged that the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, as the area is formally known, is a hotbed for separatists clamouring for independence and a target for terrorist campaigns by radical Islamic groups.
After Sep.11, China has linked its fight against Uighur separatists to the global war against terror. The government has claimed that several hundred Uighurs have received training from the Afghan Taliban.
During a Mar.10 televized interview, the communist party boss of Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, issued a stern warning to those he said were trying to use ethnic strife to sabotage the upcoming Olympic games. "No matter what nationality, no matter who it is, wreckers, separatists and terrorists will be smashed by us. There's no doubt about that," Wang said.
The news of the suppressed Xinjiang protests came as the Beijing Olympic torch relay reached Turkey.
In an unusual alliance, overseas-based Uighur rights groups have joined the Tibetans in protesting against Beijing. Demonstrators, shouting anti-China slogans, disputed the flame-receiving ceremony. At least six Uighurs were reported to have been detained by Turkish police.
The protests drew an immediate and angry condemnation by Beijing.
"The intention of those saboteurs is very clear. Disrupting and undermining the torch relay, which belongs to the people worldwide is a flagrant provocation of the Olympic spirit and charter and a brazen challenge to the people around the world, Jiang Yu, spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry said Thursday.
But observers believe the challenge to Beijing is no longer limited to countering attacks on its human rights record, which are commonly described here as attempts to tarnish China's international image ahead of the Olympics. At stake is Beijing's grip on power in the country's restive western regions.
"The protests we see now are the result of the communist party's reluctance to acknowledge the fallacy of its anti-splittist campaigns," says Wang Lixiong, a Beijing-based writer and scholar who has travelled extensively in Xinjiang and Tibet. "There have been protests in the past and there would be more in the future if Beijing doesn't take stock and change its approach."
Another China analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there has not been a display of such strong drive for self-determination since the late 1980s when liberal politicians like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang favoured political democratization and a gentler approach to ethnic minorities.
While the majority of Chinese enjoy a level of personal freedom unprecedented in the 59 years since the Communist party came to power, the party is unforgiving towards those who dare challenge its rule.
Beijing has dismissed demands by international rights groups to create conditions for its ethnic minorities to exercise true autonomy.
"Xinjiang practices a policy of regional ethnic autonomy, the ethnic minorities enjoy not only the same rights as the Han (majority) people, but also some special rights according to law," Jiang Yu said at a regular press conference.
Presented with spreading unrest in two very different but equally restive minority regions, Chinese authorities have stepped up angry rhetoric, denouncing the demonstrators as traitors.
"Those who do not love the motherland are not qualified to be human beings," Tibet's communist boss Zhang Qingli was quoted as saying recently.
This week China's public security officials accused the exiled Tibetan leader and Nobel Peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, and his supporters of adopting terrorist methods by planning suicide attacks.
"To our knowledge, the next plan of the Tibetan independence forces is to organize suicide squads to launch violent attacks," Wu Heping, spokesman for China's Ministry of Public Security said at a press conference.
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