KASHGAR, China (Reuters) - There is little doubt that in large swathes of the world’s most populous country, the Beijing Olympics are being keenly anticipated as a chance to show off China’s new global standing.
But in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where Beijing has accused al Qaeda of working with ethnic Uighur militants to use terror to establish an independent state called East Turkestan, paranoia about security means there is little Olympic cheer.
Residents and rights groups say the last few months in the lead up to the summer Games, which open on August 8, have been marked by an increasingly heavy crackdown and an ever more onerous public security burden.
This week, soldiers and police lined the street in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, whose population is mainly from the Muslim Uighur minority, and kept all but a carefully vetted handful from witnessing the Olympic torch procession.
Local people say they were told to stay at home, and were even barred from watching the torch’s passage from their balconies. Shops were ordered bolted shut, prompting quiet yet cautious complaints from residents long used to tough restrictions.
“I’m going to lose two days of business, but what can I do?” said one Uighur man who declined to be identified. He runs a small convenience store on Kashgar’s main street, eerily deserted ahead of the relay, which passed without incident on Wednesday.
“Of course, I think it’s a good thing the torch is coming here,” he added hastily, wearily eying a police car parked across the road.
Xinjiang is home to 8 million Muslim Uighurs, many of whom resent the growing presence and economic grip of Han Chinese.
The government claims to have cracked two Xinjiang-based terror plots this year alone, one to try to down a Beijing-bound flight and the other to kidnap foreigners and carry out suicide attacks at the Olympics.
That has prompted a renewed tightening of the screws in oil-rich Xinjiang, according to the exiled World Uyghur Congress, which says government claims are being purposefully exaggerated.
“Although Chinese officials have placed tremendous emphasis on the threat of ‘terrorism’ targeted against the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there is no compelling evidence either from foreign governments or Chinese sources to justify such a claim,” said spokesman Dilxat Raxit.
In Kashgar, close to the Pakistan and Afghan borders, there are signs everywhere of the tense relationship between the traditional, religiously reverent population and the central government thousands of kilometres (miles) away in Beijing.
Notices spray-painted on walls in Kashgar’s old city warn people against “illegal religious activities”. Large banners strung across schools and apartment blocks call on people to “protect ethnic unity and oppose ethnic splittism”.
In March, the Kashgar government launched a campaign against illegal residents, plastering notices outside homes warning of fines and detentions for those who rented out apartments or rooms to people lacking the proper documents.
“It has ensured social stability during the Olympic period,” the city government said in a statement on its website (www.xjks.gov.cn).
But for the man on the street, even those who say they think the Olympics are positive for China, the restrictions only add to the hassle of everyday life.
“As soon as one person does something wrong, they go after all of us,” said Sabojan.
The government insists that the terror threat is real, and that the economy of the remote region will not grow if they do not take action against the “three evil forces” of separatism, extremism and terrorism.
“If there is no stability, there is no development,” state media quoted official Akbar Wufuer as saying earlier this year, adding that Kashgar’s economy grew only around 5 percent a year in the 1980s and 1990s compared with double-digit growth in 2007.
Still, even with the massive pre-Olympics propaganda push urging China’s ethnic minorities to “hold hands and welcome the Games”, as the posters proclaim, many are not convinced.
“We know of the Olympics, but we do not support them. They are the Han Chinese’s Games,” said Eributao. “We are just scared.”