Sunday, July 6, 2008; 8:06 PM
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.