Uighur entrepreneur confronts prejudice in China

AFP
Abdulhabir Muhammad, chief operating officer of an educational consulting company, pictured at his office in Beijing
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Beijing (AFP) - Ambitious and apolitical, self-described "good Uighur" entrepreneur Abdulhabir Muhammad initially conceals his proud ethnic identity from his Chinese clients.

"After I solve everything I will tell them, 'Hey, I'm a Uighur, I'm from Xinjiang,'" he says, revelling in their astonishment even while poignantly aware of the prejudice it implies.

Violence is escalating in and beyond Xinjiang, the mostly Muslim Uighurs' homeland, blamed by the government on separatist "terrorists" -- with the executions of eight announced at the weekend.

In the rest of China Uighurs are generally stereotyped as happy ethnic dancers, curbside kebab-sellers or, increasingly, Islamist militants.

By contrast Abdulhabir -- the 24-year-old chief operating officer of an educational consulting company, and a Muslim who prays at a mosque every Friday -- epitomises the authorities' preferred vision of Xinjiang's future.

"I'm very happy to work in Beijing to show a lot of people that Uighurs are great people and we can do big things," he says.

His father was a poor wheat farmer who rose to own a chain of supermarkets in the region, and Abdulhabir has come further still.

Aged 15, he was accepted into a Beijing high school where he mastered Chinese and English, and then earned a degree in accounting from Binghamton University in New York state, followed by an MBA in entrepreneurship.

Now his company, which helps Chinese study abroad, has around 20 employees, 15 of them Han, China's dominant ethnic majority, and his business partner is a Manchu woman.

Telegenic and confident, Abdulhabir has been featured in state media along with other young business people as positive examples of Uighur identity.

"You know the reason I'm in the media is because I am a good Uighur," he says. "And I want other Uighurs to see me as a good Uighur as well."

- 'Panic-stricken' -

Michael Clarke, an authority on Xinjiang at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, said there has long been an "accommodated majority" of Uighurs in the region willing to accept Beijing's rule as the government poured resources into development.

Now, though, that majority risks being eroded not just through "militant extremism, but also more broadly from the continuing pressures from state policy across a range of issues", he says.

Rights groups and analysts accuse China's government of cultural and religious repression against Uighurs -- such as discouraging veils for women and beards for men, as well as limits on fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan -- fuelling the unrest.

A clash in the Yarkand area in late July left nearly 100 people dead, state media reported.

The government-appointed imam of the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, China's largest, was stabbed to death and one of his alleged killers, a 19-year-old Uighur, was shown on state television this week confessing he had targeted him for "distorting religion".

"Local pro-China elements are panic-stricken," Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said in an e-mail after the murder.

Amid the cycle of violence, Chinese state media announced Sunday that eight people had been executed for "terrorist attacks", including three it described as "masterminding" a shocking suicide car crash in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in October 2013.

- No guarantees -

Abdulhabir said that Uighurs should channel their energy into education, and avoid politics.

"I hate politics," he says. "And that's why our family are doing well, because we are far away from politics."

But a good education is no guarantee of success for Uighurs in China, and even those who find acceptance can end up in trouble.

Rebiya Kadeer, once a prominent businesswoman, ran afoul of authorities and now leads the WUC from exile. Ilham Tohti, a university professor critical of government policies in Xinjiang, has been charged with separatism, which can carry the death penalty.

Reza Hasmath, lecturer in Chinese politics at Oxford University, says Uighurs are hamstrung in securing coveted jobs due to difficulty accessing Han social networks, with the two groups distrusting each other.

"What we're seeing in Xinjiang is that Hans dominate all the high status, high paying jobs, whereas minorities, and particularly Uighurs, are dominating the more low status, low paying jobs," he said, even when education levels are comparable.

"These penalties in the labour market increase tensions," he said in a presentation in Beijing, leading some to seek solace in their own ethnic traditions.

"For some minorities who are not doing very well in the labour market, they go to religion, they rediscover their own culture," he said.

On a wall in Abdulhabir's office, a pair of colourful Uighur doppa, or traditional hats, are surrounded by pennants and emblems from American institutions to which he has sent students, among them Wharton business school.

There are tensions surrounding culture and religion, he acknowledges, but says violence and killing imams are not the answer.

"I want people to become more open-minded and solve the problem together peacefully," he said.

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