KASHGAR, China—China locked down the far-western former Silk Road city of Kashgar on Tuesday in preparation for the passage of the Olympic torch relay through the sensitive region populated by ethnic Muslim Uighurs.
Shops lining the torch route were shuttered and police stood guard on every street corner. Soldiers and firefighters patrolled the main square of Kashgar, the city seen as the heart of Islam in China's oil-rich border region of Xinjiang.
“Nobody is allowed to watch the torch relay tomorrow unless you are being organised by your work unit. I feel a lot of regret,” said Chen Guangsheng, a Han Chinese resident of Kashgar who said her home was along the route.
“The police are coming to my house tonight to inspect it and to register everybody living there.”
Windows must be closed and residents were not allowed outside on their balconies during the relay, Chen added.
The Olympic torch relay was meant to be a symbol of national unity and pride for China, but on its international leg it was dogged by anti-government protests and at home authorities are at pains to ensure its smooth journey, especially in troubled minority areas such as Xinjiang.
The Olympic flame is likely to pass through Lhasa this weekend, although organisers have yet to confirm the date or details of the route through the Tibetan capital where anti-Chinese protests broke out in March.
Human Rights Watch said the International Olympic Committee should demand that Chinese organisers cancel the Tibet leg of the torch relay.
The New York-based rights group said using Tibet for “a propaganda opportunity” just three months after the protests were suppressed, and while independent observers were still barred from entry was “unconscionable and reckless”.
Fallout from the brutal Chinese crackdown on the Tibet protests resulted in demonstrations and counter-demonstrations on the international leg of the torch relay.
Tibet's neighbouring desert region of Xinjiang is home to 8 million ethnic Uighurs, a Central Asian people who speak a Turkic language and whom China blames for a series of attacks in the name of agitating for an independent state of East Turkestan.
Many Uighurs resent the migration of Han Chinese to the region and government controls on their culture and religion.
“Their event, not ours”
“They're crazy bringing it here,” said a Uighur resident called Hamid, tapping his head. “It's their event, not ours,” he added of the torch relay. “All we get is hassles.”
In the backstreets, there was no sign of the Olympics propaganda or flags that lined Kashgar's main thoroughfares, and while banners welcomed the torch in English and Chinese, there was little use of Uighur language.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the torch relay here, foreign journalists were confined to one hotel and told they could not conduct interviews along the torch route.
A government official denied the restrictions were due to fear of “sudden incidents”, China's euphemism for protests.
“We expect so many people to come, we thought it would be easier this way,” said the official.