A doll of Afanti is displayed in a musical instrument museum beside Apandiland, a new theme park near Kashgar in far western China. / Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
KASHGAR, China - Touted as the Disneyland of western China, a new theme park called Apandiland stands on the ancient Silk Road that leads to nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan - almost 3,000 miles from Beijing, the Chinese capital.
Standing in for Mickey and company at the dusty foot of the Pamir Mountains is the beloved character Afanti in his trademark turban and beard. The donkey-riding Afanti - legendary from Turkey to Central Asia for his jokes and wisdom - will be seen swinging at the prow of a pirate ship and other rides when the park fully opens next year.
Will visitors show up? "It's a real worry whether Chinese tourists are going to come in big numbers due to worries about terrorism," Huang Gen, 27, said as he and other workers completed a theater in Apandiland before its partial opening last month. At the same time, park security guards conducted drills with riot shields and wooden clubs.
More than 300 people have died this year in violence that police call terror attacks in China's northwest Xinjiang region, homeland of the Muslim Uighur (WEE-gur) people. The amusement park, built by a south China real estate giant, is among several projects - coupled with a renewed security crackdown - that China hopes will bring prosperity and stability to this vast, mostly poor, land of deserts and mountains.
After decades of state-sponsored immigration by Han Chinese, the nation's majority ethnic group, Uighurs make up less than 50% of the region's 22 million people. Many complain of Communist Party policies that restrict their religion, culture and language in ways that allow the Han to benefit more than Uighurs from Xinjiang's economic growth.
Over the past year, that long-simmering resentment has shifted into more insurrection. In late July, according to the Xinjiang government, 37 civilians were killed, and 59 "terrorists" were shot dead in Kashgar's Shache County. A few miles from Apandiland, 16 people died in Sayibage township during an attack on police in December, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
The government blames the unrest on overseas activists using the Internet to radicalize Muslims and foster dreams of an independent Uighur state. China launched a "people's war" on terrorists in May, which included pronouncing death sentences on suspects during public rallies in sports stadiums. The crackdown "should reach every village and household," security minister Guo Shengkun vowed in early August.
Uighur exiles and Human Rights Watch argue that tough security and discriminatory policies help fuel the violence. The anti-terror campaign "promises only more bloodshed, as the fundamental causes of Uighur grievances remain unaddressed," said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, a Washington-based advocacy group that uses another spelling for the ethnic group.
Religious restrictions included a ban on fasting during the recent holy month of Ramadan for students and civil servants. Men with long beards and women in Islamic veils were barred this month from taking public buses in Karamay, another Xinjiang city.
The government sees Kashgar, pop. 500,000, as a key hub for trade and entertainment to spur development on what Beijing calls the Silk Road Economic Belt. Close to Apandiland and 20 minutes from Kashgar are the wholesale markets of Guangzhou New City, a trading area supported by south China's Guangdong in a twinning arrangement whereby richer provinces assist Xinjiang.
Afanti's donkey is the cartoon mascot for the region's new base of e-commerce. Former tour guide Rozaji Obol, 25, and other Uighurs plan to grab a slice of Xinjiang's lucrative online dried fruit business, dominated by Han traders in south China. Since the violence keeps most tourists away, Obol started supporting himself in June by importing baby food and exporting Xinjiang's famous fruits. "I always dreamed of setting up a company, and now we've done that," he said.
Reviving the old Silk Road could reduce ethnic strife, said Ren Yanping, a sales manager at Guangzhou New City's small commodity market. "If you can raise people's standard of living, they don't listen to the extremists anymore," said Ren, 35, a Han from central Henan province who moved five years ago to Kashgar, China's westernmost city.
Major initiatives announced this summer include a new university for Kashgar, the cultural heart of Xinjiang for many Uighurs, and a $3.2 billion fund to create jobs in the area's cotton and textile industries.
Government inducements such as zero taxes for five years helped Muhammad Nadeem Arshad, a businessman from Pakistan, open Marcopolo Traders. He said the unrest here pales beside the problems in his home country.
Kashgar police pay frequent visits to warn foreign traders, Arshad said. "They say, 'Don't have relations with Uighurs, they want to separate from China. They might use Pakistan people to create trouble,' " he said.
The government's approach to Xinjiang combines tight security with heavy economic investment, said Raffaello Pantucci, who researches Xinjiang at the Royal United Services Institute in London and traveled through the region last month.
"However, people's disenfranchisement and sense of alienation stems from more than just economic underdevelopment," he said. "Fundamentally, a lot of Uighurs do not feel part of China and feel their culture is being taken away. And this is not something that economics are necessarily going to answer."
Beijing's push to integrate Uighurs into modern China will take time, Pantucci said. In the short term, "we will continue to see people angry at the state, and this is expressing itself in the sorts of violent incidents that we have been seeing slowly spreading across the country," he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed ethnic unity and bilingual education in Xinjiang this summer at a conference that called for greater "mingling" between ethnic groups that remain highly segregated.
Li Qing, a Han resident of Xinjiang for 25 years, has not learned Uighur, a Turkic language. She said if more people here spoke Mandarin, as she does, that would reduce terrorism.
Li said two Han Chinese were knifed to death in June outside her Kashgar apartment. "We can't communicate now, as many Uighurs do not speak Chinese well," said Li, 46, a retiree from the justice bureau. She said some Uighurs "have been brainwashed. They must speak Chinese, so they will love the country and won't cause trouble."
When they travel beyond Xinjiang, Uighurs are often unable to check into hotels, as ethnic Han staff view them as potential terrorists and call police to check their papers.
Some Uighurs just hope to get ahead. Student Asat Ali, 18, speaks Chinese and dreams of studying medicine at a top Beijing university. Last month Ali and other young Uighurs crowded into Kashgar's new e-commerce center to train for temporary jobs at a trade fair. "Before there were just fields here," he said. This "is still a poor county, but now we have a chance to develop."
Ali said the way to stop the violence is to educate young people and train the unemployed, so both will ignore the extremists. Terrorists recruit from "low-quality people in remote, poor villages," he said. "They can't distinguish between good and bad. It's only a very small minority. They can't represent all of us Xinjiang people."
Read the original story: China hopes trade, tourism can calm Silk Road terror