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Ethnic soldiers face challenges and opportunities in Chinese military
2007/07/18

Wearing the classic dark green People's Liberation Army (PLA) uniform and polishing his gun to a shine, Private Mohammad Jiang acts like a Chinese soldier even though he doesn't much look like one.

His high nose, wide eyes, heavy beard and middle-eastern complexion cause a bit of fuss for passers-by. Mohammad may not appear very Asian but he's 100 percent a Chinese soldier.

Like his company's other comrades-in-arms, Mohammad is Muslim and a member of the ethnic Uygurs, one of China's largest minorities who live mainly in China's far west Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

When Mohammad joined the army four years ago he was surprised and relieved to find himself in an "ethnic company".

"My family told me to make sure I got along with the Han comrades as we all had expected that most of the soldiers in the unit would be Han ," said the 23-year-old. Han Chinese make up more than 90 percent of China's population.

It turns out that in Mohammad's unit only the company commander is Han. The other soldiers are all of the Muslim faith and members of either the Uygur, Kazak, Tajik or Hui ethnic minorities.

In Xinjiang, which makes up about a sixth of China's landmass, more than 60 percent of the 20 million residents belong to an ethnic minority.

The deputy chief of staff of the local military branch is also a Uygur. Imitohti says ethnic PLA members in Xinjiang are in separate companies because they share similar traditions, customs and language that are quite different from Han people.

Segregating the soldiers by their ethnicity is unique to Xinjiang, says Major Wang Lin, who is Han. "We must respect the culture and customs of Uygurs and other ethnic minorities," he says, adding the ethnic company is attached to the local field army and shares the same duties as Han soldiers.

Along with physical training, soldiers in Xinjiang, as in other parts of the country, often find themselves working on civilian development projects, providing manpower, muscle and resources.

When the corps recently helped install power lines in remote villages the ethnic soldiers helped Han soldiers to communicate with the local Uygurs.

"Most ethnic soldiers are from Xinjiang and they become a communication bridge between the army and locals," said Wang Lin.

In Xinjiang the ethnic companies are co-led by a Han and an ethnic minority officer. The PLA has also imposed a quota on the officer ranks in Xinjiang, requiring that at least 20 percent must be from an ethnic minority.

Ethnic minority officers are also in charge training local militia reserves. Ninety percent of the reservists don't speak Mandarin.

"I speak Uygur to the locals and they trust me," said Imitohti, the 49-year-old deputy chief of staff whose military career spans three decades.

When Imitohti travels the 3,800 km to Beijing for training and conferences he often faces stares and embarrassing situations. The officer, wearing his fully, military dress uniform was stopped by guard who must have thought he was an imposter.

"He was suspicious why someone who looks like a foreigner would be wearing a PLA uniform," he said, adding his fellow Uygur officers have has similar encounters.

"I have been in the PLA for more than 30 years. I hope people will start to understand" that we exist, he said.

"There are an increasing number of ethnic youths who want to join the army," said a PLA official who asked not to be identified.

To cater to their special needs the military detachment provides a separate dinning hall that serves Muslim foods. It also provides reading material in several languages, along with musical instruments unique to the ethnic groups. The soldiers from ethnic minorities are also given time off to celebrate their traditional festivals.

Although there may be a few extra perks all PLA soldiers work for a common cause and company commander Wang Jian has no doubt about the fitness, readiness and faithfulness of his men. He's been with his ethnic company for two years and while there is a bit of language barrier the Han commander is learning to speak the Uygur language.

Company commander Wang says there are many subtle cultural differences that have taken him a long time to learn. When he was first assigned to the ethnic company, Wang was surprised that his men would all leave the washroom when he came in. He later learned that it was a Uygur sign of respect. Wang learned to avoid the washroom when it is most busy.

"Fortunately, ethnic minority soldiers are very friendly and hospitable. I can communicate with them quite well now," said Wang, who raised thousands of kilometers away in the coastal city of Qingdao, Shandong province, is extremely proud of his men from the far west.

"We are one of the top companies in the army as our soldiers seem tougher and more united," said the commander, who also had to get used to drinking butter tea a typical Uygur breakfast.

Imitohti says despite cultural difference all PLA soldiers, regardless of their ethnicity, have the same primary objective. "We all stand guard for our nation," he said.

For young men like Mohammad becoming a PLA soldier not only brings new challenges but opportunities. He was educated in the Uygur language but is now being given the chance to learn Mandarin.

"I wouldn't have been able to make such progress in my Chinese if I had not joined the army," said Mohammad who is from Hotan in southern Xinjiang.

Along with language lessons and military tactics, Mohammad has learned how to drive a transport truck, a skill he'll likely use to earn a decent living when he returns to civilian life.

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