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Uighurs struggle in a world reshaped by Chinese influx

In China's far west, the Muslim ethnic group finds itself relegated to menial jobs. Chinese officials also restrict religious practice and use of their language in schools.

Muslims: Chinese Uighurs leave a mosque in Kashgar, in Xinjiang Province. The Chinese do not let Uighurs attend mosque until age 18.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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King Daoud Mehsut of Kucha, 12th in his royal line and the last man still alive in China to have sat on a monarch's throne, is a man of noble bearing and proud visage.

The old man's fate, however, is dispiriting. Once a leader of his Uighur people – the Muslim ethnic group that predominates in this far western province of Xinjiang – King Daoud is now wheeled out by two young Chinese female assistants presenting him as a tourist attraction to visitors prepared to buy a 200 RMB ($28.60) ticket. "I get a cut," he says simply.

King Daoud's humiliation, say some Uighurs (prounced WEE-gur), is a sign of what is in store for their culture as a whole in the face of the Chinese government's relentless drive to settle more and more ethnic Han Chinese in traditionally Uighur territory, rich in oil and minerals.

"We feel like foreigners in our own land," complains one Uighur teacher in the provincial capital of Urumqi, who offers only a nickname, Batur, for fear of angering the authorities. "We are like the Indians in America." Or Tibetans in Tibet. "Most Uighurs sympathize with the Tibetans," says Batur. "We feel we are all under the same sort of rule."

Though Xinjiang's 8 million Uighurs have shown only a few signs of the sort of unrest that shook Tibet recently, the Chinese government is just as nervous about "splittism" here among the country's fifth-largest ethnic minority, afraid that beneath the surface calm, resentment is bubbling.

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