Many of Beijing’s predominantly Muslim ethnic Uighur migrants make a living 1 yuan (16 cents) at a time, selling lamb kebabs at makeshift streetside barbecues in the summer.
But now — amid what Uighur rights advocates call a wave of social, political and religious repression against their minority communities across China — Beijing authorities are cracking down on outdoor barbeques, with state-run Xinhua News Agency reporting Wednesday that the move is aimed at fighting the city’s crippling air pollution.
Uighurs are the Turkic-speaking native inhabitants of China’s remote western region of Xinjiang, and many of the 9 million who live there fear a loss of livelihood and culture as majority Han Chinese settlers pour into their home region.
Many Uighurs migrate to Beijing to sell their unique style of barbecued lamb kebabs, which are considered a delicacy throughout China and are ubiquitous on the capital’s streets. But as of May 1, outdoor barbecue vendors in Beijing must move their operations inside and obtain certification from local health authorities.
“It’s an effective way of sending all the Uighur vendors on the street back to [Xinjiang],” Alim Seytoff, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress advocacy organization, told Al Jazeera.
The New York-based Chinese Mission to the United Nations did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the issue.
Environmental watchdog Greenpeace declined to comment to Al Jazeera about the potential environmental effect of removing outdoor barbeques from a city that Greenpeace has often said is plagued in large part by smog from coal refineries in surrounding provinces.
Seytoff said the environmental argument is an excuse to keep Uighurs away from the capital. “There is no way they have of renting indoor space,” he said. “By banning outdoor kebab stands, the government is not making it a political issue but a pollution issue.”
He explained that many young Uighurs travel to big eastern cities like Beijing to make money by setting up barbecues, then sending their meager earnings back to their families in Xinjiang — where Seytoff said Uighurs’ economic prospects are even worse.
“There is no economic opportunity for Uighurs in [Xinjiang]. Chinese government offices and companies don’t hire Uighurs. Openly in their ads, [Han employers] say 'no Uighurs wanted' or 'Han only.' For Uighurs without education, there’s no way to get a job.”
Xinjiang, which abuts South and Central Asian nations including oil- and energy-rich Kazakhstan and Pakistan, is of great strategic and economic value to Beijing. Last September China signed a slew of contracts with adjoining nations to import oil and gas via Xinjiang. Uighur rights activists have contended that religious repression is one means of controlling a restive Uighur public that Beijing sees as a threat to such commerce.
In recent years Uighur resistance has grown in Xinjiang. Uighur separatist groups have been implicated in sporadic attacks and riots, and the United States has captured a handful of Uighurs at training camps in Afghanistan and detained them at Guantanamo Bay.
On Wednesday, Xinhua separately reported multiple injuries in a bomb blast and knife attack in Xinjiang’s regional capital of Urumqi. Seytoff said the incident would inevitably be blamed on Uighurs.
The bomb went off during a rare trip to Xinjiang by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who reiterated a tough stance on what his administration has called a series of armed attacks by “terrorist” and “separatist” Uighur groups. Rights activists have questioned such groups’ existence, as nearly all information about them comes from official accounts and state media.
In October, a car crashed into a crowd near Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square, killing five people and injuring 40. State media reported that the driver was Uighur and that his mother and wife were also in the car. The incident was classified as an attack perpetrated in coordination with an armed group.
Seytoff said Beijing’s backlash against kebab sellers — citing a fight against air pollution — is part of an effort to keep Uighurs out of the nation’s capital without attracting international attention.
“For the government in Beijing, all Uighurs are a safety concern,” Seytoff said.