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   3 June, 2002 | 1130 IST



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Cup mania hits China, but not in northwest

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Tamora Vidaillet

World Cup mania has reached the farthest parts of the world's most populous nation, but minority Muslim fans in Xinjiang will not necessarily be backing China when they make their debut in the finals on Tuesday.

Many ethnic Uighurs say they will be supporting Italy or Argentina as they watch in the Turkic-speaking northwestern region where Beijing is constantly alert for signs of pro-independence feeling.

They will not, the fans say, be paying particular attention to Group C matches in which China open their first finals against Costa Rica after more than 40 years of trying to qualify.

"We'll be rooting for Italy. They have a better chance of winning," said one Uighur man in his thirties. "I won't be supporting China."

"I'm an Argentina fan. China won't have much of a chance," said another.

Such responses, shared by many others, underline ethnic differences between Uighurs living close to China's borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan and central Asia and ethnic Hans, China's overwhelmingly main ethnic group.

Many olive-skinned Uighurs barely speak Chinese and live in communities set distinctly apart from their Han counterparts, whose presence in Xinjiang is growing thanks to government-sponsored economic development in the region.

Elsewhere, tens of millions of soccer fans are awaiting China's World Cup debut, a source of immense national pride, and hoping they will defy the odds and make it to the second round.

But the World Cup in Japan and South Korea appears to be one area where Uighurs are ready to defy openly what some call repression of any form of dissent by not supporting China.


Chinese fans That reflects what both Uighurs and Hans say are ethnic tensions underlying daily life, even though Xinjiang officials say relations between the two groups are harmonious in a region China incorporated as a province in 1884.

Beijing lost control of Xinjiang for a brief period of virtual independence from 1938, during which the region sought aid from the Soviet Union. Beijing regained control after the Communists swept to power in 1949.

The government has accused Uighurs seeking independence for Xinjiang of a number of violent incidents over the last decade. It says 162 people have been killed in the violence.

For Hans, allegiance to any team but China is unthinkable.

"Of course, I will only support China. Every Chinese will support China. We've waited more than 40 years for this chance," said one Han who moved to Xinjiang a few years ago.

"I don't think China has much of a chance of winning but we hope they'll play well and score a goal," he added.

The Chinese team have tried to play down the expectations of their fans, up to 40,000 of whom are expected to watch the matches in South Korea.

But as the first match approaches, the World Cup tops the headlines and fans, like fans the world over, live in hope.

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