Vanished Malaysian Airliner Carried Artist Whose Name Vanished, Too

The missing airliner's passenger list was published in China with one name missing: Memetjan Abdullah, an ethnic Uighur artist. Fears of Uighur separatism are simmering after a recent terrorist act.

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It's been five days now since a Malaysia Airlines flight bound for Beijing vanished without a trace. The speculation about what caused the plane to go off course includes terrorism. And in China, that led many to focus on that country's Uyghur minority. In fact, there was a Uyghur passenger on the flight.

But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, the focus on him quickly shifted from suspicion to sadness.

TIAN LIANG: (Foreign language spoken)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: When state media reported the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, Beijing University political scientist Zhang Jian says some people suspected it was linked to what they call China's 9/11: a knife attack this month that killed 29 people in a train station and was blamed on militant Uyghurs.

ZHANG JIAN: Out of the first, I would say, dozens of hours there has been a lot of speculation about the possibility of a terrorist attack, especially when later it is revealed that there is a Uyghur artist on board.

KUHN: Zhang says that when Chinese media first revealed the passenger list, one name was obscured from view: Memetjan Abdullah. He's a 35-year-old Uyghur oil painter from Kashgar, a fabled oasis town on the old Silk Road. The Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Muslim people who inhabit China's far west Xinjiang region.

I spoke to the artist's friend, Beijing-based Uyghur photographer and TV cameraman Kurbanjan Semet.

KURBANJAN SEMET: (Through translator) His paintings are all about his hometown: portraits, the old houses of Kashgar, women, children, old folks.

KUHN: He says his friend's main interest in life is capturing the colors and the textures of his Central Asian homeland on canvas. His friend doesn't drink or smoke. He's a Communist Party member but, he adds, he hasn't completely abandoned his Islamic faith. He says that Memetjan Abdullah was the only Uyghur chosen to join a group of two dozen Chinese painters traveling to Malaysia on an exchange program.

SEMET: (Through translator) This was Memetjan's first time traveling abroad. It was his first time winning a prize. It was just the beginning of his artistic career, being recognized within the community of Chinese painters.

KUHN: Right now, Kurbanjan Semet refuses to give up on his friend. He says he's hoping for a miracle.

Beijing University's Zhang Jian says it's fortunate that there has been no evidence of terrorism in the plane's disappearance. If there were and it were linked to Uyghur extremists, he says it could lead to big problems. At worst, he says it might prompt China to launch its on war on terrorism, which could affect China's Central Asian neighbors.

ZHANG: If China could use a possible terrorist attack as an excuse to legitimize its expansion of influence in that area, that would be a disaster for the regional diplomacy. I mean, of course, those people are still missing. You know, we care about them. We pray for them.

KUHN: Zhang reminds us that only five years ago, bloody ethnic riots between minority Uyghurs and majority Han shook the Shenzhen region. He says the fact that this hasn't happened this time suggest that China's leaders are more savvy in their use of public relations gestures, backed up by heavy security.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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