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China’s Wild West
My journey to China’s westernmost province began this May in the backroom of an ordinary brasserie in one of Paris’s eastern suburbs. The Uyghur man I had come to see was accompanied by a plainclothes policeman, but even so, his hands trembled and there was a look of fear in his eyes: had I really come to interview him or was I in the pay of the Chinese political police? He was a member of the dissident World Uyghur Congress (1) and had just been granted political asylum in France. His was a run-of-the-mill story: he had protested about an injustice at his workplace in Xinjiang, which led to him being arrested and imprisoned. After that he had fled. That was all he would say. His fear of being tracked to a Paris suburb may seem excessive but it’s indicative of the moral and physical pressure facing the Uyghurs, China’s Turkic-speaking Muslims.
A few days later, I arrived in Urumqi, the capital of the vast Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, which is nearly 4,000km from Beijing. There were no immediate signs of tension, even in the city’s Uyghur district. Here, members of the region’s Muslim minorities – Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Kirghiz – coexist with Han Chinese, who are the largest group in the city (though not throughout the Xinjiang region) as they are in China as a whole. Some Han families have lived here for several generations.
The district’s small mosque was open to visitors. In noisy, narrow streets lined with stalls near the recently spruced-up bazaar, traders were selling a bizarre mix of goods: combs and hair dyes, herbal remedies, phone cards etc. Skewers of chicken and mutton with noodles were also on offer. Unlike the Han Chinese, the Uyghurs don’t eat pork, but that’s the least of the differences separating these two peoples.
Between 5 and 8 July, there was an unprecedented outbreak of violence in this and neighboring districts of Urumqi, in particular outside the University of Xinjiang. For several hours on the 5th, Uyghur demonstrators armed with clubs, knives and other makeshift weapons set fire to buses, taxis and police vehicles. They looted shops and beat and lynched Han Chinese. The next day, the Han hit back, attacking and killing Uyghurs. By the end of July, the official statistics registered 194 dead and 1,684 wounded, but the figures are not broken down by ethnic group.
Even if no one could have predicted interethnic violence on this scale two months earlier, there had already been signs of a build-up of anger in a humiliated and often harassed community. Even making appointments with Uyghurs, whether they were political activists or not, turned out to be far from straightforward. I had to make repeated phone calls, and conversations begun in public places would be concluded in streets where no one was watching. Sometimes I even had to introduce my interviewee to the Han party secretary in order to show that everything was above board. Anyone who receives a foreigner may immediately be suspected of “nationalist activities”, an accusation second only to terrorism in its gravity, which can lead to loss of your job, demotion or even arrest and imprisonment.
According to Abderrahman (2), an Uyghur civil engineer, “suspicion and repression are the rule for Uyghurs, but the Han Chinese have also got cause for concern if they’re suspected of involvement in politics”. I had met him in one of the best Uyghur restaurants in Urumqi, patronised by Han Chinese, Muslim families (that included both veiled women and girls in jeans and make-up) and foreign tourists. Abderrahman runs a small business with five staff from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. He’s not naturally fearful but when he discusses the discrimination his community suffers, he lowers his voice. And when we talk about what is taught in schools, he writes on his hand: “It’s brain-washing.”
Surveillance is widespread, particularly around mosques. In Kashgar (Kashi to give it its official name) in the south of the region, Friday prayers can draw as many as 20,000 people. The whole event takes place under the eyes of plainclothes police. Here, the appointing of imams needs official approval from the authorities and their sermons are carefully controlled: the Xinjiang government’s official website, which publishes a History of Islam in China, explains that the (carefully chosen) religious authorities and the Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership have produced a four-volume set of sermons, time-limited to 20-30 minutes, from which the busy imam can choose.
It wasn’t always like this. Religious freedom was written into the Chinese constitution in 1954. Until the mid-1960s, Muslims could practise their faith with little impediment. Ahmed, who’s a guide in Kashgar, remembers women of his grandmother’s generation wearing the veil when he was a boy. But during the dark years of the cultural revolution and its aftermath, mosques were shut down or destroyed. Even within the home expressions of religious feeling were out of the question. The repression came to an end with Deng Xiaoping’s move towards economic liberalization in 1978 and the principle of religious freedom was put back into the constitution in 1982.
‘What are you waiting for?’
By the end of the cultural revolution, only 392 useable places of worship remained in Kashgar district, one of the region’s most important religious centers. By the end of 1981, their number had risen to 4,700, and in 1995 it stood at 9,600. According to Rémi Castets, a French specialist on Uyghur movements, by the turn of the millennium Xinjiang had 24,000 mosques, two-thirds of the total in China. Koranic schools were opened, Muslim scholarly works were being revived and private printing presses set up. Religion was developing in tandem with a revival of Uyghur culture and sense of identity.
But things started to go wrong in the early 1990s. On one hand, Islam became politicized: there was an increase in the number of meshreps (a sort of local religious committee which sometimes engaged in protest) and organizations such as the East Turkestan independence movement, which is suspected of al-Qaida links, were set up. And at the same time, the new-found independence of the former Soviet republics of central Asia just across the border raised hopes of independence for the Uyghurs, which had previously been ignored. There was even talk of “Uyghurstan”, uniting the Uyghur communities on both sides of the Chinese border.
Saniya, who teaches ancient literature in Urumqi, still remembers a family reunion in 1992 when her mother’s sister, who had fled to Uzbekistan during the cultural revolution, returned home. “Then it was our turn to go to Tashkent. It was a shock. We noticed that the Uzbeks had a better life than us and they’d preserved their traditions better than we had. But at the same time there was no heavy religious element.” From that time on, she continued, “the question of independence became very important. There’s no cultural, religious or linguistic barrier between Xinjiang and Uzbekistan. People in Tashkent often asked us what we were waiting for. ‘We did it,’ they’d say, ‘so why don’t you?’ Uyghur pride was at stake. It was a bit like a challenge.”
Such feelings probably contributed to the birth of Uyghur movements with links to Pakistan and Turkey, some of which had separatist ambitions. Even if they didn’t have a major impact on the population at large, there were demonstrations and other incidents throughout the 1990s. Beijing reacted in three ways. It used diplomacy to combat the “three forces” (extremism, separatism and terrorism) by cutting all links between the Uyghur activists and their neighbors (the central Asian republics and Pakistan) and, especially through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It also engaged in development and modernisation, using public finances and the military-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – better known as bingtuans or “military brigades” – and by attracting Han Chinese to the region. And finally it resorted to close surveillance and repression.
“Central government’s aim is not to attack Islam per se,” says Castets. “What it wants to do above all is prevent Islam giving legitimacy to expressions of separatist or anti-government feeling. The CPC has as its model the example of the Hui.” China has managed to pacify its relations with the Hui, the country’s biggest Muslim community (10 million people) (3). The government is hoping to achieve a similar result with the Uyghurs.
Castets estimates government investment in Xinjiang since 2000 at 870bn yuan ($127bn). Economic dynamism is apparent everywhere: the region’s rich reserves of coal, oil and gas are being exploited and new sources of energy developed (on the Urumqi-Turfan motorway there’s a special viewing point where you can photograph the wind turbines (4) which disappear into the distance). Giant new towns such as Korla are being built, with its numerous open-air shopping centres and oil company headquarters. Airports and motorways are under construction. Building sites have sprung up everywhere, including in Kashgar’s old Uyghur quarter, which is well on the way to being destroyed.
Xinjiang’s economy is based on raw materials, agriculture and, to a lesser extent, tourism, and a good half of the engines of economic growth are in the hands of the XPCC or bingtuans. Comprehending this state within a state is essential to any understanding of this far-flung province of China.
Bingtuans were created in 1954 to safeguard China’s borders and clear land. They recruited soldiers demobbed after the civil war, committed Communists ready to take civilization to the countryside and Han Chinese (whether Communists or not) who had been sent into exile or to labour camps for “re-education”, such as the famous writer Wang Meng, a communist found guilty of a “drift to the right” (5). Twelve bingtuans were established in places such as Beilongjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. After Mao’s death in 1976, all of them were abolished – all except those in Xinjiang, which are more active today than ever.
Shihezi museum traces their history in socialist-realist style: there are dozens of yellowing photographs of poor peasant-soldiers or children in makeshift schools that are redolent of the pioneering spirit of their time. One room is entirely filled with a huge map that shows the power of the bingtuans today, a power that far exceeds that of the region’s government.
The bingtuans are still under the control of the People’s Liberation Army. The districts they control have a population of 1.9 million. They have powers to levy taxes. They own 1,500 businesses, including construction companies, several of which are quoted on the stock market. They also run two universities and control a third of the agricultural land in Xinjiang, a quarter of its industrial output and between half and two-thirds of its exports. (Bizarrely, the bingtuans are also the biggest producer of ketchup in the world; they even bought up a French company, Conserves de Provence, in 2004 through their subsidiary Xinjiang Chalkis Co.)
The new frontier
At a historic meeting about the stability of Xinjiang province in 1996, the CPC politburo invited Communists to “encourage the young people of China to come and settle in areas designated as the XPCC”. But this is not the only conduit of immigration that has brought about a pronounced shift in the make-up of the region’s population (Han Chinese have gone from just 6 per cent of the population in 1949 to 40.6 per cent in 2006). Since restrictions on internal movement were lifted, Han Chinese have come here hoping to make their fortune in what they see as a new frontier. Poor peasants (mingong) from provinces where income levels are even lower than Xinjiang, such as Sezuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, have followed their lead. These people only just scrape by in low-paid jobs, so to call them “colonizers” as the western media often do, is misleading.
The new arrivals also include professionals who work for public companies and whose salaries are much more comfortable, even if their living conditions aren’t. One such is Liu Wang, an engineer who is working on the new railway line between Urumqi and Hotan, the last stretch before the Taklamakan desert. He comes from Shaanxi and only sees his wife and children once a year for Chinese New Year. He doesn’t see much difference between the lot of the Han, the Uyghurs and the Kazakhs. In his opinion, the whole Xinjiang region needs a shake-up: “It’s still socialism here”, he insists, and he doesn’t make it sound like a compliment.
Liu Wang regrets how slowly the wheels turn in the region: “Everything always has to be referred higher up. You always have to cover your back.” As a result, public money gets wasted. “They build motorways, airports and hotels, but staff training doesn’t follow.” That’s why on his building site the skilled positions go to the Han while Uyghurs are left with the unskilled jobs. It’s an argument that’s heard repeatedly. As we drove past a building site on the Kashgar-Hotan road, my Uyghur taxi driver said: “Of course there are Uyghur engineers, but they can’t go abroad to get trained, and now all the techniques are imported from Germany and Japan. They won’t give them passports to travel.”
In China there is no automatic right to a passport; it’s in the gift of the district leadership. Whether you are an engineer, researcher or just an ordinary citizen, getting approval entails an obstacle course for anyone who belongs to an ethnic minority. If successful, you then have to fly to Beijing to get a visa from the country you want to visit, which puts foreign travel beyond the reach of most Uyghurs.
Language is the other thing that holds Uyghurs back in the job market. Most Uyghurs don’t speak Mandarin, or speak it badly, but it’s the language used in most Han businesses. Wang Jian-min, an anthropology professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, says: “There is often confusion between language and ethnicity. You can understand a business requiring that you speak Mandarin properly, but it’s not normal that it demands that you are Han.” It may not be normal, but it is certainly easier, according to a young businessman based in the suburbs of Shihezi who said: “With minorities you need a halal canteen or special foods, because their dietary habits are different.” He felt that in general “when there is a problem, the Uyghurs are less conciliatory” than the mingong, who can be sent back to their home province at the slightest provocation. As a result, even highly qualified Uyghurs find it hard to get a job. That feeds their frustration, even though the situation isn’t rosy in the rest of the country, where one graduate in three fails to find employment.
Even so, the language barrier is a real one. Previously, most families sent their children to schools for ethnic minorities where Mandarin was just another subject on offer. And in the countryside it wasn’t on offer at all. This created their current disadvantage and made it impossible for young people to leave their province, which is the only place their language is spoken. This problem didn’t arise for the Uyghur elite in the cities; there, parents sent their children to Chinese schools (where Uyghur was offered as an option).
Since 2003, however, teaching in Chinese is obligatory throughout the school curriculum, except for the teaching of literature. Uyghur now has the status of a second language. This new rule has become a crucial bone of contention between the Han and the Uyghurs. Many people have compared it to “cultural genocide” or, like Abderrahman, to brainwashing. In the countryside this leads to ridiculous situations, as Nadira, a new teacher, told me; she was trained at the Chinese-language university in Urumqi but I met her in a village far from Kashgar. She is the only Mandarin teacher there, and is unable to greet all her pupils. “The political leaders are the ones who choose who goes to the bilingual schools and who goes to the others.” Such arbitrary decision-making increases the anger of families already hostile to compulsory Mandarin.
By contrast Nazim, who runs a department at Urumqi University, sees an opportunity for his community: “It allows you to own your mother tongue – you need to know how to write it to preserve your culture – and to learn Mandarin for knowledge, exchange and work.” Like many in the middle classes, Nazim is more afraid of the gradual abandonment of Uyghur learning by the most affluent groups in society, who send their offspring to Chinese schools to give them the best chance in life. Parents are speaking Uyghur less and less and literacy in Uyghur is declining: “that’s how languages die”.
Young people are much more opinionated. Assiane, who has been taught in Chinese right from the start, waited for her older colleague to leave before expressing her opinion. “They start by limiting the scope of Uyghur teaching and it ends up dying out,” she told me. In Yunnan, where she was a student, minority languages are no longer taught. Assiane foresees a long road leading to a loss of identity, especially as “education is reducing our culture to folklore”. This is an undeniable reality, though very few Han want to admit it. Some of them, such as Zhang Wi who’s a photographer, are tired of hearing Uyghur complaints:
“Members of ethnic minorities get preferential treatment in university entrance exams because of a bonus system. They have places reserved for them in the management of public organizations. Their writers get their work published more easily than the Han.” He cites an example of talented Han passed over in favour of an incompetent Uyghur.
Since 2003 the law has obliged administrations to have joint leadership, one from the Han community and one from an ethnic minority. But most of the time, the power remains with the Han. That is the case at the top level of the region’s government: the president is Nur Bekri, an Uyghur, but it’s party secretary Wang Lequan who pulls the strings. Wang Lequan has ruled the province with a rod of iron since 1994. “He’s not a man who understands the situation. He doesn’t have love in his heart. He doesn’t understand people’s souls,” says Yi Fang, an old Beijing Communist who feels that the clashes in July were shameful for China. “Wang combines liberalism and repression without regard for people or their culture,” Yi Fang tells me. “His attitude has less to do with colonialism and much more to do with authoritarianism.” As he reminds me, Xinjiang is an integral part of China, whose borders are recognized by the UN.
History serving politics
As ever, history becomes politically charged – historical facts are regularly pressed into service and even falsified in current disputes. In Kashgar’s dusty, little-visited museum, there’s a sign reading: “In 60BC… local government was established under the Han dynasty. Since then Xinjiang has been part of the Chinese state.” That version was the official one for a long time but has now been dropped, as has the idea that the Chinese were the first inhabitants of the region. The magnificent Indo-European mummies found in the Taklamakan desert put paid to that claim. Xinjiang was on the Silk Road and has seen a mixture of races, cultures and warlords. It’s absurd to try to reduce it to a single influence.
On the other hand, dating the “colonization of the province” to the arrival of the Communists in 1949, as the World Congress of Uyghurs would have it (a view accepted by several French newspapers), doesn’t reflect reality either. The first Chinese political presence in Xinjiang dates from the Manchu dynasty in the 1750s. In the wake of rebellions, Daoguang, the eighth emperor, created the first “reconstruction offices” as part of a policy of assimilation in which the powers that be were reluctant to depend on local leaders as they were “corrupt and harmful to the policy of central state”. In 1884 the province became part of China. (By way of comparison, New Mexico became part of the US shortly before that (in 1846), as did California (1850).)
It’s true that history is not linear and Xinjiang has seen several bids for independence. The emirate of Kashgarie survived from 1864 to 1877 thanks to the recognition of the Ottoman empire, Great Britain and Russia. A short-lived East Turkestan Republic lasted from November 1933 to February 1934. And finally, a Second East Turkestan Republic, a vague satellite of the USSR comprising three northern districts, existed from 1944 to 1949. As Rémi Castets puts it, “the feeling of being heir to a powerful empire or kingdoms which have sometimes rivalled China” has left its mark.
Most Uyghurs are not in fact calling for independence, but greater justice and recognition of their identity. “We may be better off than we were a decade ago,” Abderrahman says, “but we’re still lagging behind.” GDP stands at 15,016 yuan per inhabitant in Shihezi (which is 90 per cent Han), 6,771 in Aksu (30 per cent Han), 3,497 in Kashgar (8.5 per cent ) and 2,445 yuan in Hotan (3.2 per cent) (6).
These flagrant, ethnically based inequalities are pushing the Uyghurs towards Islam, the only vehicle for their opposition and means of affirming their identity. Already the sight of women in burqas is no longer a rarity. There is a clear danger that the fundamentalists will be the beneficiaries of this shift. Extremist groups are still marginal, but that could change if Beijing refuses to engage in any sort of dialogue.
Xinjiang’s minorities, and the Uyghurs in particular, are trapped between modernisation, which is crushing their culture; discrimination, which excludes them from prosperity; and authoritarianism, which is grinding down their distinctiveness. Their dislocation is more social and cultural than religious. And it’s a situation that will go on as long as the autonomy that Beijing grants Xinjiang exists in name alone.
(1) Since 2004 the World Uyghur Congress has tried to bring together the various oppositions groups based abroad. Its headquarters are in Munich and its president, Rebiya Kadeer, lives in Washington.
(2) All names, apart from those of officials, have been changed.
(3) They are spread out across the country, though many of them live in Ningxia.
(4) Wind power accounts for 8% of Chinese energy production. The target for 2020 is 15%, half of which will come from Xinjiang.
(5) Wang Meng was in exile from 1963 till 1979. He was later rehabilitated and served as culture minister from 1986 to 1989, until the events of Tiananmen Square.
(6) $2,198, $991, $512 and $357 respectively.
Translated by George Miller
This article appears in the August edition of the excellent monthly, Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.