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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China's Wild West

August 26, 2009

August 24, 2009

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 barrier

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 This full text appears by
agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique.
CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.
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