note: the following is the first of many posts that will document my 10-day stay in china’s xinjiang uighur autonomous region during the national day holiday. now, i’ll be the first to tell you that this introduction has little to do with the xinjiang i saw. but i’ve been doing some research on the topic lately. i find it interesting. and there you go.
the uighurs wobble … but will they fall down?
the place: china might as well add “restive” to its already long and disingenuous name for the xinjiang uighur autonomous region. read a newspaper or magazine story about this vast and mysterious northwestern non-province, and restive will undoubtedly show up somewhere. (see, i’ve already done it twice.) this makes me chuckle. my dictionary defines autonomous like this: “not controlled by others; independent.” and restive like this: “difficult to control.”
but if china tries to control anything — and we all know that it does — it is xinjiang, a hotbed of what beijing likes to call “separatist activity.” officially, xinjiang’s most recent run under chinese rule began in the late 1800s. unofficially, it depends on whom you ask. some chinese will remind you that their country began its occupation of the region during the first century BC. some uighurs — turkic-speaking muslims who have been xinjiang’s dominant ethnic group since being forced to flee southwest mongolia to the area in AD 840 — will never accept chinese rule.
but that is an increasingly difficult stance to take. after the people’s liberation army “liberated” xinjiang in 1949, huge numbers of han chinese were brought into the province in the name of development … and dilution (some might even go so far to say ethnic cleansing). according to a 1953 census, uighurs accounted for 74 percent of xinjiang’s population. now, after years of han migration, xinjiang has no discernable ethnic majority. uighurs accuse china of colonialism. china, in turn, likes to label the uighurs terrorists. the two groups have never gotten along.
indeed, tension turned into violence several times during the 1990s after the 10 years following the cultural revolution failed to bring about the cultural freedoms many uighurs in xinjiang had hoped for. buoyed by the fall of the soviet union’s communist regime, and the resulting freedom of their islamic brothers in kazakhstan, uzbekistan and kyrgyzstan, uighur extremists — later labeled the east turkistan islamic movement — launched a series of small but violent uprisings in xinjiang and beijing. then, in february 1997, the bitterness finally boiled over in yining, a small city in northern xinjiang near the kazakhstan border, and urumqi, the xinjiang capital. riots and bombings by muslim separatists — and the swift response from chinese security forces — left dozens dead and hundreds injured.
beijing responded to the violence with more violence. dozens of uighurs were arrested for their roles in the uprisings. three were executed on the day of their trial and the rest were given life sentences. since then, china has beaten back separatist activity in xinjiang with an iron fist. dissension is suppressed with hasty brutality (click here for an example). human rights organizations say that hundreds of political prisoners in xinjiang have been executed since the mid-1990s. but the crackdown reaches beyond fanatics, into the lives of everyday families. open displays of the muslim faith are often squashed. universities have been banned from teaching the local turkic language.
and since september 11, 2001, much of china’s crackdown on the uighurs of xinjiang has come under the pretext of aiding the united states in its scattershot war on terror. arrests and prosecutions for “endangering state security” — the most serious political offense in china’s criminal code, a blanket statute that basically can be used to cover any real or created offense committed by someone the chinese government happens not to like — have risen sharply since 9-11, so much so that amnesty international claimed china’s intensified anti-terror activity was merely a guise “used to detain a broad range of people, some of whom may have done little more than practice their religion or defend their culture.” xinjiang is home to many of the endangering state security arrests — it is also home to, the chinese government repeatedly claims, terrorists funded by osama bin laden. in its post-9-11 furor, the u.s. bought it, and by mid-2002, uncle sam’s forces had rounded up hundreds of xinjiang’s muslim “terrorists.” but international uighur experts have suggested that xinjiang’s uighur separatists are no risk to join a global terrorist movement. their beef is with china and china only.
but the world’s various wars on terror wage on. in xinjiang, china claims it’s doing its part, using its nationwide “strike hard” campaign against crime to justify weeding out the bad uighurs from the silent ones.
there is more than just cultural uniformity at stake for the chinese government in xinjiang. the region — which borders mongolia, russia, kazakhstan, kyrgyzstan, tajikistan, pakistan, tibet and the chinese provinces of qing hai and gansu — accounts for 16 percent of china’s land mass. it is an intoxicating mix of mountains and deserts, far east and middle east, ancient ruins and ethnic diversity. but more important to beijing are it’s abundant natural resources, most notably its vast oilfields, some rumored rich enough to rival those in the middle east. beijing is relying on these reserves to fuel china’s massive and ongoing economic expansion for the foreseeable future and beyond.
so now it is obvious to you all why i wanted to spend my national day holiday in xinjiang.
coming soon: the plan, the people, day 1 and day 2
click here to see photos of the trip.
UPDATE: other stuff has come up and the xinjiang stories are on the back burner … for now.