So, what has been the purpose of all of the recent posts on Xinjiang?
Aside from the obvious merits of the places that I have profiled, I have also been trying to provide you, dear readers, with an understanding of what Xinjiang looks and feels like.
Hardly anyone outside of China has even heard of Xinjiang and fewer still are aware that there is a low-grade civil war playing out there.
As I’ve said before, I believe it is easier to understand a conflict if one can at least visualize that place in their mind and connect to it on some level rather than just reading some unpronounceable names in a news article that is entirely devoid of context. Hopefully, I have been able to at least partially provide some connections for you with the preceding posts.
Little news and information about Xinjiang makes it to the outside world and the Chinese government is very good at minimizing the strife in this region. But the province of Xinjiang is a real place with beautiful landscapes and a rich and ancient culture.
One way of looking at the conflict in Xinjiang is to not view China as a strong, unified country, but instead as the last great land empire – the only one not broken up by the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. Tibet is the province (or colony, depending on your viewpoint) that gets all of the publicity, but Xinjiang, in the west of the country, is another area of equally vast size, whose indigenous population (8 – 10m Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs) has as little in common, culturally, linguistically and religiously, with the dominant Han Chinese as the Tibetan Buddhists do. And their struggle for independence has been just as brutally repressed…
I must observe, at this juncture, that I find it curious that it is the Tibetans that have focused the world’s attention on China’s treatment of its minorities, while most people don’t even know how to pronounce the word “Uighur” (it’s pronounced WEE-guhr). Xinjiang has many more clashes and much higher levels of violence and yet it is Tibet that we hear about so often. Why is that? Is it because the Uighurs are Muslims and in the “War on Terror” Muslims are the enemy? The Uighurs bleed and suffer just as the Tibetans do. Why is it the Tibetans that have captured Hollywood’s imagination and have celebrities hosting concerts and fundraisers for them? Self-immolations in Tibet understandably attract attention, but the Uighurs are no strangers to death either.
By no means do I wish to minimize the suffering of the Tibetans. I deplore the destruction of their culture as well. However, I feel the Uighurs and their struggle are not given the attention they deserve and it is my fervent hope that this work will contribute in some small way to correcting that.
Consider the headlines concerning violence in Xinjiang over just the past several months:
April 24, 2013
April 29, 2013
New York Times
June 26, 2013
Los Angeles Times
June 26, 2013
June 29, 2013
State-run media reported that more than 100 people riding motorcycles attacked a police station in remote Hotan on Friday. It follows Wednesday’s clashes elsewhere in Xinjiang which killed 35.
New York Times
September 18, 2013
The raid on the desert encampment followed another deadly raid three days earlier in nearby Yilkiqi township, where at least 15 Uighur men were shot and killed as they prayed together. The authorities described the dead as terrorists engaged in “illegal religious activities”.
October 29, 2013
But authorities have yet to comment on yesterday’s “major incident” in which five died and dozens were injured
Wall Street Journal
November 17, 2013
Government Blames Unrest in Region on ‘Ethnic Uighur Separatists’
December 17, 2013
Chinese police have arrested six suspects in the ethnically divided western region Xinjiang after an outbreak of violence this weekend left 16 people dead, including a number of police officers, state media have reported.
December 30th, 2013
Follows earlier violence this month when police shot and killed 14 people during a riot near Kashgar in which two policemen were also killed.
Those are far from the only examples, but I think the point has been made…
Often these episodes of violence are not reported in the Chinese state media. Thus, it is sometimes weeks before the outside world finds out about an “incident” (if we find out at all). And in almost all cases, when those reports do come out, the details are unclear.
Further, the Chinese state media companies aren’t exactly known for their objective reporting. In fact, the propaganda from the Chinese government is sometimes on par with that from North Korea.
Consider this recent report:
Their malign intention behind this terrorist violence was to sabotage inter-ethnic unity and harm social stability, provoking ethnic hatred and creating ethnic conflict, splitting Xinjiang off from the motherland, casting the people of every ethnic group into a disastrous abyss.
Or this one:
[A Chinese government spokeswoman] said the security situation in Xinjiang was “good in general, but a small cluster of radical terrorist forces are still doing their very best to upset and sabotage Xinjiang’s stability and development”.
“I believe their plan goes against the will of the people and is doomed to fail,” she told a news conference.
Or this news report from state media company Tianshan Net:
Kashgar, a city in rural western Xinjiang, was subjected today to an organised, premeditated violent terrorist attack.
Police arrested six people and confiscated explosive equipment, homemade guns and knives.
The gangsters behind Sunday’s attack formed in August and comprised 20 people. They watched violent terrorist videos, propagated extreme religious thought, created explosive equipment and guns, conducted test explosions numerous times and planned terrorist activities.
Although state media reports sometimes refer to Uighurs as gangsters and thugs, the group that is blamed most often for the violence is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
However, many experts and rights groups cast doubt on its existence as a cohesive group and instead say the violence in Xinjiang is almost always a local expression of discontent.
It has been suggested that China’s exaggeration of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a significant threat is part of an effort to deflect criticism of the government’s treatment of the Uighurs by tapping into the world’s current hysteria/enthusiasm for combating terrorism.
Indeed, the 9/11/2001 attacks in the United States provided the Chinese a convenient cover to crack down on their own “terrorists” (the government in Beijing claims they wish to bring similar carnage to Xinjiang). And, certainly, China has unceasingly tried to portray its campaign against the Uighurs as a part of the U.S. led international effort against terrorism.
Lastly, it should be pointed out that some of the attacks that the Uighurs are blamed for have been said to be the work of the security services themselves. I don’t know if that is true or not, but if so, that is a particularly potent form of propaganda.
A Uighur man being rounded up in a security sweep:
Sitting as it does on a crossroads between great powers – both historical and contemporary – Xinjiang has at various times been conquered or controlled by a dizzying array of empires and warlords.
To defend the Han from overland invasion, successive Chinese dynasties have sought to push the core’s boundaries north and west by capturing and pacifying as much of the frontier highlands as possible. As a result, the history of Han China’s engagement with the sparsely populated, inhospitable lands on its periphery is defined by cycles of incorporation — with these regions transformed into protective buffers — and dispersal, whenever the core has fragmented and lost control of the frontier.
In many ways, Xinjiang represents the outer edge in this pattern. It is far more remote than other traditional buffer regions such as Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. Urumqi, the provincial capital, is more than 3,100 kilometers from Beijing, while Kashgar, the westernmost Chinese city and historically a major Silk Road trading hub, is nearly 4,400 kilometers from the coast (Kashgar is closer to Baghdad than Beijing).
Xinjiang has also played a less-prominent role in Chinese history than the other buffer regions. Over the past 2,500 years, the region has broken away from China repeatedly, and it was not fully incorporated into the Chinese empire until the 18th century, taking the name Xinjiang, or “New Border,” a century later. China’s conquest of Xinjiang under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was in part a response to the rise of Russia as a Eurasian power during the same period. Prior to then, there had been little threat of invasion from Central Asia and hence little reason to formally annex all of Xinjiang.
With the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty, in 1911, Xinjiang came under the rule of a succession of warlords.
In the 1930s and 1940s, there were two attempts in Kashgar and Ili respectively to establish an independent state of Eastern Turkestan, but both were short-lived.
The first East Turkestan Republic came to an end in 1934 when the Chinese Nationalist Army convinced – through the use of extreme violence – the Muslims to give up their new republic in return for a pledge of autonomy.
The second East Turkestan Republic was extinguished in 1949, when the Communist Party took over and the People’s Liberation Army entered Xinjiang.
Since 1949, China’s main social goal in Xinjiang has been to keep a lid on ethnic separatism while flooding the region with Han Chinese settlers. The Uighurs once composed 90% of Xinjiang’s population; today they make up less than 50%.
As the Chinese policy of flooding the region with Han Chinese to cement its control started to have a real impact, protests and uprisings followed, such as 1990’s Baren Township Riot or 1997’s Ghulja Incident and Urumqi bus bombings or 2007’s Xinjiang raid or the disputed 2008 attack in Kashgar.
Things really kicked off in 2009 though when massive riots broke out in Urumqi. An initially peaceful Uighur protest calling for equal protection under the law turned violent in July 2009 after security forces tried to crush the demonstration. The riots that followed in the provincial capital, Urumqi, led to more than 200 people being killed and 1,700 injured.
Some of the few pictures that exist of the 2009 violence in Urumqi:
Despite its name — the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — the province is tightly controlled by Beijing.
Did you know that China is one of the few countries in the world that spends more on domestic security than defense?
What does all of that money buy in Xinjiang? The government in Beijing refers to it as the “strike hard” policy…
After the mid-2009 uprising, the Chinese government immediately deployed tens of thousands of additional soldiers and paramilitary People’s Armed Police across Xinjiang to schools, mosques, street corners and other public meeting places.
“Within two weeks of the riots at least 4,000 Uighurs had been arrested. There were many cases of disappearance of suspects and breaches of due legal process, including torture.”
– Professor Colin Mackerras of Griffith University in Australia
These arbitrary arrests and disappearances have decreased since the peak in 2009, but are certainly still actively taking place. After every “incident” such as those outlined above, there are sweeps through the area, leading to many more Uighur men being arrested and disappearing.
Those whose whereabouts are not a mystery often do not fare well as the willingness of the Chinese government to acknowledge their existence is usually indicative of at least some evidence of their participation in a protest or “incident”. The price for such activities is usually a sentence of death.
During the 2009 riots, the authorities immediately imposed an information lockdown across Xinjiang. All internet and international telephone connections were blocked, while all laptops and mobile phones were checked for any photographs of the protests or the government crackdown.
Some internet access and phone service was eventually restored almost a year later. However, the Chinese security forces block many websites and phone numbers and, of course, carefully monitor all communications within Xinjiang. These efforts are enhanced by a web of paid informers.
And since 2009, the Chinese government has installed a vast network of surveillance cameras that cover alleyways, mosques, buses – even kindergartens – across Xinjiang.
The above must also be understood in the broader context of daily life in Xinjiang…
Take employment discrimination, for example… Most government job postings in Xinjiang indicate that only ethnic Han Chinese or native Mandarin speakers will be considered.
“Security considerations” also prevent Uighurs from obtaining jobs at places like airports or in the booming oil and gas sector of Xinjiang. This is a policy that is interpreted broadly too – Uighur truck drivers, for example, are not permitted to haul fuel based on the fear that their cargo could be weaponized.
The economy of Xinjiang has been turbocharged under China’s ongoing ‘Develop the West’ campaign. However, this has only served to increase tensions as rather than bringing opportunities for the Uighurs, the rapid economic growth has brought hordes of Han Chinese flooding into Xinjiang’s cities to take jobs denied to Uighurs.
It’s a process that led Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to recently brand China’s policy a “kind of genocide.”
And there are countless petty harassments and annoyances as well…Consider some of the following:
– Anyone under the age of 18 is prohibited from entering a mosque
– Since 2004 a “bilingual education program” has required teachers to use Mandarin for nearly every subject (many charge that the Chinese government has a long term goal of completely extinguishing the Uighur language)
– It is almost impossible for a Uighur to obtain a passport
– After dark, Uighur men are barred from the front seats of taxis (allegedly this is to help reduce street crime)
– Koran study gatherings are routinely broken up.
– Civil servants can be fired for joining Friday afternoon prayer services
– Public prayer is forbidden
– Uighur college students are required to eat lunch in school cafeterias during the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims normally fast
– In 2013, the Chinese government introduced a campaign called “Project Beauty” to discourage women from covering their heads with a veil
– All official clocks must be set to Beijing time – a legacy of Mao Zedong’s effort to force a country as broad as the United States to adhere to a single time zone (a rule that produces the odd experience of having it still be dark at 9:45 AM at certain times of the year)
Chinese riot police moving in to put down a Uighur protest in Xinjiang:
Remember lovely Kashgar? Well, I only showed you one side of Kashgar. I showed you what I could of Kashgar’s old city and what I could of the Uighurs. However, much of what I showed you will not be around for very much longer (if it is not gone already). The city is having its soul ripped out.
The reason for this is that the Chinese government is frantically bulldozing and dynamiting as much of the attractive, millenniums-old center of Kashgar as quickly as they can… More than half of the population of Kashgar’s center will be relocated to “modern” housing estates on the outskirts of the city as in excess of 85% of the old mud-brick buildings are scheduled for destruction.
Demolition erases another block of Kashgar’s Old City:
The government has justified its actions by saying the compulsory relocation of Kashgar’s Uighur residents will improve their quality of life and that the old quarter was vulnerable to earthquakes — a very suspect claim considering how long most of the structures in Kashgar’s old city have survived.
Suggestions put forward by city planners to reinforce and refurbish the buildings of the old town — rather than reducing them to rubble — have been ignored in Beijing.
Interestingly, following the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the demolition process sped up significantly in Kashgar.
Now, I would be the first to point out that correlation is not causation, but the sudden increase in Chinese government concern for earthquake safety in Kashgar following the riots in Urumqi does raise some questions.
Uighurs see Kashgar’s old city as a space of refuge… Forcibly relocating them makes them easier to control and erases another part of their identity.
These are the structures to which the Uighurs are being moved – depressing apartment blocks faced with clay-colored stucco:
In the midst of the devastation, plans are in place for a sliver of Kashgar’s old city to remain as a sanitized tourist site, with a staff of actors enacting the government-approved version of traditional Uighur culture.
Matters do not improve away from the urban center of Kashgar either… A Special Economic Zone established by the government in Beijing has brought in a flood of ugly corporate office complexes and factories:
I don’t wish to get anyone disappeared or killed and so I have not included names or very many personal details when describing things that various Uighurs shared with me (And, as if to drive this point home during our visit, a government propaganda campaign sternly warned against individuals “creating a negative impression”).
Mao Zedong is a particularly hated figure in Kashgar and other Uighur areas for the terrible suffering the Uighurs endured during the Cultural Revolution (along with many others in China).
If they weren’t afraid to speak openly to us, most Uighurs we encountered would relay that they had lost relatives – sometimes entire families – to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Some of these deaths were direct (a bullet or the equivalent), while many others were indirect (starvation and other such causes). Our favorite fixer in Xinjiang had lost two brothers and an uncle…
Then, of course, there is also the symbolic representation of the domination of the Uighurs by the Han Chinese that Mao represents.
Thus, imagine how it must feel to have one of the largest statues of Mao Zedong in China overlooking Kashgar’s People’s Square while Kashgar’s old city is being “renovated” directly behind him:
And so the destruction continues apace… And every day the world becomes that much more homogenized and dull. All part of a concerted effort on Beijing’s part to bring Xinjiang firmly under its grasp and dilute Uighur identity.
Even in Urumqi, where ethnic Han Chinese now make up 75% of the population, knots of heavily armed police officers are positioned throughout Uighur neighborhoods:
And armed soldiers patrolling the streets remains a regular sight throughout Xinjiang:
It is worth mentioning that the Chinese government is pursuing the same formula to bring the Tibetans in line as well… Roughly, that formula is as follows:
Overwhelm the natives demographically, extinguish their culture and ridicule/Disneyfy what is left, condemn those that speak out as terrorists (and we know how terrorists are treated), flood the streets with soldiers and paramilitary police and have CCTV cameras and informants fill in the few gaps.
I particularly wanted to visit the site of a recent flare up to try to pin down details on what had really happened and to also share with you what the specific individuals and area involved look like. After all, if I do it, then you don’t have to.
This village outside of Turpan that you see below – Lukqun – seemed an ideal candidate… More than 27 people were killed just before our visit when Chinese security forces opened fire on a crowd of Uighurs who had allegedly attacked police and government buildings:
You can’t tell from the pictures, but the streets are not normally empty and things were very much on edge here:
Unfortunately, my dream of properly investigating the events in Lukqun for you, dear readers, was not to be.
Just ahead in the picture below is a checkpoint where we were pinged by the Chinese security forces… Our cameras were temporarily confiscated and many photos were deleted before we were escorted out of the area and threatened with dire consequences should we return:
You win some and you lose some, no?
As we headed back toward Urumqi, we passed this military convoy on the right that was being sent in to reinforce the security forces in Turpan and the village I just showed you above:
This war for Xinjiang is not over in the sense that the killing will certainly continue, but the ultimate outcome, sadly, does not seem to be in much doubt.
That does not mean that the Uighurs will quietly shuffle off this mortal coil and disappear. Though outmatched in every way – militarily, demographically, financially – the Uighur people continue to rage against the proverbial dying of the light.
Unfortunately, oppressive governments never seem to learn… The more the Chinese government cracks down on the Uighurs, the harder they resist. It’s the same old cycle of escalation that history has seen countless times.
One example of the results of the unrelenting pressure from the Chinese government is a surge of religiosity. As one man we met said, “Five years ago, you would have been shocked to see a veiled woman in Urumqi, but not anymore. For a lot of Uighurs, growing a beard and asking your wife to cover her head in public has become an act of defiance against the government.”
“By failing to consider the root causes of Uighur discontent, Beijing could unwittingly radicalize a generation of young people. The entire Uighur ethnicity feels asphyxiated. Xinjiang is trapped in a vicious circle of increased repression that only leads to more violence.”
– Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
In other words, treating the Uighurs as terrorists may become a self-fulfilling prophecy…
Yet, China sees Xinjiang as strategically vital, and Beijing has shown no sign of relaxing its grip on the region, which accounts for one-sixth of the country’s land mass and holds extensive deposits of oil and gas.
In addition, China has grand dreams of trans-Eurasian road, rail and pipeline systems, ultimately leading all of the way to Western Europe. However, if this dream of greater connectivity is achieved, let us not forget that in…
…regions with histories of political unrest and high-intensity smuggling, greater connectivity tends to enhance the mobility of militant and anti-government actors as well. As the number of roads connecting Xinjiang to the Central Asian states increases, it is likely that the volume of weapons and drugs trafficking in support of organized crime and jihadist networks in China will grow. This, in turn, will require an even greater government security presence in restive areas, such as those around Kashgar.
In the long run, Beijing hopes that economic development will pacify Xinjiang. Until then, however, robust growth could lead to more frequent and perhaps more intense unrest. If the 2009 riots in Han-dominated Urumqi were any indication, the influx of Han migrants into southern Xinjiang will not be met passively
If ethnic tensions indeed rise in southern Xinjiang, the number of potential targets will be greater than ever before. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, along with the various groups often associated with it, may not have the capacity to carry out large-scale attacks against energy-related infrastructure in the Tarim Basin or Kuqa-Baicheng coal field, but assaults on transport infrastructure, organized riots and bombings with improvised explosive devices are well within the militants’ capabilities.
– The above is courtesy of Stratfor.
Han Chinese in the government security services:
To date, there has been surprisingly little commentary from Taliban or al Qaeda representatives in regard to viewing Chinese citizens, investments, or even mainland China itself as a legitimate target due to the campaign in Xinjiang.
The shooting of a Chinese woman in Peshawar in 2012 was the first (and only) occasion that a Pakistani Taliban spokesman pinned an attack on “revenge for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers” in Xinjiang.
Perhaps this might change? If it does, we can expect the Chinese government to exaggerate and trumpet from the rooftops any possible connections with Islamic militants as part of their ongoing effort to paint any act of Uighur resistance as the activities of extremist Islamic terrorists.
It is the same formula that Bashar al-Assad’s government has followed masterfully in Syria to marginalize the moderate forces of resistance to his rule.
Uighurs, and their supporters, based overseas have established several organizations to bring attention to and to support the Uighur cause in Xinjiang. Some of them are:
In the interest of fairness, contrary perspectives to those shared above can be found at the official Chinese government website:
As well as some of the Chinese state news agencies (controlled by the Chinese government):