Xinjiang: Taming China’s Wild West

‘The Chinese government is destroying the mud-brick maze of traditional Kashgar to cement control over its rebellious Turkic natives. Uighurs are terrified that by mid-century they will have become the Apache or Cherokee of China’s Wild West’

China Developing World Dispatches Islam

Disappearing: The old wall of Kashgar 

Kashgar is in China — but along Vegetable Market Road they greet each other as Muslims, with a hand over the heart. “Peace be upon you,” mutter voices in a bearded crowd as worshippers briskly trot off to the mosque on a hungry Ramadan evening. They wear box-like, embroided skullcaps and do not look Chinese. Nor do the giggling children who dart across mud-brick alleys, nor do their mothers in brown knotted burqas. Donkeys tug carts of wool and rickshaw mopeds honk through dirty, crowded thoroughfares. The air smells of roasting meat-sticks and gasoline. 

This could be anywhere in Islamic Central Asia — were it not for the blinking cranes in the twilight, the Mandarin script and the bulldozers remorselessly demolishing an antique town. Turn off at any corner of Vegetable Market Road and you’ll face mounds of rubble, debris and empty squares of dust flecked by trash. Ultra-modern high-rises loom on placards that show the future. Old Kashgar and its way of life are living on borrowed time. 

The Chinese government is destroying the mud-brick maze of traditional Kashgar to cement control over its rebellious Turkic natives. They call themselves the Uighurs and are an 11-million-strong nation, more populous than Sweden or Austria, whose nomadic ancestors wandered from the shores of Lake Baikal 1,000 years ago. Uighur horseman once ruled vast stretches of the steppe and Uighur kings grew fat from the Silk Roads that criss-crossed their deserts. 

“The beauty of the temples, monasteries, wall paintings, statues, towers, gardens, housings and the palaces built throughout the kingdom cannot be described,” gushed the tenth-century Chinese diplomat Wange Yande. Little remains of the trading kingdoms that helped bring Buddhism to East Asia and oriental luxuries to the Caliphate and Europe. Just hollow ruins in the desert, and, of course, the Uighurs themselves. 

Power drills and hammers echo through Kashgar. The authorities have set a target of 85 per cent demolition for the old town. The remaining 15 per cent has already been turned into a ticketed tourist attraction. Communist planners have renamed Kashgar — now the more Chinese-sounding Kashi — and are erecting a modern business hub. Minutes from Vegetable Market Road, traffic jams clog glass and steel commercial avenues, shoppers roam well-stocked malls and Chinese tourists peruse a new pastiche “Islamic style” block around the mosque. All roads are wide enough for two tanks abreast. Flanked by a score of fluttering red flags, a bullying mega-statue of Chairman Mao menaces the main square. 

Cut out culturally and physically from the new Kashi, the 220,000 residents of old Kashgar are being relocated to a faceless and manageable estate on the outskirts called the “Happy Garden”. The authorities have ignored both petitions and appeals from historians and the people behind the hugely successful film The Kite Runner, which was filmed in Kashgar. The Chinese Communist Party has always been unsentimental about buildings. 

Beyond Kashgar, motorways as smooth as the M4 have been built over the haunting Gobi desert to tie these distant provinces into the Han heartland. Oil platforms and gigantic wind-farms stretch over the wilderness. Supermarkets, skyscrapers and glistening ultra-sleek airports have sprung up in the major cities. China is marching west. Beijing is determined fully to absorb these traditionally Muslim and restless expanses it has long claimed in Central Asia. 

Known as Xinjiang, the “new frontier” in Chinese, this rocky wasteland — the country’s largest province — extends across more than 1.5 million square kilometres north of Tibet, arcing out to border Russia and five of the ‘stans. The Uighurs, unfortunately, live in China’s territorial crown jewel. The soil is a treasure-trove of hydrocarbons and minerals. 

Xinjiang is as essential to China’s geopolitical ambitions and sense of self as Siberia is to the Russians. Without Xinjiang, China would not be able to feed its factories with oil, gas, coal, uranium and gold. These territories hold more than half its proven minerals reserves and more than 80 per cent of the various kinds of deposits present in the country. Without Xinjiang, Beijing would not have been able to open gas pipelines that reach to the Caspian Sea through Kazakhstan or have plugged itself into precious reserves in Turkmenistan. Without Xinjiang, there could be no plans for a railway connecting Beijing to Istanbul to the Trans-Siberian, or pipelines crucial to growth being built to funnel out Russia’s oil. Without Xinjiang, there would be no Chinese roads being cut through the mountains and the steppes into the ‘stans, flooding the regions with economic produce and Han migrants.

Takeaway: China will replace the old mud huts of Kashgar with a new sparkling metropolis for the Hans 

Chinese dynasties have dreamed of mastering the Silk Roads since the third century BC when the first legions traversed the Great Wall during the Han dynasty. Centuries of cyclical protectorates and governorships endured for a few generations each only to be defeated by collapse in the centre, constant Turkic rebellions and the region’s fierce geography. Mao, who towards the end of his life explicitly modelled himself on China’s founding “Yellow Emperor”, Huang-di, was only continuing a long tradition when he launched the Communist Party’s “Develop the West” campaign that continues to this day.

The province’s recent history begins when it was annexed along with Tibet in the 18th century to the Manchu Qing dynasty’s empire. Almost immediately, they fell into a grey zone between suzerainty and outright incorporation. The early 20th century saw the territory descend into anarchy before coming under heavy Soviet influence. For a while, Stalin even toyed with the idea of annexing it himself. Moscow established a base in the region and Russian workers heavily influenced the evolution of the Uighur language, which adopted the words for both a train and China itself — symbolic of how far the territory had spun from Beijing’s orbit. In the late 1940s, a Soviet-inspired East Turkestan Republic flickered into life. 

Mao’s forces “liberated” East Turkestan from local leaders in 1949. He was convinced that the territories held the resources China needed for an industrial future and the room for both its exploding population and atomic testing. Xinjiang became central to the communists’ master plan for superpower status. Han settlers began to trickle into the Chinese frontier. They arrived in Islamic oasis towns unchanged since the Middle Ages, utterly different from the crowded East Asian villages. The pioneers were a mixture of fanatical young communists and the bedraggled remains of the trounced armies of the nationalist generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. Many of China’s own gulags, the laogai, were built in the region. Like neighbouring Siberia, Xinjiang was a desert of promise and exile during the Cold War. Rumours have circulated since the 1960s that the territory housed the largest prison camps in the world, with up to 500,000 inmates.  

Only in the past 30 years of reform has Beijing had the muscle and determination to turn East Turkestan into Xinjiang. The figures speak for themselves. Han Chinese constituted fewer than seven per cent of the population in 1949, climbing to 33 per cent by 1964 and 40 per cent by 2000. The Han are now the overwhelming majority in the northern and eastern parts of Xinjiang, although these numbers do not include army personnel serving in Xinjiang and their families or the large numbers of unregistered migrant workers, the floating peasants, who can be found in any Chinese region. Kashgar, at the foothill of the Pamir range and closer to Islamabad than even the regional capital of Urumqi, is the last stronghold of the Uighurs. 

The rules just got worse.” Muhammad is a green-eyed driver with a taste for Uighur jazz — a fusion of recorded gunshots, trumpet and saxophone. “After the riots, the rules got worse.” Muhammad is referring to how China carried out its occupation and how its grip has tightened since violent unrest broke out last summer. The Uighurs I spoke to claimed they were not allowed to leave the country and that children were banned from religious instruction, attending the mosque or Ramadan fasting. They say that they are allowed to pray using only a state-approved Koran at party-sanctioned mosques and that a job in the state sector means no headscarves or beards. 

They say Uighurs cannot own internet cafés, gather in large groups without a permit and are cut out of job opportunities. To campaign for independence, however non-violently, is banned. The use of the Uighur word for China — the originally Russian Kitai — is also banned. This only encourages its use. Xinjiang cannot work on a different time zone — China, despite its size, is one big time-zone — despite being further from Beijing than London is from Istanbul. All signs must be in Mandarin with Uighur as an option, despite locals estimating that fewer than 20 per cent of people there speak Mandarin. They say they are second-class citizens who find it much harder than the Han Chinese to get work. 

A wooden bicycle 

Uighurs are terrified that by mid-century they will have become the Apache or Cherokee of China’s Wild West. They believe that Beijing plans to move up to 200 million Han to Xinjiang. 

In the East, the Chinese I meet are incredulous at the suggestion that the Uighurs are frightened of the future. Why are they not grateful for the millions of dollars and the impressive infrastructure lavished on the region? They are exempt from the one-child policy and have positive discrimination to attend university: how can they complain? Surely only a terrorist would want to exit the world’s biggest booming economy in favour of creating another Islamic ‘stan? Many are frightened of terrorism but most Han think all Uighurs are untrustworthy potential thieves. They seemed confused that Westerners could support Tibetan or Uighur rights. How would America react if China started supporting native American separatists? 

Kashgar moves slowly. There is little at first to suggest that Xinjiang exploded into communal violence in 2008 and 2009. The unrest only died last spring. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a series of isolated incidents foretold the coming storm. In March 2008, a woman blew up a bus in Urumqi. Days later, shops belonging to ethnic Chinese Muslims were ransacked. Then Tibet erupted into open rebellion in a desperate attempt to capture the attention of the world as the Olympic flame began its global tour to Beijing. Thousands of Uighurs took to the streets in Hotan and Karakax counties in copycat protests. Hundreds were arrested. That August, two men attacked a Chinese military outpost outside Kashgar with knives and improvised explosives. Days later, shooting erupted in the oasis town of Kuqa and explosions ripped through police stations and offices. Twelve people died. A few weeks later, policemen were stabbed by Uighur separatists and two officers were killed. When the Olympic flame approached Kashgar, Chinese police arrested 70 people. 

In July 2009, Xinjiang erupted into the largest and most violent outbreak of violence China has seen since Tiananmen Square. The violence was sparked by the death of two Uighurs during an ethnic brawl in the southern Chinese industrial city of Shaoguan. Protests began in Urumqi and at least 1,000 people marched to the city centre. Eye-witnesses report that when police arrived to quell the protests, the Uighurs began throwing rocks at them and at Han Chinese. The city then descended into chaos, with the police using batons, live rounds, tasers and tear gas to disperse the rioters. Roadblocks were set up and armoured vehicles patrolled the city. Rioting continued. Internet, phone-lines and mobile coverage were disconnected and a strict curfew was established. 

It is unclear how many died in the rioting — reports put the figure between 197 and 600 with more than 1,000 injured. Human Rights Watch has documented at least 43 Uighur disappearances. More angry mobs followed, mostly Han Chinese seeking revenge. Protests and sporadic violence continued throughout July. 

The crackdown hardened and military forces flooded Urumqi. As violence peaked, the authorities temporarily closed the mosques. For the remainder of 2009, internet access was almost totally blocked in Xinjiang. State-controlled media sites were gradually restored last spring, with full connection to China’s already heavily firewalled web restored only in the summer. 

China presents its crackdowns as part of the global war on terrorism. This is not a fabrication. Uighur separatists have been heavily influenced by the jihadism of neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan, and many of them have been captured fighting alongside al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Uighurs will not tell me about dreams of an Islamic state, though they wear more ostentatious displays of traditional headgear and devotion than neighbouring Tadjiks and Kyrgyzs. They said they would like to see “East Turkestan like a Europe country” or “Uighurstan — freedom country”. But they pull away quickly when I ask about the riots or rumbling ethnic tensions. “Things have got much worse since the riots. It is dangerous to speak to Western media.” I ask if they believe in the eventual independence of East Turkestan. “No,” they reply unanimously and unhappily. 

Other Uighurs were more combative. Restaurant Tahiti in Kashgar recently went bankrupt. The floor is covered in dirt and the tables are strewn with empty cigarette cartons emblazoned with pagodas. “Watch out for that spray bottle, there is 97 per cent alcohol in there,” shouts the Uighur owner. “I designed it myself,” he puffs, pointing at his profitless landscape. He has sharp brown teeth and a sleazy manner. He eyes me nervously, wishing I would leave. “My business went bankrupt due to the decline in tourism after the riots.” He is teaching a few gormless market-hands how to speak English in a side-room, his dreams of being a Xinjiang Raymond Blanc in ruins. 

“You know why I never had children?” he snarls. “Because I didn’t want anyone else to live one more minute as a slave to this country.” He speaks of spies, the possibility that somebody is listening. “This place is like Russia — the old Russia,” he says. “Things may look calm in Kashgar but tensions are here. Something can easily happen.” 

But surely China has done some good? He bats away the question. You can tell by the way he refuses to answer that he doesn’t want to admit that China’s roads, schools, hospitals, TVs, computers and factories have brought modernity to Kashgar — a foreign occupier’s modernity but modernity all the same. Later that day, a bomb explodes in the Xinjiang city of Aktu, killing seven people. 

Urumqi today is Kashgar tomorrow. It is overwhelmingly Han. Fewer than 25 per cent of those who live in Xinjiang’s capital are Uighur. Proud avenues lined with cutesy fencing and conventional glass towers create a city centre a world apart from the Uighur villages and semi-nomadic Kazakh churls in the countryside. Crowds are watching a catwalk in an air-conditioned shopping centre. Couples are turning up for lunch at the trendiest restaurant in town, Pizza Hut, having booked well in advance. There is not an Uighur in sight. 

The scene reminds me of Engels’s descriptions of Manchester in The Conditions of the Working Class in England. The roads are an optical illusion hiding squalid back streets lined with hundreds of greasy-bowl noodle places, prostitutes sitting on stools, rivers of raw sewage and elderly women selling their possessions on the pavement. Urumqi — renamed Wulumuqi by the Han — lives in drab, chipped but functional housing. As little as 20 years ago the place was recognisably a Uighur town. Now, hardly any signs can be seen in their Arabic script. 

Wulumuqi is frightened. Starting in August last year, as many as 476 Han claimed to have been stabbed with syringes by Uighur separatists. Terrified thousands took to the streets to protest against the authorities’ perceived failure to stop the attackers. However, a six-person Chinese Army medical team announced that it believed many of those who claimed to have been stabbed were hallucinating. 

Instead, they suggested they had fallen victim to pervasive fear and medical ignorance. Syringe attacks continued to be reported, with as many as 77 being noted on September 8 and 9, leading to the resignation of the communist city chief. Real or imaginary, the hypodermic needle strikes underscore the depths of trauma and ethnic discord after the riots. 

The Uighurs and the Han need each other but have yet to realise it. For the Uighurs, the only thing worse than “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” would be to become a wasteland of Islamism with various foreign powers intervening to capture precious resources. Real autonomy within China would enable the Uighurs to be both themselves and wealthy. East Turkestan alone would probably be just as successful as Kyrgyzstan.

The Chinese need to realise that they have to co-opt the Uighurs. Attempting to stamp them out in the manner seen in 2008 and 2009 will lead to further radicalisation. Beijing should remember that the Chechens constitute only 0.94 per cent of the Russian population and jihadists there move at will in an area the size of Wales. The greatest mistake the Uighurs can make is to retreat deeper into Islamic radicalism when their future ultimately depends on winning over the minds of urban Chinese in the eastern cities on moral grounds that real autonomy deserves to exist in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Journeys to the West have always featured prominently in Chinese culture as moral allegories of self-discovery, most notably the Chinese folk tale Monkey published during the Ming dynasty, concerning the mythological journey of the Buddhist monk Xuanzuang through what is now Xinjiang to India in search of the sutras. 

In his memoirs, the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng describes finding himself on a train to Xinjiang in the Gansu corridor, heading west to spread the gospel of Mao during the Cultural Revolution. “When our train stopped at a station in the Gansu Corridor, a woman with a dirty face and long, loose hair came forward in a group of beggars,” Wei wrote. “She stood begging below the window of my compartment, together with several teenagers. I leaned out of the window to hold out a few buns, but instantly fell back, because I saw something I could never have imagined: the woman with long, loose hair was a girl of 18 and her body was naked. What I had thought were clothes were coal dust and mud that covered her body. The naked girl stood on tiptoe and stretched her arms up towards me, her eyes imploring me. I couldn’t understand her dialect but I knew she still wanted food. Perhaps she had lost out in the scramble for what I had tossed down the first time. I gave my last buns to her. I was relieved when the train pulled out of the station. But the sight of the girl haunted me constantly.”

China is still running from the agonised hunger of its immediate past. The Chinese people have backed a project that drives breakneck development despite the environment, despite democracy and despite the Tibetans and Uighurs. Without Xinjiang, China cannot become a superpower. Therefore there is as much chance of her letting it go as there is of Russia relinquishing Siberia, or America the states west of the Rockies. Perhaps some day the Chinese will wake up to the issue of ethnic minority rights in the same way the United States rediscovered native Americans in the 1960s — but by then the Uighur will have become the Sioux of Central Asia.