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Dispatch: A Journey to China’s West

27/10/2010

I recently returned from a trip out to China’s Western province (hence the prolonged silence), Xinjiang. Bordering Central Asia, the name literally translates as New Frontier and it accounts for a sixth of China’s landmass while less than two percent of the total population. It is covered with vast tracts of empty land, much of which produces energy helping fuel China’s exponential growth: open coal mines dot the countryside and the roads are littered with pieces of coal that have fallen off trucks, giant fields of windmills stretch as far as the eye can see, and for an hour and a half we crossed a flat piece of country covered with methodically bobbing oil derricks.

But of greatest interest to readers of this blog is that the region is also the source of many of China’s terrorism concerns. The province is home to the majority of China’s Uighur population – an officially recognised minority who share more with the Turkic people’s of Central Asia than with their Han Chinese brethren who make up the majority of what people traditionally think of as Chinese people. In the past the community has even managed to rule itself (though usually with outside support), with parts claiming themselves the Republic of East Turkestan in 1933-1934 and again in 1944-1949. Since 1949, the province has firmly been ruled by Beijing, and these days dreams of independence live on in the minds of some Uighurs and in the actions of a select few who comprise one of China’s main domestic terrorism concerns.

Ethnic tensions in the province remain and last July the capital erupted into international attention when ethnic Han and Uighurs clashed on the streets of Urumqi the capital resulting in some 200 deaths. When we visited, the most visible sign of tension was the heavy police presence, and in the main Uighur part of the city groups of People’s Armed Police paraded menacingly. Locals we spoke to in Urumqi talked of the separate lives the different communities led and spoke with suspicion of the “others”. In Kashgar, the main southern city which is currently undergoing an overhaul to become a “special economic zone,” Uighur and Han Chinese locals told us of local anger at the growing outsiders presence in the province and ominously that “Han are all the same.” All around the vast empty countryside are large signs displaying propaganda messages – one particularly memorable one near Kashgar announced something along the lines of “People from outside the province are a boon to the state.”

Travelling along the Karakoram highway to the Pakistani border the most interesting thing to see is the wide array of different communities that live out West. We passed Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uighur villages, all clearly displaying very different traditions and of clearly different ethnicities: at the Tajik city of Tashkorgan just before the border it felt as though we were in Eastern Europe. At other points up north we met communities of Russian origin who had migrated to China decades before and were now Chinese. Everywhere there were small road blocks checking to see who was travelling around.

During a later discussion in Shanghai, an academic working on counter-terrorism issues told me that the root of the problems was that Uighurs, unlike other Muslim minorities in China, felt apart from the Chinese mainstream. They feel alienated and retreat into a blend of ethno-religious ideology to provide perspective. While it is certainly impossible to take my brief trip as a scientifically complete investigation, anecdotal conversations certainly supported this analysis.