Xinjiang: China's forgotten occupation

Isolated by the surrounding desert, Kashgar was once
an oasis on the old Silk Road. Now the city is being overwhelmed in the rush to open up the region’s oil and gas reserves. By Dan Box.

The railway has brought modern China across the desert to Kashgar. For those arriving in China’s westernmost city, the station clock tells the time in Beijing two time zones away. This is the official time in China, and is used by the trains that facilitate a state-supported migration of millions of Han Chinese. China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han account for 93 per cent of the country’s population. Until recently they were a minority in Kashgar, but in a few years their numbers have increased from seven per cent to 43 per cent of the city’s population. The migration has been driven by the discovery of estimated reserves of a trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 20 billion tonnes of oil.
Before the railway’s construction, to get from Kashgar to Beijing it was four days by road to the nearest city of Urumchi and from there another four days by rail to the capital. Now, it takes just 24 hours.

Surrounded on all sides by desert, Kashgar is a heat-scorched oasis. The last outpost before the border with Pakistan, the city grew rich on the silk trade from Beijing to Europe. The trade’s influence can still be seen in the old town. Bazaars spill across narrow streets spiralling out from the Id Kah mosque. Kashgar rings with the noise from copper workshops, jewellers and market traders. The indigenous Uyghur people speak a language common to central Asia, not Chinese.

The Chinese army occupied the region in 1949, claiming the desert and its people as their own. In 1955 what had been the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan was renamed the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region; the name was chosen to disguise what is total Chinese rule. While officially autonomous, ‘Xinjiang’ translates as ‘new territory’ or ‘new frontier’.

In contrast, ‘Uyghur’ means ‘allied’. The name  unites a people exiled from Siberia and now scattered across central Asia. In Xinjiang, one-sixth the size of China, the Uyghur number roughly 11 million. They are mostly shepherds and oasis farmers isolated in the few belts of fertile land in the south of the region. Beijing perceived the absence of urban population as emptiness. From 1964 to 1996 Xinjiang was used to test China’s nuclear weapons.

Extinguishing a language
Outside in Kashgar, the wind twists – throwing bleached white sand against the station walls. Sitting opposite, an Uyghur girl watches the desert beyond the railway tracks. ‘This is the hottest place in the world,’ she says. ‘As hot as Palestine.’ She speaks with an accent learned from US films seen at university in Beijing. Not wanting to be identified, she gives herself the English name Lisa.

University offers Lisa an opportunity unavailable in Xinjiang; state education means a better chance of success within Han society. But that opportunity means choosing secular lessons taught in Mandarin, over Islamic education taught in her own tongue. The choice is between joining the new society or remaining Uyghur, and parents must make it for their children at an increasingly early age.

‘When I was in elementary school,’ says Lisa, ‘we had to learn Chinese from third grade. Now they have to learn from first grade. This is the beginning of starting to forget.’

The Uyghur’s language defines their independence from the Chinese. Following occupation, this independence provoked China to begin a programme of redefining Uyghur identity. Compulsory education was established in state schools to ‘abolish narrow nationalism and… genuinely reach a state of ethnic equality’. Uyghur parents fear their children may become so equal that they cease to be different from the Chinese.

‘In two decades there will be no Uyghur people or culture left,’ says Lisa. ‘Our language has faced many challenges, but this is the greatest. If we can stand this challenge we will win, we will survive. If we can’t stand this challenge, we will die.’

The last we see of Lisa, she is setting out across the empty station car park – walking the few miles that separate Kashgar station from the old town. This vast suburban space, divided only by roads, marks the ambitions of the Han. A new concrete city is being built around old Kashgar, filling the emptiness between it and the station. Great tracts of land have been bulldozed for two-lane highways. Uyghur families now live in the shells of houses with walls torn open by the road.

Where the narrow streets remain, grey office blocks tower above. The roads meet at a central roundabout, built where Uyghur houses used to stand. One technicolour billboard announces: ‘You cannot say you have seen the Silk Road until you have seen Kashgar.’ Another says: ‘Kashgar has taken on a new look. The Silk Road is even more shining.’

Transferring resources

This shining future, outlined last year in China’s 10th five-year plan, promises to ‘open up’ the country’s west to development. The whole of Xinjiang is being transformed with new roads, new railways and new industries to harness its natural wealth. Since 1994 more than $700m of World Bank development loans have been used to build roads in Xinjiang. A further $160m has been spent on railways linking China’s east and west. Work continues on a massive 4,200-kilometre pipeline to carry gas from the Lunnan fields in southern Xinjiang across China to Shanghai.

According to the People’s Daily newspaper, the scale of this construction will ‘demonstrate the heroic spirit of the industrious and valiant Chinese people’ and will ‘bring an unprecedented mammoth transfer of resources’. Its completion will turn China’s west into ‘a powerful energy base’; the east will be the country’s ‘production base’. The work is controlled by the state company PetroChina; three foreign companies – Royal Dutch/Shell, ExxonMobil and the Russian firm Gazprom – share a 45 per cent stake in it. These three also enjoy exclusive rights to develop five oilfields within Xinjiang. Between the competing interests of Beijing and foreign capital, the Uyghur are being ignored.

The benefits of development are available only to the Han. A UN report into the east-west pipeline found that 93 per cent of people in the, predominantly Uyghur communities near Lunnan had never heard of Shell, and less than half of PetroChina. Even in the cities, Han Chinese and Uyghur live in virtual segregation. While a few Uyghur occupy positions in government and business, real power resides in the parallel organisation of the Communist Party. Officials state that party membership and the Uyghur’s Muslim faith are incompatible.

Chinese Islamophobia

Sporadically, this situation gives rise to violence, which the Chinese then use to justify increased control. Beijing warns of separatist Uyghur conspiring to establish an independent Muslim state within Xinjiang. Yet, according to a 2002 Chinese government report, there has only been one act of ‘terrorist’ violence since 1999. That attack, the murder of a court official in Kashgar, took place in February 2001.

Chinese reaction is out of all proportion with the reality of the threat. Policy in Xinjiang is dictated by a secret document of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party; the document advocates using the ‘rule of law’ to combat ‘the infiltration and sabotaging activities of foreign religious powers’. Mosques, imams and Islamic schools must be officially sanctioned. Communist Party regulations instruct local authorities to ‘establish a political verification’ dossier to make sure imams meet political requirements. At the Id Kah mosque, the number of those attending worship is counted and their names taken.

The full extent of this repression is unknown, the information limited by Chinese control on foreign journalists. What is known is this: since September 11, the government has claimed al-Qaeda has trained Uyghur terrorists, and thousands of Uyghur have been detained. Official sources state that 8,000 have been given ‘political education’ courses; many remain imprisoned. Amnesty International reports that Xinjiang is the only province in China where execution of political prisoners is still common. The ratio of death sentences to population is several times higher here than elsewhere in China.

Less well known are the more subtle forms the occupation takes. Arriving at our hotel, signs advertise the evening’s performance of traditional Uyghur dancing. As daylight fades, bare electric bulbs flood the courtyard and busloads of Han tourists arrive and occupy rows of plastic seats.

A troupe of Uyghur dancers emerges hesitantly and lines up before the watching crowd. The girls wear loose black dresses and tie gold plastic coins in their hair; the men wear black robes fastened on the right with long waistbands. Almost sullenly, the dancers start to circle each other, then begin to spin faster and faster. Soon, both girls and men are swept along by the applause and cheering of the crowd.

Beaten out on drums and stringed instruments, the dance borrows from the ‘Mukam’, or ‘12 Great Melodies’, that have been Uyghur tradition for centuries. But after the crowd applauds the costumes are returned to the hotel and the Uyghur return to their homes. Every evening the spectacle is repeated; it serves to separate the Uyghur culture from the world at large, as if it were a soon-to-be-extinct museum piece.

Dan Box is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2003

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