August 12, 2008


The city at the empire's edge: The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region of China has seen a series of clashes between the majority Uighurs and Han Chinese settlers since the 1980s. But it was in the city of Yining that the largest protest took place on 5 February 1997. Initially written off by the Chinese authorities as an outbreak of random violence, since 9/11 it has been cast as the work of Islamists intent on establishing an independent Islamic kingdom. (Nick Holdstock, Eurozine)

The main ethnic group in Xinjiang are the Uighurs (pronounced weegers), a Turkic people, which means that they belong to the same group of peoples who began in Central Asia and then eventually spread as far as Turkey. Their language is similar to Kazakh and Uzbek. Although many speak Mandarin Chinese, few are able to read and write Chinese with any great proficiency. The majority of Uighurs are Sunni Muslims, though there are considerable differences between religious practices in the north and south of the province, with the latter tending to be more orthodox.

Before 1949 (when the People's Republic of China was founded), there were only 20,000 Han in the region, less than 5 per cent of the population. In Yining there were so few Han that a street was named Han Ren Jie ("the street of Han people").

The succeeding years witnessed a demographic explosion, as the government encouraged Han from the more populated provinces to resettle in the region. Many of these are part of the Xinjiang Production & Construction Corps (XPCC). The XPCC was created in the early 1950s as a way to utilise soldiers from the surrendered Nationalist army. Since then successive waves of migration have swelled the ranks of the XPCC, which today stands at around 2.5 million.

The XPCC has its own police force, courts, agricultural and industrial enterprises, as well as its own large network of labour camps and prisons. Its main unit of production is the state farm or bingtuan. The bingtuans have had the dual function of developing the region's economy and quelling unrest; in one of its marching songs it describes itself as "an army with no uniforms". Many towns with a Uighur majority are now encircled by bingtuans.

The most noticeable aspect of life in Yining is how Han and Uighurs live separately. They eat in different restaurants (Uighurs only eat in halal establishments, whereas pork is an essential ingredient in Han cuisine); their children go to separate schools; they rarely socialise; they virtually never marry. The only time I ever saw Han and Uighurs happily together was at a cockfight.

They are even divided temporally: the Han run on Beijing time, whereas most Uighurs use Xinjiang time, which is two hours ahead (and more accurately reflects the position of the sun). For anyone who hopes to have Han and Uighur friends, this makes arranging any kind of meeting incredibly tiresome. You will frequently be two hours early, or late, even when you think you have specified whether the time of meeting is Xinjiang or Beijing shi dian. For many Uighurs, this imposition of the wrong time zone is more than simply absurd. It sums up the arrogance and indifference of the Chinese government to the fact that Xinjiang is so markedly different to the rest of China. You could almost be forgiven for thinking it was a separate country.

The Chinese government's position on the history of Xinjiang is admirably clear. In essence, it amounts to:

One thing cannot be denied. Xinjiang has always been a part of China. Since the time of its origins, our great motherland has always been a multi-ethnic nation.

The position of some Uighurs is similarly clear:

One thing cannot be denied. Xinjiang has never been a part of China. Only in recent years have we become a Chinese colony.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 12, 2008 10:11 AM
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