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A brief, if biased, snapshot of Xinjiang’s past and present

January 10, 2009

21/11/08 Korla, Xinjiang, China

NB: The purpose of this piece is not to give a comprehensive understanding of Xinjiang’s long and complicated history. Obviously, all history is inherently political, as the events that are highlighted versus those which are omitted expose the partiality of the author. With this in mind, the purpose of this short piece is for the benefit of readership, to present a basic outline of what I consider to be some significant developments in Xinjiang’s history and their present manifestations in order to provide a context for my commentary pieces which will follow. For those who are interested in learning more, I would recommend Christan Tyler’s Wild West China.  *     *     * 

       Known as ‘Xinjiang’ (pronounced ‘shin-ji-ang‘), meaning ‘new frontier’ by the Chinese,  and ‘Eastern Turkestan’ by its other inhabitants, the most north-westernly province of China is a multi-ethnic region situated on the historical crossroads of the Silk Road trading route. (For a pertinent analysis of the politics of naming, seehttp://uighurstan.blogspot.com/2008/11/whats-in-name.html) It has been home to the Kazakh, Mongol, Kyrgyz, Xibo and Uighur people, which are the majority, for centuries.

       The Chinese have been attempting to control Xinjiang  for well over 1,000 years, and have succeeded in doing so on-and-off since the 1700s. Not surprisingly, these imperial ambitions have not gone down well with the majority Uighur, who share little cultural, linguistic or religious links with the Han Chinese, being, like many of the peoples of Central Asia, of Turkic descent. The frictions of identity politics resulting from the interplay between distinct ethnic groups vying for control over a single land, as well as the tactics of coercion and resistance on both sides, has often erupted in conflict. Indeed, the history of Xinjiang is a very bloody one.

       Originally, Xinjiang was important for the Chinese empires because of its geographic location: a buffer from the powerful Khanates of Central Asia, and, after that, from Tsarist and eventually Soviet Russia.  Further, Chinese empires have always seen the peoples from the region as ‘barbaric’ and dangerous, and hence in need of control and civilisation.

       Nowadays, Xinjiang is not only coveted by Beijing for its wealth of natural resources, including oil, natural gas, and minerals, but also for the sheer immensity of its landmass (one-sixth of the total area of China), which proves immensely valuable to a nation constantly pressed for space by an increasing population.

       The methods of Chinese control have varied according to the ages, from military outposts and garrisons in the 18th and 19th century, to forced migration tactics in the 20th century. During the height of Mao’s Communist endeavors, Xinjiang was the location of many work camps, the Chinese equivalent to Soviet Gulags. Hundreds of thousand of people were sent out to this region in order to be ‘re-educated’. Today, you can still see the contemporary manifestation of these: so-called ‘work-teams’ in matching uniforms, flanked by shuttle buses and armed soldiers, digging trenches or planting trees in the middle of the desert. (In fact, we passed one on the bus just yesterday.)

       More recently, in the past 20 years, the Chinese government has given Han Chinese from the easterly provinces incentives to migrate out to Xinjiang, such as job opportunities or promotions and living-cost subsidies. Such policies have been aimed not only at alleviating the burden from China’s overpopulated eastern coast, but also as a means of shifting the demographics of the region so that the Uighur become a minority. The settlement of Han in Xinjiang is not only a means of undermining Uighur claims to national autonomy; it is also a way of preventing dissent.

       Recent Uighur uprisings, including riots in the town of Yining in the late nineties, a series of explosions in early 2000s and alleged attacks on Chinese police in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have been heavily crushed. The Chinese government’s approach to Uighur dissent is two-pronged: punishment and construction. On one hand, they refer to any sort of anti-government activity with the convenient label ‘terrorist’, in order to legitimise arbitrary detentions, questioning, torture and even execution of individuals. On the other hand, they continue to invest heavily in the region, developing industries and urban infrastructure, the benefactors of which are largely Han Chinese. In the majority of cases, neither the Uighur nor other minorities of the region are granted access to these new wealth-generating enterprises, save in low-level maintenance posts such as gardening or rubbish collection. At the same time, their businesses are notably absent from the newly constructed city centres, in which large Chinese characters drown out the Arabic script of the Uighur language. 

       The extent to which the social or economic activities of the Uighur are pushed to the margins of contemporary development is also present in the education system: Uighur and Han children are obliged to attend different schools. In Uighur schools, Mandarin Chinese (in Chinese ‘hanyu‘, ‘Han language’, or ‘putonghua‘, ‘common language’) is a compulsory subject, which must be passed in order for the student to obtain a high-school diploma. In most Uighur schools, English is not taught.  In Han schools, English is taught as a compulsory subject, and Uighur is not taught at all. This segregation not only reinforces ethnic differences of Han vs. non-Han, which forces the Uighur to assimilate into the dominant culture; it also produces generations of Chinese citizens with inherently different levels of education, and hence perpetuates a systematic imbalance in terms of access to the job market, whether nationally or internationally. 

     The methods of Han coercion exceed languange, and come to infringe on all sorts of cultural practices. From fostering a social stigma against beards and forcing Muslims working in or attending public institutions (including universities) to eat during the day in Ramadan, to covering the walls of Uighur parts of town with propaganda proclaiming the need for “civilisation” and insisting that businesses and official services run on ”Beijing Time” when Xinjiang’s longitude should have it running two time zones earlier, there are many examples of the Chinese government’s drive to to stamp its authority on the region and undermine Uighur ethnic identity.

      Though in-depth analysis of all these factors exceeds the scope of this blog, my commentaries aim to bear testimony to the ways in which the livelihoods and identities of the Uighur are being compromised by the imperialist projects of the contemporary Chinese government.

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