And so I have left the middle kingdom and come back to the UK. I may have basically disappeared for a year, other than the occasional ‘I’m still alive!’ post when I could find a VPN, but it certainly didn’t mean i was gone forever. I’ve got a blog to write afterall…
I did consider writing a bit about my personal time in China in this blog, but I changed my mind. I also considered doing what I usually do here – that is have some poetry, about China. But I changed my mind again. Instead, I thought I would share my piece of writing on the province I spent my year in, as there are things happening there that the majority of the world doesn’t get to hear about.
When you think of China, do you think of Bamboo, temples and Pandas? Maybe you imagine the giant skyscraper-dominated metropolises like Shanghai and Chongqing?
My China was rather different, living in the far west desert and camels were slightly more prevalent than the stereotypes!
I won’t give you an introduction to what my little article is about here, i’ll just let you read it instead. If you haven’t seen the very very few news reports from the area, or heard about it somewhere, you may be surprised about Xinjiang…
And on a quick side note before you read, if you decide to follow my blog just on this post, you may be disappointed, as this is not my usual sort of post, so here is an apology beforehand!
Xinjiang-multicultural or anti-cultural?
Welcome to Chinese central Asia, a place that depending on where you are in its vast expanses could be almost anywhere in the continent. Sometimes you could find yourself in deserts reminiscent of the middle-east, and sometimes on emerald green plains just like those in Mongolia. You could even be mistaken for thinking you had stumbled into Russia in certain places. Although admittedly these countries do indeed all have borders with Xinjiang, the geographical similarities don’t always fit nicely onto those lines.
It is not surprising then, considering the diversity and size of the landscape, that Xinjiang is just as diverse in its peoples. Completely aside from the Han, the majority group and the stereotype of ‘Chinese’, there are the many minority groups. The most numerous minority groups are perhaps the Uighurs and the Kazakhs, both of Turkish roots, but the region also is home to Mongols, Russians and Tibetans, among others. The Chinese official word on the relationships between all these groups is that every group lives in peace and harmony, learning from each other and contributing to a truly multicultural society.
This claim is however not quite as simple as the Han would like the world to believe. In considering how multicultural or not Xinjiang is, one must critically explore a number of different topics such as: the economy and planned economic developments; actual relationships between minority groups and an understanding of regional tensions; the politics of the region (especially that which is concerned with borders and control), and the history of Xinjiang, and indeed China as a whole.
Contest and Tension
As would be expected with a region aptly named ‘new frontier’, Xinjiang has not always been Chinese. Owing to its historical imperialistic nature and bloody past, Parts of Xinjiang have gone in and out of China’s control for hundreds of years, but numerous empires have had its fair share of the region over history. Areas such as Kashgaria and Ili could have been considered states of their own at times or colonies of other countries. The Ili region for example was at one point contested by Russia and China. Even Britain had its eyes on the green plains in the shadow of the Tian Shan Mountains, for if they had managed to colonize Tibet.
Xinjiang’s heavily contested past is important, because it is much the same today. Without understanding that different powers have had their influence on the region, we can’t understand the relationship between the Han Chinese and some of the minority groups. Before China made a decisive move to secure Xinjiang completely for itself (along with Tibet and Guangdong) under Mao’s government, the area was generally known as Turkestan. Some Uighur activist groups claim that Xinjiang should still be Turkestan and want what they consider their country back.
Even if China were willing to ‘withdraw’ from Xinjiang, it probably would no longer be possible. Mao’s means to secure Xinjiang was to flood the region with Han Chinese and build new cities until Han were the majority in a place that beforehand had almost only minority groups. This act alone would no doubt have upset the Xinjiang locals, completely excluding the current claims of racism, ethnic tensions and destruction of culture.
If we look to Tibet, a region in a similar position, we see risings to make Tibet an independent country but interestingly it remains 93% (as of 2008) Tibetan ethnicity, in contrast to over 50% Han in Xinjiang. Tibet has support from some western pressure groups to stop sinicization, yet Xinjiang is widely ignored.
‘Develop the West’
Support for Tibet often attacks the government’s ‘develop the west’ policy – which officially is a scheme to bring the western provinces out of slum-like conditions and poverty – yet this policy is also contributing currently to the slow destruction of Kashgar’s old town, among other locations throughout Xinjiang. In short, the minorities of Xinjiang are in the same, if not worse position, of a province which is the target of international human rights pressure.
One must however consider the other side of the ‘develop the west’ scheme. It is true that many traditional houses and buildings have been demolished in the name of development, but health conditions have almost certainly improved and modernization does open new opportunities for the people of Xinjiang. Although it would be a push to talk of clean water in China, running water is readily available now in even the most isolated of towns, even in the desert. Xinjiang is now not only not lacking in electricity, but is actually China’s largest producer and slowly becoming a pioneer in renewable sources. In the Turpan basin, wind turbines stretch for miles, and solar panels exploit the intense sunlight of China’s hottest place. China became the world’s largest producer of wind energy in 2010, with a large proportion of that output coming from Xinjiang.
Energy production has also unfortunately created a less favourable side-effect – very high levels of air pollution. In personal experience, I was told by one friend in Kuitun, that she ‘remembered when the snow was white and the sky was sometimes blue’ in winter. The air pollution did indeed get so bad that snow turned grey in a day of settling. Mentioned in the above paragraph was the renewable sources of the region, but of course this air pollution does not stem from wind turbines. Oil and coal burning is also a huge producer of energy in Xinjiang, and the negative environmental effects have developed so quickly that the majority of people in Xinjiang can remember a time where air and skies were clean.
‘Develop the West’ can also be seen to be rather short-sighted in its plans. Xinjiang may be rich in resources, but one resource this arid, desert region lacks is water and there is a risk that there is simply not enough to support the rapidly increasing population. With less than 5% habitable land in Xinjiang due to water shortages, can it support the continuing migration to the region? Urumqi has in the past always been one of the most habitable places, yet even the capital is now feeling the strain of lack of water. Climate change is reported to be threatening its water sources, yet despite that there are plans to build pipelines across Xinjiang to bring water from the more eastern side of the province to the drier west. Water problems have become and will continue to be one of Xinxiang’s greatest challenges.
The Chinese government’s ‘develop the west’ plans make sense from the most basic understanding of it – to bring wealth to some of the poorest regions of China – but it is currently doing as much damage as it is development. It also seems to contribute more to the Han migrants rather than minority groups, who are losing cultural heritage and their environment.
Unrest and violence
As previously discussed, Xinjiang has long been a contested region between many groups of peoples. In more recent times this contest has mainly been between Han Chinese and Uighurs. Since 2008 attacks labeled as separatist violence have taken place over Xinjiang. In July 2009 Riots broke out in the capital, Urumqi, claiming 200 lives by official numbers. A source of my own, a policeman with access to police videos believes the fatal casualties to be at least three times that, but he was admittedly not present at the riots. The riots on 5th July began as protests, but became violent part way through. The government issued a statement claiming the riots to had been planned abroad by outlaws.
The cause of the protests is said to have been a violent incident at a factory which started due to a serious false accusation against Uighur co-workers. This is easy to believe, considering the high levels of racism towards the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. Although the majority of people will not be openly aggressive towards Uighurs in the streets, many will openly talk of their dislike of them. Some of this dislike is extreme – for example, a Han Chinese in Kuitun suggested genocide of Uighurs to me as a solution for peace in the province.
Just this year, violence has once again been on the rise, with major incidents within the province in many towns including Urumqi and Kashgar, as well as terrorist attacks on Kunming and Guangzhou train stations, reportedly instigated by Uighur extremist groups. In response, the Chinese military now has a very strong presence across the province and the government has declared a crackdown on ‘terrorism’.
Although trying to stop violence is no doubt the correct thing to do, the Chinese Government’s approaches have been questionable to say the least. A few weeks after a very serious attack on a market in Urumqi, the roads in the centre of the city were closed without warning. A procession of soldiers and tanks then made their way through the city, playing speeches from megaphones of ‘peace and harmony’ as they went. These troops and vehicles are now dispersed across the city in such places as the grand bazaar (predominantly Uighur area) and outside mosques (Uighurs are a Muslim minority group). These of course, are true signs of peace and harmony.
These shows of power seem to have made the military and police forces believe it is acceptable to be unnaturally aggressive themselves. The police for example was previously not allowed to carry weaponry, yet now in Xinjiang a large proportion of the force have firearms. Outside of the school where I worked, for the last month there was an armed police guard – armed with automatic rifles and spears. In Fukang, a friend caught on camera the moment where a SWAT van drove up next to a Uighur family, surrounded them with armed police, checked their papers, ripped the papers up and through the family into the back of the van. It has become a common sight in Xinjiang cities to see riot police marching through the streets on patrols. These are just a small number of the signs of increasing aggression in the region from the authorities.
Even outside of Xinjiang, Uighurs are being persecuted. A leading Uighur academic working in Beijing was thrown in prison after criticising the way the government was treating Uighurs. He was labeled a separatist by official sources. One must also ask, why should it be a crime to be separatist?
Other minority groups of Xinjiang
This article has mainly tackled the concerns between Han Chinese and Uighur peoples, but it is important to consider the other minority groups and how they are treated. In Urumqi, there is a Russian quarter separate from Han and Uighur parts of town. One could argue that they don’t seem to fully integrate therefore into the wider community, but it is relatively common across the world to have areas of cities where a minority group almost completely owns it.
In the majority of cities, Kazakhs live happily integrated with the Han. However, talking to some Kazakhs, I found out that some are concerned about if some of the laws used against Uighurs (Xinjiang has a number of derogatory laws that only affect Uighurs) will effect them in the future. As Kazakhs, like Uighurs, are generally Muslim, some could well suffer from laws slowly coming into place that appear targeted at Muslim groups – two examples being a move to ban religious Muslim clothes and beards in Karamay, and a ban on Ramadan fasting. In general however, it does appear the other minorities of Xinjiang do not feel anywhere near as oppressed as the Uighurs. Part of this could be that Kazakhs, Russians, Tajiks and Mongolians all have their own countries bordering the region and so they don’t find their way of life threatened in the same way as the Uighurs do – the Uighurs do not have their own country, and if their culture is lost in China, it will be gone forever.
Is Xinjiang ‘multicultural’?
Returning finally to the rather sensationalist title of this article, it is time to address the original question using the prior information. In order for a country to be multicultural, one would expect the people, in general, to live contently together, regardless of ethnicity. The tensions between the different ethnic groups say otherwise, and hence it’s advised not to listen to the recording when you fly into Urumqi for the first time speaking of harmony and respect between all peoples of Xinjiang. Multiculturalism requires an acceptance of all cultures, not a drive to wipe out all cultures but one.
The government’s complete misunderstanding (or choice to ignore) of the reasons for violence highlights the ‘Han culture is best’ attitude that leads to sinification. Each time there is an attack, Uighur groups from abroad will voice that the cause is oppression and destruction of culture, and the government will ignore the claims and declare the acts as mindless terrorism and accept no blame of their own. This ignorance, on purpose or not, is not the sign of a multicultural region.
Then there is the military and government response. The sad irony of marching the military through a capital city whilst playing slogans of unity and peace is impossible not to see, and the concentration of troops in minority areas accentuates that the authorities don’t believe their own words.
Kazakh and Uighur culture is used as a tourist attraction rather than actually respecting it and this is the Chinese way. If you visit Yunnan province, the region famous for its diversity of minority groups, you will find that new ‘old’ towns built in order to make minority culture into money, and also make it appear more Han Chinese. From a very cynical point of view, it is interesting that the Yunnan old towns keep on burning down and being rebuilt in a more Han style, filled with tourist shops rather than homes and small businesses. One must also consider Inner Mongolia, which now has very little Mongolian culture in it. Hohhot is now infamously a generic concrete Han city, with all things Mongolian stripped out of it. Most Ethnic Mongolians have even forgotten their language.
For me, it is clear to see the ultimate goal of the authorities in Xinjiang. They do not want a multicultural region, but instead another Inner Mongolia – a region where minority culture has been suppressed to the point that it can be used as part of tourism, but has no place as living, breathing culture. The current year long ‘terrorism’ crackdown is the perfect opportunity for them to really begin to do serious damage to the cultures of Xinjiang, through fear-mongering and targeted further ‘develop the west’ development. Although terrorism and violence is never justified, there is no doubt that the Xinjiang unrest is, and as a result the province cannot be called the multicultural region that the government would like you to believe.