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China's forgotten people of Xinjiang

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Few people know the names of Rebiya Kadeer or Dolkun Isa or the struggle for self-determination taking place in China’s far west for the people of Xinjiang. Lawrence Hamilton reports.

When thinking of China, what often comes to mind are chopsticks, the Great Wall, pandas, and kitschy images of Chairman Mao

While most people are aware that China has a huge population, fewer are aware of how this demographic breaks down. 

Or, that included in this population, are a race of people with ancestry much closer to Istanbul rather than Beijing and that these people are locked in a mortal struggle to preserve their homeland.

The overwhelming majority of China’s 1.3 billion inhabitants are Han Chinese who make up a little over 91 per cent of the total population. China’s population is spread across 23 provinces and five autonomous regions, with the bulk of the population living in the more highly developed east coast. Out in the far west is the province of Xinjiang. Its native inhabitants are the Uyghurs, a small Muslim race who speak a Turkic language and in almost no respect represent the traditional impression of "Chinese". Uyghurs make up roughly 0.47 per cent of China’s population.

To help ease the toll the burgeoning population was taking on the nation’s land, China adapted a policy to bring back areas that were historically part of China. These included Tibet and Turkestan, the latter being home of the Uyghurs. By 1955, this starkly beautiful region was incorporated into the People''s Republic as the Xinjiang autonomous region.

It is exceedingly vast and comfortably contains the world’s second largest desert, the Taklimakan, and shares borders with seven nations along with Tibet. It covers 1.6 million square kilometres and is an important strategic loggerhead as it contains large oil reserves and is currently China''s largest producer of natural gas.

Despite its large size, the population of Xinjiang was quite small. In 1945, the total population of Xinjiang was 3.6 million, with 82.7 per cent being Uyghur and only six percent made up of Han Chinese. With the discovery of natural wealth, the Chinese state began one of the largest state orchestrated migrations in human history. Since 1955, they have suddenly found themselves minorities in their homeland and cast off from the decision makers in the government.

Dolkun Isa, the executive director of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said:

“In 60 years we have not seen autonomy, autonomy is just on paper. We need democracy and we need self-determination.”

As we talked on Skype, the computer delays failed to betray the fact that Dolkun Isa was sad and exasperated. Isa said:

“They killed 25 people yesterday.”

The "they" is the Chinese government and the 25 people were Uyghur refugees who were in Thailand trying to be resettled in Turkey. The Thai government, citing the refugees'' lack of documents, sent them back to China where, according to the WUC, they were promptly executed. Thai officials would later say the refugees were safe.

The WUC, which was spear-headed by activist Rebiya Hadeer, seeks to document to the outside world the daily conditions that Muslims face living in China. A cursory look at the website paints a grim picture of life in Xinjiang.

With the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, suddenly Central Asia was not only a place of natural wealth but an area of potential danger. The government strengthened its already tight grip by putting more police throughout the province, monitoring mosques and arresting those accused of fomenting separatism. Uyghur leaders blame the heavy handed policy for eruptions of violence that occur throughout the region and the country.

It was with this as a backdrop that the WUC was founded in 2004. With is headquarters in Munich, Germany, its mission is:

''To promote democracy, human rights and freedom for the Uyghur people and use peaceful, non-violent, and democratic means to determine their political future.'' 

Lacking a congenial figurehead, such as the Tibetan’s Dalai Lama, or a well-funded media campaign to advertise their plight, the Uyghurs have been forced into the role as China’s forgotten people. Despite all the talk of China’s economic miracle, the Uyghur people find themselves continually slipping through the cracks.

Isa stated:

“Actually China doesn’t need the Uyghur people, they just need our resources. Uranium and gold all get exported to inner China. Never have the Uyghur people benefited, only the benefits for the Chinese.”

The Economist recently detailed openly discriminatory employment practices that hire Han Chinese over their Uyghur and Tibetan couterparts. The report cited the shocking statistic that nearly 83 per cent of Uyghurs remained farmers  this is despite the rapid urbanisation of the country as a whole. By comparison, the number of Chinese living on farms has gone down by a third since 2000. Less than one per cent of Uyghurs have resettled outside their native province.

Recently, the New Silk Road was proposed, linking the East Coast of China to Western Europe. This large scale super highway will clock in it at over 8,000 kilometres and aims to reduce the transport of goods to a mere ten days, instead of the current 40 days. Whether this new construction project will have any benefits for Uyghurs remains to be seen.

Isa flatly stated:

“This New Silk Road will not benefit Uyghurs, maybe it is worse for us.” 

Wade Shepard, author of Ghost Cities of China and currently writing a book about the new Silk Road, agreed that even bigger changes are coming for Xinjiang. Shepard stated:

The lives of the Uyghurs will be fundamentally changed. First of all the very landscapes where people live are going to be changed permanently. Villages are going to disappear, neighbourhoods are to be razed to the ground, new metropolises are going to go up and people from other parts of the country are going to flood in.

This new development and focus on trade means the standard of living will more than likely rise for the people of Xinjiang. China is hoping their economic miracle will be enough to stop the uneven growth that has separated the interior of the country with the more prosperous East Coast.

According to Shepard:

When applied to Xinjiang, it is the most economically, culturally and geographically remote area in the country. And changing has become a top priority for the Chinese government. So we are going to see a Xinjiang that is totally reworked-literally from the ground up. Traditional communities are being broken up, ancient villages replaced with high rises and a culture that’s being more watered down generation after generation.

Given the history between China and Turkestan it is not a difficult leap to think this will all be on the terms of the Chinese government. China uses its economic development as a tool. It tries to obtain political and social stability through economics.

Determining who historically controls these types of regions is fraught with peril. The documented history of Xinjiang dates back 2,500 years and has been ruled by a colourful menagerie of dynasties and tribes. It might even be fantasy for the Uyghurs to believe they would have lived in peace. The Soviet Union exerted control on most of neighbouring Central Asia and Mongolia and even attempted to subdue Xinjiang in the 1930s.

Over the past decade, unrest and disillusionment has grown in Uyghur communities. This has spilled over into violent attacks both in Xinjiang and the infamous Kunming railway attack where six Uyghurs stabbed 29 Han Chinese to death. While the WUC denounces these attacks, many in the Uyghur community lay blame with the police.

Any hope for future reapproachment seems bleak. China continues to hope new economic developments, like Silk Road, will raise the standard of living and give Uyghurs a reason to integrate and embrace the Chinese economic model. The WUC maintain that no economic gain is worth the destruction of their homeland.

Shepard says:

What’s ironic about the New Silk Road is that through the process of reviving these traces of history and ancient culture it goes hand in hand with making sure traditional ways of life are being decimated and replaced with nothing but the super modern. It is going back to a time when China was the centre of the world and it is erasing everything that has occurred during the intermediary millennia.

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