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Xingjiang, at the Crossroad of Central Asia

June 6, 2007

Kashgar, Xinjiang — With a landmass about the size of that of the United States and a population that is over four times as large, China is home to an incredible variety of places and people. For example the seaside resort of Hainan, an island off the coast to the Southeast, and the Northeastern city of Harbin, close to the border with Russia and displaying the strong Russian influence in its architecture, are miles apart, and not only geographically.  The region of Xinjiang, to the Northwest, is also an accurate portrait of such rich diversity and of all the complexities that come with it.

xinjiang2It is a sunny Tuesday morning in the dusty border town of Tashkurgan and despite the altitude (3,600 meters above sea-level) and the snow-capped mountains in the background the heat begins to be bothersome since mid-morning.

Life today appears to be taking on renewed energy as a variety of people get busy at the local market from the early hours. It is May 1st, International Labor Day, national holiday throughout China, and the date that marks the re-opening of the border pass to Pakistan, after winter months of freezing cold and too many feet of snow.

There are men who shape firing-hot iron into pots and pans with rudimental tools, and others who cut and amass wood logs into big piles awaiting for a buyer to arrive, while yet other people open up their shops and organize fruit and vegetables on the stands outside. A few feet further down the street the head of a cow, freshly cut-off the neck of its rightful owner, lies outside the butcher shop.

Tashkurgan is just a quadrangle of streets, with restaurants, stores, and hotels to lodge, feed, and entertain those who are led here by their border activities. A big road sign that says; “Welcome to the cultural and tourist street of Tashkurgan,” marks the main street, although there are no cultural or tourist landmarks in sight.

The Traffic Hotel installed a large billboard on the street to signal its entrance gate. The name of the Hotel is spelt in the Western alphabet as Traffic Hdtei. When we arrived last night, marks of dirt on the paint of the wall behind the reception desk indicated that four clocks were missing. When we woke up this morning they had been put in place, one with the time of Karachi, beside those of Beijing, London and New York.

At the western end of China, Tashkurgan well represents the essence of Xinjang, a place where East, Central, and South Asia come together, as the variety of features on the faces of people here indicate.

Xinjiang in Chinese means new frontier, a name that was given to it during the Manchu Qing Dynasty and is appropriate for a xinjiang3region that lies at the crossroad of several international borders, among which some of the most delicate ones in today’s world. In the space of a few hundreds kilometers China shares its frontier with Mongolia to the East, Russia to the North, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and both Pakistani and Indian Kashmir to the West. Domestically, Xinjiang is just North of Tibet. Furthermore, under the jurisdiction of Xinjiang is Aksai Chin, a region claimed by India as part of its territory, and at the center of the still standing border disputes between the two countries.

The mix of ethnicities and culture that join together in this province of China is not very well known in the West. A foreigner who arrives unprepared can easily be overwhelmed by the novelty of many things. For example, there are doubles signs everywhere, but the two languages that appear are Chinese and Arabic. Sometimes a third different alphabet is added: Russian. These are not merely three languages that average Europeans or Americans do not speak, but three writings that they cannot read.

Because of its geographical, ethnic, cultural, and political characteristics, unique even for Asia, Xinjiang is given the status of autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is today the largest political subdivision of the country, accounting for about one sixth of its total landmass and a quarter of its boundary length.

It is a large, sparsely populated area, home to the point of land – located around 300 kilometers from the capital Urumqi – that is the farthest from any ocean. The landscapes to be found here are intense in their degree of variations, from the desert to high mountains, to forests, to lakes, and so is the weather, that not mitigated by any ocean breeze, is either freezing cold or burning hot.

A variety of minorities of Turkic ethnic descent make up the original inhabitants of Xinjiang. The largest of them are the Uyghurs. As such, and to the dislike of the central government in Beijing, the region is often referred to as Chinese Turkestan or East Turkestan and it houses a host of pro-independence movements, the best known of which is the East Turkestan Independence Movement.

In order to give recognition to the multiethnic make up of Xinjiang, the Chinese government has set up, within the already Autonomous Region of Xinjiang other smaller political subdivisions, such the Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture, or the Mongol Autonomous Prefecture.

Furthermore, in what is a very complicated political organization of the province, the border area on the Chinese side was made into a 200 kilometers-deep cushion and put under special administration, as a border official deployed on the Karakorum Highway – which connects Islamabad with Kashgar over the Khunjerab Pass – explains to us as we go through passport control at the entrance of such special zone. “After May 1st, when the border reopens,” he says,” about 100 people per day come into China from Pakistan,” a very small number relative to the total populations of the two countries.

Although he is a border official for the PRC in charge of the surveillance one of the most controversial regions of China, he makes no secret of his ethnic background and political convictions. “I am a Turk,” he says proudly, “a Turk of the Great Turkestan, the one land that goes from Istanbul to here.”

Because of its delicate position and because of the availability of natural resources – the People’s Daily Online recently reported that on May 31st China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation officially confirmed to have made a major oil and gas discovery in the region – the government of the PRC has undertaken significant efforts to both develop the region economically and to maintain its control over it.

xinjiang4As a result of the first kind of policies, and according to statistics from the Chinese government, Xinjiang’s nominal GDP has grown from approximately 187 billion RMB (about 24.5 billion USD) in 2003 to about 260.9 billion RMB in 2005 (about 34 billion USD), with an average growth of over 10% during five years. The economic success of the region can be mostly attributed to the China Western Development Strategy initiated in 2000 by the central government to boost economic development in the Western provinces.

Simultaneously, and in order to increase the central government hold over the region, Beijing has promoted the migration of ethnically Han Chinese – Han being the majority group in the PRC – to Xinjiang. According to the General Survey of Economic and Social Development in Xinjiang conducted in 1998, Han’s presence has grown from about 7 percent in 1949, at the founding of the PRC, to around 40 percent in 1995.

To this figure one can add military personnel or their families, especially those belonging to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). This is an organization of settlers who originally arrived in 1949 with the People’s Liberation Army and later on, in 1954, were guided by the central government to create a civilian organization with the mission “to carry out both production and militia duties, and cultivate and guard border areas,” according to what the White Paper released on the topic by Beijing in 2003 states. The same document notes that, in 2003, the population of XPCC forces in Xinjiang amounted to 2,453,600, of which 933,000 were workers.

The resulting impact on the demographic make up of Xinjiang, where the native Turk people comprises a decreasing percentage of the total population, is considered by the local independence advocates as a threat to their right to preserve their culture.

At the same time, and the same is true for all minorities in China, the people of Xinjiang were not bound by the One-Child Policy and as many Uyghurs emigrate to other provinces of China looking for better jobs, their percentage as a part of the total population of the PRC is actually increasing.

China’s Central Government is always very pro-active in its policies towards the country’s several minority groups; at least it tries hard to project an image of harmony and unity. A sign that is posted at the entrance of the main Mosque in Kashgar, after describing the work of restoration that Beijing provided to this place of faith, recites, “All of this shows fully that Chinese xinjiang1government always pays special attentions to the other and historical cultures of the ethnic groups, and that all ethnic groups warmly welcome Party’s religious policy. It also shows that different ethnic groups have set up a close relationship of equality, unity and help to each other, and freedom of beliefs is protected. All ethnic groups live friendly together here. They cooperate to build a beautiful homeland, support heartily the unity of different ethnic groups and the unity of our country, and oppose the ethnic separatism and illegal religious activities.”

Despite the efforts, and the rhetoric, in Xinjiang the separation between the different ethnicities is evident, especially that between the Han Chinese and the local population. In Kashgar, like in Urumqi, a Chinese part of town has grown, and continues to grow, on the side of the old Muslim centers, and there is a marked difference between the two areas. Han Chinese people try to avoid venturing in the Uyghur’s city and vice-versa. The locals speak a poor Chinese with a heavy accent and seem far more willing to practice their English with us than they are with their Chinese.

Elvis regularly hangs out in old town Kashgar. He wears a worn-out, dusty, black suit, hiking sandals at his feet, and a hat on his bold head, despite the heat. He carries around an old briefcase in fake leather and waits to catch the sight of foreigners and to offer them his services as a tour guide. His name is mentioned on the Lonely Planet of Xinjiang, for how easy it is to bump into him.  When he is not a guide, he is the “best carpet seller in the world,” he tells us. Apparently he travels around Xinjiang to find the best of hand-sewed carpets. “I mostly work with my American clients, they have a lot of money,” he says smiling. One of the reasons why, when we ask him about his Chinese, he says he does not speak it well and does not care about practicing it. “English is more useful for my profession here.”

Elvis’ approach to its Uyghur identity seems to represent well the general feeling of the population here, at least as far as one can tell by the interaction with regular people on the street. “I have never been to Beijing but I would like to go if I had a chance,” says our guide as he takes us to the desert near the oasis of Turpan, just South of Urumqi. “I went to college and took classes in Chinese, but I rather practice my English, I don’t particularly care about improving my Chinese,” he continues.

The feeling is that people here are well aware of their difference from the Han Chinese and have a stronger connection with other Central Asian ethnicities than with the Chinese. However, there does not seem to be real desire for independence from Beijing, as long as their rights to the use of their language, the practice of their faith, and the safeguard of their culture, are guaranteed.

Nevertheless there are organized independence movement and an active crackdown of the Chinese government on them. Beijing regards Uyghur activists as terrorists and persecutes them as such with the approval of the neighboring Central Asian states, who are now more focused on compliance and cooperation with China than with the respect for human rights.

The Wall Street Journal on May 30th published a letter by Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the Uyghur American Association and World Uyghur Congress, two of the most relevant activist organizations for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. She was arrested and detained for five years by the Chinese government and was released in 2005. Her son Ablikim Abdureyim was recently imprisoned –joining his two brothers arrested last fall for “tax evasion” – on charges of “instigating and engaging in secessionist activities.” Ms. Kadeer, together with most human rights organizations in the West, denounces that her son was not given the right to a fair trial and he did not even receive proper access to a lawyer. Xinhua New Agency, official organ of the PRC, reported that Ablikim Abdureyim confessed to the charges.

Because the issue is so charged, because all perspectives tend to be significantly biased, and because information on what actually happens in Xinjiang is hard to come by due to the control over information that the central government is still able to impose in China, it is very hard to gather a balanced understanding of what the real feelings are among the Uyghurs on the ground.

Overall, and relative to what happens in Tibet, it seems that the organized political opposition to Beijing in Xinjiang is feeble and that the situation is still well under the control of the central government. The bet of the Communist Party appears to be that, if economic development continues while at least minimal human rights are guaranteed to the local people, such political opposition should be restrained from gaining momentum and from becoming truly threatening to the territorial integrity of China.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism – Persian Edition

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