Monday, 26 March 2012

A Han from Xinjiang: An Alternate Voice

Xinjiang Source recently spoke to L*, a Han Chinese academic born and raised in Xinjiang, about his take on the political and security issues which dominate discussions of Xinjiang.

* Such are the political circumstances in Xinjiang and in China generally, he asked that he remain anonymous, a request that Xinjiang Source was happy to grant.

Xinjiang Source: Do you think that mass Han migration has had a positive or negative effect on Xinjiang?

L: It depends on who those Han Chinese are. The mass migration started in the Mao era, when tens of thousands of intellectuals and "educated youth" were mobilized to relocate to Xinjiang. Those people were highly educated and properly trained with various skills. They were keenly aware of local culture and traditions and many of them learnt minority languages, such as Uyghur and Kazak. Ethnic relations were relatively harmonious at that time. There was a period when Han and various minorities lived together like a family. But things have changed since the economic reforms, especially the "great development of the west" initiated in the 1990s. Landless farmers and business people dominated this phase of Han migration to Xinjiang. Unlike those intellectuals, these people are basically gold-diggers who only care about financial gains and never bother to learn and respect local culture. Consequently, suspicions and misgivings arise.

XS: You mention that recent Han migrants don't bother to learn or respect the local culture. Do you think, then, that Uyghurs may be entitled to feel as though they, and their culture, are under threat from the policies of the Chinese government? After all, they may argue, it is the government who has encouraged these people to move to Xinjiang.

L: Your observation is not accurate. The first phase of migration was indeed organized and sponsored by the government, but the second round was mostly based on economic motivations. Inland farmers migrate to Xinjiang for money instead of ideology. The government didn't organize farmers in any form to permanently settle down in Xinjiang. There are several exceptions though. The government moved tens of thousands of Hans, dislocated by the Three Gorges Dam construction, to Kuqa in southern Xinjiang. Every year, local governments in inland China organize trains of cotton pickers to Xinjiang for seasonal labor, and they leave when their work is done. Uyghurs certainly would feel threatened with such a influx of Han migrants, who understand little about Xinjiang and indigenous cultures. But those new migrants are not government sponsored.

XS: Some Uyghurs claim that some of the government's policies in Xinjiang are, indeed, designed specifically to limit their freedoms and to destroy their culture. What do you think of these claims?

L: These claims are overarching and very general. We need to look at those claims in a more specific way. I believe the Chinese government's policies on Uyghurs are based on its security concerns. For example, Meshrep (a traditional male Uyghur gathering involving poetry, dance and music) has been restricted in Ghulja since the mid-1990s after various sources pointed out that some Uyghurs took advantage of this cultural event for anti-government activities. Then the government cancelled it which triggered the "Ghulja Incident" of 1997 (in which Uyghur protesters were confronted by PLA troops. The official death toll was nine, but unofficial reports place it as high as 100 or more). The government seems to fear all kinds of mass gatherings that might facilitate mobilization and are difficult to control. On the other hand, more and more Uyghur women in Urumqi these days are wearing Wahhabi-style niqabs (covering all of the face except the eyes) and appear to be able to freely walk the streets without being stopped or harassed by the authorities.

XS: You say that the government's policies in Xinjiang are based on security concerns. Many Uyghurs, and indeed non-Uyghurs, believe that these concerns are hugely over-exaggerated by the Chinese state. To what extent do you think these security concerns are justified?

L: That depends on the information one has. Overseas exiles' accounts are difficult to verify and Chinese media are under an information black out when reporting Xinjiang. Foreign journalists are having a hard time covering the issue. But the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is real and tangible in Xinjiang. The question is how to differentiate the security threat from Uyghurs' real and legitimate grievances. We all hope that the government has a clear strategy balancing combating extremism and guaranteeing people's basic rights and needs. Then the question is if the government truly understands the nature of the problem and is on the right track for a solution. To put it simply, I don't know.

XS: Do you think that ethnic relations in Xinjiang have got worse or better in the past 10 or 20 years? Specifically, have you noticed any difference since the riots of 2009?

L: Ethnic relations, in my memory, were fine all the way to 2009. We locals used to say that ethnic unity, built up over thirty years, has been badly damaged, if not completely destroyed, by the violence of 2009.

XS: What do you think is the best way to bring about peace and prosperity in Xinjiang in the future? Assimilation? Increased autonomy? Or something else?

L: I think peace and prosperity will come neither from assimilation nor autonomy, but from a form of constitutional democracy. Assimilation would never happen given the Uyghurs' resistance to everything Han Chinese. Autonomy is impossible because the Chinese government considers Xinjiang as an autonomous region already. The future peace and prosperity of Xinjiang depends upon structural changes occurring within Chinese society, especially its political system.

Weekly news round-up

A collection of the most relevant and important Xinjiang-related news articles of the week.

Thinking about China (Eurasia Review)

China silent over slain Uyghurs (Radio Free Asia)

Hans in Xinjiang victims of favourable minority policies (Global Times)

Domestic security in China: The Xinjiang quagmire (Eurasia Review)

New suspect in Xinjiang explosion (Radio Free Asia)

Beijing trying to wipe out religion among Uyghurs: teachers forced to sign guarantee (China Aid)

Pressuring the families of Uyghur refugees (Radio Free Asia)

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Securing insecurity

In the weeks since the Yecheng/Kargilik violence which left twenty people dead, there has followed a course of events which correspond to a familiar pattern; a pattern which the Chinese authorities seemingly stick rigidly to in the aftermath of unrest in ethnically volatile areas.

Firstly, there occurs a ratcheting up of rhetoric. Immediate denunciations of those involved as 'terrorists' and 'separatists' are accompanied by promises to show "no mercy".

Religious belief is then deliberately conflated with extremism and violence. Indeed, Nur Bekri, Chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has recently asserted that "religious fever inevitably causes religious extremism and religious extremism inevitably causes violent attacks." The conscious conflation of religious faith with violence is a legitimization tactic designed to morally (and perhaps legally) sanction what is to come.

Then comes the clampdown. Already we have seen four Uyghurs shot dead by the Chinese police for alleged links to terrorism (since proved to be false), as well as the detention of five others; two for re-tweeting rumours of a bomb threat, and three for distributing illegal religious material. Whilst we cannot say what else is to come, we can say for sure that the authorities have not yet exhausted their response.

With China's new detention laws, implemented to protect "state security", strengthening the ability of the state to control those they deem as threats, and with domestic security spending recently increasing by 11.5%, it is clear that the Chinese state is seeking an increase in its ability to 'secure' Xinjiang and other provinces.

But what are they trying to secure? Whilst, of course, every state has a right, if not a duty, to protect its civilians from violence and terrorism, it is obvious that the actions of the authorities in response to ethnic violence does nothing but pour fuel on the flames of discontent that often motivate such violent attacks in the first place.

Spending more money on the military and the police and implementing ever-more illiberal detention policies does not bring security. Limiting the religious expression of a vast swathe of a province's population does not bring security. And shooting dead four innocent men, and then justifying it by citing the men's possession of boxing gloves, does not bring security. The only thing that is being secured through these actions is the absolute certainty of continued insecurity, discontent and socio-ethnic unrest.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Identity: a personal reflection

Enver Tohti is a Uyghur doctor now living in the UK, having left Xinjiang in the late 1990s after making an undercover documentary film for Channel 4 uncovering the effects that Chinese nuclear tests have had on the local Uyghur population. Here he writes for Xinjiang Source on the evolution of his Uyghur identity.

The first sentence I ever remember learning was “long live Chairman Mao, long live the CCP”. I had no idea of what 'identity' was or of what my identity was, but I knew that I had to learn those words before I could be accepted into primary school in Urumqi.

I went to school at the age of seven. My parents worked for the railway bureau, and because those working for the bureau lived separately from the Uyghur areas of the city, my siblings and I went to a Chinese school. My education, therefore, was a Chinese education, and I was taught to feel proud of being Chinese and of being part of the Chinese nation.

However, despite speaking perfect Chinese and my father being a respected member of the CCP, I had an uneasy relationship with my classmates. They would shout my name and angrily question me as to why my name was so different from their names. I didn't know what to say. They couldn't even pronounce my name correctly, and I had no idea why.

One day, I was invited to my friend's house to celebrate Chinese New Year with him and his family. His mother offered me some pork, but I declined and told them that I was not allowed to eat pork. My friend asked me why this was and, as I was only a young child, I told him that I did not know. His father then told him that Uyghurs did not eat pork because our ancestors were pigs. In that moment, I felt such pain and hurt that all I wanted to do was escape. We had been told in school that all Chinese were descendants of the dragon, but I had just been told that I was descended from a pig. Despite the many years that have passed, the pain and humiliation that I felt has not left me.

I started to become more and more aware of my identity as I got older. A few years later, we were studying a textbook of Chinese and world history. I couldn't find anything about the history of Xinjiang or of Uyghurs, and I didn't understand why. I asked my teacher about it, and he told me that it was because in those days the Uyghurs were foreigners. This startled me; how could Uyghurs have been foreigners? Weren't we all a part of China? I was confused, and started to question whether or not I really was Chinese.

It was not until many years later that I finally understood my identity. The year was 1995, and as part of my medical studies I was training in a cancer hospital in Tianjin, in the north-east of China. Shortly before, a bus had exploded in Urumqi and Uyghurs had been blamed. In the hospital's morning briefing, a Chinese doctor from Henan province remarked to me, “We should have assimilated you people long ago, you only cause problems.” The other doctors and nurses loudly agreed with him. I was the only Uyghur in the hospital, and at that second I felt completely alone.

After a moment of silence I replied, “You know what? Your Chinese nation is a great nation. In the anti-Japan war, the Japanese were raping your mothers, your sisters and your wives. You fought for eight long years, and finally kicked them out. Be prepared, because eventually we will do to you what you did to them!”.

It was at that moment that my view of identity changed forever. It was only then that I finally understood who and what I was, and who and what I was not. I was not Chinese, I was a Uyghur.

Weekly news round-up

Xinjiang to crack down on 'three evil forces' (China Daily)

China official sees militant links in Pakistan (Reuters)

Inside China: Security spending tops defense (Washington Times)

No mercy for terrorists in Xinjiang (China Daily)

Behind the Xinjiang violence (The Diplomat)

Four killed in Xinjiang raid (Radio Free Asia)

Uyghurs 'prepared to fight and die' (Radio Free Asia)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The problem of presumption

The world media's reaction to the violence of a few days ago in Kargilik/Yecheng has highlighted one of the main recurring problems of the reporting of incidents involving Uyghurs in Xinjiang; the problem of presumption.

When high-profile incidents occur involving Uyghur individuals, and particularly so when they involve violence, the Chinese authorities (as covered in yesterday's blog post) immediately label those Uyghurs involved as 'terrorists' and 'separatists'. The more sensible sections of the world's press know to maintain a level of suspicion when dealing with pronouncements from the Chinese authorities, and this should be regarded as helpful.

Yet there are still those who lazily ascribe political motivations to acts which could well be personal in nature. The presumption of political motivation works both ways; just as reports which take Beijing-based Chinese academic's words as truth should be looked upon with suspicion, so too should reports which immediately blame the violence on Han immigration, based on the accounts of one or two local residents. 

This is not to say that what occurred in Kargilik/Yecheng was not motivated by political factors. Perhaps those involved really were driven by extremist tendencies and wanted to bring terror and bloodshed to innocent victims. Or perhaps they really were simply desperate individuals who were tired of their culture and land being destroyed by, what they saw as, Han invaders.

Yet the problem is that, at the moment, we simply do not know. Whilst we may prefer clear narratives, such narratives are often not conducive to unveiling the truth. Presumption and assumption clouds the truth, and should be rejected.