In the last couple of days, the eyes of the world may have been on Beijing and the spectacular festivities of August 8, but on China’s west frontier, an equally important story is unfolding.
In the last week, a series of terror attacks have torn through China’s Muslim majority region of Xinjiang — the worst violence China’s northwest has seen in years. The attacks have claimed 27 lives including 16 police officers, left dozens injured and ripped apart hotels, police stations and government buildings. On Sunday, a series of pre-dawn bomb blasts rocked the remote northwest county of Kuqa. Sunday’s attack was the second in a week: on August 4, 16 policemen were killed in a grenade attack on a border patrol station in Kashgar on the western border, in what was the biggest terror attack on Chinese soil in recent memory.
Xinjiang is home to more than 8 million Uighurs — an ethnic Muslim Turkic-speaking community — and much of the tension in the region is sourced in the claims of some Uighur separatist groups for greater political and religious autonomy, and also in resentment at the growing presence of Han Chinese — China’s largest ethnic group — in the region that some locals say limits their economic opportunities.
Xinjiang is China’s largest political sub-division — it is twice the size of France – and is home to more minority groups than any other part of China (like Tibet, it is called an “autonomous region”). In the past few months, the Chinese government has repeatedly warned that it expects the biggest terror threat during the Olympic Games to come from the region’s separatist groups.
While some Uighur rights groups have accused the government of exaggerating the threat to justify imposing new restrictions, the Chinese government will look at the August 4 and August 10 attacks as validating its claims. Following the attack, the government announced that it had received intelligence indicating that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group, was planning a series of attacks during the Games. The ETIM recently claimed responsibility for the bus bomb blasts that rocked Kunming in southern Yunnan province on July 21.
This reporter visited Kashgar less than two weeks before the August 4 attack. It is difficult to gauge the political sentiment in the city – most Uighurs are reluctant to talk to foreign journalists. Locals were also reluctant to be drawn into political questions: many say they have not even heard of separatist groups ETIM that claim to be representing their interests.
Xinjiang is a region of striking contrasts. On the outskirts of its prosperous capital Urumqi, a vast expanse of the Taklimakan desert stretches into the horizon – dead, black and barren, except for the recently installed, gleaming, white windmills that conspicuously spin away, powering Chinese industry forward.
At the heart of the Urumqi oasis, construction cranes busily hover, day and night, adding an impressive new skyscraper to the skyline every other month. At the railway station a few kilometres away from the city’s booming downtown, farmers and labourers – most of them Uighurs– crowd into cramped third-class train compartments, many leaving their homes for far away provinces in search of jobs.
In the border city of Kashgar, 1500 kilometres further west on the Old Silk Road near the Kazakhstan border, Uighur Muslims, with their own unique brand of moderate Islam, make their way to mosques, strangely quiet because of a ban on the use of loudspeakers. Patrols of the Chinese army comb the streets, looking for separatists that the government says operate out of the area.
But for many local Uighurs, the problem isn’t politics. “Most of us do not bother about the political questions or independence,” said a restaurant manager in Kashgar who did not want to reveal his name. “Our worries are about the rising cost of food and fuel, and finding jobs.”
Some Uighurs believe the growing presence of Han Chinese in the region limits their opportunities for employment. Uighurs make up roughly 45 per cent of Xinjiang’s 20 million population. The number of Han Chinese has been steadily growing since the People’s Liberation Army occupied the region in 1949. Before the arrival of the PLA, an independent East Turkestan republic briefly existed in the region, formed with the support of the Soviet Union.
Han Chinese made up roughly 6 per cent of the population in 1949. According to the 2004 census, Han Chinese constitute around 40 per cent of Xinjiang’s population, more than the Kazakhs and Huis, and only second to the Uighurs. The Chinese government argues that the growing presence of Han Chinese is only a natural indicator of Beijing’s attempts to accelerate industrial development in the region.
The statistics, on the surface, back-up Beijing’s claims: the region’s GDP has increased by close to 60 per cent between 2004 and 2007. Xinjiang has a wealth of oil and mineral resources that the government is making a concerted attempt to tap. Western China’s oil reserves account for more than 60 per cent of the country’s oil resources.
The government has spent millions of yuan on a 4,000 kilometre gas pipeline project that directly links Xinjiang’s reserves to the energy-hungry, commercial metropolis of Shanghai on China’s east coast. Per capita incomes are rising in Urumqi, and the provincial capital’s skyscraper prosperity is hard to ignore.
But some locals say the outward prosperity and the impressive statistics mask the problems that simmer beneath the surface. The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing, as in many parts of China. But troublingly, in Xinjiang, this gap is often clearly marked along ethnic lines. Uighurs overwhelmingly dominate lower income jobs, and there is a palpable difference between Uighur and Han neighbourhoods in Urumqi.
Unemployment is high among Uighur youth. Abla, 26, is a Kashgar native who left the city looking for employment in Shanghai. Before he moved to Shanghai, Abla worked as a cotton-picker in Kashgar, earning around 600 Yuan (88$) a month. He earns 1500 Yuan (220$) a month working as a waiter in a Uighur restaurant in a poor Shanghai neighbourhood.
Abla said many Uighur youth like himself cannot get well-paying jobs unless they are “well educated in Mandarin.” Part of the problem is the system of education in tier-two cities like Kashgar, Turfan and Hotan where Uighurs are a majority. Many Uighur families are still reluctant to send their children to recently-opened government schools, where some say the study of Turkic and Uighur culture is neglected.
Fearing a gradual erosion of Turkic and Uighur culture, many families prefer to educate their children in traditional schools. But with the growing presence of big industry in the region, the reality is that knowledge of Mandarin has become a bare necessity for securing a decent livelihood.
Nasiruddin Wusu, 28, is another Uighur migrant who, like Abla, had to leave Kashgar to find work. Wusu said in Kashgar, unemployment among Uighur youth is at least around 70 per cent. Wusu worked as a labourer in Kashgar, moving barrels of oil on a refinery.
“My parents put me in a school where I did not learn enough Mandarin, so I could not find a good job after graduation,” he said. “This was a common problem for many of my friends. More and more people are leaving as they can’t find work.”
Abla said he will ensure his son gets an education in “not just Mandarin, but English.” There is now a growing awareness among his generation that if their children are to have better futures, they can no longer have the luxury of sending their children to traditional schools, whatever the long-term costs may be.
In recent months, the growing terror threat from obscure separatist groups like ETIM has drawn attention away from these problems. Leading up to the Olympics, the Chinese government has stepped up security restrictions in Xinjiang, imposing travel bans and increasing the frequency of raids and inspections on Uighurs. In a July 9 raid, police shot dead five alleged terror suspects in an Urumqi apartment. More than 80 Uighurs alleged to be terror suspects have been arrested this year, authorities have said.
In cosmopolitan – and usually calm – Kashgar, where more than half of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups can be found living amongst each other, the climate has suddenly become tense. Policemen armed with machine-guns patrol the streets. Many Uighurs have been asked to surrender their passports to local police stations, so that their movement outside Xinjiang is restricted. On the train from Kashgar to Urumqi, regular checks were conducted almost exclusively on travelling Uighurs, while many of the Han Chinese and foreigners were exempt.
The recent terror attacks have also increased monitoring of migrant Uighur communities outside Xinjiang. In certain Shanghai public buildings, tenants were issued notices last week for “safety measures during the Olympic period” asking them to report “anyone that can be identified as Tibetans, Xinjiang Uighurs and Qinghai Hualong Huis [who] enter the building to the security department.” The notice said “security guards will persuade them to leave the building, or follow them till they do so.”
These restrictions have left the Uighur community, already in some respects on the margins of society, feeling further alienated. Many cannot understand why they are being singled out, prevented from travelling and facing repeated inspections of their homes. “In the last couple of months, they seem to not want us to travel anywhere,” Wusu said. “They seem to think we are dangerous people.”
6 months ago