On Sunday night, 16 people were killed in the latest violence to hit Xinjiang, China’s far western Muslim-majority region. The violence took place, according to reports, near Kashgar, an old Silk Road city close to China’s western border, that is, in some sense, the spiritual and cultural home of Xinjiang’s native Uighurs, an ethnic Turkic Muslim group that is one of China’s 55 minorities.
If you look at a map of China, you will see how close Kashgar is to Ladakh. When I first travelled to Kashgar, around five years ago, a local guide told me of the region’s cultural and historical links to Ladakh (which, he told me, once lay within the frontiers of the kingdom of Kashgar many centuries ago). One still finds clues to this history in Ladakh, too. Recently, Daulet Beg Oldi in Ladakh found itself in the national headlines as it was the site of a stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops. The site lies on an old road that was once a trading route to Kashgar, and, I was told during my visit, was named after a 16th century aristocrat who spent some of his life in Kashgar.
Xinjiang is in many senses India’s most forgotten neighbour (I confess I was utterly ignorant about the region’s history when I first visited five years ago). Like Tibet, it has a rich history of close cultural and historical engagement with India. Tibet, however, is firmly in India’s consciousness with the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and a vibrant Tibetan community now in residence in India for 54 years. I’ve found Xinjiang a captivating place, located at the crossroads of India, China, Tibet and Central Asia and yet with its own unique cultural identity. Walking the streets of old Kashgar transports you to a different time. The experience can be overwhelming, as you struggle to locate the faces, sights and smells that seem to defy easy description.
My most recent – and third – visit to the region, two years ago, happened to coincide with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, so I arrived in a city that was bustling. The muddy alleyways of the beautiful and distinctive old quarter, where traditional mud-brick houses line cobbled streets, were buzzing, as hawkers wheeled their carts of dried fruit and bread. One could barely move through the crowded streets around the Id Kah mosque that sits at the heart of the city and is one of Xinjiang’s most important places of worship. I visited the family of 76-year-old Tunsahan Umer, who was about to break bread along with three generations of her family – three generations that had lived through the tumult of the 1950s and 1960s, when thousands of Uighurs were persecuted for their faith by Mao Zedong's Communist Party. The reforms of the 1980s brought relief, when thousands of mosques were reopened after the Cultural Revolution and ordinary Uighurs were allowed to practice their faiths again.
The coming of terror
Today, Xinjiang is grappling with a whole new set of problems. During my visit two years ago, Kashgar was tense. Only weeks earlier, 20 people had been killed in violence at a popular market, when two explosions were set off in minivans. At a nearby crowded pedestrian street, two men drove a van into a crowd, killing eight people. The following day, four men armed with knives attacked a restaurant run by Han Chinese – the majority ethnic group in China – and stabbed to death the owner and four others.
The Chinese government has blamed the violence on terrorist groups linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – a separatist group that has claimed responsibility for several attacks and states as its objective establishing an independent Xinjiang. A recent State media report, citing local authorities, said there were 190 such incidents last year alone. After a spate of violent attacks – including an attempt by three Uighurs to crash a jeep into a crowd of people in the heart of Beijing – the government has promised to crack down hard to ensure stability.
The worry for many Uighurs is that caught between violent extremists on the one hand, and, on the other, a government that tends to emphasise security and stability over social problems, issues that concern them will remain unaddressed. The two most apparent anxieties involve the local economy and the practice of religion. On the former issue, Ilham Tohti, a respected Uighur economist, told me that unemployment among Uighurs is sky-high. Xinjiang has vast resources of oil and mineral wealth. The Chinese government points to double-digit GDP growth – evident in the skyscrapers and shopping malls of downtown Urumqi, the regional capital – as vindication of its policies. Most of the region’s breakneck growth is led by powerful State-run Chinese companies. If you are not Chinese – or, at least, fluent in Mandarin – it is close to impossible to find a lucrative job with these companies.
Tohti says the government is more focussed on achieving high growth and tapping resources, rather than trying to bring about more inclusive development. The result, he says, is high unemployment and rising dissatisfaction among many young Uighurs. In Urumqi, wealth disparities between Han Chinese and Uighur neighbourhoods are clearly evident. The government says it is addressing the problem by expanding “bilingual education” in schools so that Uighurs can be proficient in Mandarin. But many resent being forced to learn another language to find employment in their own homeland.
Expose your faces
There are also anxieties about how the government administers religious policies. While there are no restrictions on going to mosques or celebrating Ramadan for ordinary Uighurs, college students and government servants – even if they are Uighur – are not allowed to practice religion, according to many people I spoke to. There is also concern among some Uighurs that the relative openness of the 1980s and 1990s is now being reversed, as evident by a number of strange new government campaigns in Kashgar and Hotan that are pressuring local women to not wear veils, discouraging men from growing beards, and ensuring that places of worship display national flags.
The campaigns appear to be a reaction to the spate of attacks, with officials warning of "the dangers of extremism". Yet they are only likely to further alienate many Uighurs, rather than address problems, indicating an alarming lack of sensitivity: as the AFP recently reported from Kashgar, the old Silk Road town is now littered with official government-run “Project Beauty” stalls, where veiled women are “made to watch a propaganda film about the joys of exposing their faces”.