Xinjiang - China's Palestine?

"If China continues its policies in Xinjiang, it will bring closer and closer a racial war like that between Israel and the Palestinians, a war with no resolution and no end."

This is the judgment of Chinese author and journalist Wang Lixiong, who has written the best piece of reportage on the disputed region -- "Your East Turkestan, My Western Region." The Taiwan Locus printing house first published it in October 2007 and has been rushing out copies to meet demand this year. Sales in the Chinese-speaking world have soared as people struggled to explain the dramatic events in Urumqi since the start of July. However, it hasn't been translated into English, and probably won't be, given the fact that the west and particularly Europe is transfixed with allegations of Han Chinese domination in Tibet and is largely ignorant of what is happening in Urumqi.

According to the official media, at least 197 died and 1,720 were injured in ethnic riots on the afternoon and evening of July 5. A crowd of Uighurs, armed with swords and batons, went to the city's main square, reportedly to protest the killing of at least two Uighurs at a factory in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province in June. The security forces blocked the protest and opened fire, killing at least 12. The crowd then went on the rampage, attacking and killing unarmed Han Chinese civilians.

In response to the violence, President Hu Jintao broke off a visit to the G20 in Rome to return home. The central government has sent 130,000 soldiers from all over the country into the major cities in Xinjiang, where they are likely to stay at least until October 1, the 60th anniversary of the Communist state.

People who want to understand what has happened in the last month can do no better than turn to the book by Wang, an independent author who travelled throughout Xinjiang and interviewed people from all the races who live there. In January 1999, he was imprisoned there for six weeks for 'possession of state secrets'. During his captivity, he befriended a Uighur intellectual who, after his release, introduced him to sectors of Uighur society normally closed to Han Chinese.

For Wang, the closest parallel is Palestine. In 1949, when the Communists took power, Han Chinese accounted for six per cent of the population of Xinjiang, against 75 per cent Uighur. By 2005, the Uighur percentage had fallen to 45.9 per cent and the Han percentage had reached 39.6 per cent. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Han increased by 1.79 million and that of minority races 1.5 million.

This increase is the result of government policy to secure control of China's largest region and a major source of oil, gas, minerals, coal, cotton and other natural resources, and to settle tens of thousands of surplus people. In the first three decades of Communist rule, the government ordered people to settle in Xinjiang, including demobilized soldiers, 'criminals, 'rightists' and other 'undesirable classes'. Since 1980, it has used economic incentives, especially the 'Go West' policy, which involves pumping billions of yuan into Xinjiang and provided many opportunities for work.

"This Han immigration has led to daily confrontation between races, a fight for resources and markets, and makes confrontation a daily experience," Wang writes. "This could lead to the 'Palestinian-ization' of the conflict." The two communities live largely separate lives, except in the workplace; intermarriage is rare and strongly opposed

Power rests in the hands of Han officials, especially in the government and security forces; the top positions open to Uighurs are administrative. Relations between Han and Uighur, above all the young, have deteriorated, especially since bomb attacks in the region by those demanding independence in 1997. They have made Uighur men suspect in the eyes of Han, in Xinjiang and the rest of China, where they are treated with fear and suspicion. "If you treat me like a thief, why should we share the same country?"

Economic power in Xinjiang rests in the hands of the Han, who have better access to education, technology, capital and markets. Companies, especially private ones, prefer to hire Han, who are likely to be better educated, qualified and speak better Mandarin than do Uighurs.

One of the main instruments of this 'colonisation' is the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp, known as the Bing Tuan (army group), an organization of militarized settlers established in the 1950s. It now has 2.6 million members and controls an area of 75,000 square kilometers. Its founder was Wang Zhen, a senior general who later became Vice President. In the 1950s, he dealt savagely with Uighur separatists; for each PLA soldier they killed, he ordered the execution of five Uighur men in the village where the killing occurred.

He is one of three Han leaders whom Uighurs call 'the butcher of Xinjiang'. The first was Sheng Shicai, a Nationalist-backed general who controlled the region from 1933-1944. The third is Wang Lequan, who has been Communist Party chief of the region and head of the Bing Tuan since 1994.

Wang sees language and religious policy as important aspects of this colonization. Mosques are not allowed to operate Koranic schools, those under 18 are not allowed to enter a mosque and there is no religious teaching in school. Public officials are not allowed to worship nor wear a beard – even though Karl Marx and Lenin had them.

Mandarin is the language of education, government and business. Mastery of Mandarin – not Uighur – is essential for a successful career in almost any field. So, while education in Uighur is available in many schools, thousands of Uighurs choose to send their children to Mandarin schools.

Making matters worse is changes in the way Uighur was written. Originally written in the Arabic script, it was changed to Roman letters in 1962 and then switched back to Arabic in the 1980s. As a result, thousands of Uighurs who studied in the 1960s and 1970s are unable to read their own language.

"Most of the Han who came to Xinjiang more than 20 years ago learnt Uighur, but not those who have come in the last 20 years. Nor do they wish to learn. Then there is an enormous amount of political study, especially since the visit of Jiang Zemin in 1998. Each time you must write notes and keep them. Worst off are village teachers – they earn little and must do so much political study. They have no days of rest."

In Xinjiang, as in Palestine, it is impossible to see the end of the conflict.