By: Our Correspondent


In March 2003, three tense Chinese officials called the three of us Americans and a Canadian teaching English at a private boarding school in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. The three were senior administrators at the school, but in our six months working there we had never met them, nor any other administrators for that matter.

“As you know,” said a teacher serving as translator, “your president has said Monday is the deadline for the war in Iraq. There may be some trouble. So we would like you not to leave campus.”

“Why? Is something going to happen to us?” a teacher asked. “Well, in Xinjiang many people, Uyghurs, are Muslim, and maybe they don't like Americans,” was the answer.  The following afternoon, we all went shopping without incident, save for the school guards who reluctantly watched us leave. Months later, with the Iraq war in full gear, I spoke to an older Uyghur man.

“We love Bush!” he exclaimed. “Bush has freed the Iraqi people, and one day,” he said with a impish wink, “he will come and free us.” Nearly four years later this enthusiasm has soured, but Americans still rank favorably compared to the Han Chinese. In fact, everybody does. 

That anecdote goes some distance to explaining why China is no closer than it ever was to subduing the Uyghur population that live in the bleak, poverty-stricken mountains of Akto County near the Afghan border, where violence erupted on Jan. 5 that resulted in the death of at least 18 people the government branded as terrorists.

The gun battle took the life of at least one Chinese People’s Armed Police and, according to a government spokesman, also culminated in the capture of 17 other separatists in a cave said to have been outfitted to manufacture grenades. The cave was described in local newspapers as “well decorated,” with tiled walls, electric lights, ventilation, telephones and a treadmill, and the newspaper suggested there may be more still hiding in the region.

Akto County, peopled by fundamentalist Muslims, is a picture postcard of jagged hills where vast numbers of people still live in caves. For decades, the biggest problem in the region has been the steady encroachment on the Uyghur area by Han Chinese. But more, Akto County, with its close proximity to Afghanistan, is considered by Beijing to be an incubator for Islam-inspired violence.  Accordingly, ever since the events of September 11, 2001, when jihadis brought down the World Trade Center in New York, the Chinese government has been escalating its confrontation with its Uyghur population.

Xinjiang is, in many ways, a glimpse of China's recent past. Suspicion, repression and control are hallmarks of daily life, while huge divisions make a mockery of China's claims to a united and harmonious multi-ethnic society. While teaching at a university the following year, a colleague of mine from Shanghai taught there on her sabbatical. The Chinese government had recently provided incentives for professors from the fast-growing and comparatively cosmopolitan East to come and work for a semester, at full regular pay plus a stipend and, in her case, a reduced workload.

The university, like all schools in Xinjiang, had a mandatory political theory class on Wednesday afternoon for teachers and staff (except foreigners, despite my express curiosity). When an adminstrator informed her of this requirement, she asked incredulously “you still take those seriously??” As the semester wore on, she became less and less enthusiastic about the school. When a slightly mischievious foreign teacher asked her whether it would be appropriate to show students a DVD copy of the animated “George Orwell's Animal Farm” (a CIA backed film, no less), she sarcastically responded “Why not? They won't understand it anyway. These students are taught not to think.”

A great number of my casual acquaintances, in industries ranging from tomato paste to real estate to healthcare, were ultimately all employees of Xinjiang's Production and Construction Corps, the last remaining of the state collectives comprised of decommissioned soldiers that were once found in nearly half of China's provinces.

The political commissar of the Corps, Wang Lequan, is also the province's Communist Party Secretary and a standing member of the Central Committee Politboro, a sign of just how much control the central government exercises over the “autonomous region”. Chinese and Westerners alike have commented to me on how visiting Xinjiang is, in some ways, like a time warp to the China of the 1970s and 1980s. Fear of punishment, however, is disproportionately felt among the Uyghurs. Once, in a bar, a particularly cosmopolitan Han woman began to complain about the Chinese government. A Uyghur friend at the table who had recently applied for Party membership in hopes of finding employment but privately voiced the same complaints, stood up, raised his glass and loudly toasted the Communist Party.

Despite Xinjiang's stricter climate of control, in fact partly because of it, it is in fact two different places entirely. In one, clocks are set to Beijing time, as are all other clocks across the nation. In the other, the world of the minority Uyghurs, they are set to local Xinjiang time, two hours earlier. This fact has been repeated almost to the point of cliché, but it captures well that the two worlds are separated by even something as basic as asking someone the time. Discrimination and isolation is palpable on both sides.

Meeting Uyghurs while in the company of Han friends could occasionally lead to guarded and uncomfortable silences. Han would caution me about going into the clearly demarcated Uyghur neighborhoods, particularly in the south of the city – “They are all lazy”, “They are all thieves” – and would tell me they didn't dare venture there. Uyghurs would complain of Han Chinese bosses who, at official banquets, would pressure them to drink bajiu or eat pork, and laugh when told it was against Islam.

A striking indicator of the yawning gap was among my Han university students who, born and raised in Xinjiang, hardly ever knew a single word in Uyghur, not even for Uyghur dishes that they regularly ate. And of course, there was the daily heard refrain “Uyghurs are good at singing and dancing,” conjuring the worst images of American minstrelry in my mind.

On the flip side, Uyghurs would express their hatred – and use that word – of Han Chinese. Minorities in China have two options in primary education that determine their future: to become minkaomin, minorities who study in their native tongue, or minkaohan, those who study in Chinese. Reality dictates that to be fluent and literate in Chinese is to afford greater economic opportunity, much like English is the international language of commerce, and so many parents choose to send their children to Chinese language schools. But minkaohan are regarded by their peers as outsiders, traitors to their culture and people. Should a minkaomin excel in studies, he or she might have the opportunity to attend one of a dozen minority universities in China, serving a total of some 10 percent of China's 100 million minority citizens of 55 different persuasions. The only major degree courses available to them, however, are to study the literature and history (party approved) of their own people.

To study the sciences or engineering, they must be minkaohan. Minkaomin can and do still learn Chinese, and attend regular universities, but often in segregated classrooms. The minkaomin class I taught at my university had older versions of the same book their Han and minkaohan counterparts used, in an older classroom. Bilingual education is a difficult issue in many countries, but rarely is it so rigidly divided into castes.

All the same, Uyghurs maintain an alternate history and even literature outside of the classrooms. Most know the names of such modern Uyghurs as Turghun Almas, whose book Uyghurlar proclaimed an unbroken history stretching back over 6,000 years to the Loulan mummies, trumping official Chinese history's 5,000 years of continuous history. It was banned one week after being published in 1992, and Almas died under house arrest on September 11, 2001.

Though thousands of copies were burned, many Uyghurs claimed to have one or know someone who did. The ban on practicing religion placed upon students is more acutely felt by Uyghur students than Han, and some confessed to keeping a Koran hidden in their dormitory.

Similarly, Islam, for some, is not enough to bridge the gap. Kyrgyz are regarded by many with contempt, due to Uyghur trader stories of being treated badly in Bishkek and partially because the Kyrgyz handed over two suspected Uyghur terrorists to the Chinese government in 2002. The Hui — Muslim Chinese — are often considered not to be true Muslim simply because they are perceived as ethnic Chinese.

A Uyghur once told me of his visit to Guangzhou. He had been a tour guide for a couple from the German consulate, and they invited him to stay with him. Knowing that he was a devout Muslim, I inquired as to the difficulty in finding a halal meal. Did he go to Hui restaurants? “No,” he replied, “I am allergic”.

A colleague of mine then led him all the way through a hypothetical case where, ultimately, a Uyghur and a Hui wearing biohazard suits and using the same ingredients prepared the same dish. Surely, he said, it would be the same. “No,” came a dismissive answer, “I would taste the difference.”