December Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

South of Kashgar, the barren Gebi plains give way to the foothills, and a road winds for several hours through a narrow gorge following the Gez river, before ascending to an altitude of 11,480 feet where the majestic Parmir mountains surround the mirror-like surfaces of Karakol lake.

Kyrgyz nomads emerge from their yurts to see if you present any trading opportunity. The dramatic ice-tipped granite passage of the Karakoram highway is just a day’s drive for refugees looking to escape the ethnic tensions tearing through Xinjiang.

From here, Rahima, a Uighur refugee, will not retrace her route, but she can tell you exactly what drove her out of the country.

When her brother-in-law Turghan was finally released from prison early this year, his wife didn’t recognise him. A frail, partially-blind, hunchbacked man stood before the family. Twelve years of torture had left him mentally and physically incapacitated.

Rahima remembers Turghan as a handsome, popular young trader in Gulja’s main market.

“His crime was that he was Muslim right after the Gulja uprising of 1997,” she said at a protest against China’s policies in Xinjiang. “Muslims are being arrested and tortured for Urumqi riots, but the trials will be quick, no evidence, and more lives like Turghan’s will be wasted.”

In February 1997, riots erupted on the streets of Gulja to protest mass arrests of Muslims, as spontaneously as riots spread through Urumqi on July 5 this year.

Troops stormed the city of Gulja after two days of protests, using tear gas and ammunition to disperse the crowds, arresting so many young men that they had to be detained at the local sports stadium, according to Amnesty International. As the temperature dropped, the detainees were hosed with water and several lost fingers and toes to frostbite before they could be questioned about their role in the uprising.

Amnesty International has compared the Gulja uprising to the Tiananmen square massacre, but the event was barely a blip on the international human rights radar. It is difficult to get information out of Gulja, and the media spotlight was fixed further east because the British were handing Hong Kong over to the Chinese.

Experts say Xinjiang, which is closer to Kabul and Kashmir than it is to Beijing, makes China nervous. Today, the Chinese state media is full of warnings that Xinjiang remains a turbulent, untamed area because of its 5,600 kilometres of border area with Russia to the north, India to the south, Mongolia to the east, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to the west.

After Karakol Lake, travellers must circumvent or clear the Takhman checkpoint before approaching the frontier town of Tashkurgan, 260 kilometres from Kashgar. Just 30 kilometres south of Tashkurgan is a road that Uighur refugees know well: they could disguise themselves as traders and go 80 kilometres through the Wakhan corridor into Afghanistan, or they could take Khunjerab pass to Sost, Gilgit.

Driving along the remnants of the fabled silk route from Kashgar to Yarkand to Hotan, as the road cuts effortlessly through majestic mountain passes that dissolve into the sand dunes of the vast Taklamakan dessert, it is easy to forget the region’s recent upheaval. But the regular roadblocks and armed guards at security checkpoints serve to remind you that you are being watched and tracked, your identity card and passport numbers duly noted.

Back in Kashgar, Ibrahim brings out a heap of coffee-stained maps with trade routes to bordering countries marked out. He is from a settled Uighur family, and a few months ago he could not imagine leaving, but he is now ready to seek refuge somewhere.

When he was investing in computers to upgrade his web business, Ibrahim could not have imagined being bankrupted by a government policy designed to “curb rumours” exposing the state’s role in deadly riots between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in July.

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Photo: AFP

On July 4, he was buoyant with the hope of tapping into China’s burgeoning online business market, fuelled by companies coming into Xinjiang to pump the vast desert sands for oil and gas, but by the end of that week Ibrahim knew he had to shut shop. Beijing imposed an internet black out over Xinjiang, cutting its 20 million residents off from the modern world.

“Hundreds of internet businesses are bankrupt, so where is the economic development? Thousands have disappeared — they weren’t rioting, but they were young and Muslim,” he said. “I want to leave, we are researching routes.”

Ibrahim holed himself up in his home after a brutal crackdown on Uighurs paralysed Urumqi following protests on July 5. In the violence in Urumqi, at least 197 people were killed and 1,721 injured. Most of them, according to the state media, were Han. In response, vigilante Han Chinese mobs, armed with butcher knives and axes taped to sticks, stormed Uighur neighborhoods seeking vengeance. Mass arrests of Muslims meant to restore “national unity and peace” followed.

The streets were silent when the government declared a “return to normalcy” and took journalists and international observers on a tour of Urumqi on July 7. Uighur women, enraged at the pageantry, took to the streets to protest the arrests of “everyone from grandfathers to 12-year-old boys,” and show the outside world that life was anything but back to normal.

But before Ibrahim saw his savings go out with the light on his modem, he could not imagine living anywhere but Kashgar, and encouraged his family to learn Mandarin and become a part of the fabric of greater China.

“When we got letters [saying] we must shave to look more Chinese, I thought it is like a uniform, it’s okay. When I saw signs that you cannot go to a mosque if you are a government employee or if you are working persons, I thought ok, better to focus on business than pray. I thought only [political] trouble makers are punished but I know the innocent people who disappeared, I saw some who came back tortured. I am ashamed to say I am afraid to even help their families.”

Months after the protests were put down in Urumqi, a massive contingent of soldiers still patrols lanes surrounding the Eid Gah mosque in Kashgar. Uighurs ladling out laghman, a mixture of spicy noodles and mincemeat, at roadside cafes look up to find soldiers stomping through the kitchen.

In the dusty lanes of Kashgar’s maze-like Sunday bazaar, women in multi-coloured scarves have gone back to bargaining over beauty creams while Tajiks, Kazakhs and Pakistanis trawl the trading hub for blankets, uncured furs and textiles. In the little alleys that branch off from Jei Fang Bei Lu, families sit on patios that open out onto the road, devouring kebabs and naan, while they watch movies with scenes straight out of Lollywood. But the area is bristling with soldiers who march through the tangle of Uighur neighbourhoods at regular internals.

About 200,000 soldiers, police and a heavily-armed militia called the People’s Armed Police have flooded cities and towns across Xinjiang in the aftermath of the riots, positioning themselves at entrances to markets, national monuments, and roads that feed into major industrial towns and cities. They stand with their guns pointed outward at the passing crowd.

Michael, a foreigner working in Kashgar, is “disgusted” by what he calls counter-productive security measures: “The government says it has no problem with Muslims and then they send 500 soldiers to point guns at Uighurs coming out of Kashgar’s main mosque the day after riots in Urumqi. If that doesn’t cause trouble, what will?”

As he finishes speaking, three military trucks full of soldiers in full riot gear roll by the crowded Uighur roadside café we are sitting in. The soldiers were pointing their weapons outwards at an invisible enemy while loudspeakers on top of a truck boomed out a message that translates roughly as: “Don’t do anything [illegal] to hurt national unity. Foreign elements among you are trying to make trouble. Report them.”

In Urumqi, a thousand kilometres away from the slow-paced frontier towns, Andrew was shocked to see a “manipulative” photo exhibit detailing the reasons for the riots (The text is in Chinese and it lays the blame on Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur leader-in-exile).

“They want everyone to believe that the riot is not a result of an internal history of resentment festering over years; the government says it is caused by outside elements, by what they call “splitists.” This exhibition will only create more hatred. The real issue is that the government has brought masses of Han Chinese from Eastern China to resettle in Xinjiang, given them government jobs and economic incentives and created divisions.”

Andrew is watching a Chinese man on the next table, who looks over casually from time to time. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, but continues:

“I had to tell journalists no shots were fired in the riots, but there was shooting all night. Two were shot under my balcony. The people rioting had only knives and sticks, but there was shooting all night, the government used too much force,” said Andrew.

When police officers brought Shohret Tursun’s battered body back to his family on September 19, they said he had died of a heart attack under questioning, and advised the family to bury the body immediately. His father was not convinced. Tursun’s body was badly disfigured, his chest bruised, his back slashed and stomach scarred. The family refused to bury the body, accusing the police of torturing Tursan, who had been detained since July 6, in the aftermath of the Urumqi riots.

Eight police trucks surrounded their home in the village of Lengger in Korgas county to prevent villagers from viewing the body. On September 24, Haji Mehmet and Abdulsalam Nasir were taken away and charged with “revealing state secrets.” Torsun’s father had used his relative Abdulsalam Nasir’s mobile phone to leak details of the body’s condition to Radio Free Asia. They are still in custody, and under threat of torture.

Rahima says, “This is normal. Go to Gulja, knock on any door, and ask any family. So many people lost a son, a father, a cousin. They knew the consequences of saying to the world that we suffer everyday discrimination, and still they had to speak out. Who speaks out knowing they will be killed or tortured? Muslims are being wiped out, our language is being wiped out.”

According to Jiang Riu, a Han Chinese entrepreneur, “Uighurs say we don’t buy from them, but they don’t speak Mandarin so why would I go to the Sunday bazaar? How can the government employ them? We live in a divided manner, there is [an invisible] line one side for the Han, other side for Uighurs.”

In the 1990s, the Chinese government made their “Open Up the West” policy public and relocated entire communities of impoverished Han Chinese in a wave of mass migration that took Xinjiang’s Han population from four per cent in 1949 to 40.6% in 2000 (according to census data).

“Fearing the other is a powerful, pernicious driver in domestic security policy … The greater the threat from Xinjiang, the more justified the people will feel in supporting the state against Xinjiang’s tumults,” Martin Wayne’s writes in his book, China’s War on Terrorism, Counter-insurgency and Internal Security.

“The Chinese know very little about the situation in Xinjiang … occupying a space in some Chinese minds comparable to the Wild West in the American imagination.”

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

A Han Chinese travel agent in Kashgar explains, “These Uighurs cannot think of themselves as Chinese, even their script is like Arabic, and Kashgar is their Islamic spiritual centre, that is why there is so much army here. The police is listening to all your calls. This makes me feel safe.”

Chinese officials remind new recruits to the Communist Party that when Muslim-Chinese rebellions rippled through Xinjiang, in 1933, a pan-Turkish Islamic movement declared the Independent Muslim Republic of East Turkestan. The republic lasted two months before the Russians swept in to help the Chinese defeat the Muslim Uighurs.

Central Asia experts say the mix of minorities and nomads in Xinjiang, which accounts for one-sixth of China’s landmass, poses a real challenge to the government’s efforts to penetrate and control the area.

David S. Goodman’s article, “China’s campaign to open up the west” in the China Quarterly explains how the state hopes to assert its authority in the region: “The 1990s [saw] comprehensive engineering of measures spurring Han settler colonisation, exploitation in the oil-rich Tarim basin; and the building of key transportation infrastructure penetrating Southern Xinjiang, including a railway link to Kashgar.”

Ibrahim said, “This progress is not for us, these jobs are not for us. Progress is for Han Chinese. For Uighurs there is only suspicion and harassment. The more they oppress us, the more we will fight or run away to fight from another country. If they offer us jobs and a way to live with dignity, who would leave? They must change [their] policy.”