Legend has it that the Uyghur people once survived defeat in a great battle by taking refuge in the nearby mountains and drinking the milk of wolves.
I remember being shown a large wolf’s pelt from those same Kundun Mountains for sale in a peasant clothing store not far from the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang. As the evening call to prayer rang out, this rare animal hung cruelly on display — and I have to say it troubled me almost as much as the Uyghurs’ own potential for extinction did.
Only later would I fully appreciate the mystic Turkic nationalism that underlines the associations between the Uyghur and the wolf. And how much the Uyghur wolf signifies an eerie persistence which can still intimidate the Chinese dragon — even while living so miserably under its dominion.
Last month in the capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi, nearly 200 people were killed and hundreds more were injured when an initially peaceful protest, composed mainly of student Uyghurs, turned nasty. State television showed Han and Hui Chinese covered in blood, standing around the streets in a daze afterwards. Shops were trashed, vehicles burnt. Chinese citizens across the nation were shocked and outraged, their stereotypes of animalistic and ungrateful Uyghurs confirmed in blood.
Anecdotal street reports, later supported by statements from the World Uyghur Congress, claimed a large number of those killed were actually Uyghurs, and that some 400 of their dead remain unreported. This latter claim appears increasingly dubious as time passes, but in many ways the contesting Han and Uyghur mythologies around the event are truer than any figures cited.
Having learnt something from the negative international publicity around the uprising in Tibet last year, a Chinese Government-controlled media centre was quickly established in Urumqi — with carefully guided tours of the riot zone and hospitals, interviews with Han victims and approved footage supplied. This embedding strategy went pear-shaped on 7 July when around one hundred Uyghur women carrying babies marched into heart of the city chanting "release our husbands, free our sons". Things got worse later when a large gang of Han Chinese began advancing on the Uyghur quarter of town armed with picks, shovels, metal pipes and sticks.
Payback, revenge and race hatred are now burning away across the region. Not that you’d know from the pall of silence that has been dropped over the issue. That’s because there is tremendous symbolic weight behind Sun Yat-sen’s early 20th century notion of "the five fingers" of China — the Han, Hui, Manchurian, Tibetan, and Mongolian peoples — who together form the nation: one mighty fist. That most Han regard the other so-called "fingers" as second-rate human beings is less important than their vision of a greater national glory and the reclamation of China’s dominant global place in history. Indeed many Han are genuinely mystified as to why the Tibetans and the Uyghurs can’t simply appreciate the opportunity being "handed" to them. Any criticism — let alone dissent — is seen as an attack on the nation’s unity.
Over the years, the usual Chinese doses of police and military brutality have been administered to manage the Uyghur "problem". Official response has also involved the razing of neighbourhoods for urban development, enforced abortions and financial incentives for inter-marriage to encourage assimilation. An ongoing repression of Uyghur history, culture and language is underway. Indeed, Xinjiang University in Urumqi recently suspended teaching in Uyghur. And a major trans-migration policy since the late 1940s has seen Han Chinese numbers increase across Xinjiang from 5 per cent to just over 40 per cent at present.
In Urumqi itself, the Uyghur area is a poor and shabby suburb within sight of the city’s urban towers. The Han are now the dominant population of the city. In Kashgar, where the Uyghurs still form a numerical majority, the Old Town is being cleared away for new buildings, a road, and a department store right beside the Id Kah mosque while some 200,000 Uyghurs have been forcefully shifted to cinder-block apartments on the outskirts of town. This has been particularly resented as the Old Town is a world-famous historical and cultural site on the Silk Road, one that was feted in the travel diaries of Marco Polo. This "development" will not only erase where the Uyghurs live, but also their cultural heritage.
Many Uyghurs still harbour hopes for an East Turkestan Republic, harking back to the one that briefly existed in the 1930s and 1940s before Mao brought it into line. (A plane carrying all the Uyghur leaders mysteriously crashed en route to negotiate a settlement with Beijing. All aboard were killed.) This dream lingers and chafes against Chinese calls for national unity.
It’s a unity that seems unlikely when even the time of day is a point of nationalist pride and disputation from both sides: Han Chinese, rather illogically, run their watches by Beijing time, two hours ahead of the local Uyghur time. Even the name Xinjiang — Chinese for "New Frontier" or "New Territory" — is annoying to the Uyghurs, who feel there is nothing new at all about the region in which they have lived for thousands of years.
Living like second class citizens on the fringes of their own cities, with pitiful job or education prospects, many young Uyghur men head eastward looking for work. Conditions are usually poor, opportunities temporary. This kind of trans-migration creates its own resentments among the Han. In Guangdong last month, it led to a smaller riot when Han workers went on a rampage after hearing that a gang of Uyghurs had raped a Chinese girl inside a toy factory. Two Uyghurs were killed and 118 were reported injured in the melee that followed. The laxity of the official response was one of the causes for the protest march in distant Urumqi. It turned out there was no truth to the rape rumour which had been posted at a website by a disgruntled former Han employee who had lost his job. This individual was arrested but it was not until the riots in Urumqi that another 15 Han workers in Guangdong were taken into custody for the murders.
Across China, the Uyghurs are perceived as criminals, drug dealers and illegal money changers; as complainers who are never happy, and even as Islamic terrorists. In short, they are seen to be a little like Tibetans — only a lot more aggressive and troublesome.
Not that we in the West seem to care much for the Uyghurs either. Unlike those serene saffron-robed Tibetan Buddhists, the Uyghurs tend to come over as the knife-wielding and proudly independent Islamic tribes-people they are. Never a cuddly public relations cause, they have become even less appealing since 9/11 when America closed its eyes to Chinese actions in Xinjiang in exchange for the regime’s support for the ‘War on Terror’. The need for security during the build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics only licensed greater repressions and abuse despite the fact most Uyghurs practice a relatively moderate form of Sunni Islam.
The reasons behind all this are obvious: Xinjiang is rich in petroleum, natural gas, coal and gold. The region is also of vital strategic importance to China, sharing its rugged borders with the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Mongolia, Russia and the Ladakh region of Kashmiri India. China will do anything to keep it.
The Chinese leadership has been quick to blame Rebiya Kadeer, the President of the World Uyghur Congress, for the recent troubles. Kadeer is now living in exile in the USA after serving five years in prison for "stealing state secrets". Hardly anyone had heard of Kadeer in the West till she was blamed for the latest riots in Urumqi. Coincidentally her autobiography, Dragon Fighter, was released this month. A documentary profiling her called The 10 Conditions of Love is being screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival in the face of considerable opposition from the Chinese Consulate, as well as the withdrawal of three other Chinese films in protest.
For her part, Kadeer denies any role in the riots. Widely regarded as the "Mother of the Uyghur Nation", she was once a model millionaire businesswoman who believed in modest reform, before being radicalised by the execution of 30 Uyghurs in 1997. Since being sent into exile, Kadeer has told of being treated to phone calls so that she could hear her sons being beaten "half to death" by a roadside after she spoke out publicly on the Uyghur cause in the USA. Two of her sons are currently in Chinese jails.
After crying "terrorism" for so long in order to justify their ongoing activities in Xinjiang, the Chinese might well find that the milk of Pan-Turkic nationalism and Islamic extremism which flows so thinly across the Kundun Mountains will be enough to nourish the Uyghurs in their struggle to survive.
Ironically, the opening of a dialogue with Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress might actually prevent this more extreme turn in the future. But the truth is, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang have observed the Dalai Lama’s peaceful — and ultimately futile — attempts to bargain with the Chinese Government over the decades. If they have learned anything from this parallel liberation struggle across the border in Tibet, it is that the only thing the Chinese will understand is a wolf that really bites.
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