Lockdown In Xinjiang


"Safeguarding security and unity, loving people of all ethnic groups" — banner on army vehicle.

In a shady patch, near the main entrance to Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque, armed police wearing military fatigues and helmets, and carrying riot shields, watch worshippers as they file in for prayers.

Soldiers look out from various points throughout the city and armed mobile units circle the streets in trucks bearing red and white banners.

Hotel staff here are friendly, very friendly. Why are you here, what is your itinerary, where have you just come from, what were you doing there, what do you do for a living?

While the Government opened Urumqi up to journalists just after the riots and offered them the luxury of internet access in a city that was otherwise an information blackhole, Kasghar remains pretty much off limits to anyone with a journalist visa. What’s the difference? In Urumqi, China’s Muslim Uighurs are a minority. In Kashgar, and further south, Uighurs make up about 90 per cent of the population.

Travelling around this southern area by road makes for an arduous journey punctuated by frequent police checks. Posters at the checkpoints show photos of Uighurs wanted over the July riots. Police officers electronically check the IDs of Uighur passengers. Add in prayer stops, and a break for the end of the daily Ramadan fast, and a nine-hour express trip becomes a 12-hour exercise in getting on and off a bus.

Many in Xinjiang are, for now, thankful for the level of security. Some have even questioned why the army wasn’t called in sooner to stop the July 5–7 bloodshed when at least 197 people were killed during riots and retaliatory attacks. (Uighur groups say the death toll is much higher.)

But there are other restrictions which have not been so welcomed. Since the riots, SMS and international calls have been cut off and the internet restricted to a few sanitised local sites. In today’s optical-fibre-connected world, it’s truly awe-inspiring to travel across a piece of land the size of Pakistan, three times the size of France, which has been disconnected and mostly submerged in an information blackout.

No-one seems to know when communications will be back to normal after China’s 60th anniversary celebrations, some speculate. Some younger people I spoke with said it’s been a particularly long and dreary summer. No Ramadan greetings from friends overseas, no online games, chat, music or video downloads. "I need to check my exam results, and then I’m supposed to also enrol in my next course over the internet," one student told me. When he called his school, they had no suggestions other than to just wait.

As fax machines make a comeback, there’s an air of resignation. This is a region and a population already used to strong controls. For a long time, the Xinjiang regional and local governments have had a close say in how Uighurs live their lives: where and when they can pray and how often; if, when and how they can travel both domestically and overseas; in what situations women can wear a headscarf; what style of facial hair men can keep; who can become an Imam; who can and cannot observe Ramadan.

In the evening, as men recite the Koran inside a small mosque in the old city, a Uighur man outside says that he cannot participate because he works for the Government. His job on this evening is to note down the names of those who attend the prayer sessions.

Outside a school, a student tells me that because he is under 18-years-old, he is only allowed to pray once per day instead of the usual five. Older school children who want to observe the Ramadan fast have been given food and water by teachers, he said.

But resignation is not exactly acceptance, and among people I spoke with — Han and Uighur — there were signs of growing frustration and resentment.

Much of this has been directed at long-serving Xinjiang Communist Party Chief, Wang Lequan, the Government’s poster-boy for ethnic-minority management. For 15 years, Wang’s restrictive policies and frequent strike-hard campaigns targeting Uighurs have built up resentment within the Uighur community.

Now, post-riots, Wang has also become the target of many Han Chinese who accuse him of failing in his duty to maintain stability and security.

Tens of thousands of mostly Han Chinese took to the streets of Urumqi last Thursday, calling for the dismissal of several government leaders, including Wang, after reports of syringe attacks against residents again raised tensions.

The protesters were offered two heads — the Urumqi Communist Party head Li Zhi, and Xinjiang’s police chief Liu Yaohua were both sacked.
For those who wanted to see the end of Wang Lequan, it’s a major disappointment. But his supporters might ask: if frequent crackdowns, heavy surveillance and re-education campaigns are not enough to keep the peace in Xinjiang, then what is?

"Strengthen ethnic unity, oppose ethnic separatism" banner beneath Mao Zedong statue in downtown Kasghar.

In Beijing, following the riots, I heard many of the old stereotypes about Uighurs reiterated, often by well educated Han Chinese. Uighurs are hot-headed, their religion makes them violent, they don’t wash, their food is not clean, they wouldn’t be called thieves if some of them weren’t.

Outside the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, a large television screen showed footage of the children of exiled Uighur leader, Rebiya Kadeer, condemning their mother and asking her to give up her separatist activities. The Government has labelled Kadeer a separatist, and said that she orchestrated the July unrest.

For many Chinese living outside Xinjiang, it’s convenient to digest this "truth", one which confirms that the clashes which left almost 200 dead, had nothing to do with them or their attitudes.

From the Uighur side, there is also prejudice against Han Chinese, and a palpable resentment — they’re all money-hungry, lacking in morals, uncultured and brainwashed, they discriminate against us.

In Kashgar, where many of the post-riot arrests took place, some wonder why the government isn’t doing more to address this stereotyping.

"Why is no-one really asking why Uighurs hate Han Chinese? Most people here don’t want independence, they just want equality and to be treated fairly by the rest of China," said a Uighur businesswoman, who believes Chinese state media has reinforced a negative view of Uighurs.

In a café, a Uighur tour guide laughed as he told me how some Han Chinese in major cities like Shanghai would ask him which country he was from and praise his excellent grasp of the Chinese language. Sometimes he would play along, and pretend he was a foreigner.

Why can’t students be sent on compulsory excursions to places like Xinjiang, he asked, so they can interact with some of the country’s 56 ethnic minorities?

It’s something I also wondered once back in Beijing as I watched buses carrying thousands of university students to rehearsals for the upcoming national day celebrations.

This was where the central Government had directed the students’ energy over the summer break, into shaking pompoms for the PRC’s 60th birthday party.

"Defending the interests of migrant workers" banner on army vehicle.

One evening, watching television in my friendly Xinjiang hotel, I caught part of a new drama series depicting the lives of Uighur migrant workers who have taken up factory jobs in China’s east. In this particular episode, set in a garment factory, a Han Chinese supervisor noticed that a young Uighur woman was having back pain. The kindly supervisor whisked the worker away to the hospital for a check-up, and quickly encouraged other Uighur workers to speak up about their health problems.

I thought it was one of the more interesting pieces in the Government’s arsenal of propaganda tools, one which directly addresses an incident which sparked the Urumqi riots. In Shaoguan, in China’s east, there was an earlier clash between Uighur and Han Chinese migrant workers at a toy factory which left two Uighurs dead according to official reports.

The Government says misinformation about this incident spread over the internet and SMS and was exploited by overseas separatist groups to fuel the events in Urumqi. Hence the current restrictions on communications.

But rumours have always spread and there were still many floating around when I was in Xinjiang, passed on by neighbours, friends, or friends of friends. In the short term, it might make it more difficult for people to organise a mass protest, but they can’t keep Xinjiang blacked out forever, can they?

As I watched television, I began to worry that this was it, that this was the Government’s answer to the bloodshed. Close the hatches, plaster the towns in slogans and soldiers, put out a politically correct television show and assume that people will suddenly change their thinking.

Of course, it’s not that simple, and no doubt there are all kinds of political manoeuvring taking place behind the scenes.

One person I spoke with said that at least now the central Government knows it can’t just ignore the problems in Xinjiang. But that’s assuming it has been ignoring them all this time. In truth, the top leadership has been complicit in the local government’s hardline approach there’s a lot at stake in Xinjiang, including a wealth of natural resources and a border shared with eight countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So, maybe they will put some more money towards improving Uighur education and work opportunities. Perhaps they will encourage more Han Chinese to visit Kasghar and its tourist-friendly reconstructed old city. They might even begin tolerance campaigns in factories which take in both Han and Uighur workers. But they’ll never scale-back the overall level of control, or the restrictive policies and web of surveillance and security that underpin it.

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